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The Lacuna
The Lacuna
by Barbara Kingsolver
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.46

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Lacuna needs more lacuna, 10 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Lacuna (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The word lacuna means either an unfilled space or gap; or a missing portion of a manuscript or book. In the case of this book it refers to both.

Harrison Shepherd is born in the USA to an American father and a Mexican mother. His flighty, needy mother takes him and moves back to Mexico when he is young, keeping him with her but at the expense of his education. The young Shepherd is a bright lad and enjoys reading and writing and usually manages to entertain himself. This sometimes leads him to try and swim into the cave near where he spends time in Mexico (the first instance of the lacuna). This novel is basically a collection of notes, letters, cuttings and diary entries by Shepherd during his life. Throughout his life he spends time in both the US and Mexico. He meets some real life characters such as Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky. The collection of Shepherd's writings is assembled by his stenographer Violet Brown. She writes very little herself, we only understand her through Shepherd's diary. She was a unique character and I liked her more than Shepherd himself, who at times I found rather dull. Of course there is also a gap in Shepherd's writings, which is the second instance of a lacuna.

As I expected, I really enjoyed Kingsolver's writing style, her prose is engaging and well-written. It is not dumbed down through the format, nor is it too highbrow or wordy that you can't keep on top of the plot. However I do think the book could be précised somewhat. Whilst we don't get all of Shepherd's diary entries and writings, I do think there is still a lot that could be left out. Generally I like a book that is made up of diary entries and letters, as it can be used as a tool to introduce characters quickly and effectively, as well as to help keep a story flowing, but this time I felt it slowed it down. Sometimes felt like not a lot was actually happening and the book wasn't really driving forward and I struggled to continue to read the book, sometimes taking a break and reading another book instead. Ultimately I rushed it at the end, just because I wanted to get it over with.

There are real life events that occurred during Shepherd's life that I didn't know much about such as the anti-Communist McCarthy era as well as Trotsky and his relationship with Rivera. I did enjoy these aspects of the story, but feel again that they could have been condensed a bit more. Of course, no one's life is so exciting and dynamic that there are not any down periods, and I think Kingsolver probably needed to make some events occur just to link the locations and points in history into the one story. The fact it that they weren't always that interesting. At 688 pages this book is no light read, and the diary/letter structure did it no favours in this instance.

In summary, I am torn as to whether to recommend this book. It has some interesting aspects to its story and it is technically well-written, but overall it is over-long, too padded and at times slow-going that I feel only die-hard Kingsolver fans or those with too much time on their hands may appreciate this.


The Book of Human Skin
The Book of Human Skin
by Michelle Lovric
Edition: Paperback

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Humanity?, 2 Jun 2011
This review is from: The Book of Human Skin (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I picked this book as the blurb said it featured Venice, Italy and Arequipa, Peru. I have visited both these cities in the last few years, and found them both lovely so was keen to see how they would be linked in a book. Although I must admit to finding the title slightly off-putting, and I was concerned if I would really like it.

The book is character led and is narrated by five different characters, each with their own voice, and, in my particular oversized paperback copy with slightly different text. Each new 'speaker' has their name as a header, and the sections are mostly short - very few extend over more than 3 pages. There is no danger of muddling up the characters, they are very distinctive.

Starting in the last eighteenth century in Venice and Peru, the story quickly fast tracks to the early nineteenth century where most of the events take place. Minguillo Fasan is the eldest son of the Comte Fasan, who resides in the Palazzo Espagnol in Venice. Minguillo is manipulative, spiteful, power-hungry and a bully. These are his better qualities, and he would probably thank you for the compliment if you were to call him these things. His main hobbies include collecting books bound in human skin (hence the title) and getting rid of his sisters. Minguillo speaks eloquently and comes across as well-read and intelligent, even if he is slightly presumptive as to assume he has the reader onside. Marcella Fasan, his younger sister, she has been bullied by him from an early age, her parents unable, or unwilling, to protect her. She accepted this as someone who knew no different and seemed to have an inner strength that got her through. She is artistic and kind, and her 'voice' in the pages shows this, although is some respects I thought she was a little bit too good to be true and was probably the weakest character. Alongide we have the Fasan valet, Gianni delle Boccole who is semi-literate and thus his writing is strewn with spelling and grammatical errors, which could annoy some readers, for example words are often spelt phonetically. I certainly struggled with his prose at times, it is a style I had to get used to. The other characters are an impoverised Doctor Santo Aldobrandini and Sor Loreta, a Peruvian nun who claims to have an invisible stigmata, and is convinced she is destined for sainthood. She was, at different times, my favourite and my least favourite character. Her borderline insanity made her intriguing and unpredictable, but at the same time her fanaticism made me uncomfortable.

I have to say that the book took me a while to get into. It took some time for Santo and Sor Loreta's strands to merge with that of the residents of Palazzo Espagnol and I couldn't see where the book was going. I was starting to wonder if the book was going to be a meandering tale rather than one with an actual plot. Once the book got into its stride I enjoyed it more and started to look forward to reading it again and seeing what will happen to each of the characters. Lovric's characterisation is top notch, she makes them come to life, and gives them depth, even Marcella who I thought to be slightly weaker than the rest. Saying that, the terminal victim that is Marcella was weakened anyway, so this may have been intentional. All five are easily distinguishable and unique from each other and in this respect I was very impressed. The book seemed well researched in its descriptions of both the locations and the historical periods. Overall I would recommend this book if you think the story and/or characters appeal, but I am loathe to enthuse too much, as there are some weak points that could impact the enjoyment for some readers, such as Gianni's sections and the fact that the book took a while to get going.


Frommer's Britain for Free (Frommer's Free & Dirt Cheap)
Frommer's Britain for Free (Frommer's Free & Dirt Cheap)
by Ben Hatch
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What can you do for free these days?, 15 May 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I selected this book from Amazon because, well, who doesn't love a free day out and I had high hopes for discovering some unusual places to visit.

My first port of call was to check what was in my local area. Essex came under 'South East' in the book, a section of thirty pages covering places between Brighton, Berkshire and the Norfolk Coast. I didn't spot anything free in Essex, which was disappointing. Apart from a UK map inside the front cover, there are no other maps in this book, so it is not easy to find what places are close to where you live or are visiting. The inside cover map is generic and doesn't specifically cover any places in the book. At first it seems the order of entries is random, but then I noticed it was alphabetical by county. However, as the street/town address is given first, this doesn't jump out at you immediately, that and the fact that Staffordshire things to do seem to be in between Shropshire things to do. Each entry has a snazzy but quite long heading, which presumably is supposed to lure you in but personally, I find when flicking through this book, the headers are too long - I would prefer a simple heading that jumps out at me, and keep the length for a sub-heading, this would help me also when trying to re-find something I had spotted earlier. This no doubt contributes to the fact I find the book difficult to browse.

Included places are things like free museums and galleries, 'Window Shop at Harrods', free comedy nights, gardens and parks, natural coastal scenery, Punch & Judy to name a few. I was surprised and tempted by a few things. The sub-heading of the book is 'Great Days Out' which is a bit mis-leading, as some places may only take an hour out of your day. Some suggestions are date specific, in that they only occur on one day/week per year or seasonal and are therfore irrelevant if you are visiting at other times. The writers also include a lot of personal experience, such as what their kids enjoyed, or how some paths were difficult with a buggy. I personally don't like this in a guide book, I would prefer it to be a bit more informative from a factual perspective (i.e. what is actually there), but I can see that this type of writing may appeal to some readers. I feel that sometimes they go a bit 'off-topic' and you don't really get what the place is about. I was disappointed in the reliance of national museums which are often free, and I think if you live in a certain area you would know of these places anyway, so you are unlikely to find too many great revelations in your locale, but if you are visiting another part of the country then you may find something a bit different to visit.

Overall I recommend this book, but I have removed two stars as the format and layout of this book is frustrating to me, and some of the content is a bit vague, especially coming from a reputable guide book publisher like Frommers.


Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011 (Lonely Planet General Reference)
Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011 (Lonely Planet General Reference)
by Lonely Planet
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Good for dipping in and out of, 10 May 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Like last year, this book is the more compact version and has 206 pages, although I preferred the bigger, more informative format they used a few years ago. I am not sure what it is about the selections that are 2011 specific, but there is certainly an eclectic mix between the pages. There are four sections:

Top Ten Countries, Regions and Cities are the first three. Usually a truly global selection, all continents are represented. Each four page entry includes a few colour photos (varied - wildlife, scenic views, locals), some basic statistics (population, capital city, currency etc) followed by a round up of highlights, both typical and typically quirky. These highlights include festivals, must-have experiences, random facts and bizarre sights. These are tasters rather than an in-depth analysis. Some snippets of info are just a line, some are a good 6-7 line paragraph. Whilst the information may be light, they do manage to inspire and inform with what they do include.

The fourth section is Top Travel Lists and includes seventeen seemingly random lists for the perusal of the armchair traveller. All cover four pages each, with a few colour photos and good paragraph worth of text, along with specific recommendations. Only the Top Three spots are numbered, the last seven are not ranked. Having done some of the experiences I can concur with these specific recommendation in those instances, and it leads me to believe that the others are just as reliable.

While sometimes the lack of depth frustrates me, I do enjoy picking this book up and flicking through it at random. I don't think it is a book to read cover-to-cover for me, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done like that. The suggestions are often thought provoking,and can make places and experiences that you previously thought were not for you seem appealing. I therefore recommend this book.


Crabtree and Evelyn Iris Bath and Shower Gel 250 ml
Crabtree and Evelyn Iris Bath and Shower Gel 250 ml
Offered by PerfumesUK
Price: £12.16

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Subtle scent, 9 May 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The bath and shower gel comes packaged in a good quality cream cardboard box with an Iris watercolour type design on the front. There is a lengthy ingredient list on the box, much of which I am unfamiliar with. It all states that the product is for adult use only. I don't know what would happen if a child used it, I have not seen that statement before....

Out of the box, the gel is in an opaque plastic bottle, with the same iris design as the box. The cap is a 'pop-up' one, with a small gap and I couldn't really get any scent from it other than a vaguely floral soapy scent. According to the packaging the fragrance comes from the root of the iris flower and is "blended with sandalwood, sensuous patchouli and a hint of fresh vetiver". To be honest I don't think I would have identified any of these scents unless I knew they were supposed to be there.

The first time I used this it was in the bath. popped up the cap and squeezed a blob out into running water. Nothing much really came out, as the slot is quite tiny, so I repeated it two more times, and barely made a dent in the bottle contents. There were some bubbles but not a huge amount (to be fair, it doesn't bill itself as a bubble bath), they were pleasant while they lasted, but disappeared about 10-15 minutes in. No residue was left in my tub. After drying off I was pleased how soft my skin felt, I deliberately didn't moisturise straight afterwards just to see, and apart from my heels (which are a dry skin law unto themselves), my skin didn't feel dry either.

I mostly use this as a shower gel though, you can only get a small amount through the tiny gap in the lid, but I find this is usually all I need. My skin usually feels reasonably soft afterwards and isn't dry or irritated, although I still prefer to use a moisturiser. The fragrance is mild, and doesn't linger on my skin, which is disappointing for such a luxury brand and I expected something more defined for the price. I would be happy to receive this as a gift, as I think the product is long lasting.


The Good Food Guide 2011
The Good Food Guide 2011
by Elizabeth Carter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.38

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Grub, 27 Mar 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The well established and reputable guide has been going 60 years now. Since the beginning reader feedback and recommendations have been invaluable, inspections anonymous and the Guide remains independent. This addition contains 10 £5 vouchers able to be used in some participating (and included) restaurants.

To be honest, I always assumed that the included restaurants would be top end, but there are a number of mid-priced and pub based restaurants included. Many entries are marked with a symbol made up of £30 and a downward arrow to indicate that it is possible to have three courses (not including wine) for under £30 per head. Ratings (out of 10) may seem quite harsh at first, but the achievement is to be included in the first place. Some places are just 'Recommended' and don't garner an offical score. I have tried some of these, and wouldn't let this or a low score put me off.

My other half and I have used this Guide quite often when looking for places to eat, especially in other parts of the country but sometimes discover and try other places on-spec when we are out and about, although not all of these are included. While I have not been surprised by any of the inclusions I have tried, I have often found I have had fabulous meals in places that didn't make it in the book. Whilst the inspectors may have stringent guidelines, the ratings must have a certain about of subjectivity to them. For example, one of the top rated restaurants I visited was the Carlton Riverside in Llanwrtyd Wells which was awarded a six. However it was not the best restaurant I have tried within this book (the jury is still out as to who will get this award, but the current favourite only received a 3), and both my boyfriend and I are in agreement. It has given us lots of inspiration of places to try, but the budget isn't always willing!

The write ups generally are concise but vary in length. Usually there are brief descriptions given of the décor and service where notable (or otherwise), as well as a summation of the menu and interesting dishes of note, described well by people who have eaten them. The writing is accessible in that it is down to earth and not stuck up, it doesn't assume that we are all gastronomic experts, or look down on pubs and local ethnic restaurants. In additon guide lines as to a numbe of veggie options, prices and type of menu are also indicated. The Guide is completely rewritten every year, so restaurants on the wane may be dropped, and new ones are included.

Overall I would recommend this to people who enjoy eating out, especially if you take short breaks or travel around the UK occasionally.


The Draining Lake (Reykjavik Murder Mysteries 4)
The Draining Lake (Reykjavik Murder Mysteries 4)
by Arnaldur Indridason
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars It's a Mystery, 4 Nov 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Initially I struggled with this book - I didn't engage with the lead character, Detective Erlendur, or his colleagues as there is no real character introduction. There appeared to be events that happened prior to the beginning of this book that was briefly referred to, but not always clarified. This is because the book is 4th in a successful series, but as it was my first time reading it, I felt I was missing something in parts. As the book progressed, most of my questions about Erlendur's life and past history were cleared up, albeit briefly. They were mainly answered by piecing things together myself through snippets mentioned in the text however, rather than a brief paragraph early on, which I would have preferred.

My gripes with the character of Erlendur and his life aside, these books are popular for a reason. Author Arnaldur Indridason has seemingly well researched his topic. A skeleton, weighed down by an old Cold War listening device, has been uncovered in a lake as the water level has been slowly receding. Erlendur and his colleagues set about solving the mystery of the unknown person who had been laying in the lake for decades by researching people who had gone missing about the same time. At the same time there is a completely different strand featuring young, Icelandic, socialist students at university in Leipzig, East Germany during the 1950s. It is not hard for the reader to establish a connection between the two - if there are only two major plots within a crime novel, it is unlikely that one of them is red herring. Unfortunately the detectives do not have the benefit of reading the other strand and take a bit longer to catch up! I found both strands interesting - I particularly enjoyed learning about life in East Germany for the students, who found their political ideals being challenged by the reality of life behind the iron curtain. At the same time, I got used to Erlendur, and was intrigued by some of the sub-plots that were revealed through his present day investigations. I think Indridason did a good job in his descriptions of both environments; the story was convincing, it didn't get far-fetched and plot twists were subtle and generally believable.

Overall, in spite of my reservations initially, I did enjoy the book. As a traditional style murder mystery, this ticked the boxes for me, as the mystery is credible and engaging, with a satisfactory conclusion. It is well-written and the English translation uses British words and colloquialisms. I would recommend this book overall, but with the caveat that I think it is best to read the books in order.


Twitchhiker: How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter
Twitchhiker: How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter
by Paul Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Travel Tweet, 15 Oct 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Twitchhiker is a travel book with a contemporary spin. Paul Smith, a freelance journalist, with a specialism in procrastination. He was also a big fan of the social networking site Twitter. One day Paul had an idea whilst shopping in Tesco, but unlike most of us who have ideas and dreams, he followed through. His idea was to travel the world through the goodwill of fellow Twitter users. He worked out that Campbell Island off of New Zealand was the geographically opposite land mass to his home in Gateshead. He decided to leave in a month and sat down to work out some rules (and to work out how to tell his wife of four days that he was about to go off to see how far round the world he could get in 30 days and leave her with their two sons). The rules were fairly simple but still gave him a challenge.

From here on in you get a detailed, personal account of the highs and lows of Paul's epic 30 day indirect journey as he tries to get to New Zealand. On this journey Paul addresses his own flaws and problems frankly and honestly. He is always polite but honest about his hosts and those that assist him in other ways (some of which are quite eccentric), and I was quite impressed with the variety of people prepared to go out of their way to assist a complete stranger off the internet, sometimes offering their sofas, a ride in their cars and even using their personal funds to become part of a small, internet phenomenon. Overall I think there is a 'feel-good' undercurrent to Paul's story, however circuitous the journey (both in the physical and emotional sense). He took some flack for his actions from across the world (and he mentions it here), but he does not dwell on the negatives or the arguments of his detractors. In spite of the low points he has whilst he is away, he manages to accentuate the positives for the most part and embraces the opportunity and challenge that he has set himself. Paul's writing style comes across as a friendly narrative, it is not pompous or arrogant, but humble and humorous. Each day is a chapter and each chapter has varying sized passages of text covering his on-line and human interaction and all-round feelings and thoughts. For someone like myself, who rarely has the opportunity to read for an extended period, it is great to have these natural breaks, and I think this also makes the book good for shorter journeys where you may get interrupted. If you are looking for a travel book full of evocative passages and romantic descriptions of places then this isn't the one for you. Paul rarely gets much sightseeing done, sometimes seeing only hotels, railway stations or planes, but if you are looking for a light, funny read with a difference than I don't hesitate to recommend it. In my opinion, Paul didn't come across as greedy or ungrateful for this opportunity, as some critics may claim. He raised money for charity and went to hell and back (not literally - hell is one place he didn't go to!) in order to see his brainchild through as far as he could, which is quite inspirational. I don't think you need to be a Twitter user to appreciate what he did.


Black Mamba Boy
Black Mamba Boy
by Nadifa Mohamed
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars About a Boy, 23 July 2010
This review is from: Black Mamba Boy (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Jama is a young boy growing up in East Africa in the 1930s. His father left when he was a baby to earn more money elsewhere, so Jama lives with his mother in Aden, Yemen. He feels an outcast and is often in trouble. His mother works hard and Jama spends his days getting into mischief. Afer his mother's death he goes to live with family in his homeland of Somalia and runs away to find his father, travelling all across the region, even though he is just a child for much of it. Overall, you are reading about approximately twelve years of someone's life.

Jama is an engaging character who you easily warm to; he is cheeky, mischievous but full of street smarts, but at the same time naive, intent on following his dreams, and undaunted by the distance he needs to travel to find his father. For our part, we share Jama's journey into manhood both literally and metaphorically as he experiences World War II, working for the Italians and then the British, risking his neck for a war that has nothing to do with his world. Of the supporting characters, only Jama's friend Shidane stands out, the only boy more street smart and cheekier than Jama. Don't think of these boys as good people, they are trying to survive, and they will steal and lie to get what they need which can be a bit uncomfortable for us more privaleged readers.

As interesting and engaging as this story was I do have a few niggles. I did find the book hard to relate to at times, the terrible poverty and hunger is something I have been fortunate enough to not experience, but some of the feats that Jama performs during his journey, such as walking for days in the African heat with little water or food, seem beyond human endurance and a bit far fetched. The coincidences also seemed too much for me, characters we meet reappear at other points in the book in a different country, whilst the ex-pat Somali community maybe close-knit, I thought some of these coincidences a bit too much of a long shot. However, the real kicker for me was the ending. The book virtually just stopped, with very little conclusion and several loose ends. It wasn't so much that I felt I wanted it to continue, more so that I felt a bit cheated that Jama's story hadn't been rounded off a bit neater.

This is Nadifa Mohamed's first novel; she was born in Somalia but did much of her growing up in the UK. The book is inspired by her father and his friends, who did the long journeys across parts of Africa during the war years, and had first hand experience of the Italian fascists. I enjoyed her writing style, once I had got used to Jama as a character I got into the book and overall really enjoyed it. She can be concisely descriptive, which is how I like it - enough so that you can visualise the scenery and atmosphere, but not so that you get frustrated that the story is being neglected. I would be interested to read any of her future work.

I would recommend this book to readers interested in the region, and the impact of World War II. As I have mentioned, it is a `journey' book, so those who like neat conclusions or fast paced action may not find it is what they are looking for.


The Confession of Katherine Howard
The Confession of Katherine Howard
by Suzannah Dunn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.67

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I Confess to Quite Liking This, 6 July 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Confession of Katherine Howard is set over a few days in November 1541 and also told in flashback. We hear the story from the perspective of her best friend and lady-in-waiting Cat(herine) Tilney. Katherine is Henry VIII's fifth wife, she is only 19 and is really just a young girl from the country who happened to be related to the influential Howard family (The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk's family name). However, something is amiss and the lover of Cat (who was previously Katherine's boyfriend), Francis Dereham, is being interrogated about his previous relationship with the new Queen. This leads Cat to look back at the journey she and Katherine have taken, that brought them to the Tudor Court.

Cat first met Katherine whilst being tutored at the home of the Duchess of Norfolk with a number of other girls. They were supposed to be learning about becoming ladies and how to run their own household, but these teenage girls had lots of romantic dreams. I got the impression that Cat was quite naïve, she was bright but had been sheltered and knew little about `ways of the heart' and wanted desperately to please her family and make them proud. Katherine meanwhile had no real family, and was much more confident than Cat, but quietly so. She comes across as very enigmatic, and we only learn what she is prepared to reveal to Cat. Katherine has more romances than Cat, and knew how to catch the attention of men, which Cat was clueless about. Whilst neither girl could be considered sophisticated, it is Katherine's influential family connections that get her a place at court, as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, something none of the other girls had even dreamed of. Cat is not included and knows very little about this period in Katherine's life until Katherine weds the king and she is summoned to court.

Katherine Howard isn't as well documented as Anne Boleyn in historical fiction, and I like the fact that we only really learn about her through Cat (who was also a real person in history), however because of this we never really get to know Katherine that well, and I can only guess that is the intention. The problem with this is that (admittedly this may be influenced by the fact that the outcome of the events is well-documented) you don't care about Katherine that much, you don't root for her at the end. In an about turn it seems that Katherine was the naïve one, never expecting her actions to catch up with her, and to become accountable for her risks. In the end Cat seems to be the stronger figure, and you do hope that all will be well for her, but she does come over as a bit wishy-washy in places.

The author, Susannah Dunn, is an established author who has written other Tudor based historical novels. I enjoyed her story-telling, and I liked how she brought little-known people to life, I would certainly consider reading other works of hers. The book is engaging and well-written although the language used by the characters is a little too contemporary for my liking. Ultra-modern phrases such as `she would be a laugh' and `we hung around together' just didn't sit right with me. I don't particularly want to read Tudor English either, but toning down of the modern phrases would have been preferred. It is not a big book - my (over-sized paperback) copy ran to 226 pages and I think it would be enjoyable to most readers, whether they were historical fiction fans or not.


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