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Book 1981 "Book1981" (London)

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
by Xiaolu Guo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre and irritating, 21 Jun. 2010
I think this light, simple story promises more than it delivers. The story is of Z, a you Chinese girl who is sent to the UK to study English by her parents. It is about Z's struggle with the different cultures, the language barrier and her relationship with the English man she falls in love with.

Guo seems to have tried to produce something profound, a fresh view of human relationships stripped bare by the crossing of cultural boundaries. In reality, I found that it read like a damp love story where the couple are so incompatible and unsuited for each other that you wonder why they don't just call it a day and leave each other alone. I got tired of reading about their little squabbles and disagreements, their tense silences and irritations. It was constantly frustrating to read about an adult affair from the child-like perception of Z - She comes across as needy and desperate, without any sign of her developing or maturing until the very last pages. By the end of the book I found myself hoping that her (rather hopeless) lover would do us all a favour and work up the courage to shed the dead weight of his Chinese girlfriend who moved in with him because of a misunderstanding.

Her lover is described as restless and dissatisfied with life, with hints at a traumatic past having turned him into someone jaded and old beyond his years. Z reads some of his old diaries and tries so piece together how he became who he is, but that particular story line is dropped without conclusions, leaving me thinking that he was basically just a bit of a useless moper with a limp handshake - The very antithesis of a masculine half of an exotic, boundary-breaking love affair. He constantly talks about the simple life he wants to lead but still endures the urban rat-race without actually doing anything to achieve what he wants. His character is wet and ultimately as irritating as Z. For a love story, the two of them together produce something as romantic as a stone in your shoe.

There are a few good bits, however. The first half of the book is hilarious in parts, with Z's voice narrating in bad English and making funny mistakes based on a quite clever observation of the sometimes bizarre English language and grammar. However, Z's impression of British culture is almost completely negative and unnecessarily unflattering, another thing adding to the main character's frustrating immaturity.


The Five People You Meet In Heaven
The Five People You Meet In Heaven
by Mitch Albom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3.0 out of 5 stars Lovely., 27 May 2010
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Everyone wonders, at some point in their lives, what happens when you die. And this is what Albom does. However he has gone a step further and developed the idea past vague musings into a solid concept, and shared it with the world. It is refreshing, sweet, comforting and sometimes profound.

Another thing he has done very well is keep his idea as religion-neutral as possible. God is mentioned a couple of times, but it is so brief it does not alienate the sceptics among us and so vague that it can easily be anyone's God. This is essential to the universal appeal of this book, as well as a testament to Albom's sensitivity and maturity.

What he has produced is a very human tale, filled with the good and bad things we all encounter through our lives: love, friendship, disappointment, violence, misunderstanding, resentment, regret. And his concept is that when we die we get an opportunity to look at all these things from afar, deal with the issues which held us back in life and move on to our own personally tailored heaven. Life as we know it is only the first step, when we die we simply begin something else, and the answers we have sought during our time on earth are given to us through the five people we meet in heaven.

There is no doubt that this is a deeply personal issue, one that will vary greatly from person to person, and this book is only one interpretation out of millions. Because of that, there were some things which did not sit comfortably with me, but that can't be helped. I also found the transitions between the five people a little too quirky and fanciful, where perhaps less deserted landscapes, dry warm snow and dark mountains would have been a little more elegant. But on the whole, it is atmospheric, sensitive, moving and always comforting.


Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wolf Hall, 25 May 2010
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I always find that I have to be careful about reading books with a lot of hype. More often than not I am disappointed and left wondering what all the fuss is about. The only regular exceptions to this are the Man Booker Prize winners, and Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall deserves every one of the many glowing captions decorating its covers. Wolf Hall is a rare treat, a breathtaking accomplishment and a page-turning masterpiece.

There are many books out there about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but I have never come across one with the quality of Wolf Hall. This book is thorough and detailed, each page filled with a complex weave of vibrant characters, clever dialogue, sharp humour and intimate human emotion. Let your attention drift for a second, and you've surely missed something as every sentence is condensed, vital and beautifully written. Somehow it managed to inspire complete confidence in its historical accuracy without sacrificing excitement and compassion for the characters, quite an achievement all too rarely made. This book is always alive, buzzing, intense, colourful, and nearly jumping off the page.

We watch Henry VIII fight the Vatican to divorce Katherine through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, and throughout it is utterly believable. I know it can't be, but Mantel's skill has me thinking this must have been exactly how it was, from Cardinal Wolseley's quiet conceit and condescension to Henry's childlike vulnerability and sore pride, from Anne Boleyn's ruthless, viper-like ambition to Cromwell's silky skills of persuasion.

This is the most glowing celebration of Mantel's gift as a writer. It is filled with utterly original descriptions and atmospheres, never contrived and artificial, always effective and illuminating. For a sophisticated, clever, sensitive, beautiful, thumpingly good read, this is your book. And as for future Man Booker Prize winners, I think Mantel just raised the bar.


Like Water For Chocolate
Like Water For Chocolate
by Laura Esquivel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A foodie flight of fancy..., 5 May 2010
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I am a great fan of magical realism, having read a lot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joanne Harris, Louis de Bernieres and Isabel Allende, which is why I really thought I would love this book. And I did, up to a point. It is frivolous, fanciful and feminine, an exaggarated examination of the connection between our emotions, the food we eat and the people closest to us. As such, it is lovely. Esquivel does not hold back - The food is described almost as a living, mythical thing, and the process of making it is more like alchemy than cookery. Her principle is that in cooking a meal you have a venue through which your emotions are concentrated and expressed - Sadness, anger, jealousy, lust and of course, love, the ultimate goal. The recipes are mouthwatering, the characters are vivid and the atmosphere is intense and infectous.

But I still found myself closing the book with reservations. First of all, I found the language a little naive and simple at times, but this might be down to whatever was lost in translation. What bothered me more was the idea of this eternal hunt for love, which I found rather old-fashioned, and I did not connect with it. This might be because 'love' seemed to equate 'marriage', and also because we were repeatedly told that to live without having experienced love was to not have lived at all. Maybe I'm too modern for my own good, but I like to think there is a romantic inside me somewhere that enjoys these kinds of unrealistic, pretty notions. I guess the old fashioned, fairy-tale-esque tone (Finding the man of your dreams, marrying him, having perfect, earth-shattering sex and living happily ever after) seemed a little silly to me.

Having read a lot of the magical realism genre I find it works a lot better when a gritty reality and is combined with little bubbles of magic which are more subtle and fleety than the big showy pieces in Esquivel's book. This book is too close to fantasy, with chickens creating whirlwinds and walls breaking into flame because of the lusty heat puring from the people whitin them. And as a result, it fails to create that dreamy, spooky, smoky feeling that really good books whithin magical realism have.

All in all I thought it was a fun read, a good old romp with a lovely emphasis on food, but as a book writen by a woman for women I found it old fashined, unrealistic and sometimes very silly indeed.


Under the Dome
Under the Dome
by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars King rocks!, 28 April 2010
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This review is from: Under the Dome (Hardcover)
The comparison between The Stand and Under the Dome is inevitable, and the odds were never stacked in this book's favour. The Stand, in my opinion, is one of the very best books by King, one that showcases his skill, imagination and story-telling ability. However, I am pleased to say that Under the Dome does not disappoint!

It's a fascinating scenario - What happens when a giant, impenetrable dome isolates an entire town from all outside influences - Including other people, electricity, roads, wind and rain? Like watching ants in an ant-farm, we are given a first-hand view of human society under pressure, with all its strengths, weaknesses and weird ticks. It is pure, unadulterated fantasy, of course, but it sometimes reads like a logical assumption of what would actually happen, another testament to King's skill when he so seamlessly combines shameless sci-fi with recognisable every day life. With of course, King staples thrown in - Plenty of extreme religious reference (though this time it is not clear if King is campaigning for or against), a delicious, love-to-hate baddie with his flock of stupid minions, the reluctant, handsome hero, the plucky, attractive heroine, and the smart, nerdy kid who is leader of the pack. And a host of other characters - this is a large book, both in concept and in cast. And, of course, the other King trademark is very much in evidence: The unflinching, technicolor gore. Nothing is too grisly for King to describe in particular detail, so prepare yourself for a rainbow of slime, blood and brains splattered on walls. It looks like drying porridge, apparently. ;o)

And in true King style, the story is a breathless narrative which makes the pages turn by them selves, but somehow also manages to take its time and weave a thoughtful, detailed tapestry of life under the dome. I did not get bored once, which is a special achievement seeing as it spans over nearly 900 pages.

For King novices: Start with Under the Dome and prepare to be hooked. For King fans: A book that is a spectacular break from the average results of King's attempts in the recent years. Oh, and for Jack Reacher fans: Look out for the cameo!


One Day
One Day
by David Nicholls
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One Day... Underwhelmed, 6 April 2010
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The interesting thing about this book is that it is structured in a unique way, the narration only taking place on the same day every year for twenty years. It describes the on-off love story and relationship between Emma and Dexter from the day they graduate from University. The characters, their emotions and daily struggles are real and honest, without being twee or contrived. It is an easy book to read, the streams of consciousness funny and light enough to entertain, as well as honest enough to produce a real image of the character.

Having said this, it is through-and-through a chick-lit book, though I suspect the author has made attempts to avoid this label. It is a love story, narrated in a omnipresent, soap-opera format, and though it is very often very witty and clever, it is just as often clichéd and predictable. A few times I found myself frustrated by the characters, both peripheral and central, and the language was often clumsy and awkward.

I essence, it is a really sweet, honest story, and David Nicholls has done us the favour of not prettifying and sanitizing the human experience. However, I am left with the underwhelming feeling that the author has attempted to break the mould and create something fresh and new and contemporary, but, sadly, has not quite made it.


Drown
Drown
by Junot Diaz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Drown, 25 Mar. 2010
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There is something very refreshing about this gritty tale. It is a crystal clear image of the life of the dispossessed and the struggles they face, little frames of humanity perfectly drawn with humour, honesty and precision. Junot Diaz has a provides a perfect vision of human strength and weakness, our desire for happy endings and companionship, our sense of adventure and loyalty and the hunt for greener pastures. It is not always pretty reading, but I think it is as close to truth as fiction can come, and for that alone this is a valuable book for anyone to read.


The Lacuna
The Lacuna
by Barbara Kingsolver
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

58 of 68 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Lacuna: Warm, witty and painful..., 17 Mar. 2010
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This review is from: The Lacuna (Hardcover)
Since I read Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver has been one of my favourite writers, and I was not disappointed with her latest effort. Almost entirely written in diary and letter form, it is a private and intimate look at the life of Harrison Sheperd, a half American, half Mexican writer. Most of it is from his own perspective, starting as a young boy and covering the span of his adult life.

It is remarkable because of how reality meets fiction in the cast of people he spends his young life in Mexico with - Painter Frida Kahlo and the exiled potential successor of Lenin, Leon Trotsky. We are given a privileged view of both character's lives, Frida's affairs and health problems, Trotsky's life in exile, and, ultimately, his assassination. In this, the book is unique and extremely interesting. These historical figures take on colourful personalities and depth, and whilst they might be a little romanticised, it never gets too close to trite for comfort.

One criticism I do have is consistency, as the book reads like two separate stories: Before and after the assassination. Sheperd has to leave Mexico after the assassination and book takes on a much slower pace - the story concerns itself with other matters, like the anti-communist hysteria in North America after WW2, civil liberties and gay rights. The colourful characters and the buzzing atmosphere of Mexico was suddenly replaced with stark loneliness in clinical US suburbia. I found this part of the book much less engaging and far too detailed. This section could easily be 100 pages shorter without detracting from the book, and I admit I struggled to work up the enthusiasm to finish it.

Having said that, it is, without a doubt, a beautifully written book based on some unique ideas and with some important messages. It is painful, warm, clever and witty, and the voice of Harrison Sheperd is mature and filled with emotion. His relationship with his stenographer Violet Brown is touching and sweet, and the character in herself is utterly unique and sometimes hilarious.


The Piano Teacher
The Piano Teacher
by Janice Y. K. Lee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Oh dear..., 22 Feb. 2010
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This review is from: The Piano Teacher (Paperback)
The fact that I finished this book is the only good thing I have to say about it. But then it is so insubstatial and weak that getting to the end takes no dedication from the reader at all. I think I was driven by the hope that the ending would somehow redeem the limp story, but I was (without surprise) disappointed.

It is essentially a book about two love stories, both set in Hong Kong but one during, and one after, the Second World War. It concerns itself with the mentalities and lifestyles of the expats before the Japanese arrive, and how they have to change and adapt in order to survive when the Japanese start their violent occupation. I think there was also meant to be some sort of semi-political treasure-hunt intrigue in there too, in the missing Crown Collection used as currency in the struggle between the Allied forces and the Japanese.

All of the above is delivered with very little conviction, consistency or confidence. One of the main characters, Will, falls in love with two women; First the `greyhound', sleek and irresistible half-Chinese Trudy, then the unspoilt English rose Claire. First of all, Trudy is meant to be this silvery goddess of a woman amongst all the chubby and conventional ex-pat wives, who snares the elusive and mysterious Will with her effervescent personality and waif-like beauty. In actuality, she comes across as spoilt, selfish and silly, which makes the helpless way in which Will falls in love with her seem ridiculous and unbelievable. I found myself thinking that he was humouring a pretty child rather than being helplessly drawn to a beautiful woman. I can see the author making stabs at describing all-absorbing unbridled passion, but it always falls embarrassingly short of the mark.

The same goes for Will's affair with Claire, although this is slightly more believable, perhaps because it was meant to come across as average at the beginning. But when Will starts to `become fond of' Claire despite himself, it goes back to being utterly one-dimensional and unconvincing.

Claire, the piano teacher, is an embarrassingly awkward character - The book starts with Claire stealing from the wealthy couple who employ her to give their daughter piano lessons. It is a story line which seems like it should be significant, but then has no importance at all and just fizzles out as if the author had no idea what to do with it. The only effect it had on me as the reader was to make me dislike the `herione' - A servant gets blamed for Claire's thieving and loses her job, and all we see in the way of conscience and regret on Claire's part is a brief battle against tears before she goes back to cheating on her husband. Charming. And for some reason she gets involved in the past intrigues and secrets which took place nearly ten years before, though it had absolutely nothing to do with her or her affair with Will. Every time someone confided in her, or dropped a cryptic hint about the past it seemed so unlikely and so convoluted that it was just laughable. Without spoiling the `story', I can say that there is a show-down at a party where Claire takes central stage, but it is so ridiculous that I wanted to shout at the book that SURELY this has nothing to do with her??

The prose is clumsy, the characters are gross exaggerations of well-used stereotypes (the boring husband who is too kind, the strong, silent, tall, dark and handsome man with a tortured soul, the innocent blushing girl finding herself as a woman, the vivacious beauty doomed to die young, the ruthless business man, the meddling elderly school maa'm, etc etc), and the plot is entirely unconvincing. And throughout this shambles of a story are silly sentences like wealthy housewives `going to see about the servants' and lipstick being described as `a woman's armour'. Cue the eye-roll.


The Cellist of Sarajevo
The Cellist of Sarajevo
by Steven Galloway
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I feel like I ought to love it but..., 15 Feb. 2010
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I think the hype around this book hasn't done it many favours - I was expecting something big and profound, which turns out is not what this book delivers. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly understated and `quiet' if you get my meaning. Perhaps the author chose this tone because he is writing about normal people who are trying to carry on with their normal life as their city is under siege. They are easy to identify with, which brings their actions and behaviour very close to your own understanding - There are few heroic actions that do not ring true, and the omnipresent narration lets us know what they are thinking, thus showing us their sometimes painful weaknesses. It is a sensitive story very much focussed on the internal world of a few of the citizens of Sarajevo.

But I was expecting to be moved more than I was. I think the narration was too simple to wake any real emotion in me. The Cellist makes an important gesture, but it isn't described with enough size or intensity. I found the same with Arrow, the female sniper - Her story could have been so involving and intense, but it didn't quite get there. There is no doubt that Steven Galloway has given serious thought to how the human psychology functions under such terrible conditions, and has researched his topic thoroughly. I was just expecting a little more impact, because undoubtedly his topic has plenty of scope for it. He's just not found it.

I can't help wondering whether this book should have been written by someone who was there. I can remember the siege of Sarajevo, it is so recent that the characters he describes could easily be alive today. It seems such a wasted opportunity when the impact is so obviously missing - The story has all the necessary elements to make this book harrowing, moving, emotional and beautiful, and someone who was there at the time would be able to do it. I found it even more frustrating because a couple of times he writes beautifully - His description of a bomb falling at the very beginning took my breath away, for example. But most of it stayed unengaging and bland.


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