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Peake's Fuchsia (Dublin, Ireland)

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Room
Room
by Emma Donoghue
Edition: Hardcover

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An unnecessary book - what was its purpose meant to be?, 30 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Room (Hardcover)
I knew nothing of this book when I had to read it for my book club. No preconceptions, then.
About half-way through, and uncertain of why I disliked it, the word "unnecessary" came into my head. The book is of no benefit - it neither entertains nor informs. Donaghue has, in an unpleasantly prurient way, taken aspects of the horrorific stories of Elizabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Lee Dugard and presented them from the perspective of one of the former's incarcerated children.
Given that the "plot" is not the fruit of her imagination but an exploitation of other women's real-life misery, Donaghue's input could only have been the evocation of the day-to-day existence of an incarcerated sex-slave ("Ma" whose name is, coyly, never revealed) and the by-product of rape (her son, Jack). Choosing a first-person, present-tense narration by a (just) five-year-old would have been masterly if the author had pulled it off but unfortunately this device comes across only as unconvincing. Jack's bizarre grammar bears not even a passing resemblance to patterns of speech development - he's not a feral child so this stab at "authenticity" is misplaced, gimmicky and inept. "Ma's" perspective, discernable only through its impact on Jack, could not be explored because Donaghue had boxed herself into a corner by her device.
The media sensationalisation and public distaste which followed the two cases which must have given Donaghue the idea for this book are too recent to admit acceptance of any fictionalisation unless it could demonstrate sensitivity and insight. This offering does neither. It leaves a nasty taste of opportunism at another's misfortune and impudence at attempting to portray the lives of such victims. Comparison with Alice Sebold's "Lovely Bones" is inevitable. This book also fictionalises the devastation of a sex crime; also uses the first-person narration of a victim; also the voice of a child (albeit older). Sebold, however, does so with finesse and literary merit.
I give this two stars rather than one only because in its awfulness, I could see it could have been even worse.


SAINSBURY'S VITALITY COOKBOOK
SAINSBURY'S VITALITY COOKBOOK
by JANETTE MARSHALL
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars An overlooked but now rediscovered gem, 29 April 2009
I've probably had this book since it was first published (along with many others). Trying to keep my New Year lose weight, get fitter resolutions, I revisited all my cookery books looking for healthy but enticing recipes. It's now April and I can say that this little book has provided many, many interesting meals (with hardly any disappointments)- tasty and mostly fairly easy to prepare. At the beginning of March I was at my lowest weight for 12 years! Shame about the holiday followed by Easter ... Still, I'm back on track now and I've come to Amazon looking for another book by her - good as this one is, after nearly 5 months (off and on), I need something else.


Canvey Island
Canvey Island
by James Runcie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A rigorous editor might have helped, 5 Aug. 2008
This review is from: Canvey Island (Paperback)
I picked this book up secondhand. I was attracted by the title having spent childhood holidays there in the 50s and then having lived nearby for many years. I'm glad I didn't pay full price as the book was disappointing in its lack of authenticity. Also, apart from a powerful description of the 1953 flood at the beginning (for which the author gives credit to eye witness accounts), the book could have been set anywhere - it's not in any way specific to Canvey Island. In fact, the action in the latter two-thirds of the book occurs mostly in other parts of England. It's sad that I can't condemn the book wholly - there were parts which resonated and I was left thinking it could have been so much better than it was.

The device of unfolding the story by telling each development from the viewpoint of one or more of the main charaters worked reasonably well although I question whether it might have been laziness on the author's part - it enabled perspectives to be conveyed which would have been difficult if the narrator had been only one of them. A third-person narration would also have been difficult to write as it would have been unacceptably omniscient - much of the book being concerned with the characters' thoughts; angsts, hopes and fears. These represented a broad spectrum of what might go on in any person's head so the reader can identify easily with each of the characters. However, on finishing the book I was left with the feeling of having been short-changed - the insights were only superficial and fairly random and, like the action, they had little to do with Canvey Island specifically (but much to do with the author's idea of being working class, it seemed).

The sense of being short-changed was exacerbated by feeling that the characters had been taken from a stockroom, not created as individuals. It was almost as if they were working class dolls. Their words, though, were inauthentic: there were many instances where the reported speech or thoughts just did not ring true - the previous reviewer's correct observation about in/on Canvey being one example.

Credit, though, for describing the laying out of a body and particularly for not depicting any mawkishness or sentimentality about it. I've never seen this in a book before. Now that fewer people die in their own homes it must be becoming a rarity in the UK but I know it was once common at least in East London working class areas and to this day in Italy. It's not the way I've experienced it being done but I suppose there's no right or wrong way to do it.

An easy read but not a particularly interesting or edifying one - in fact, now I come to think of it, it was quite depressing in that the horizons and dreams of all the characters were either limited or unfulfilled.


Holding on (History and Politics)
Holding on (History and Politics)
by Mervyn Jones
Edition: Paperback

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ah yes! I remember it well, 31 May 2007
This book was recommended to me through a Newham local history forum when I asked for books telling how it might have been for my grandparents' generation growing up in Custom House/Canning Town in the early 20th century (I did so in the 1950s).

Although there wasn't much of that period, as the book tells the whole life story of a seventy year old man born in 1900 and covers his children's lives as well, it did paint what I trust to be a good picture of those times. Certainly the later period, which I recall my parents talking about or which I can remember myself, seems accurate. You wouldn't call this book literary fiction and I don't suppose the writer has any such pretentions but he has succeeded in weaving a vibrant, if somewhat sad, story from well-observed and well-researched snippets of social history and created characters and situations anyone with connections to the East End will identify with.

It would make a good present for someone who lived around the Royal Docks in the first half of the last century or someone whose ancestors did and who wants to flesh out their family history.


The Amateur Marriage
The Amateur Marriage
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Inconsequential Life, 26 Feb. 2007
This review is from: The Amateur Marriage (Paperback)
The central plot of this novel is apparently the unsatisfactory marriage. There are linked subplots about a teenage child disappearing and eventually reappearing; about a second marriage; about post-WW2 changes in urban and suburban America. This all keeps the reader interested in the "story" side of the book.

The chapters are written from differing viewpoints - the husband; the wife; one daughter; the son. Although this gives us insight into these characters' personalities, etc, we're kept at arms length and don't discover their deep inner selves - probably because people don't, in the real world, have that kind of understanding of their own motivations, etc. As other reviewers have noted, no one character is portrayed more (or less) sympathetically - they all just 'are' and 'do'.

What came across very powerfully and what made the novel quite disturbing was the "message" side of the book. For me the message was the ultimate inconsequentiality of the characters and the events in their lives. At the textual level the individual characters over time accommodate the momentous things which happen to them and get on with their lives; at the sub-textual level the reader is left with the feeling that, with the passage of time, not only do events in our own lives have no import in the world but neither do we. I was reminded of D M Thomas' "The White Hotel". In that novel minutiae of the life and the psyche of the central character are revealed to the reader but at the end she is just an anonymous holocaust statistic in a mass grave. In "The Amateur Marriage" Pauline's looks, thoughts, dreams, feelings, etc are revealed to us in detail but her death - just another RTA - had happened a few years before we find out about it and everyone has by then moved on even to the point of being able to joke about it.


Skipping Christmas: Christmas with The Kranks
Skipping Christmas: Christmas with The Kranks
by John Grisham
Edition: Paperback

4 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Laugh? I thought I would vomit, 29 Nov. 2006
When this came up as a topical (December) book club choice, I had never read a John Grisham book. Now I never want to - although I'm aware this (thankfully) sparse novella is a departure from his usual style.

Ignoring the cover blurb but aware of the basic premise of the book, I continued beyond the scene-setting early pages of lightly-drawn middle-American sit-com snapshots expecting that such a prolific and well-known author of thrillers would develop the tale into something dark and interesting. Once it became clear that this was not to be, every gooey slide towards the saccharine ending was predictable and I realised the book was presented as humour. It was not funny or clever and only book club etiquette (must read the whole book) compelled me to finish it.

This offering wastes both the reader's time and money. I suspect it was written with an eye to its potential earning power through film rights. Perhaps the twist to the tale is that Grisham portrayed the lemming-like adherence of Americans to the commercialism of phoney Christmas rituals confident that the very sheep he hung up for ridicule will flock to see/buy the movie and add it to their Christmas canon. Now, the thought of WASPs lining Grisham's pockets by reading or watching their silly customs being mocked DOES make me smile.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 8, 2013 8:59 PM GMT


A Doctor's War
A Doctor's War
by Aidan MacCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why wasn't he more angry?, 5 Nov. 2006
This review is from: A Doctor's War (Paperback)
Perhaps the passage of time had mellowed the author or he had been influenced by subsequent revisionism (over 30 years had lapsed between the events he writes about and the original edition being published); perhaps his Christian faith or instinct for mental health wouldn't let him bear grudges; perhaps his style just happens to be muted - whatever the reason, I can't understand how restrained this memoir is. My lack of comprehension came after finishing it - during the reading I found it an easy; frequently amusing; educational and compelling book but the aftertaste, attributable to his restraint more than his suffering, is that it is a very sad book. Maybe that points to a very skillful recounting of the doctor's story (a sort of double-bluff).

The deprivation, exploitation, casual (as well as systematic) sadism and brutality of the Japanese is not excused by the explanation that, traditionally, their view of surrender is that it renders contemptible anyone (whether service personnel or civilian) connected with a capitulating opponent. Aidan MacCarthy might have been satisfied but for me it's just not good enough, I'm afraid. I continue to be more angry and outraged on his behalf, and that of other POWs of the Japanese, than he seemed to be himself.

This slim volume offers many oblique insights into WWII (particularly how disorganised the British, and how well-meaning but unhelpful the Americans, were) and I'm very glad that it was put my way.


Small Island
Small Island
by Andrea Levy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

19 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cardboard cut-out exposition, 13 Aug. 2006
This review is from: Small Island (Paperback)
Three stars, ie neutral, expresses a more damning evaluation than fewer stars - this book didn't even provoke active dislike in me. In fairness, my antipathy could be because I have been exposed to many first-person accounts of both WW2 in London and racial prejudice, so a great deal of Andrea Levy's clearly well-researched observations seemed to me to be cliched. The characters are two-dimensional in that each one comes across as a collage of every stereotypical personality trait and experience which could (just about) be stuck on them and remain vaguely plausible.

Perhaps I've become tired of the output of authors whose prime motivation seems to be to display the fruits of their wide-ranging and thorough research on a chosen topic. I've come to the view that, if they can't match their flair for ferreting out snippets of factual and anecdotal information with a gift for using it creatively to put across fresh insight into the human condition, all they, and Levy here is a example, give the reader is a history essay - albeit one which is more vivid than an encyclopaedia entry. Perhaps Andrea Levy (like authors of her ilk) would have done better if she had spent as much time distilling her data as she did gathering it and demonstrated restraint by getting her message (if she had one!) acoss in a more oblique way or by weaving it into a proper, entertaining story.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 26, 2012 6:01 PM BST


The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback

10 of 26 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Lost Opportunity, 3 May 2006
The returning native, however much his negative expectations might have been confirmed, could have given us an entertaining and perceptive insight into late 80s small town America but instead Bryson presented a rapid fire, repetitive slide show in which he as both commentator and participant came across as pompous and bigoted (is he being brave and honest about his personality defects or self-important and arrogant to think he can get away with displaying them so openly?).

Bryson is a wry observer and is undoubtedly successful at humourous writing but this book is dire. I won't deny that I laughed out loud at some of his asides but for the most part the humour is too slick, too caustic and too cliched to be amusing to a reader - a stand-up comic or a dear friend might get away with these one-liners but more considered, less obvious, longer laughs are demanded of a writer.

I felt obliged to stay aboard like a stow-away until the end of the (second) journey but hopes of a final, redemptive revealation were misplaced and I wished I'd jumped ship earlier - I don't know why the manuscript got past the editor.


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