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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
by Claire North
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Rerecord, Not Fade Away -, 19 April 2015
Just about everybody I've spoken to about this book has loved it. Harry August had been on my to-be-read pile for quite some time and finally clawed his way to the top, when I went on holiday at the beginning of the month. I was very excited at the prospect of reading about his fifteen lives. So much so, I worried that my hyped-up expectations might spoil the book for me. Need I have worried?

Maybe...

The premise and structure of The First Fifteen Lives... are immaculate. The writing is superb. The time-travel aspects work wonderfully well, and are irresistibly mind-bending. This was a book I didn't want to end, I loved reading every page. Until the end. Then I wished the book hadn't finished like it had. This is where, I think, heightened expectations played a part. Such was the praise for the book, I expected a seamless perfect whole. The ending jarred. It certainly wasn't what I envisaged and considering the painstaking construction of the rest of the book, it felt far too convenient. Almost as though the author had no idea how to dismount from the convoluted literary routine she had just performed. Would I have felt like this had I not been told be lots of people that the book was absolutely brilliant? Possibly not.

The premise is simple, yet stacks up to be complicated. Harry August repeats his life, over and over. Groundhog Life, if you will. At the moment of his death, he is reborn back where he started -on the toilet floor of a railway station in the North East of England. After each rebirth, he can remember what came before. The story is then told, in a more or less linear fashion through Harry's lives. The first fifteen on them. I say more or less linear, the story does jump backwards and forwards between Harry's lives. This is a memoir, and Harry tells it in the order he feels best. Even so, the overriding direction of the narrative is from life 1 to life 15.

It turns out Harry is not alone. There are a number of 'kalachakrans' in the world; people who are reborn over and over. More uniquely Harry has perfect recall of every moment of every life he spends. So called mnemonics are far less common, even among the incredibly rare kalachakrans. Each of Harry's lives are essentially parallel universes. Each life is mostly filled with ordinary people, who go about their ordinary lives. Harry's fellow kalachakrans, however, can find and meet one another, and do so, across multiple existences. That's where the mind-bending bit comes in. The myriad meetings and messages across lifetimes and timeframes started to hurt my brain if I thought too long about them.

Towards the end of one of his lives, Harry gets a message from the future. The world is ending. All worlds are ending and the arrival of the apocalypse is growing ever faster. A pretty compelling reason to find out what's going on.

The layering of plot in this book is excellent. With multiple lives to play with, the novel's heroes and villains have scope to play the long game. This in turn gives North a broad canvas on which to paint her story. She has afforded herself the opportunity to tell personal stories over a timescale normally reserved for the rise and fall of empires. This allows her to generate great depth of feeling for characters on both sides of the divide. It's fair to say I've never read anything quite like it. On several occasions I had to put the book down to think through what had happened; how the multiple universes might interact. I wanted to work out how what was happening, and, in turn, what might happen. The mark of a great book.

Of course having invested so much brain-power and sheer pleasure into reading the first 350 pages of the book, it was always a risk that the denouement was going to disappoint. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, but it whatever it was, it certainly wasn't what North delivered. I think the ending is fitting, but it wasn't what I was looking for. So, having spent most of the time reading, thinking I would be telling everybody that The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of the best books I've ever read, I find myself wanting to say, 'This is a truly remarkable book, but I wasn't 100% convinced'.

But then who cares about what I think? - Without a shadow of doubt, you should read this book, take in its glory and decide for yourself.


Reasons to Stay Alive
Reasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The Human Guide to Depression, 11 April 2015
This review is from: Reasons to Stay Alive (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
5* on Amazon says 'I Love it'. This is not to a book to love, like I loved Matt Haig's novel The Humans. Reasons to be Alive is sad, yet hopeful. It's a memoir of a journey out of despair, of how to deal with invisible illness. It's not a book to love but it's a book that everybody should read. If they did it would improve the lives of millions of sufferers of mental illness.

I can't read this book from the point of view of someone who suffers from depression. Sure, I have black days, where the world seems like too much effort. I occasionally think that I'm close to the edge, but Reasons to Stay Alive describes what is like to be at the bottom of the valley. With the same clear insightful language he deployed in The Humans, Haig lays out what it's like for a sufferer of depression and anxiety. Better than that though, he explains, what those around them can do to help. In simple terms, he debunks the myth of tough love and pull yourself together giving a window into inner-workings of the sufferer. Pages 126 and 127 should be compulsory reading for everybody everywhere.

We have depression in the family. Some members aren't dealing with it very well, causing the situation to calcify. Matt Haig and Reasons to Stay Alive might just be the descaler we are looking for. So this is not a book to love, but it is a book to help those you love.


Ooga Booga Card Game
Ooga Booga Card Game
Price: £10.09

5.0 out of 5 stars So Good We Bought it Twice, 29 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Ooga Booga Card Game (Toy)
We love this family game of sequence remembering. Each card has a silly sound on it (two of which are 'ooga' and 'booga'). As the game progresses the size of the card-chain increases, and the player whose turn it is has to recite the sounds revealed so far. As only the top card is visible, you have to remember what's gone before. There's also a physical component such as banging your hands on the table or blowing raspberries, as directed by the cards. Some cards reverse the order.

This game is a great leveller, our 6 year old loves it, as he is the sort who finds sitting an concentrating quite difficult. This game is all about making noise, so he is in his element. He can go up against his older more thoughtful brother, and win.

In truth, it always seems to descend (ascend?) into a cooperative, everybody helping everybody remember the chain. Winners and loser become irrelevant and a great time is had by all.

The game is so good, we lost our tin and had to buy another. (We since found tin 1, so now we have travel and stay at home versions!)


Oral B Pro 3000 White and Clean Electric Rechargeable Toothbrush
Oral B Pro 3000 White and Clean Electric Rechargeable Toothbrush
Price: £89.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Pulsating action, 29 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is the third electric toothbrush I've had and to be honest it's my least favourite. That's not to say it does a bad job, it's fine, but it has multiple settings which I find slightly frustrating. On the first press of the button it works as the other two brushes I've had did - great. But instead of simply switching off when I press the button, it moves to a pulse mode, which I don't really like.

I'm sure the pulsing action is to do something, but it isn't exactly clear what. The instructions are vague, or at least, they are written in very small print, with no obvious description of the brushes modes. I could probably read them in detail, but I already have a working toothbrush, so I can't really be bothered.

It comes with multiple heads, which is nice, but again it's not entirely clear what difference they make, or which one I should be using. Probably my criticisms of this brush boil down to my own laziness, but time is precious and I don't really want to spend it pouring over the instructions.

The brush works fine, but I prefer my older, simpler one.


Bryant & May - The Burning Man (Bryant & May 12)
Bryant & May - The Burning Man (Bryant & May 12)
by Christopher Fowler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

5.0 out of 5 stars London's Burning, 28 Mar. 2015
I read the first Bryant and May novel, Full Dark House, many years ago. At the time it was the only one. Their second outing, The Water Room, is one of my favourite ever reads. Like all the Bryant and May books, it's a love letter to London and its curious folklore, blended with a flawlessly plotted mystery. All of the Bryant & May novels are excellent, but The Water Rooms stands at the pinnacle.

Part of the draw of Fowler's books is his apparent encyclopaedic knowledge of London lore. I love London; just wandering about, looking at the curious buildings that stand cheek by jowl. I love the sense of history; not just the big famous bits, but the little pieces too. The lost churches, the old guilds and the hidden rivers. All the stuff Fowler writes so eloquently about. There are a few pretenders to his throne, but Fowler is the undisputed pearly king of London folklore. Marry this with tight plotting, superlative characterisation, and a side order of dry wit, and it's no wonder we have such a fine series of books.

For Bryant and May's latest instalment, Fowler has taken two modern-day foes that have centuries of tradition. The banks, deep rooted with the development of the city, and Guy Fawkes, one of London's greatest folklore anti-heroes, now co-opted by modern anti-establishment movements. The novel is set between Halloween and Bonfire Night, a period of time dripping with folk connotations and import.

The Burning Man opens with London in turmoil. The city's population has had enough of the rich getting richer. Protests and demonstrations have been sparked by the insider dealings of Dexter Cornell, a man who has broken a bank, yet walked away with millions. The city is a powder keg waiting to ignite. When 'Break the Banks' marches spill over into violence, a homeless man is caught in the crossfire; burned alive in a bank foyer. The PCU are called to clean up what is expected to be a routine investigation. As we know, when Bryant and May are involved, nothing is routine.

In their own inimitable style, the ageing sleuths start to tease out a wider plot and when another victim is found twenty-four hours later, it is clear the first death was no accident. Once more Bryant and May are up against a fevered mind working to an unseen timetable. Fighting off the usual scepticism from within the force, the peculiar might of the PCU swings into action.

The twelfth Bryant and May novel is a treat from start to finish. The tidbits of London folklore are entertaining, as is Bryant's left-wing cynicism. Fowler clearly loves his city, but once again he rails against its inequalities and inequity. He is a powerful interlocutor on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Not everybody will be convinced by the beat of Fowler's drum but it makes a welcome counterpoint to the right-wing clarion, that London is a centre for business, where we should bow to the bankers and swear fealty to their temple of Mammon. Political leanings aside, the novel contains skulduggery aplenty, with an intelligent and inventive murderer on the loose. Bryant remains as bumbling and enigmatic as ever, whilst piecing together a jigsaw no one else can see.

The Burning Man is a fine crime novel. I enjoyed it from first page to last. I've skipped a few in this series, overlooked them trying to keep up with all my other book purchases. I'll definitely be back-tracking to catch up again.


The Tongues of Men or Angels
The Tongues of Men or Angels
by Jonathan Trigell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.54

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Spreading the Word, 14 Mar. 2015
Jonathan Trigell's Genus is one of my favourite dystopian novels. It's a a first class meditation on genetic modification and a lens on current-day attitudes towards those with lower social mobility. It is in every way a dystopian novel built in honour of George Orwell. It is also a prose masterclass. Not a single word is misplaced, you can almost feel the effort made to form each perfect sentence.

On the face of it, The Tongues of Men or Angels has nothing in common with Genus. Trigell's latest offering looks backwards, two thousand years, to the time of the crucifixion. Though the two novels are very different, Tongues of Men does have one very important thing in common with Genus. The quality of the writer's craft.

The Tongues of Men or Angels has a very definite style and tone. One that befits the weight of its subject matter and the history behind the story. Again, the words feel like they were wrestled onto the page; honed into obedience by a wordsmith at his forge. It does make for a slightly detached unemotional read. We feel like we are watching from on high. Perhaps this is due to the events depicted, some of the most important in world history.

I'm not sure what motivated Jonathan Trigell's to retell this story. Perhaps he needed nothing more than the fact he is a storyteller. What better tale to re-examine, than the greatest story ever told. A story that has endured two millennia, has given much comfort and caused untold strife; has made and broken nations. A story that has inspired millions of people and outraged almost as many.

The structure of this novel is all over the place. Timeline and point of view jump about, though the journey of Yeshua towards his execution continues only forwards. Much of the novel follows Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the apostle. His life is laid out in full, through Paul directly recounting his story, and through flashback to his early years. Other pivotal moments in Judeo-Christian history also appear (such as the denial of Christ by Peter).

I imagine to glean the most from this book, you would probably need to be a biblical scholar. I expect being an atheist scholar would probably help too. Whilst Trigell remains entirely respectful to his source material, you don't have to look hard to notice there is an absence of divinity in the novel. It's not overt, but it's there. I imagine a believer would find this hard to swallow, whilst finding it hard to find fault with what Trigell has done. He reinterprets many events and significant moments from biblical lore, giving them a more rational slant.

I'm an atheist, but I'm fascinated by the stories recounted in the Bible. They are after all simply another mythology. I am particularly intrigued by the evolution of those myths. Since finishing the book, I have read around the subject a little, and it seems Trigell has been exceptionally faithful to the source material and its current interpretations. What dispassionate history doesn't tell us, of course, is motive. This is what Trigell adds. Jerusalem at that time was a melting point of ideas and religious argument. Given this context, Trigell builds up a picture of how, in the absence of divinity, the stories may have evolved.

This is a difficult novel to enjoy. It is rather dry in places and it's staccato structure can be a distraction. It is, however, a humorous novel; one that is gently irreverent. I am sure I missed many of the novel's subtitles, and it would definitely bear repeated readings, especially after further research into its subject matter. This is not a novel one sits down to read for pleasure; it's a philosophical journey that requires concentration. It's a book that prompts you to ask questions about the stories that form the backbone of modern western society. Ask, why is the church like it is? It doesn't give many answers, merely suggestions. Suggestions many will disagree with.

The Tongues of Men or Angels is a work of serious literary merit. It's wonderfully crafted and forces us to ask questions about things we take for granted. I learned a lot from this book, though it is important to keep in mind it is as fictional as any other, better selling, accounts of the tale. This book prompts us to question the manner in which history and religion are reported. How it's easy to work the divine into anything, if you look hard enough. This is the second Trigell book I've read, I wonder what he has in store for us next? Whatever it is, it's sure to be well-crafted and deeply thought provoking.


Adonit Jot Mini Fine Point Stylus - Silver
Adonit Jot Mini Fine Point Stylus - Silver
Offered by Premium Lifestyle
Price: £14.50

3.0 out of 5 stars Mini Fine Point, 12 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have a friend who has one of these. When he uses it, his writing looks amazing. His drawings are brilliant. When I use it (in penultimate), my writing is almost completely illegible. To be fair, my writing is a bit pants at the best of times, but these pens seem to make my faults come to the fore. I have reviewed this mini fine point and also aAdonit Jot Pro Fine Point Stylus - Black. I think they are both fine products, if you're not cack-handed like me.

Designwise the pen is very satisfying. It looks sleek, has a lovely tactile finish and is a great weight. The mini design is useful for slipping into your bag or pocket for use on the go. Theoretically I use this one with my phone, though in practice I haven't yet. One thing I have notices with the mini, is that there is no tactile grip; it's more slippy than its larger counterpart, and I have to clasp it tightly to ensure a firm grip. This becomes tiring very quickly. It's an experience one never has with a pen and a bit of paper.

Whilst this smaller one is handy to slip into a phone case, the larger pen is much better to use and I think therefore, if you were just going to buy one, buy the big one.


Adonit Jot Pro Fine Point Stylus - Black
Adonit Jot Pro Fine Point Stylus - Black
Price: £24.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine Point Stylus, 12 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have a friend who has one of these. When he uses it, his writing looks amazing. His drawings are brilliant. When I use it (in penultimate), my writing is almost completely illegible. To be fair, my writing is a bit pants at the best of times, but these pens seem to make my faults come to the fore.

Having said that, practice and most definitely the angle of my tablet make a difference. I can now use the pen so that I can read my own personal notes, but I wouldn't want to let anybody else see them.

Designwise the pen is very satisfying. It looks sleek, has a lovely tactile finish and is a great weight. It feels like a good quality pen and is easy to hold. I think the only way to really tell if this sort of product is for you is to try it out. For me though, it's not particularly quicker than typing (on my tablet) and it certainly isn't as versatile as biro and a piece of paper...


The Mirror World of Melody Black
The Mirror World of Melody Black
by Gavin Extence
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Shock of the Fly, 12 Mar. 2015
Gavin Extence first novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods, is one of my all-time favourites. It struck a deep personal chord, which made it particularly powerful for me; it's warmth and compassion are remarkable. It features a slightly disconnected kid finding wonder in classic science fiction, and what's not to like about that?

When I heard a new Extence novel was on the way, it immediately went to the top of my 2015 must-read list. As ever, I was filled with trepidation about returning to a much loved author. Certainly, I did not expect to be as blown away by this book; there was no way it could resonate with me like Alex Woods had. I was right not to. Melody Black is a good novel, but it is not a great one.

Extence's prose is wonderful. I love reading his descriptions. They're off-beat, often funny and always beautifully observed. Reading his books are the literary equivalent of slipping into a hot bath; deliciously comfortable and wonderful to wallow in.

In my recent review of Alice and the Fly, I mention that its tone is similar to Alex Woods. Well here the content and themes are similar to Alice. Not only that, there is overlap with another novel that details mental illness, 2013 Costa Winner The Shock of the Fall. All are well observed, have quirky narrators, and deal with depression and mental illness in sensitive and deft fashion. Unfortunately, with so much overlap, it's unsurprising that when reading Melody Black I felt like I'd heard it all before.

The Mirror World of Melody Black follows freelance journalist Abby Williams after she discovers the body of her neighbour. Simon died alone in a chair, in front of the TV. We immediately know Abby is unusual because the first thing she does is smoke a cigarette in the dead man's kitchen. Whilst Abby appears initially unperturbed, the lack of connection between herself and the man who lived opposite her triggers a nagging anxiety. Events spiral and before long Abby is riding a juggernaut of self-destruction.

To say much more would spoil the stacking of Extence's deck. Abby is just one of a host of likeable characters, and as I said Extence's powers of observation are accurate and amusing. I enjoyed Melody Black. It's easy to read whilst dealing with important themes. Extence has a light touch that belies the weighty subject matter. This is made all the more sharp by a candid and poignant afterword by the author. There's nothing particularly new in The Mirror World of Melody Black and it never reaches the heights of The Universe Vs Alex Woods, but then very little does. It is however, funny, moving and uplifting, keeping Gavin Extence at the pinnacle of my must-read authors.


The Signature of All Things
The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.50

3.0 out of 5 stars All things dull and beautiful, 9 Mar. 2015
I don't ever remember reading a book that enthralled me so much, whilst at the same time being so rambling and limp. The Signature of All Things on one level isn't my thing at all. Set in the 19th Century, it's a story about one woman and her peculiar take on the world. It's about society and a woman's place being constricted by the social mores of the time. On another level the book is exactly my sort of thing; history of science blended with questions about the existence of God. I suppose that's why I had two such conflicting reactions to the book.

Alma Whittaker is the only child of a rich American landowner, the irascible Henry Whittaker and his wife, Beatrix. Both have brilliant minds. Beatrix is of Dutch puritan descent, and has a rigorous logical approach to life and learning. She raises her daughter in her own image. Alma grows up isolated, with little companionship her own age, pressed into learning almost every waking moment. Her dinner table conversations are scientific discourse and logical rigour. Alma is highly intelligent and focussed, yet completely unprepared for anything remotely resembling real life.

I very much enjoyed the opening of the book, which begins before the birth of Alma, charting the rise of her father. Born to a master orchardman, 'The Apple Magus', Henry Whittaker grew up sleeping on a mud floor. Being gifted horticultural expertise from his father, Henry is able to make himself useful around Kew gardens, where his father works. Henry is also able to make a small fortune, illegally selling samples and cuttings from the garden. Samples jealously guarded by Kew's curator Sir Joseph Banks. Discovery leaves Henry with very few choices, and so it is he finds himself on board ship with Captain Cook, where he becomes the expedition's horticultural expert.

Henry Whittaker is the first of several strong characters in the book. The opening half of the novel that deals with his life as explorer, landowner and family man of sorts, are excellent. Most of his life we see through the eyes of Alma, who is another fine creation. Gilbert captures her with a beautiful blend of strength and fragility. She is a woman out of time. She has so much more than many of her contemporaries yet lacks the things she desperately desires.

In the second half of the book, Alma starts to move out from the shadow of her father, and explore where her own life faltered. I found the third quarter of the book very hard going. Boring even. There seemed to be much navel gazing and repetition; much of the plot and themes seemed derivative, unlike the first half. I continued on, but had this not been a book group choice, I may have abandoned it, so fed up I became with treading water.

I've since discussed the novel with my book group, and I was pretty much the only person to have such issues with this segment, although it was generally agreed it is the weakest. There is some strong evocative writing, but it didn't really seem to have much justification. Having completed the book, I have a strong feeling that, had I skipped the third quarter, I wouldn't have missed much and the book would still largely have made sense. It's probably no coincidence that the middle of the novel contains its spiritual heart. As one might expect from the author of Eat, Pray, Love (which I haven't read), The Signature of All Things has a strong spiritual element. It's with these elements I had the most difficulty.

The novel is drawn between three points. Science, the strict religious outlook of the time and an amorphous all encompassing idea of a spiritual connection. Boil this triangle down to a singularity, I suppose you would find yourself left with faith. Faith in God, faith in science or the faith that things work out according to some cosmic order. The problem for me is buying into that cosmic order. Whilst reading the novel, it didn't work for me; it felt like a silly device to keep things ticking over. I found it difficult to maintain interest in a novel so deeply immersed in the fanciful. After finishing, I realised that perhaps the spiritual side amounted to little more than wishful thinking on the part of its players. They weren't listening to some great cosmic spirit, but instead acting on their secret, unexpressed, internal wishes. This interpretation makes the whole novel more palatable, but I only made it after completing the book. When reading I didn't care for these sections at all.

So having been bitterly disappointed, feeling let down after such a promising beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by the culmination of the book. If the Signature of All Things is a 'quest' novel, it is a quest for self. Now late on in years, looking back, Alma can evaluate her life, and decide whether it is a success. She spent years studying the mosses on her estate. A slow painstaking process, that mirrors Alma's own evolution. Her comprehensive study of an ecosystem in miniature leads her to some challenging (for the time) conclusions about the origins of species, and the book returns to its scientific roots. Here the novel dovetails well with the scientific period it is written.

On finishing the book, I was left satisfied. There was much in I enjoyed. The science and scientists of the time are brilliantly brought to life. Gilbert writes fully about her chosen subject, but does so whilst keeping it interesting. The novel's strong and interesting characters make it a worthwhile read. There were elements I didn't like, but overall, I am glad I persevered to the end. The Signature of All Things was a good choice for a book group, with lots of facets worthy of discussion. Imperfect books often to give rise to the best conversations.


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