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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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Empire Falls
Empire Falls
by Richard Russo
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great expectations..., 9 July 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Empire Falls (Paperback)
Miles Roby nearly escaped from the small run-down town of Empire Falls once upon a time. He made it all the way to college, but came home before graduation to look after his terminally ill mother against her wishes. And while there, he made a pact with the devil in the shape of Mrs Francine Whiting, the owner of nearly everything and everyone in Empire Falls, that she would pay for his mother's medical care if Miles would work off the debt by running the Empire Grill. Twenty years later, Miles still flips hamburgers for a living and Mrs Whiting still owns him.

This is a heavily character-driven book and with a huge cast of characters to drive it. As Russo meanders leisurely through past and present, we gradually get to know many of the people who have touched Miles' life, from close family to old school friends and foes. Russo achieves a remarkable level of depth across such a wide field of characters with a good dozen or more of them becoming intimately known to the reader, strengths and weaknesses all exposed. In this decaying town with little hope for the future, the people who've stayed are mostly the ones who lack the courage or impetus to have tried to make a more successful life elsewhere. Money is scarce, houses can't find buyers, disappointment hovers over the whole town like a grey cloud. And the poverty and lack of opportunity give the Whiting family disproportionate power and influence. Not that that brings them joy - joy doesn't really happen much in Empire Falls for anyone. Francine's husband first abandoned her and then killed himself; and her daughter Cindy, crippled in a childhood accident, also has a history of suicide attempts.

All of which makes the book sound gloomy indeed, and it probably would be without the affectionate warmth Russo shows for his creations and the humour that runs through the book. I've objected to several books being labelled 'Dickensian' recently since the word seems to be being used as a synonym for 'long' this year - but this one does have aspects that made me think of Dickens. The characterisation of the more humorous characters is slightly overblown and caricatured. Miles' reprobate father Max, ("He becomes a public nuisance every now and then when he tires of being a private one") is a ne'er-do-well with personal hygiene issues - never to be relied on and always ready to steal any money that Miles, or indeed anyone else, leaves lying around. Then there's Walter Comeau, the 'Silver Fox', a sixty-year-old fitness fanatic who wears muscle shirts and croons Perry Como songs while flaunting his affair with Miles' ex-wife. Mrs Whiting definitely has touches of Miss Havisham, using her wealth to manipulate and control the lives and loves of the people within her reach to get some kind of revenge for the tragedies in her own past. In fact, the whole plot is predicated on Miles' great expectations that Mrs Whiting will leave him the Empire Grill in her will. But Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles puts in a cameo appearance too, as Max believes firmly that the Robys are related to the Robideaux - Mrs Whiting's maiden name - and feels therefore that he's due a share in the Whiting wealth. To be honest, sometimes these references appear fairly blatant but often don't seem to lead anywhere in particular - as if they were thrown in as kind of literary in-jokes.

As well as the adult characters, Russo does a very fine job of creating some of the most believable literary teenagers I've come across. Tick, Miles' daughter, is in an on-off relationship with bad-boy Zack Minty, but is self-aware enough to know that she's really only tolerating him so that she can be part of the in-crowd. But she's still repelled by his bullying behaviour towards the solitary and silent John, about whom no-one seems to know anything much. Tick's relationship with her parents and reaction to their marriage break-up is also completely convincing - she's old enough to understand what's going on but still young enough to be totally judgemental and a little selfish about it all.

The quality of the writing is excellent throughout and Russo achieves a wonderful balance between a kind of nostalgic sadness and a somewhat wry humour, interspersed with some brilliantly funny set-pieces. I must admit, however, that for large parts of the book, I felt that it lacked any kind of narrative drive and was left entirely unsure where we were heading - if anywhere. There seemed to be lots of little mini-themes and some muted symbolism - such as the Catholic church being about to close, the senile priest, or the Whitings paying to have the river re-routed - that I felt weren't fully developed. The book often felt like a loosely connected series of vignettes rather than a directed narrative. And sure enough, the shock ending so blatantly signalled in the blurb felt tacked on and seemed to come from nowhere; and, as a result, didn't have nearly as much impact as I felt it ought to have done. It's hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, so I won't, except to say that it's interesting to consider how the book reflects the anxieties of American society at the time of publication - 2001, just before the much more shocking real-life events of 9/11 fundamentally affected every aspect of American life and therefore literature, with an impact that is still resonating today and doubtless will continue to do so for many years yet. The concerns Russo addresses of industrial decay, class divisions and broken societies haven't gone away, but they've been somewhat subsumed under the larger and more global questions being addressed in much subsequent literature.

Overall, the quality of the writing, the wonderfully compassionate characterisation and Russo's ability to tread the tricky path between humour and melancholy outweigh any lack of depth in the narrative and make this a highly recommended read.

Mr Muscle Oxy Stain Remover Fresh Scent
Mr Muscle Oxy Stain Remover Fresh Scent
Price: 7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Effectively removes odour..., 27 Jun 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Unfortunately, my tomcat has an annoying habit of spraying inside the house from time to time. As a result I've tried many of these sprays over the years and find most of the 'Oxy' ones very effective in removing the odour (I don't claim to understand the science), and this one is no exception. However, they all claim they will put the cat off re-spraying in the same area, and I find that doesn't happen with my cat - again so far this one is no exception to that rule either.

As far as price goes, this one is at the cheaper end of the scale of the ones I've tried and performs just as effectively. Also the Mr Muscle brand is one I know and have used happily and successfully with other products - shouldn't be influenced by branding, of course, but I might as well admit that if I'm going to use chemicals I'd rather use a brand I've at least heard of. I've only used it once so far, so will report back if I find any problems later or if, by some miracle, it actually stops my tom spraying. Meantime - recommended.

The Son
The Son
Price: 3.32

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The sins of the father..., 18 Jun 2014
This review is from: The Son (Kindle Edition)
Sonny Lofthus has been in prison for twelve years for crimes he didn't commit. However he is quite content to be there and even to confess to other crimes, so long as he is paid with a plentiful supply of the heroin to which he is addicted. When Sonny was a boy, he idolised his policeman father Ab, but his life was shattered when Ab committed suicide just as he was about to be revealed as the 'mole' who had been giving information to a shady underworld figure known as the Twin. Now Sonny sits in his cell in a drug-induced trance listening to the confessions of his fellow prisoners and dispensing forgiveness. Until one day one of the prisoners confesses that Ab was set up - he never was the mole and the apparent suicide was actually murder. Now Sonny is set on the path for revenge...

This is a standalone from the author who is best known for the much-admired Harry Hole series. Much-admired by other people, that is - personally one Harry Hole book was enough for me. Though if I ever get too happy and feel the need to be made miserable again, I may pick up another one. However, despite hating the character of Harry Hole, I admired Nesbo's writing enough to see how it would work in a different context.

Let's get rid of the negatives first. The premise of the book is ridiculous. The character of Sonny is...ridiculous! This is a man who has been addicted to heroin for at least twelve years, but then goes cold turkey and turns into some kind of superman, who can break out of impregnable prisons, tackle gangs of baddies, evade the forces of law and order and persuade a perfectly respectable woman to give up everything she has for sudden love of him. And the book is chock full of pseudo-religious symbolism as if suggesting that in some way Sonny's revenge is divinely inspired; or worse, that he in some way represents goodness or holiness. Yes, Nesbo is deliberately playing with ideas of morality and when revenge may be justified, but with such a lack of subtlety it's almost awe-inspiring. I think the heights were reached for me when we were introduced to the character named Pontius - or perhaps it was when The Son's head began to develop a strange halo-like glow. (Oh, how I wish I was joking!)

Unusually, the positives are equally strong. Apart from the unbelievable Son and the pantomime villain Twin, the rest of the characterisation is very good. Simon Kefas was a friend of Sonny's father and is now the police officer tasked with catching Sonny. However his sympathy for Sonny and loyalty to his father's memory complicate matters for him, as does his urgent need to find enough money to fund an urgent eye operation for his young wife who is going blind. Simon's partner is an ambitious young woman who is determined not to be tainted by any of the corruption she sees going on around her. And even Sonny's love interest is well drawn and believable once the reader has accepted the unlikelihood of the love-affair. The plotting is strong and well-paced although the violence is far more graphic than it needs to be, or indeed than sits well with Nesbo's attempt to blur the morality line. The writing flows well and the translation by Charlotte Barslund is excellent.

So all-in-all, if you can overlook the significant credibility weaknesses and the violence, this is a reasonably entertaining noirish thriller. Not nearly as thought-provoking or meaningful as I think it would like to be, but quite entertaining nonetheless.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Death at Wentwater Court (Daisy Dalrymple)
Death at Wentwater Court (Daisy Dalrymple)
Price: 0.84

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining cosy..., 16 Jun 2014
It's 1923, and the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, daughter of a viscount, has broken with tradition by getting a job. Hired by an up-market magazine to write articles on stately homes, her aristocratic background is useful in allowing her to mingle on an equal footing with the owners and their families. So as the book begins, Daisy is on her way to stay at Wentwater Court, home of the Earl of Wentwater.

Daisy is not the only guest and she soon finds that the house is filled with tensions and misunderstandings. The Earl's new young wife Annabel seems isolated and unhappy and is being pursued by another guest, the obviously wicked Lord Stephen Astwick. The Earls' three grown-up children from his previous marriage are also visiting - James, showing every sign of resenting his new stepmother and hinting that she is returning Lord Stephen's affections; Marjorie, who fancies herself in love with Lord Stephen and is wildly jealous of Annabel; and Geoffrey, his outwardly quiet manner hiding the fact that he has fallen in love with the wrong woman. Add in an old admirer of Daisy's, and the house party is hardly set to be a great success. But when Lord Stephen falls to his death through the ice on the frozen lake at first everyone assumes it's an accident...until Daisy's photographs reveal that a human hand may have been at work...

This is a highly entertaining mystery with all the hallmarks of a 'cosy' - the deeply unlikeable victim who 'deserves' all he gets, a rural location with a limited cast of suspects, an amateur detective. All it needs is a nice romance - enter the delicious Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of the CID! Will he be the man who can help Daisy to get over the loss of her fiancé in the war? Within hours, Alec and Daisy have developed a mutual trust and understanding that sees them begin to work together as a team to solve the mystery of Lord Stephen's death.

OK, the plot is a bit silly really, with the various misunderstandings being not unlike a Wodehouse plot on a particularly busy day. One quick conversation between Annabel and the Earl could have resolved everything long before murder was ever required, and the ending requires the reader not just to suspend disbelief but to strangle it. But then the book is very convincingly emulating the style of the Golden age, and the same could be said of many of them. Both Daisy and Alec are attractive characters and their budding romance looks like it will be an enjoyable one. The book is well written, with plenty of humour but with enough weight to the plot to make it interesting as well as enjoyable. Altogether this is a fun read and I look forward to reading some of the others in the series.

The Dead of Winter (John Madden Mystery 3)
The Dead of Winter (John Madden Mystery 3)
Price: 3.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Convincing war-time setting..., 14 Jun 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A young Polish woman is garrotted on a blackout-dark London street. Around her are some burnt matches as if someone had been looking for something. But nothing has been stolen and it appears that the woman was not assaulted prior to her death. When the police manage to identify her, it turns out she was a land girl working for ex-police inspector John Madden, who is still a close friend of the investigating officer Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair. So it seems only natural that Madden should become involved in the investigation. However, it soon becomes apparent that Rosa's death is just one of many and that the police are hunting a deadly assassin who has pursued his trade in many countries across Europe. But why did he target Rosa? And how will the police track him down?

Set in 1944, we have leapt forward in time some twenty years from the first book in the Madden series, River of Darkness. This one works fine as a standalone for anyone who hasn't read the previous books. Madden and his wife Helen are still idyllically happy together and both their children are now young adults serving in the war effort. Much of the investigation takes place in London and Airth gives a really convincing picture of the city at the tail end of the war, with everyone waiting wearily for the fighting to be over. The Blitz is long past, but occasional V-2s are still falling, so the blackout is still in place and the exhausted Civil Defence wardens are still patrolling the nighttime streets. Some families are still divided, with wives and children living away from the city for safety. But we also see how people are living in rural areas, as the investigation moves closer towards Madden's home territory. While the war meanders on, farms and villages are surviving with the help of land girls and volunteers from amongst the women, and Airth shows how a kind of barter-system has sprung up to help the communities deal with the shortage of food.

The plot is fairly complex, though not much to my personal taste, to be honest - the international assassin story is not one that interests me much. However there is a more personal element to it too, and a mystery - mainly around why Rosa became a victim. The characterisation of Madden and the various police officers is strong and convincing, in a pleasantly old-fashioned way, much as if the book had been written around the time it was set. Hence, plenty of heroic stiff-upper-lipping and very little angst-ridden emoting - all good, as far as this reader is concerned. And although the ending is thriller-esque, it stays within the overall tone of realism of the book.

However, there is one major weakness that prevents the book from being as good as it might have been, and that is Airth's strange decision to tell the reader about the investigation at second-hand, through a series of conversations between the various police officers. Thus, we don't get to hear directly from many of the witnesses - we just get a report of what they said. It's an odd device, and means that the book becomes almost monotone. In a less skilled and careful author, I might even say it smacked of laziness. Nevertheless, the quality of the descriptions of England at the end of the war together with some excellent characterisation still mean that the book is well worth reading, despite this peculiar story-telling method. Recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 26, 2014 11:45 AM BST

The Fever
The Fever
by Megan Abbott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hormone-soaked tale of teenage obsession..., 11 Jun 2014
This review is from: The Fever (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It all starts when Lise has a dramatic and terrifying seizure during class and ends up unconscious and possibly comatose in hospital. As if this wasn't frightening enough, over the next few days other girls are exhibiting similar symptoms, and soon an atmosphere of panic is running through the town. No-one knows what has caused this outbreak. Could it be the vaccination the girls recently had? Or is it something to do with the poisoned lake at the edge of the town? No-one knows - but Deenie sees that whatever it is seems to be affecting all the girls closest to her, and she's not the only one who begins to wonder if somehow she's at the centre of it all...

Megan Abbott's new thriller takes us again into the world of the older adolescent girl that she used to such great effect in her last novel, Dare Me. Although the plot is entirely different, there are many similarities in terms of her portrayal of this hormone-soaked, angsty world of the teenager, where friendships, jealousies and rivalries mix and overlap with an emotional intensity unique to that age-group.

Deenie and her friends have reached the age where boys and sex are the subjects of their daily obsession. But the girls are also still just young enough to be passionate about their relationships with each other - jealous of each other and jostling for position to keep their place as part of the in-crowd. In Deenie's crowd, Gabby is the queen, the one everyone wants to be friends with, and until recently Deenie was sure that she was Gabby's closest confidante. But now witchy Skye seems to have taken her place, and Gabby and Skye seem to have secrets they don't share with the others. And Lise, always something of an ugly duckling, has suddenly blossomed into a beautiful swan, and her sudden and reciprocated popularity with the boys has brought new layers of tensions and jealousies into the crowd. These tangled relationships and emotions form the backdrop to the story.

The book is written in the third-person past tense, mainly from Deenie's perspective. But we also get to see through the eyes of her father Tom, a teacher at the school, and her older brother Eli, himself still a student at the school. I found both Deenie and Tom very convincing, but Eli a little less so. I thought Abbott showed well the dichotomy of the older brother who is at the age of viewing all girls through the prism of his raging hormones while feeling outraged when other boys look in the same way at his sister. But I felt that she made Eli seem a bit too involved with his sister and her friends at the expense of his own male friendships, and this didn't ring true to the age-group for me. I also felt that the girls in this story were not quite as three-dimensional as Abbott has achieved in earlier books - the boy/sex obsession seemed to be not just central but total - the girls seemed to have no other interests in their lives. It works in terms of the plotting but made the girls less real to me than, say, Beth from Dare Me. I also thought that Abbott's originality of language felt a bit more stylised in this one - occasionally I found myself wishing for a noun to be left unadorned by an innovative adjective.

The problem with writing two really great books one after the other is that expectations are so high for the next. For me, The Fever is not quite as good as the earlier books, but that still leaves it head and shoulders above most of what's out there. Without ever crossing the line into the supernatural, Abbott introduces an element of witchiness into the novel that, combined with the growing hysteria and finger-pointing, is reminiscent of The Crucible. As more and more girls are affected, Abbott achieves true tension and a growing atmosphere of dread. So, despite some small weaknesses, I would still highly recommend this to existing Abbott fans or newcomers alike. 4 stars for me, so rounding up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

Case Logic DSS103 Luminosity Sling for CSC/DSLR
Case Logic DSS103 Luminosity Sling for CSC/DSLR
Price: 66.67

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of room for emergency chocolate supplies..., 11 Jun 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I don't have a DSLR camera, but I do have a big set of binoculars with a case so tightly-fitted they're a pain to get in and out, and so the binoculars are rarely used. So being offered this case through Amazon Vine, I thought I'd see if it could take the binoculars along with my small camera. And the answer is yes. The main compartment has dividers that can be moved to accommodate different sizes of equipment, meaning that this case is suitable for a range of equipment beyond camera lenses.

The case is well made with all zips working smoothly and well. There are lots of well-padded pockets of different sizes, so that all kinds of things can be stuffed in, while being kept separate and safe. It happily accommodates my camera, binoculars, Kindle, shades, reading glasses (but don't tell anyone I need those), iPod, headphones, purse, emergency chocolate supplies, ordinary chocolate supplies etc etc. And there are still plenty of pockets and spaces for other stuff.

There are various handles and strap configurations so that you can choose your preferred way to carry it, and of course the straps are adjustable for length. I find it quite comfortable to wear as a backpack. Empty, it's very light so doesn't add much to the weight of the equipment you want to carry. It has a Velcro pocket at the bottom containing a waterproof cover, should you wish to cart your valuable equipment about in the rain. (Personally I'm more likely to make for the nearest coffee shop, but I accept that might not work if you're hiking the Himalayas.) Oh, and it looks good too. Recommended to the casual user and more serious photographer alike.

Roy Jenkins
Roy Jenkins
Price: 11.69

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An affectionate portrait..., 11 Jun 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Roy Jenkins (Kindle Edition)
Roy Jenkins was one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. The son of a miner, he was however far from working-class. His father had risen to become a successful Member of Parliament and made sure his son was given an advantageous education culminating in an Oxford degree. His socialism therefore was always of an intellectual kind rather than being rooted in the unions as his father's had been. And like many socialists, especially of that era, he gradually moved from the left towards the centre. A prominent Cabinet minister in the '60s and '70s, Jenkins held at different times two of the great offices of state, as Home Secretary and Chancellor, and was accounted to be successful in both positions. In the first role he is credited with pushing through the socially liberal legislation that some later claimed led to the 'permissive society', while as Chancellor he was seen as having transformed the balance of trade and fiscal position of the UK, which were still suffering from the aftermath of WW2. Consistently pro-Europe, he was one of the strongest proponents for Britain's entry to the Common Market.

Had the tensions between left and right within the Labour Party not become so toxic during the 1970s, there is very little doubt that Jenkins would have become party leader and quite probably Prime Minister. Instead, he decided to leave parliament to take up the post of President of the European Commission. But on his return, when the Labour Party was showing every sign of lurching even further to the Left, Jenkins ended up leading the breakaway group that was briefly known as the Social Democratic Party, before merging with the Liberal Party to become the Lib-Dems we all know and love today. Jenkins returned to Parliament for a while as MP for Glasgow Hillhead, but it was soon clear that the SDP was not going to fulfil the hopes of its followers by replacing the Labour Party as one of the two major parties in Britain, and Jenkins was defeated at the next election.

Alongside this lengthy political career, Jenkins had a second career, perhaps equally successful and certainly more lucrative, as a journalist and political biographer of, amongst others, Asquith and Churchill. Add in a complicated personal life, and a huge network of friendships with many of the most influential people of his time, and it's clear that any biographer of Jenkins himself has his work cut out for him.

John Campbell is the author of many political biographies and won the 1994 NCR Award for his biography of Edward Heath. He admits in the introduction to this book that he admired Jenkins a good deal, and hopes that he has not allowed this to stop him being critical when required. I, on the other hand, always found Jenkins to be a pompous, arrogant buffoon who was serially disloyal to the parties to which he belonged. So the question for me was whether Campbell would be able to persuade me that I, in my youthful ignorance, had misjudged the man.

The biography is hugely long and detailed, but written with a clarity and flow that make it a pleasurable read. I kept feeling that surely something could have been cut to make the size more manageable, but concluded eventually that it was the fullness and complexity of Jenkins' life that led to the length, rather than any failing on the part of the author. There is a fairly heavy emphasis on Jenkins' personal life in the early part of the book - specifically his relationships with Tony Crosland, then his wife and his multiple mistresses. But happily, once Campbell had made his point about the unconventionality of Jenkins' lifestyle (or perhaps one should say conventionality, since it bears comparison with that of politicians of earlier days), he allows the subject to fade into the background and concentrates much more on the political side of his life.

I did feel that Campbell's partiality for Jenkins showed through too clearly in some places, letting him off the hook on occasion, and giving him a little more praise than necessary. In general, though, I prefer affectionate biographies to hatchet jobs, so overall Campbell's approach worked well for me. I was somewhat less keen on the way he portrayed some of the politicians on the left of the Labour Party - it wasn't so much that I disagreed with his depiction of them as that I felt he adopted an almost sneering tone at times that led his account to feel as if it were being somewhat biased by his own personal political stance.

Overall, though, I found this a well written and hugely informative biography. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins' life in the context of the times at all stages and as such this is also a revealing look at the wider political history of the second half of the twentieth century. Jenkins lived a well-rounded life indeed, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature, but Campbell convinced this reader at least that the charge of laziness that was sometimes made against him was unfair. While I still stand by pompous and arrogant, Campbell has persuaded me that I must retract the word 'buffoon' - no-one who achieved so much in so many fields deserves that title. And while he was disloyal to his parties, it seems he remained loyal to his core beliefs, which in the end may be more honourable - so I acquit him of that charge. Jenkins' life was a full and interesting one, and this biography does its subject justice - highly recommended.

Summer House with Swimming Pool
Summer House with Swimming Pool
by Herman Koch
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Body and soul..., 10 Jun 2014
Marc Schlosser is a General Practitioner in Holland. As time has passed, his practice has gradually become a place frequented by artists and actors, often suffering from either hypochondria or illnesses brought on by their lifestyles. Marc has a reputation for being willing to help out with the occasional prescription for drugs that might not be strictly medically necessary. His patients think he's wonderful and caring (or so he tells us) mainly because he allows twenty minutes for an appointment and appears to want to listen to what they want to say. But the reader has the dubious privilege of seeing inside Marc's head, and we soon learn that he's rather different to the image he projects as he tells us about his disgust for the human body and contempt for his patients.

As the book begins we learn that Marc is being investigated for malpractice by the Board of Medical Examiners over the death of one of his patients, successful actor Ralph Maier. As he waits to learn the outcome, Marc tells the story of how Ralph became his patient and of how their families gradually became acquainted, culminating with Marc taking his wife and two young daughters to stay with Ralph's family in his summer house, complete with swimming pool. Sexual attraction turns the house-party into a tangled web of hidden and not-so-hidden emotions, gradually darkening as we move towards the shocking incident that's at the heart of the story.

This is a wonderful book. The writing is brilliant and the translation by Sam Garrett is so good that I had to check that it actually was a translation - it reads as smoothly as if it were originally written in English. Most of the characters are fairly repellent, with both Marc and Ralph coming close to being grotesques, and yet Koch keeps the reader totally involved, desperate to know what happened and why. The book deals with some pretty dark subject matter relating to how society views women and in particular young girls and Koch doesn't shy away from making the reader uncomfortable to the point of squirming. But it's richly laced with some really wicked humour that made me laugh out loud at many points, while wishing somehow that I wasn't finding it funny!

Marc's views range from the conventional to the outrageous and part of the discomfort for the reader is that awful feeling of recognition - of suddenly hearing Marc say that thing we wish we had never thought and would never dare to say in our politically correct world. We'd like to disassociate ourselves entirely from him, but Koch won't let us. For Marc is no simple monster - he has a wife and daughters who love him and he functions well in society - he's just close enough to normal to make him truly disturbing as he reminds us that we never really know what is going on behind the surface in anyone. And yet, as the story unfolds, it's almost impossible not to find oneself empathising with him, which is the most disturbing thing of all.

Dark, funny and thought-provoking, in the end this is as much about the diseases of the soul as of the body, the two somehow tangled together in Marc's mind. The pacing is perfect, the writing and translation are superb, and Marc is an unforgettable character. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion - highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.

OxCrimes: Introduced by Ian Rankin (Ox Tales)
OxCrimes: Introduced by Ian Rankin (Ox Tales)
Price: 2.05

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A high quality collection..., 4 Jun 2014
You only have to look at the cover of this book to see some of the huge names who have contributed stories to this anthology in aid of Oxfam. In total, there are twenty-seven stories, most of them original, and the overall quality is exceptionally high. There are a few that are really quite short, but most of them are pretty substantial and a few of them star the detective for whom the author is famous. As well as straightforward crime/detection, there are examples of both horror and sci-fi with a crime element, and black humour puts in more than one appearance.

In any anthology some stories are going to be stronger, or more to the reader's taste, than others. There were only a couple of stories that I really didn't enjoy, for my usual reasons - excessive and gratuitous language/violence etc - but the majority rated at 4 or 5 stars for me. So many of them were good that it's hard to single any out, but some of the standouts for me were...

Yrsa Sigurdardottir's Black Sky - We know Sigurdardottir can write crime and horror, but in this chilling story she shows that she can also write proper science-based sci-fi. A disturbingly possible scenario built on the idea that humanity has found a way to mine the moon for precious minerals. But what happens when a cry for help is heard coming from an abandoned base...?

Stuart Neville's Juror 8 spins the story of Twelve Angry Men, showing not just what happens after the trial but also putting a different twist on the events inside the juryroom. Dark and imaginative, and told from the perspective of Emmet McArdle, the old man who was the first to give support to Juror 8.

Anne Zouroudi's The Honey Trap tells the story of a long-ago child disappearance and how the truth is brought to light. Zouroudi builds great atmosphere in this story and her descriptive writing brings the Greek setting to life.

I could pick any of a dozen more, from a decent Sherlock Holmes pastiche by Neil Gaiman to a blackly funny and yet quite moving story from Mark Billingham in which Santa is murdered. Peter James gives us truly spooky horror in a tale of hags, curses and haunted figurines, while Anthony Horowitz makes us laugh and shudder in a deliciously horrible and blackly humorous story of cosmic justice. We have black widows, overly competitive squash players, migrated souls, stolen paintings...

To be honest, you'd need to be pretty much impossible to please if you didn't enjoy at least some of these stories. Imaginative stories and great writing from top authors - the fact that it's for a good cause is just an added bonus. Highly recommended.

Edit: I've noticed one of the other reviews complains about the Kindle formatting. I read this on my Kindle Fire and the formatting was fine - the indexing worked perfectly and there certainly weren't a lot of typos etc. I'm not sure what problems the other reviewer encountered, but I found none.

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