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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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 March 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In this collection of short stories, Samson focuses on the emotional lives and relationships of a loosely-connected group of middle-class people, all having some association with an English seaside town.

This is very cleverly done, with someone who was previously a main character appearing later as a walk-on part in someone else's life, and vice-versa. For example, we see the same woman through the eyes of a shy piano tuner in one story and her over-critical mother in another. Neither portrayal gives the whole picture, but taken together a character emerges. This mirrors real life, with all the various roles people assume and the various biased positions from which they are viewed. The recurring cast of characters has a cumulative effective; for example, in the first line of 'Ivan Knows', a story appearing near the end of the collection, the reader's enjoyment is increased, and curiosity piqued, by their knowing who both Ivan and Lucy are:

"Ivan almost choked on his candyfloss when he saw Laura Idlewild flying past in her blue bra."

The solipsism of the teenager wittily and accurately described in 'At Arka Pana' is offset by the reader's knowledge of her mother's assessment of her in 'Leaving Hamburg', and it is a joy to meet the afore-mentioned Ivan in 'Ivan Knows', having only seen him fleetingly as a small child in other stories. Themes as well as characters recur, being picked up and examined from all sides, and I think this is a book that will repay re-reading.

The stories include first person and third person narration, with one of the best, 'The Birthday Present', being addressed to a 'you' with whom the narrator is obsessed. The identity of the addressee is witheld, although its nature gradually dawns on the reader. Although this might seem tricksy (and another story, 'At Arka Pana', plays a similar game) by the time the reader is made aware of the object of infatuation their passion equals that of the narrator.

I didn't warm to this book immediately, and in retrospect I think the first story is one of the weakest, with the style appearing too mannered and the subject matter and its relation to the title 'Perfect Lives' rather cliched. But reading on, Samson's wit, unflinching eye, and gift for characterization meant I was soon absorbed; and I closed the book feeling uplifted, having had a glimpse into the lives of a group of people, which although not perfect, have moments approaching perfection.
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VINE VOICEon 2 January 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Perfect Lives is a book of short stories set mostly in the same seaside town, featuring characters who weave in and out of each other's narratives. On the outside, many of their lives do appear perfect and the characters may seem to be part of happy families, but beneath the surface lie secrets, doubt, unhappiness and hurt. A lonely woman berates herself for not loving her baby in the way that she feels she ought to; the peace of a Sunday morning in an expensive sea-front home is disturbed when an egg is shoved through the letterbox; a selfish mother needs to tell her daughter something that will change her life for ever; the woman scorned obsesses about her ex-husband and his new partner.

Samson populates her stories with strong, vivid characters, and music and art are threaded through the narratives. Her writing is clever, observant and subtle, packed with beautiful and original imagery, and giving just enough detail each time that the plot is never over-cooked. I loved the fact that a minor character in one story becomes a major character in a later story, so that I found myself constantly flicking back to reread sections, seeing them in a different light. I closed the book wanting to reread the whole collection again.

This is a wonderful book - like a selection of artfully posed photographs which give a tantalising glimpse into interesting people's lives, you are left wanting more. Enjoy!
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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 14 November 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This collection of short stories burrows beneath the surface of other people's lives. The first story 'The Egg' introduces us to Celia Idlewild, who seems to have everything; perfect life; perfect house; perfect children as well as the most exquisite grand piano.(Pianos feature a lot in this collection.) Only, the more we read, the more we see that happiness and perfection is only a thin veneer coating the reality of her life. (Even the splendid piano has a dark secret.) Subsequent stories introduce us to people whose lives touch those of the Idlewilds.There's Richard, now a piano tuner, whose crippling stage-fright destroyed a promising career as a concert pianist and the woman he meets whose love of her wreck of an old piano, alters his perspective on perfection. We also meet people he has known in the past and see life through their eyes. In other stories the author peels away the layers of a humdrum marriage but also reveals its close intimacy.She is particularly adept as showing us how children think and feel of the way adults behave. In every story, the more that is stripped away, the more detail is added to these people's live, so much so that I immediately had to go back to the beginning and reread each story.

Polly Samson's prose has a deceptively light touch, which to me is the mark of a great writer. She tells you all you need to know without labouring the point. If you like your fiction spare; fiction that requires readers to make the connections for themselves, then 'Perfect Lives' is for you. Sometimes bleak, but ultimately uplifting, these stories remind us of the eternal resilience of the human spirit.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This collection of short but sometimes connected stories by Polly Samson reveals the dramas and tragedies that lie beneath apparently perfect middle class lives. The writing is good and flows well - it is quite dense - every word is carefully chosen and so demands close reading. Samson shows herself to be adept at weaving drama and tension into this mode of storytelling. Characters and motifs recur and the whole collection generates an aura of sadness and disatisfaction which is rather haunting. I loved the story "Remote Control" which is about a woman and her cat's observations of family life. "The Man Across The River" is a tale of a mother perturbed by memories of an incident in her childhood. There is much more besides. I'm not usually a fan of short stories, but these were interesting and memorable, and definitely worth a look.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Polly Samson has skilfully created a small world, a community in miniature; that glitters prism like with situations thoughtfully viewed from many angles. Her magical, sparkling prose is entrancing, so please don't gobble this box of delights all at one sitting, enjoy one at a time, maybe before sleep; then put the book aside and think it all through before returning to this top drawer work.

You will be rewarded by worlds within worlds, sharply observant writing and a background of classical music that may tempt you to search out the pieces and play them for yourself. Meistersinger Prelude,Overtures & Preludes / Die Meistersinger Chopin's [ASIN:B0037TTQ4M Chopin: Late Masterpieces (Barcarolle/ Mazurkas/ Nocturnes/ Sonata No.3)]]Barcarolle in F sharp I think is what was implied but please correct me, both roll along behind the stories, adding depth and quality.

`Leaving Hamburg' is exquisite, perfect and haunting. Because of the connections you might find yourself going back to a previous story to enjoy it with deeper understanding. `The Man Across the River' is a truly terrible tale of the commonplace worthy of Roald Dahl. It has the unusual angle of looking at the Greenham Common protests from a child's eye view.

Short stories with musical references are also available from Kazou Isiguro in his Nocturnes selection,Barcarolle in F sharp I think is what was implied but please correct me, both roll along behind the stories, adding depth and quality.

`Leaving Hamburg' is exquisite, perfect and haunting. Because of the connections you might find yourself going back to a previous story to enjoy it with deeper understanding. `The Man Across the River' is a truly terrible tale of the commonplace worthy of Roald Dahl. It has the unusual angle of looking at the Greenham Common protests from a child's eye view.

Short stories with musical references are also available from Kazou Isiguro in his Nocturnes selection,Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfalla similar kind of writing and equally satisfying. Jhumpa LahiriInterpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and BeyondUnaccustomed Earth also creates the same mini scenes that stay in the mind long after reading about them. With Polly Samson's people I ended up really caring about them all and wanting to know more.
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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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