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Showing 1-8 of 8 reviews(3 star). Show all reviews
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Polly Samson's Perfect Lives is a collection of loosely interlinked short stories. I like the idea of interlinked short stories and several authors have tried it but few have managed it successfully. This book is no exception and the quality of the stories is uneven. I thought the first story - `The Egg' - was very good. The perfect life of Celia Idlewild is well portrayed in all its slightly sinister perfection with the advent of the egg itself showing the underlying cracks. Unfortunately the rest of the stories are not of the same standard.

The writing is good but too self consciously literary for my taste with simile piled upon metaphor where simple straightforward words would have been more telling and more effective. One sentence which struck me as being particularly clumsy was this one from the story called `At Arka Pana': `Her grandmother's breathing was shale at the shore, her tongue a dehydrated cockle.' I did think this particular story was interesting with teenager Claudine meeting her father and grandmother for the first time in a trip to Poland.

Much of the subject matter is slight and some of the stories have inconclusive endings which veer towards the obscure. The reader is left wondering what exactly was going on between the characters. Was Laura in `Ivan Knows' really part of the circus or was it just the child Ivan's imagination? What exactly was the message that Rose needed to convey to her daughter Anna in `The Rose Before the Vine'? The last story in the book features a television remote control and a talking cat. Oddly enough I thought this to be one of the more successful stories provided the reader can suspend disbelief and accept the talking cat. Many households are dominated by the remote control and this is a slightly humorous look at the issue.

So overall I found these stories to be a mixed bag. There are some flashes of brilliance but there are also stories which are overwritten and don't quite gel. Leaving things for the reader to work out for themselves can be useful and can give subtlety to the writing but this device does not work if the reader has to read the story again to see which of the many possibilities is the right one.
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on 2 January 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Strangely unsatisfying, a bit fluffy and fussy and middle class. I prefer my short stories with some meat, some flavour and body to chew on and remember. Some of the stories are plotless and pointless. Can you even call them stories? There are some lovely descriptions and characters are believable and sparely drawn. Dialogue is strained and artificial. She uses unusual metaphors and similes some of which work and when they do they are brilliant but others sound silly or clunky and draw attention to themselves instead of to the story. A little bit of a hotch potch of creative writing class type of vignettes that fail to make a mature whole.
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on 4 April 2015
Interlocking short stories about life in an affluent seaside town, often taking women - sometimes women financially dependent on men, sometimes on unfaithful or untrustworthy men - as the central characters. One story does focus on a male piano tuner and failed concert pianist.

This story, the second in the collection, is where my problems started. Why not teach the piano rather than tune pianos, in these circumstances? Why ask so many technical questions (about the piano soundboard we are told) before turning up to see a new, clearly amateur, client? Why need to play the clients' pianos for artistic satisfaction? And can a skilled pianist, later in the book, really make the hopeless piano of this second story, sound great.

On the upside the book is very stylishly written, each story holds and reveals its surprises very effectively - and I was left curious to know more about these characters than I had been told...
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VINE VOICEon 17 January 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is the second short story collection I've read lately that was themed in some way. In Colm Toibin's "The Empty Family" the stories were linked by theme and to some extent by very similar protagonists. In this, the link is via a cast of recurring characters; not all appear in each story but they mostly live in the same town and are often related, so that your first instinct on meeting a character called Tilda in the sixth story is to scrabble back through the book muttering "who the hell was she?" until you find she was briefly mentioned as the sister of Anna, from story 2.

Arguably this makes them not so much stories as episodes from an embryonic novel and I am in fact starting to think that what I like best about a collection of Chekhov stories is the variety that belongs to the genre, never knowing if I'll next meet a drunken peasant, a troubled doctor or a pair of illicit lovers on holiday. I'm not saying it can't work to have characters recur through a collection, but I do think that if you pull this trick, the recurring characters and their setting had better be very varied and interesting. In fact the setting is a rather genteel part of a seaside town and the characters are so much from the same background and class as to get a bit samey. It was especially hard to differentiate the various teenagers of each family. There is one character, who I don't think is ever named, since she tends to be a first person narrator, who does work very well in this role. She was brought up by very altruistic, politically involved and socially conscious parents, rebelled against that background and is now habitually sneering at anything and anyone remotely idealistic - if you think that makes her dislikeable, it does, but she is also a witty and amusing voice, as such people often are, and enlivens mightily the stories she narrates, like "The Man Across The River", where she is taken to Greenham Common as a child: "It might be fun to live in a bender, take the kids", Suzanne was saying, and I thought how much more fun it would be if they all dropped dead" and "Morganna", where she is passenger to the eponymous woman, who is not in a fit emotional state to be driving: "I called for her on Tuesdays and Thursdays at two-thirty in the afternoons so we had a clear hour to mow down pedestrians".

"Morganna", though, suffers hugely from a complete change in viewpoint in the last few pages; suddenly we are seeing through Morganna's viewpoint not the narrator's, and though there is the odd perfunctory "she said" to establish her having told the events to the main narrator, it doesn't really come off. And here we come to my main gripe with the book. It is consistent where I don't really want it to be, ie in having this recurring cast; it is inconsistent where consistency really matters, ie in technique. For instance, there is a story, "At Arka Pana", set in Poland (I don't think it any accident that the two stories I like best are set in Hamburg and Poland, rather than Suburbia-by-the-Sea) with a really fine ending:

"The people flowed past, parting like a river around the man and the girl standing apart from each other on the path talking into their mobile phones."

In the context, the use of "man and "girl" is a quiet touch of brilliance (as, in "The Egg", is Celia's reference to a child as "it" rather than "she"). But this adeptness with words and structure is intermittent rather than consistent. "At Arka Pana", which ends so well, begins with a cheap and pointless narrative trick, misleading the reader as to the relationship between two people to no end at all. "The Egg" depends on the reveal of a secret and the mechanics of this are just implausible. Imagine for a moment that you are a man with a secret life, and a woman, whom you know but your wife doesn't, chances to see you in a situation you really don't want your wife to know about. I don't know about you, but common sense tells me you don't (a) invite this woman to your forthcoming party and (b) make a point of introducing her to your wife. And before you suggest that he subconsciously wants to be found out, he clearly doesn't, because some physical reactions can be faked, but going puce with embarrassment is not among them. "Leaving Hamburg", in itself a fine story, contains an attempt at describing an area of Hamburg - "wide streets that were more Belgravia than Muswell Hill". I can't begin to express how useless this is as a description, to someone who knows neither Belgravia nor Muswell Hill, nor how irritating it is that the author should assume all her readers will be au fait with such shorthand. There's also some unnecessary spelling out; in "Leaving Hamburg" I had figured why Aurelia hated tattoos before I was helpfully told.

There's quite a lot of humour, verve and observation in these stories but I don't think the technique is as subtle, consistent or assured as, say, that of another observer of human relationships, Sarah Salway, in her short story collection "Leading the Dance" (Bluechrome).
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on 22 January 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Polly Samson's new collection of short stories are all set in the same English seaside town and feature the same recurring characters. The theme that threads these stories together is that people's lives are seemingly not perfect and underneath the surface there are tensions and secrets. The first story in the collection -The Egg- is an excellent start, a well-imagined, slightly sinister portrayal of a supposedly perfect life. However it rather fizzles out from there.

There seems to be no alteration between the characters voices so I didn't really get to know or warm to any of the characters who all felt the same to me. There is too much attention paid to describing things but no attention paid to character which is what drives a good short story.

Some of the secrets are not very subtly explored. Tilda, in `A Regular Cherub' "braced herself to return to the house and the baby she was supposed to love with a large chunk of her heart". It might have been more powerful if the reader discovers this from Tilda's thoughts and behaviour rather than to be told flat out that this is what this story is about, in case you missed it.

Overall, apart from The Egg, this collection of stories is dull, repetitive and a tad boring.
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on 23 August 2011
A set of 11 intertwining short stories about (upper) middle class people in England - they seem perfect on the outside but underneath they are not. Each stories contains a twist - which I like; however the way that the twists are set up, and subsequently revealed, quickly becomes formulaic. I expect this was done on purpose, but I think the overall impact of the book would have been greater if there was more variation in the story structures.

My favorite stories are the one about the relationship between a selfish mother and her suffering daughter (The Rose before the Vine), which I expect a lot of females will relate to. And the story about a woman and her cat, who appears to be the woman's alter ego (Remote Control).

Overall it is a good, but not brilliant read. As with other Samson books, I would say it is most definitely a book for women rather than men.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a set of short stories, loosely linked by some of the characters. The individual voices did not come across particularly well, but some of the mind pictures worked very nicely for some of the time. It felt a bit journalistic in a few places, but flowed smoothly in others, and overall the writing standard is good.

I might hesitate to call it chick-lit, but both wife and daughter insist it is, so who am I to argue with them? And they both also read it to the end. Alas none of us is likely to spend money on another Polly Samson book on the strength of this one, because it was not particularly inspiring. However, it is worth getting out of the library and it should last four or five tube journeys.

We all think it is three stars; OK, but...
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on 2 September 2015
Not really my read, bit confusing .
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