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Simon Thomas "bookaholic" (Oxford/Somerset, UK)

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The Boss of it All [DVD] [2006]
The Boss of it All [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ Henrik Prip

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite lost in translation, 15 Aug 2008
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Watching a film with subtitles is always tricky, but something in The Boss of it All overcame this. Since so much of the film is related to overlapping reality and pretence, simply having the words made things a little difficult. The central character's self-delusion, whilst also deluding others, needed one to listen to the tone of the Scandinavian, whilst also reading the words of the English. But the film is rewarding when this effort is made - shot almost documentary style, there are also tinges of comedy and drama in the production style, all of which amount to a deliberately ambiguous format for a tale of delusion. My only experience with the director before this was Dogville... very different!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 13, 2011 4:26 PM GMT

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Annie Barrows
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful novel, 13 July 2008
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes the form of letters to and from writer Juliet Ashton, in 1946. She has become popular under her pseudonym Izzy Bickerstaff, writing Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War - which put me in mind of EM Delafield and The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which is all to the good. She describes herself in one of her letters, saving me the trouble of doing so:

'I am thirty-three years old... In a good mood, I call my hair chestnut with gold glints. In a bad mood, I call it mousy brown. It wasn't a windy day [in a photo]; my hair always looks like that. Naturally curly hair is a curse, and don't ever let anyone tell you different. My eyes are hazel. While I am slender, I am not tall enough to suit me.'

I think I fell in love with Juliet when she revealed that a)she had also written an unpopular biography of my favourite Bronte sister, Anne - and b)that she broke up with her fiance when she found him 'sitting on the low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cardboard boxes. He was sealing the last one with tape and string. There were eight boxes - eight boxes of my books bound up and ready for the basement!' What is more, he'd replaced her books with his sporting trophies. Obviously he had to go.

All this has happened before the novel opens - Juliet is in the throes of trying to find material for a new book. Her correspondance is with her loveable publisher Sidney and his sister Sophie, until out of the blue a letter arrives from a Guernsey farmer, Dawsey Adams, who has found her address inside a secondhand copy of Charles Lamb. Juliet gets the idea to write about Guernsey under Nazi Occupation - and strikes up a correspondance with several Guernsey residents (shy Dawsey; eccentric Isola; fisherman Eben) and decides to visit them to find out more. The letters continue to those back home, including would-be lover Markham Reynolds, and Juliet's life becomes increasingly bound up in Guernsey and its inhabitants.

So what is 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society'? To cover up the eating of an illicit pig (one of the things Nazi Occupants forbade) quick-thinking Elizabeth says that they were at a literary society - to make the story believable, they start one up. And the sustenance is in the form of potato peel pie, being all the food they could find. Elizabeth - who was sent away to a Continental prison during the war, and has not returned - becomes the central figure of these people and the novel, despite her protracted absence.

Like many people, I suspect, I knew little about the wartime occupation of the Channel Islands - Mary Ann Shaffer's novel is so illuminating about the conditions and experiences of those being controlled, but more than that, she creates unique and sympathetic characters. There are some upsetting details, but never gratuitously harrowing - Mary Ann Shaffer obviously knows how much more affecting it is to give us lovable characters and then see how the situation changed them. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is full of such characters - I worried that there were so many letter-writers, but they swiftly became identifiable and dear to me. Above all else, the novel is warm, funny and lovingly written. Bloomsbury plan a large-scale advertising campaign for this novel when it is published in August (sorry! you'll have to wait) and no novel deserves it more - it is sad that Shaffer passed away before she could see her novel published, but she died knowing that it would be, which must have been a great joy.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is something special - Juliet Ashton is a protagonist with just the right levels of humour, fondness and self-deprecation ('Oh, I can see it all now: no one will buy my books, and I'll ply Sidney with tattered, illegible manuscripts, which he'll pretend to publish out of pity. Doddering and muttering, I'll wander the streets carrying my pathetic turnips in a string bag, with newspaper tucked into my shoes'.) The characters are an ensemble cast, you'll love the lot of 'em, and fall in love with Guernsey too.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 16, 2008 10:07 PM BST

Sentimental Streak
Sentimental Streak
Price: 14.88

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Jazz that needs more soul, 18 May 2008
This review is from: Sentimental Streak (Audio CD)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
There is no doubt that Catherine Russell is a great singer, with all the technical ability and charm needed to carry this album. From the first time her voice comes in on So Little Time (So Much To Do), Russell oozes professional talent. The major problem with this album is that there is no chink in the armour - Russell didn't write the songs, and that's fine, but when she sings them it's obvious that she didn't write them. The words are almost immaterial - she treats the songs as technical pieces, not emotional topics. Sadly, that leaves this album sounding more like a hotel singer than a solo star.

The Bestowing Sun
The Bestowing Sun
by Neil Grimmett
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars The Bestowing Sun, 30 Mar 2008
This review is from: The Bestowing Sun (Paperback)
The novel focuses upon two brothers, William and Richard, who grow up together in a farming family, with parents Herbie and Madeline. From the outset, from the earliest age, William is obsessed with his art, with the creation of art and the presentation of humans as their nature truly is, in paintings. Richard is his stocky, sensible brother who can't understand this perspective, how it absorbs and controls William. Towards the beginning, William unveils a painting his parents commissioned him to create, of the family posed around the kitchen table:

'Richard had grunted and struggled to his feet the moment the cloth uncovered the canvas, Madeline gave a small cry and clasped her hand over her face. Herbie took the painting without a word or a look at William and carried it off. William has not been able to find it since though, as now, he was haunted by it.'

Without describing the painting, or telling us what the family saw in their portraits, Grimmett shows the striking effects of William's works, and the discords they spark in his relatives.

What follows is akin to a retelling of The Prodigal Son (would I be wrong in thinking the title a pun?) - one of the most beautiful parables in the Bible for demonstrating God's love and grace, and one Our Vicar always calls The Forgiving Father rather than The Prodigal Son. In The Bestowing Sun it is a lengthy absence on William's part - to a crumbling marriage, alcoholism and self-destruction (all of which we see very early in the novel). I wasn't fond of the harshness and coarseness of the language in this section, until I realised what Grimmett was doing. As William makes his way back to the farm of his childhood, initially as an address for bail, we feel not only his longing for home. The reader (at least, this reader) longs alongside him for the softer, more beautiful language - the gentle characterisation that so exactly depicts fraternal rivalry and buried attachment; parental pride and hurt; the tarnished bewitching qualities of Selina - a girl both brothers loved and neither can forget.

In some ways, the path of the plot is not unpredictable, but that is scarcely the point. The final chapter of this novel is so beautiful, a touching harmony of art, family and prodigality - though with none of the soppiness of that sentence, I must add. Grimmett's great achievement is writing a beautiful novel which is never pretentious and certainly never lachrymose. Quite the reverse. These are plain-talking rural folk, after all. I think the combination of artistry and rurality is best demonstrated in this realisation from Richard: 'But how. he suddenly thought, does one fool an artist's eye? It would be a bit like someone showing him a sick or weakly calf and expecting him to carry it back from the market.'

The Story
The Story
Price: 9.87

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best voices I've heard in ages, 29 Mar 2008
This review is from: The Story (Audio CD)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The first time Brandi Carlile's voice starts, I started thinking "country singer" - but within moments the idea was dismissed. She does have a very country-esque voice, though in lending it to rocky blues she finds a new level which few artists can reach. All the impetuses on this album make it almost genreless, but in a brilliant way.

The songs are certainly catchy, but not in a formulaic way - Brandi (if she wrote these songs - the review copy has sparce info) has a great turn of phrase and an ear for rhyme and rhythm in her lyrics. Currently I love the lot, but my favourites are My Song, Turpentine and Wasted - but there aren't any filler tracks on one of the most exciting albums I've heard in a while.

A Proper Family Christmas (Transita)
A Proper Family Christmas (Transita)
by Jane Gordon-Cumming
Edition: Paperback

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun and well-written: great combination!, 1 Feb 2008
AA Milne once said: "Every critic instantly assumes that, should a writer be able to make his audience laugh, he secretly wishes he were making them cry". Milne didn't always love his critics, but the point is that we shouldn't underestimate the comic writer - I think it's much more difficult to make readers laugh than it is to make them cry, and a comic novel done well is a wonderful thing.

Step forward Jane Gordon-Cumming, and A Proper Family Christmas. I was worried people didn't write books like this any more. Don't get me wrong, I love pensive, slightly depressing, high-literary fiction more than anyone - Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, after all (though she is incredibly funny, I must add) - but where did novels go which gently laugh at human nature and the tangles they get themselves in? Thankfully Jane G-C has written one such novel, and I know you'll love it.

William lives by himself in a rambling old house, such as are only found in fiction - well, I say alone, he actually lives with a rather wonderful cat called Scratch. You can't go wrong with cats in fiction - they're such amusing and characterful creatures. Anyway, William is an obstreperous old man, but one you can't help loving. Despite his best efforts, every member of his family descend on his house for Christmas - his forthright siser Margery; widow Hilary and her attractive teenage son; neurotic Lesley and Stephen with their spoilt child Tobias and put-upon nanny Frances; scatty Julia and innuendo-flinging Tony with worldy-wise daughter Posy and flirty nanny Shelley; arty Leo who seems to be perpetually ignored by all; charmer and antiquities expert Oliver. Phew, think that's everyone. What a cast! Despite a lot of characters and a lot of names, like one's own family one never gets confused. They all have their place and, like them or loathe them, you can't help being quietly fond of each and every one.

This novel is definitely a character piece - throw together a lot of disparate and amusing people, and a few Wodehousian plots, and see what happens. And what happens is a witty and touching romp through the intricacies and politics of a family Christmas. If you don't recognise it all, you're lucky, but you'll love it nonetheless. A perfect Christmas present for someone who loves something to read on Boxing Day, just so long as they can't recognise themselves in its pages... and best not give it to anyone called William, Leo, Margery, Lesley, Stephen, Tony, Shelley, Tobias, Posy, Julia... at a pinch Frances, Oliver, Hilary and Daniel will take it as a compliment...

The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great first half; then overuses violence..., 1 Feb 2008
This review is from: The Kite Runner (Paperback)
I read The Kite Runner for Book Group last week, and after a few people raved about it, I was expecting something brilliant. Well, I quite liked it - there we go, nothing if not effusive! The first 100 pages or so were great - a very vivid and complex portrait of an unequal fraternal relationship. Fascinating glimpse at issues of servitude, power, jealousy, love and a very believable pair of main characters. For those not in the know, Hassan is the son of Amir's father's Hazara servant - so the boys are the same age, and very close, but in very different circumstances. Perhaps their relationship is best shown in the sport which gives the novel its title - Amir flies his kite in an important local competition; Hassan is one of those who run after the cut-down kites, to keep as prizes. Hassan runs after them in order that he can give the kite to Amir - and his loyalty is such that he will endure much rather than relinquish the kite.

There is an event about 100 pages in which changes the lives of the central characters, the nature of the relationship, and the rest of the novel. To be fair to Khaled Hosseini (the author) the event doesn't feel signposted in any way. I'm always annoyed by pages which scream "Look! Most Important Event Happening Here! Get Ready For Everything To Change!" But after it happens, the main force of the novel is lost. I waded through the remaining 200 or so pages with some interest, but The Kite Runner had rather, ahem, run out of steam.

The Crowded Bed
The Crowded Bed
by Mary Cavanagh
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.18

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Crowded Bed, 1 Feb 2008
This review is from: The Crowded Bed (Paperback)
"Good evening, dear friend. I'm extremely pleased to see you, but I'm sure you'll understand why I can't give you my full attention. Joe Fortune is just about to kill his father-in-law, and I've no intention of missing this long awaited event."

So opens The Crowded Bed... Gosh.

The Crowded Bed follows Joe, a Jewish boy and later doctor, from childhood through various relationships and to just after the pivotal moment described. Like many recent novels I've read, the narrative jumps about a bit, so 'the present' is shown parallel to various sections of the past - though, like those novels too, it's not confusing. I found Joe a fairly repugnant character, but I think that's ok - he has manifold sins under his belt, and more or less his only redeeming trait is a deep love for his son. And an abiding love for Anna.

She's the other lass. Liked her. Despite her name, she's not Jewish - she's more like Botticelli's Venus, as shown on the cover. My favourite sections of this novel were the opening chapters, when the childhoods of Joe and Anna were depicted alongside each other, and thus contrasted. Where Joe has indulgent and proud parents, Anna had a vicious father and a passive mother. And a twin brother, a theme popping up in quite a few recent reads. Reading their childhoods in this comparative way is so revealing about the characters and the way they interrelate.

The path isn't smooth for Joe and Anna. That crowded bed gets pretty crowded as the novel progresses, and I'll keep schtum over whether or not they manage to kick everyone else out but, suffice to say, the shocks keep coming to the very end. Cavanagh has written a novel which is both gentle and vicious, warm and unsettling. It's hard to like many of the characters, but that doesn't stop being compelled to find out more - and the rollercoaster they go through is dramatic but believable. Certainly not comfort reading (though someone recently described The Kite Runner as that, so it takes all sorts) but is a very engaging and perpetually surprising novel.

Speaking of Love
Speaking of Love
by Angela Young
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.05

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Speaking of Love, 1 Feb 2008
This review is from: Speaking of Love (Hardcover)
Angela Young's novel has similarities with a couple of other modern novels I've mentioned on here - Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and Margaret Pelling's Work For Four Hands. The main similarity is that one reads investigatively; there is a central mystery to be unfurled, which will help explain why the characters act as they do, respond (or, rather, don't) to each other in the ways they do. Even without all the other reasons to read on, the need to discover how all the pieces fit together is enough to keep anybody hooked.

Speaking of Love is divided into three narrative strands, Iris's Story; Vivie's Story; Matthew's Story. At first I thought this was overkill, and did get a little confused - surely we don't need all three voices? How wrong I was. They are distinct personas, and Young cleverly presents Vivie in the third person, alongside Iris and Matthew in the first person, so little overlap occurs. No character has more than a few pages at any one time, and they always took up the narrative again at exactly the moment I was thinking "Hmm, we haven't heard from Iris/Vivie/Matthew in a while, I hope they're next".

Iris is, appropriately enough, a storyteller - though one who has suffered destructive illness - and is heading towards a storytellers' festival. Vivie, her daughter, hasn't seen her for years, and is suffering her own personal crises. Matthew, Vivie's childhood friend, is also off to the festival, with his father, to hear Iris. As these characters and their relationships are explored, so too are their shared and separate pasts - pieces of the puzzle are continually proferred, though never in such a way as they feel incongruous in the narrative. Nothing in Young's novel is forced, and, given the often stark or emotional subject matter, she does amazingly well to avoid being either saccharine or maudlin. The tagline, as it were, is "Speaking of Love is a novel about what happens when people who love each other don't say so." While true, I hope that doesn't undermine the depth of this novel, the beautiful character portraits and the true humanity which Young has depicted.

Thought I'd give you a little quotation. This makes the novel seem perhaps rather more enigmatic than it is, but it's also a great, tantalising taster of Speaking of Love, which demonstrates the importance of its key themes; storytelling, relationships, the impact of the past.

'If life was a story, Vivie," said her mother, "I could retell it. But it isn't and I can't. I just wish that what happened to me never happened in front of you. I wish that you hadn't had to do what you did and I wish that you hadn't been so very frightened by it all. That's what I wish.'

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead (VMC)
Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead (VMC)
by Barbara Comyns
Edition: Paperback
Price: 13.00

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surreally domestic, 1 Feb 2008
Those of you who are more knowledgeable than I will have spotted that the title is from The Fire of Drift-Wood by Longfellow.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;

The only other Comyns I've read was Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, so she certainly has a way with titles. I bought Who Was Changed... a few years ago, partly because I'd quite enjoyed Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, partly because the mix of a Virago paperback and an interesting cover piqued my interest. Had I turned to the first sentence, I daresay I'd have read the novel much sooner: 'The ducks swan through the drawing-room windows.' How can you not want to read on?

The novel opens with a flood, and things get stranger and stranger. If I were to choose one word to describe this novel it would be "surreal" - but surreal in a very grounded manner. Exactly like the cover illustration, actually; part of 'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Dinner on the Hotel Lawn' by Stanley Spencer. Throughout the events (which I don't want to spoil for you) Comyns weaves a very real, earthy, witty portrait of a village - especially the Willoweed family. A cantankerous old lady who won't step on land she doesn't own, Grandmother Willoweed, rules over her docile son, Ebin, and his young children Emma, Hattie and Dennis. Grandmother W is a truly brilliant creation - without the slightest feeling for anybody around her, she is still amusing rather than demonic. For some reason this novel was banned in Ireland upon publication in 1954 - perhaps for the occasional unblenching descriptions, but these are easily skipped if you, like me, can be a bit squeamish.

Though quite a slim novel - my copy is 146 pages of large type - Comyns writes a book which lingers in the mind, one that is vivid and funny and absurd and a must read for anyone interested in off-the-wall literature with human nature at its heart.

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