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Big Brother
Big Brother
by Lionel Shriver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Body Politics, Family Dynamics and Food For Thought, 26 April 2015
This review is from: Big Brother (Paperback)
Lionel Shriver is always an author worth reading, not least because although she may not be challenging anything about the form of the novel - she writes clear, taut narrative, strongly drawn character, coherent and accessible prose - she does challenge with her subject matter, and goes into areas which might be uncomfortable for the reader to consider, making us consider the things we gloss over, and avoid, preferring not to go there. And she does have some perfectly well-utilised suspenseful authorly surprises up her sleeve to jiggle the reader still further

Her own personal challenge is of course in one book We Need To Talk About Kevin, the story of a family whose son turns out to be one of those lone teenagers who go into their school one day and turn a gun on their classmates, she tackled a searingly difficult subject matter - maternal love, and its absence, the unlovable child, the unloving mother, and examines the fault lines. Her challenge is the discomfort evoked for the reader, the push-pull the reader is put through, and a book which is thought, heart and gut challenging, pushing us cerebrally and at an instinctive level. And how well she managed it

Other writers of course have tackled similar subject matter - I think of Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child, equally uncomfortable, but Shriver is a writer of more popular appeal and accessibility, so she rather brought this into wider consciousness - and it was later made into a film.

In Big Brother, she is as challenging, though I must admit to not being as wholly engaged as I was by `Kevin', perhaps because in some ways her central family is less ordinary. Pandora Halfdanarson is the adult, less gifted, middle child of a family. Father Travis, now a faded television star of a successful comedy series, Joint Custody, had three children, and the series, to some extent, used his own life as fodder, examining the family dynamics. The first born child, Edison, became a successful, charismatic jazz musician. The last born, Solstice, was highly intelligent, precocious and pretty. Pandora was the more phlegmatic, ordinary, shunning the limelight child. However, though she lacked the charisma of her other siblings, later in life she has achieved a fame she never sought, as an entrepreneur, and has a highly successful, on the button business which has brought her wealth and status. And the flashier stars of her family are all in some kind of decline.

Pandora is happily married, kind of, to controlling Fletcher, who designs and makes artisan furniture. Fletcher's first wife was a crystal meth addict, and he has a difficult relationship with his two children, Tanner, a seventeen year old caught in a wannabe dream of fame as a writer (he is actually mediocre) and sweet-natured young Cody, who may, or may not, have some skill as a pianist (like her step-uncle Edison), but is pretty ferociously shy. Pandora is a pretty good step-mum, and has a better, more forgiving and spacious relationship with Tanner and Cody than up-tight fitness obsessed Fletcher.

So, yes we do have a central family who are not quite functional, and the central character and narrator, Pandora, had a family which was not quite functional either, and she is a bit too self-effacing and self-deprecating, but ferociously loyal to both her new family and her old

The drama unfolds when Edison, dramatically washed up in some way, comes to visit, the two having not seen each other for some year. And funky, snake hipped, sexy young dude Edison is now a grossly - and the word is properly and disgustedly employed, grossly overweight by some 223 pounds - blimp. And his addiction to the sweet, the sticky, and the dripping with fat is threatening to continue to raise the poundage.

The subject matter then of this book, is food, fatness, thinness, obsession, the curious and often highly peculiar relationship humankind in the developed world has with the seemingly simple matter of eating, and the weight of everything food, cooking, eating holds, beyond the basic role sustenance plays in the rest of the animal - and for that matter, plant kingdom.

Taboos around extreme fatness, ideas and debates around body size and disability, those who deserve healthcare, and those who have brought all this upon themselves by their - what is it - addiction? Is it choice, is it illness?

And the playing field in which this all takes place looks at the sometimes opposing bonds of family-by-blood and family-by-choice-of sexual-partnership.

I understand why it's there, but the extra tease out challenge of fame, its pursuit, and the awkwardness of what happens when the famous construct a persona which begins to create blurs between what is the mirror being held up, and what is the reality which that mirror is reflecting. Where is mask, where is truth? This rendered what might have been a story of more ordinary lives a little less relatable to for me; possibly an extra challenge too far.

Nonetheless, a good read, with lots to ponder on.

The Gracekeepers
The Gracekeepers
by Kirsty Logan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing idea, execution doesn't quite work, 26 April 2015
This review is from: The Gracekeepers (Hardcover)
I can see that Kirsty Logan's novel, which I was delighted to receive as an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley should have strongly ticked all manner of boxes for me, in terms of its subject matter - dystopia, post-apocalypse, dealing with myth, Scottish writing, and the books it was being compared with, on publicity blurb :

"A bewitching debut for fans of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child, Jeanette Winterson's The Passion, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and Yann Martel's Life of Pi.for fans of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child, Jeanette Winterson's The Passion, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and Yann Martel'sLife of Pi."

I have read all of the above, except the Winterson (which I am minded to investigate, by the company it keeps) and moreover, was enamoured of all. And one of my most admired reads last year was another book which this has some connections with - Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven.

Logan posits a world past the however it happened (but clearly there was some connection with the banking crisis) apocalypse, Most of the land is underwater now, and pockets only remain. Somewhere (which is probably Scotland given Logan's own nationality, and also the fact that the selkie myth strongly features) within the watery world, inhabited by those who live on great ships, damplings, are these pockets of land, where the landlockers reside, and the two regard each other with suspicion. Some kind of fundamentalist Christian revivalist groups exist, trying to stamp out pagan beliefs, whilst having absorbed much pagan thinking themselves. There is also some kind of military rule, and the military, like the Church, must be venerated. And there are other kinds of outcasts. A group of circus performers, damplings, roaming between the pockets of islands. A strange, exotic, feared and alluring community, with their own internally fraught and fracturing community. Central is a young girl, North, who performs with her bear, and is strangely and strongly connected to that bear. There are the messengers, fierce lone men who carry all sorts of exchanges between the islands. And, even stranger, the Gracekeepers, with their arcane and complex rituals for carrying out the funeral rites, the buryings, all at sea, now land is so scarce. And particularly the other young girl, the Gracekeeper of the title, Callanish, whose story meshes with North's.

All this should have utterly grabbed me, and, at times, it did, only to let me go. Logan writes at times, beautifully, but then gets caught up in far too much repetition. I think this is deliberate, rather like the writing of a lay or a folk ballad where the constant repetition sets up some kind of hypnotic rhythm. But unfortunately the hypnosis didn't arrive, and the initially clever or charming new words and phrases - damplings, landlockers, graces et al, little fish, little fish, just became wearing.

Here is an example of the kind of repetition:

"Callanish fed her mother, bathed her mother, put her mother to bed. She tweezed splinters from her mother's feet and stroked her mother's hair until she fell asleep."

And later....

"Every night she sat and watched over her mother, every morning she made breakfast for her mother, every afternoon she weeded and planted the back garden with her mother, every evening she fell asleep upright in her wooden chair and had to run into the woods to the World Tree and bring back her mother"

Too much of this heavy kind of making a point ends up actually diminishing the point which I think the author is making.

In the end, there was too much which was unexplained about this mysterious watery world, and the narrative drive and destination of the story, which had meandered around, sometimes engagingly, sometimes annoyingly, suddenly galloped to a conclusion, almost as if the author awoke from the trance of her dreaming.

However.........there is enough in Logan's writing which intrigues, and this IS a first novel, with no doubt some of the faults of a first novel. I will certainly be interested to see how she develop. For the moment, my sense is that there is a lot of potential, and maybe if she can free herself out from under all these voices she is being compared with, her own voice will be more powerful and more interesting

Talisker Skye Single Malt Scotch Whisky 70 cl
Talisker Skye Single Malt Scotch Whisky 70 cl
Price: £26.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Speed, bonny boat........., 19 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Although this doesn't quite match my own personal favourite whisky, another peaty one - Laphroaig, this is a lovely thing! Properly fierce, if taken neat, what really strikes home is its dark honey sweetness, right at the start, and definite orange notes. Then it kind of reared up and punched me playfully behind the eyes with a melodious roar............and the room went a little swimmy. And I swear my tongue rolled over like a puppy demanding its tummy to be tickled.

It might be heretical, and I may lose any invitations to Burns Night Suppers, but I suspect I'll be taking this with a splash of water rather than completely undiluted, as funnily enough, because it damps down the fire from a fierce blaze to a luscious glow, the taste lingers a lot longer in my mouth, and is lovely, tarry smoky. Not the (to my mind) horrid smokiness of cigarettes, something much more sensuous and earthy..even a hint of tyre!........I think it's time to take the High Road...........

I had not had any Talisker before, so can't compare it to the other distillery versions, but, by heck, I'm minded to try those others
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 21, 2015 9:55 AM BST

In the Woods
In the Woods
by Tana French
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Pointers to what she will become.........., 17 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: In the Woods (Paperback)
I encountered Irish writer Tana French only recently, when her fourth book, Broken Harbour, got a rave review from a blogger who is firmly wedded to good writing, rather than genre fiction. As this is my position too, I was swayed, and blown away by French's version of crime fiction, police procedural and psychological thriller, all carefully showing she is a literary fiction writer, who chooses to write in this kind of subject matter area.

Another blogger then pushed me over to her fifth, currently latest book, The Secret Place, which grabbed me even more.

And so it is that I've gone back to explore French's progression as a writer, via her first book, and will, for sure, progress to books 2 + 3

For those unfamiliar with her work, Book 1, In The Woods, is of course the perfect place to start.

French's territory is murder, and the police investigations undertaken by Dublin's Murder Squad. She has chosen not to follow one particular detective and partner through all the subsequent investigations; rather, she focuses on the squad itself and a different pair of detectives will come to the foreground in each book, and others in the pool may stay as a background note across several investigations, be bit players, or come to take stage centre.

This is a fascinating and excellent approach, as it does mean that the reader can start reading her books in any order, without thinking they have missed vital back history, often a problem when one particular main character is followed in a series.

There are a couple of central cores to the three books I have read so far - the story of each individual main detective, including their back history which will slowly be revealed and will explain who they are, and why. There will also be the crucial relationship between the two detectives themselves, and their relationship within the murder squad as a whole. By this, French wonderfully covers the interior workings of a central character, how they are in a significant one-to-one relationship with a working colleague, and how they, and indeed the two of them, are within a wider community of others. And then, of course, in parallel is the investigation, the crime, where the victim and their story will be teased out, the thread to connect them with the perpetrator worked clear from all the potential many threads which will need to be explored and investigated

French's own background is as an actor, and, to me, there is a correlation here between 3 kinds of theatrical focus a performer may have - there is first of all the interior, which may be expressed as soliloquy, a performer alone upon a stage. Then there is the immediate focus of `small other' where there is a relationship between two individuals on a stage, and, however tangled, the lines of that relationship may be clearly seen. Finally, there is the relationship of the group of characters themselves, cross currents, tangles and all - and then this may be taken out even wider, in plays where the fourth wall is broken down, and the characters acknowledge the wider world which incorporates the audience as another collective. French does not just set her crime investigation as an isolated event, as so far, wider concerns which may be present in society are examined

In this particular story the victim is a young girl, and a particularly horrible crime. As all investigations must, initial focus is on the family itself, and that family is quite strange.

What is also going on, as part of the whole Celtic Tiger economic phenomenon, and the collapse which happened, is a story around community expansion, business interests, corruption and politics.

And, central stage in this novel, two detectives, a man and a woman, who from the off have been firm and platonic friends. Cassie Maddox has, like another female detective in the squad in French's fifth book, challenges because she is a woman in an environment which is aggressively old fashioned and macho, still. Rob Ryan her work partner, has the history of a terrible and unresolved crime which happened back in his childhood, to two of his friends. He has, in theory at least, found ways to deal with something which devastated him, his family and the families of his two dead friends. However, because the crime was never resolved, and became a cold case, with neither the bodies discovered, nor a perpetrator found, there has been no closure, for anyone from that community. And it also means that any murder involving a child is one which could completely shatter all Ryan's coping strategies.

"These three children own the summer...This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.

They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?"

I suspect, had I read this book without having read French's latest two, I would have five starred it. Because I know where she now is as a writer, my bar for her is set very high. In this one, I think she is a little closer to the more formulaic writing in genre, than she now is, a little more obvious in her choices. It is however a wonderful first novel, and, as ever, her understanding of psychology, relationship, narrative drive are excellent.

She is a writer who seems to focus more on how the ordinary man or woman crosses the line into violence and there is less focus on graphic gore and deranged psychopathology than often litters the genre. And that external restraint, and more meticulous examination of the process of crossing the line which is certainly a hallmark of book 4 and 5, is what I think of as a kind of sophistication in her as a writer, not completely in place in book 1.

However, still recommended, still highly recommended

Coconut Syrup, 250ml
Coconut Syrup, 250ml
Offered by Bali Nutra Ltd
Price: £10.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Like the product, like the ethos, would like factual sources...., 15 April 2015
This review is from: Coconut Syrup, 250ml (Misc.)
I was offered Balinutra coconut syrup to review, and firstly would like to say that no pressure was put on me to make my review positive.

My review IS positive because I like what I have been able to find out about this syrup. Not to mention the ethics of the company/production. To produce the syrup does not negatively impact on the environment, the tree does not need treatment with pesticides and a share of profits from the product will be used to fund local projects.

The syrup, which is unrefined, does not taste in any way coconutty in flavour, but has a lovely, rich, treacle/caramel note. It's still sugar of course, but as it is not refined, it contains various nutrients - vitamins, minerals (refined sugar contains none). I would though, have wished that the BaliNutra website , or the product itself, came with a leaflet which gave links showing sources for the mineral and vitamin content, and also the GI information. I did find one individual who had done some digging around which did seem to verify the all important information about this being suitable (obviously, not in whackingly huge amounts!) for diabetics. The bottle needs to be kept in the fridge and has by all accounts a 30 day shelf life from opening - but I do wonder if this is being over cautious - maple syrup also in theory has a fairly short shelf life, but nothing untoward grows on it, kept in the fridge, nor does the taste go off. I suspect it will also be the case here

I would also have liked some information about comparison use in baking, whether for this or the coconut sugar (produced when the syrup is left to dry out and crystallise. It's easy enough to find out how much to use of something `to taste' - for example, in porridge, but good results in baking often depend of texture and consistency, which comes down to quantities of this ingredient relative to that

Coconuts are amazing, both eaten fresh and dried, as water or milk, and as an alternative spread used like butter, and to cook with. Plus coconut oil (heat treated and refined liquid) and solid, can be used as a skin softener. These products (with the exception of the heat treated refined oil, smell...coconutty!

But what we have here, with the coconut syrup, is not from the fruit, but tapped from the sap of the flower. I've tried to find out what I could about the process, and it seems to be one which doesn't damage the tree, and carefully balances the economics of tap flower, coconut will not be produced from that flower, so the producers need to take decisions how much to extract for syrup, how much to let it dry to produce sugar, and how much to harvest the various products of the fruit - meat, milk, water, oil and fat.

Truly a wondrous plant! And, personally I find it satisfying to have something which tastes good, and has by all accounts some health benefits, rather than just being `empty lethal calories - refined sugar - or, positively full of all sorts of negative and unwanted health risks (artificial sweeteners) BaliNutra, as a company, like their product, contain no artificial sweeteners!

Our Friends In The North BBC [DVD] [1996]
Our Friends In The North BBC [DVD] [1996]
Dvd ~ Christopher Eccleston
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars When memory turns out to be vindicated......, 12 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Back in 1996 I was completely glued to BBCs 9 part drama series, Our Friends In The North, produced by Charles Pattinson, directed by Stuart Urban, Pedr James and Simon Cellan Jones, and scorchingly written by Peter Flannery, based on his original idea and stage version for the RSC in 1982. At that time, I knew it was one of, or possibly THE best TV drama series I'd ever seen.

OFITN, which had had a hugely checkered, difficult, stop-go history at ever reaching transmission at all, for over 12 years, was an examination of British Politics, corruption in local government, central government, the Met, an indictment of class and the North-South divide, far-left politics, old-style Labour, new-style spin, and the rise of Thatcherism. It covered a period from 1964 and the Wilson government, - the `white hot heat of technology' when Britain was cool and a country of potential, to 1995, when the opportunities offered in the 60s for a more egalitatarian society had all gone, and the politics of a different class had resulted in `there's no such thing as society'

It was a drama tackling serious issues, but what made it magnificent drama, rather than merely `talking heads analysis was that it was based around the lives of 4 working class or lower middle Geordies, a group of friends in their late teens in 1964. Over 30 odd years the friends, two of them on the verge of University or already in academia, one indulged one dreaming of musical stardom, and one blighted by a violent, deprived, alcoholic upbringing, meet, connect, divurge, meet again and follow different ideologies and trajectories.

That this still astonishing, still stunning, still thought-provoking and gut punching drama was released onto DVD, is probably down to the fortunate result of 2 of the 4 leads becoming pop-culture stars - Christopher Ecclestone, as well as being known for serious, intense, quality work, - Shallow Grave, Cracker, Jude amongst others - and also the 9th Doctor Who, played the politically focused Nicky Henderson in OFITN. But it probably did the fortunes of the release onto DVD no harm at all, that the most emotionally hard-punching, heart-breaking role was given to an unknown, only a couple of years or so out of drama school, called Daniel Craig....For anyone with a complete indifference to Hollywood blockbusters, who has, moreover, been stranded on a desert island without any access to the broadcast media, for the last 10 years, Craig became James Bond in 2005. Geordie Peacock, his character in OFITN is a far cry from the muscle man, secret agent and swoon factor of Bond

Nor have the careers of the two other `Friends' sunk without trace - Mark Strong, playing wannabe a pop star Tosker - credits include Prime Suspect, Fever Pitch, Emma - his is a solid, working career rather than the stardom which happened to Craig. And Gina McKee (the only genuine North-Easterner of the four) whose Mary goes through the most steady progression into self-awareness and growth of the four, again has a solid rather than starry career (though award winning) and works as much in theatre as media - The Forsyte Saga, The Street, Waking The Dead.

Supporting the 4 relative unknowns were a wealth of amazing, established actors, including Tony Haygarth, Malcolm McDowell, Alun Armstrong, Peter Vaughan. David Bradley

A gripping, riveting storyline, based on real scandals around bribery and corruption - T. Dan Smith, John Poulson, the attempt to clean up Soho and the Countryman enquiry into corruption in the Met, there is a lot of sex, a lot of violence, an explosion of wigs and funny fashion to be recollected - and a wonderful, evocative soundtrack of 30 years of music as commentary to events on screen.

If I were to be a little picky, yes, the `Geordie' accents of the 3 male friends are at times (particularly in the earlier episodes) a little ouchy, and there are a few technical hitches in sound quality in some scenes which mean that I was rapidly turning up and turning down the volume as the occasional scene descended into something approaching a whisper whilst the following scene boomed out blaringly till the level was taken back down, but, hey, these are minor.

It's a cracking, cracking drama, ye kna, man................

Early Warning (Last Hundred Years Trilogy 2)
Early Warning (Last Hundred Years Trilogy 2)
by Jane Smiley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.19

5.0 out of 5 stars The low-level hum of a mushroom cloud, 11 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
At the conclusion of my review of Some Luck, the first volume of Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years trilogy, as seen through the lives of a farming family from Iowa, I wrote the following :

"It was when I finished Some Luck, and sat down to think about what Smiley had done, and the manner of her doing it, that I realised how brilliantly the novel had been crafted. She is not a writer who stuns with her showy brilliance, but one who, when you stop and look at the piece, has crafted beautifully, properly, harmoniously. There is integrity to her work. And I can't wait for volume 2, which will cover the 50's to the 80's, and where, I suspect, the sense of timelessness which still clung to the early part of Some Luck, will be wrenched asunder"

And now, having concluded Early Morning, the second volume, I see no reason to change my earlier opinion about Smiley's qualities as a writer, nor the difference I thought there would be between the world of Some Luck and the world of Early Morning.

Though Joe, the second son of the initial patriarch and matriarch, Walter and Rosanna Langdon, by continuing to be the one who connects to place, whose prevailing love is the land itself, does seem to try to hold to roots and to history, farming itself is completely different from the scratched out, un-mechanised work his father did.

The focus in Early Warning is the second generation and beyond, that generation affected by the Second World War, the Cold War, whose children would feel the effects of Vietnam, the sexual revolution, gay rights, feminism, the civil rights movement, enormous social and cultural changes.

Smiley continues to allocate a year per chapter, and in that year will snapshot various members of the family, their wider families, friends and work relationships.

I have stayed utterly absorbed. She looks at her individuals in close-up, their lives, loves, and place in society, but at the same time, each of them stands for more. This is both a marvellous narrative, and at the same time a snapshot of society.

There is of course a challenge for the reader who has not read the first volume, as some of the references won't quite make the same emotional impact, stir the same memories as they will for those who experienced the characters now at centre stage as babies, toddlers, adolescents, young men and women whose natures were forming.

And there are also some challenges simply because you are following several stories, several lives, across thirty years, so it's harder work for the reader to hold all these stories which are simultaneously going on.

But the tapestry is, to my mind, a gorgeous and richly patterned one, and what makes it work is Smiley's integrity, her interest in her characters, and her resistance to going for the easy option of just bombarding the reader with high drama on every page. She is as interested in the small detail of small lives as in the actions happening on a world stage - in fact, more so, as it is the effect of the world stage on the daily lives of ordinary people that form the fabric of this.

I do have one small criticism, to do with the way Smiley, or her editors, have chosen to help the reader keep track of the expanding characters across the generations, as marriages, partnerships, the families of the partners and new births happen. This is done at the start of the book via a family tree which takes the reader from book 1 to the end of this book. This takes an element of surprise from the story, as it might give clues as to who for example lives and who might die, early, simply because they leave no heirs, and we might, given knowledge of the first book, and the time of the second, be able to work out why. As the children of Frank, Joe, Lillian and the others reach maturity we might also be able to predict immediately that someone who appears on the scene as a partner for one of the children is not going to be `significant' simply because the format of the family tree tells you who is going to be the partner who fathers the next generation.

I would have liked to see something along the lines of a tree which gave birthdates, and where applicable, deathdates of all the family in 1953 when this book starts, but no indication of any later births, partnerships etc. And perhaps a `mini-tree' at the end of each year which might record only any changes which happened that year - deaths and births - and which could then be a chapter conclusion, easily found in the book, or in an e-reader, which would be a useful way for the reader to keep track of the ages of the appearing (or departing) characters, and their relationships in the tree at large.

`Relationships' being of course a major thread of this book. The land itself, however changed by fashion and global economy, and the lives of family members, however changed by global scattering far from that Iowan beginning, exert tendrils and roots which bind them together.

The title of this book nods to that fear which formed a low-level background, and some-times a right-up-close-and-personal stuff of nightmares, from the Bay of Pigs onwards.

Smiley does that shivering thing, where the characters (and the reader) are deep in the minutiae of day-to-day, skating on the thin-ice surface, and suddenly, some film gets whisked aside, and you are face to face with `here be monsters':

"What he remembered....was standing near one of the windows and being revisited by a feeling from that trip he took for Arthur to Iran; at the sight of buzzards feasting in the moonlight on some carcass, say a goat, he had known all of a sudden how little intervened between the hot breeze on that runway and death itself. Death had shimmered in the air - as close as his next breath - and in that satin-draped consulate, looking out on Sixty-ninth street, he had felt that once again. Now, he thought, right now, at the Russian Tea Room, it was even closer, if still beyond the boundary. The thought made his hand resting on the table look vivid, still, pale like marble"

And no doubt, the times and the changes will run even faster, not to mention the scatterings, despite global communications, become even more dizzying, when the third volume takes on the age of the world-wide-web, social media and all the rest.

Price: £5.49

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Exhausted by relentless, repetitive jumping, 5 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Touch (Kindle Edition)
I was definitely one of those thrilled by `Claire North's' first book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. `North' is a third pen name for Catherine Webb, writing (since she was 14) YA books and, as Kate Griffin, fantasy novels for adults. `Harry August' fell into SF territory, so the North persona was created for that. And it was a wonderfully inventive novel which sucked me in from the off and didn't let go.

So it was with great excitement that I started Touch. The premise of Harry August is that there are people who, through time, have been able to re-live their lives and times, alternate realities, bifurcating realities, and, because this has been the case since time immemorial, it is possible for such times-repeaters to meet each other in their times, and pass messages back and forth, so that an elderly, dying time-repeater in 2015 might meet a child, born in 2005, with a message from their life in 2060, which they are repeating in their own alternating universes - knowledge is passed back and forth, in this way.

Touch has the premise that some kind of body-hopping ghosts, created, at the moment of generally violent, murderous deaths, can come free from their dying bodies and jump ship, by skin to skin contact, and use the bodies and lives of their `hosts' like houses. The `ghosts' do not die unless the bodies they inhabit die without the ghost being able to jump ship by skin to skin contact with someone else, before the host body dies.

There is a similar premise as in Harry August, in that there are one group of people aware of this or with the power to do this, and another group of people, ditto, trying to stop them, for various reasons. So it's a ghost jumping fantasy version leading to a kind of entity shootout at the OK Corral. Many times.

And this was my problem. With Harry August, sure there was a basic theme (the specific re-living of a life, with different choices, but the theme did not get in the way of any other factors which make up a novel - narrative drive, and, most importantly, character - individuals, strongly drawn, which the reader progressively gets to know. We really DID get to know August over his 15 lives. Unfortunately, in Touch the various `entities' - in this case, primarily the major entity of `Kepler', who over the course of this book probably occupies several hundred individuals, some for years, some for seconds, and his/her/its major adversary entity (not named here, in order to avoid spoilers) are leaping lives so frequently and dizzyingly that it becomes impossible (for this reader, at least) to particularly care about the entities, the lives, or who will win that entity shoot out. Or, I should say, the final entity shoot-out, as over the course of what felt like a very very long, albeit very fast-moving action novel, bloody kinds of shoot-outs and violence occur, like the jumping, again and again and again.

I had the curious feeling, all the way through the novel, that all this endless jumping, endless which-side-will-win-and-what-tricks-and-feints-will-they-need-to-use-to-do-it, were all some kind of preface and preamble, and surely `the novel' would begin SOON. Harry August had been so assuredly done, that I couldn't believe North could have made something so predictable as this felt to be. I was on the verge of abandoning it, many many, times, but then the author would make an observation which kind of woke me up, and I thought `aha, NOW it begins, so I pressed on. That I did keep on somehow going, despite huge disappointment has to make me raise my rating to the unenthusiastic `OK'

The ending, as in all OK Corral battles, will always have an inevitability, but the reader ought to have an investment in hoping/wanting one version of a possible ending rather than another. I'm afraid I had none, and went `oh, that' ; if the ending would have been different, I would also have thought `oh, that'

Judicious and drastic editing might have prevented this reader feeling the journey was endless. This would have been a pretty intriguing novella or short novel, but stretched out to more than 400 pages it felt like a slog.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky [DVD]
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky [DVD]
Dvd ~ Simon Curtis
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hamilton's stunning trilogy beautifully rendered, 4 April 2015
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I completely missed this at the time of transmission, possibly because at the time I was unaware of the trilogy of which it was based. And in many ways I am very glad of that, as I do prefer to have read the book on which a film or TV dramatisation has been made, as going to the book afterwards seems to get in the way of my own experience of the original.

Of course the danger of this approach might be the purist reader is forever nitpicking about how badly the book has been served and doesn't do it justice.

Happily, this is not the case here, and in the main there has been not only a faithfulness to the book, but something added by performance and by the wonderful visual element showing the minutiae of a vanished time

Hamilton's book was originally 3 interlocking books, published over a period of some 5 years, centring around a Fitzrovia pub, The Midnight Bell, in the late 1920s, and telling, from 3 different viewpoints, stories of hopeless love, broken dreams and the aspirations and hardships of `little people', the ordinary lives of those without the benefits of money and education, but with the desire for something better, somewhere......

Bob is the barman at The Midnight Bell self-educating himself, wanting to be a writer. Pretty Jenny, from a very poor background, is initially proud to get a live-in job as a housekeeper and cook to 3 elderly people of means. Warm hearted, homely Ella is the barmaid at The Midnight Bell. Bob loves ruinous Jenny, who loves no-one, though Bob in turn is beloved by Ella. It's a kind of much more sparkling, much more witty, much more emotionally, less didactic Huis Clos.

Simon Curtis is a director of fine pedigree from stage, where his credits include the original production of Jim Cartwright's Road, TV - credits include BBC's Cranford and film - My Week With Marilyn.

Kevin Elyot was a fine writer (My Night With Reg) - and wisely here uses much of Hamilton's sparkling, precise dialogue, lifted from the trilogy, and does not seek to impose his own voice. He prunes, shapes and guides, trusting in the source material.

All performances are assured, Bryan Dick as sweet, charming Bob, far too susceptible to the twin delights of a pretty ankle and the alcohol he serves, Zoe Tapper as ravishingly pretty, dramatically damaged Jenny, and, especially Phil Davis, always worth watching, here, more dapper, less outwardly seedy than his usual casting, but still definitely a bit creepy, as Ernest Eccles, erstwhile admirer of the heart-breakingly must-stay-upbeat Ella, beautifully played by Sally Hawkins

The last section of the piece, Ella's story, The Plains of Cement, as in the book itself, is the one which best manages the balance between humour, pathos and a kind of anxious terror. Davis' horribly lonely Eccles is both repulsive and inviting of pity, and the scenes between him and Hawkins' overwhelmed, not quite sure what is going on Ella are both funny and creepy.

The structure of the 3 stories are beautifully woven together. If I have one minor criticism, it is that the end of the piece half suggests a sense of missed opportunity for Bob, which is not suggested for him, in Hamilton's book - it may well be the reader's, and indeed, the viewer's perception, but it is not something which is made part of Bob's perception.

Highly recommended

Alma Cogan
Alma Cogan
by Gordon Burn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine writing and theme - but is it quite a novel? And, perhaps more pertinently, is it quite ethical?, 3 April 2015
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This review is from: Alma Cogan (Paperback)
I read this first quite a long time ago, when it was first published, 1991, and it stayed on my shelves as I thought at some point it might be a re-read. A recent book club choice, its time came, and I found myself not quite so sure the second time around.

Burn was certainly a writer of intelligence, provoking unease in the reader, in part to do with his often unsettling subject matter, but I suspect he is more of a sociologist, a philosopher exploring themes, and, of course, an insightful, incisive journalist (he was) more than a writer of novels.

Alma Cogan was, in the 50s and early 60s, very much a star, in a kind of wholesome family entertainment way which hardly seems to exist anymore. Known as `the girl with the giggle in her voice', she was 4 times the winner of The New Musical Express's Female Vocalist of the Year competition. Born in Whitechapel in 1932 to a fiercely ambitious Romanian Jewish stage mother, Alma was quickly winning contests, and famous for her glamour. By the early 60's, with the rise of The Beatles, R+B and teen culture, she was falling out of mainstream favour, though once she had been at the epicentre of popular culture high society. She died young of ovarian cancer in 1966. Quite quickly, a fan culture grew up around her, and she was seen as iconic of a time and place - a little search online reveals her fan industry is still active.

Burn's book assumes she did not die, and is, in the late 1980s, living a fading, out of the limelight life. The Alma of Burn's book looks back on her own life, examining a Britain which has gone, where the glamour of the limelight hides the darker side of celebrity and the voracious, obsessive world of fandom. What has gone is not the darker side of celebrity - that has, of course, grown, it is the innocence that believes the shiny face of glamour is real. This Alma is a more intelligent, self-aware and even self-mocking voice than the `real Alma' image presented at the time.

The book disturbed me for a couple of reasons, despite Burn's brilliance as a writer analysing the spirit of the times through a cleverly structured invention. The book won the Whitbread Prize in the year of its publication. Although he doesn't play fast and loose with the real Alma's life, and although it is absolutely made clear at the start of the book that she died in 1966 so all else is invention, the less than flattering making fast and loose with Alma and her relationship with her mother, may well have been highly disturbing to surviving family members.

The second reason, is that as part of Burn's examination of the darker side of celebrity itself - not so much the darker side of the celebrities, more the dark nature of us, our obsession with it, and our obsession with the seamy and the sordid - obsession with those who become famous for their misdeeds, rather than their talents - he weaves in The Moors Murders of 1966, and particularly the murder of one of the children, Lesley Ann Downey, with a song of Alma's. The use of a real event - and even the transcript of the tape of her killing which Hindley and Brady made, within the book, seems distasteful, somehow a further abuse of a life cut terribly and violently short, used as a novelist's device

This book is a very pertinent examination of the whole industry of fame, celebrity culture and how it has changed and developed, and a microscopic dissection of the shadow side of celebrity, the vicarious and slightly sinister quality of fandom. It certainly fulfils one purpose of art - to shock out of complacency, and to force those who encounter it to think, reflect, ponder, and become discomfited, uncomfortable. It does not, at all achieve another purpose which is found in some art - that is, to raise, inspire and aspire to something finer in our nature.

3 ½ rounded to 4 - it is a much more superior novel than `okay' but `like' is not really an appropriate response!

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