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Laura T (Oxford, UK)
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Summer at Tiffany's
Summer at Tiffany's
by Karen Swan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sequel for summertime, 26 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Summer at Tiffany's (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I loved Christmas at Tiffany's, which was a fabulously escapist read, and so was very much looking forward to reading this sequel. While it was never going to be quite as good as the original - it seemed unlikely that Cassie was going to have multiple makeovers in different glamorous locations again, which was the thing I liked best about the first novel - it didn't disappoint.

Cassie is now engaged to Henry and they are living together in London. Cassie has now started her own company, supplying gourmet hampers to cater a range of events, and life seems idyllic - but will she be able to put the bad memories of her first marriage behind her and fully commit to Henry? Cassie's friends also have their own troubles; Archie, Suzy's husband, is suffering from health problems, and all doesn't seem to be well with Kelly and Brett's relationship either. When Suzy's younger cousin, Gemma, turns up in London, determined to enter into a whirlwind marriage, Suzy enlists Cassie to persuade her that this is a bad idea. However, Cassie is beginning to wonder whether it is her own attitude to relationships that is really the problem.

Although I did enjoy Christmas at Tiffany's more, I felt that in many ways this novel benefited from being a sequel. I always find it refreshing when chick lit heroines are forced to confront problems in an ongoing relationship, rather than be constantly searching for Mr Right, and Cassie and Henry's difficulties realistically built upon the themes of the first book. Secondly, having got to know Cassie's friends over the course of the first novel, I felt much more involved with them and with their dilemmas than if this had been a newly-introduced set of secondary characters. Finally, this book was much less predictable than the first simply because you felt at the start that Cassie had already found her 'happy ending', and weren't sure how the plot would develop. (The threat to her relationship actually comes from a rather unexpected direction.) Unlike some other reviewers, however, I didn't think that these new problems made the book depressing - despite some anxious moments, the overall tone remained quite light, and I definitely didn't get the impression that Karen Swan was really trying to delve any further into the dark side of life!

I did have a few issues with this novel. My major problem was that the chronology is all wrong - while this may seem nitpicky, this sort of thing always jolts me out of a fictional world. Cassie states that she's thirty in this novel, but all other evidence points to her being thirty-four - she was thirty-one when her first marriage ended and it's been three years since the start of Christmas at Tiffany's. A more minor comment is that I would have liked to see more of Anouk, who was my favourite secondary character in Christmas at Tiffany's; although I liked that things seemed to be going well for her and that she had made a definite choice not to have children, which is a refreshing and unusual stance for a character in a chick lit.

Overall, I would recommend this novel to those who enjoyed its prequel, along with Swan's other novels, especially The Perfect Present and Christmas at Claridge's.


I Saw a Man
I Saw a Man
by Owen Sheers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.07

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'They were paid to watch', 23 Jun. 2015
This review is from: I Saw a Man (Paperback)
Owen Sheers is one of the handful of authors whose writing I always find both admirable and emotionally engaging, whether he's immersing his readers in an imagined German occupation of Britain in 1944 or a semi-fictional biography of his great-great uncle's travels as a missionary in Zimbabwe. I was surprised, then, at how much I struggled with his novella, White Ravens, when I read it a couple of years ago. This retelling of the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, the second branch of the Mabinogion, seemed both to showcase Sheers at his best and slip into surprisingly amateurish prose; for example, flat dialogue and spelt-out 'messages', which seemed totally inexplicable, given Sheers's evident skill as a writer. Nevertheless, I was eager to read his newest book, and confident that these weird slip-ups in White Ravens were an aberration. What I found was that this sort of prose was not completely absent from I I Saw A Man. But, having finished this compelling novel, I felt that I understood a little better why such a sure-footed writer occasionally strays into this style.

Major Daniel McCullen is an American drone pilot. Though he once flew combat missions in the old-fashioned, hands-on way, his commute to work down Highway 95 has become the only chance he has to separate his home life from the deadly missiles that he launches remotely from Creech Air Force Base. 'They were paid to watch. This was their job... In Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, by the time his bombs detonated, his missiles hit, he was already miles away, flying faster than the speed of sound... At Creech he still didn't hear his munitions detonate, but despite being even further from the battlefield, he saw everything.' Tracking down one target, a man called Ahmed al Saeed, Daniel watches him join in with the football games of local children in Baghdad, deliberately diving the wrong way to let a child score a goal, before Daniel obliterates him with the touch of a button. Daniel's distance from reality, however, is not the main concern of this novel. Its central focus is another man approaching middle age, Michael, who has achieved success as a writer through carefully watching other people's lives until he can imaginatively inhabit them, melding them into memoirs while cutting off contact with the actual subjects. Mourning the death of his wife, Michael finds solace through his friendship with the family next door in London, Samantha, Josh and their two small daughters.

If you're wedded to the idea that a writer needs to show not tell (I'm not), you won't get along with I Saw A Man. Telling is what this novel is designed to do, a narrative choice which holds the reader slightly apart from its characters, much as Daniel is distanced from his targets or Josh from his subjects. Yet, by making the choice to tell us so much about his characters' lives, Sheers taps into the power of storytelling, a narrative drive that is sometimes difficult to achieve through the detailed showing of characters' interactions. And in the sections of the novel that are paced in real time - as Michael walks slowly through his neighbours' house, feeling that something is wrong - the stories that bookend this exploration lend it a depth and tension that it would otherwise have lost. The result is a literary novel that reads like a thriller, a target that many authors have aimed for and so few have hit.

And the clunky writing? While the examples of this are too few to mar the novel in any way, I was interested in why this happened, and if it might explain my earlier problems with White Ravens. The prose feels awkward, most often, when Sheers starts to introduce dialogue, or real-time action, into the main sections of the novel; in other words, when he tries to 'show' at a point when it feels more natural for him to still be 'telling'. When Michael talks with his wife Caroline about a dangerous journalistic assignment she is taking on, the scene feels almost hasty, as if Sheers wants to quickly establish a mood and move on to tell us more, rather than delve into the psyches of these two individuals:

He lifted his feet off her lap and leant forward, taking her face in his hands. "Just," he said, kissing her lightly, "be careful."
Her lips were warm and as she kissed him back, pulling him to her, her mouth tasted of the onion she'd been eating as she cooked. "Thank you," she whispered, putting her arms about his neck. "I owe you one Mikey boy."

This problem largely disappears in the second half of the novel, confirming my suspicion that, as with White Ravens, the occasional clunk comes from an author who seems almost too involved with the pace of his own narrative, writing these placeholder scenes so he can move on to what happens next. Unlike White Ravens, however, the payoff is evident in I Saw A Man, which I found genuinely difficult to put down. Like Daniel, we don't want to watch the tragedy that plays out, but are compelled to anyway.

I received a free copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


NAILS Nail Polish, White Horse Street The New White
NAILS Nail Polish, White Horse Street The New White
Price: £14.00

3.0 out of 5 stars From lilac-white to lilac-white, 20 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This nail polish is supposed to appear white in the bottle but dry to a smoky grey on nails. To me, it looks like a very pale lilac in the bottle and a very pale lilac on nails - there is very little difference between the two colours. I can see how it might appear grey in some lights, but I was disappointed by the colour overall - it's too pale for my liking, and a little too striking to go easily with a range of outfits. The polish dried relatively quickly, but I found it hard to use in all other respects. Firstly, the lid was difficult to lever off, and now doesn't seem to fit properly back onto the bottle. The lid is also so large that it becomes tricky to paint nails easily. Secondly, I found the brush too large to allow precision painting of nails. Thirdly, it was hard to get a completely smooth coverage on my nails. I've had a better experience using cheaper brands such as Boots No 7, which is much easier to apply and dries more uniformly. Given the price tag of this nail polish, I wouldn't especially recommend it unless the colour is exactly what you're looking for.


Taylors of Harrogate Espresso Coffee Capsules Nespresso Compatible Colombian Huila (Pack of 6, Total 60 Capsules)
Taylors of Harrogate Espresso Coffee Capsules Nespresso Compatible Colombian Huila (Pack of 6, Total 60 Capsules)
Price: £17.36

4.0 out of 5 stars Good, Nespresso-compatible capsules, 20 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
These Nespresso-compatible capsules are slightly cheaper than the Nespresso version, and deliver a good, smooth cup of coffee. While I am not especially concerned about the strength of my coffee, my husband, who likes very strong coffee, says that he would agree with other reviewers that this coffee is not as strong as advertised. However, they make a good, everyday blend, and I would recommend them.


skinChemists Advanced Wrinkle Killer Day Moisturiser 50 ml
skinChemists Advanced Wrinkle Killer Day Moisturiser 50 ml

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars For the First Great Western experience, 18 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
There are numerous reasons not to recommend this ridiculously overpriced anti-wrinkle serum:

1. It doesn't tackle wrinkles. From the product description, it seemed to imply that it would have instant results, temporarily tightening the skin to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, an effect that is possible (as demonstrated by other expensive products like this Karin Herzog face mask, http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B0002Y5J50) although I still wouldn't pay this much money for it, as the improvement is very short-term. I have applied the product regularly for a week, but haven't been able to notice any difference.
2. It doesn't moisturise or condition the skin particularly well either. This product is also supposed to have long-term benefits. While this is obviously difficult to assess within the relatively small window of time allowed for testing, it barely makes my skin feel any better than if I was to apply no moisturiser at all. You could definitely get the same benefit for a fraction of the price.
3. The bottle is stupidly large for 50ml of product. This is presumably intended to trick you into thinking you are getting more for your money, but it just means it's unnecessarily cumbersome if you wanted to travel with it.
4. It's meant to be a day serum, but contains no SPF, so you end up having to apply SPF over this product. This negates the benefits of this product being fairly lightweight.
5. It smells like the cleaning products they use in train toilets. This is not an exaggeration. It actually makes it unpleasant to use, as it reminds me of the experience of using said delightful toilets.

I would avoid this product and save the money for something more worthwhile (perhaps a weekend away?)


Girl at War
Girl at War
by Sara Novic
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Structured to the bone (3 1/2 stars), 7 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Girl at War (Hardcover)
One issue I have with writing reviews is that I sometimes become so involved with picking apart the problems in a book that I forget to say that I liked it. To be clear, then; I enjoyed reading Sara Nović's debut, Girl at War. It's an engaging, involving and moving novel that has the welcome side benefit of teaching the reader a little about civil warfare in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, if he/she does not already possess such knowledge. My problems with it were not because it doesn't work as a novel; it's almost because it works too well.

Ana Jurić is a ten-year-old girl growing up in Zagreb, largely unaware of the tensions escalating around her after Croatia's declaration of independence in June 1991. The immediate crisis in her world revolves around her little sister, Rahela, who is chronically ill. When her family arrange to have Rahela evacuated to America as her condition worsens, they are forced to cross the border to reach a medivac station that might save their daughter's life. The chain of events this sets in motion destroys Ana's world as she knows it. When the narrative picks up ten years later, Ana is a college student in New York, but invitations from the UN continue to link her to her fractured childhood, despite her refusal to tell her friends about her past. Inevitably, Ana decides that she must return to a now-independent Croatia and try to put the pieces together.

This novel is incredibly easy to summarise, because it's so easy to see its structure. This is, in some ways, a good thing; no-one wants to read a narrative that feels rambling and incoherent. Yet, Girl at War works so smoothly that it's very difficult to forget that we are reading a constructed story. Nović effectively hides her workings, the false starts and loose ends that dog any first draft of a novel, but the result is so perfect, so seamless, that it almost feels mechanical. You could sit down with this novel on a creative writing course and take it apart to demonstrate three-act structure, the protagonist's journey, the raising of the stakes. It's so functional, so simplistic, that the narrative is robbed of some of the emotional weight it should carry, although it did still move me in places. I couldn't help thinking of Tea Obrecht's The Tiger's Wife when reading this novel, another story set among Balkan wars, and its richness, its complexity; the way its multiple narratives work so seamlessly together. In contrast, Girl at War feels colourless, a little flat.

I struggled especially with the first section of this novel. War through the eyes of a child is such a familiar theme that it's tremendously difficult to make it feel fresh. Nović does, in fact, have some interesting things to say about child soldiers, and children and violence more generally, but they come later, in the form of flashbacks. Ana herself is not enough to carry the story, because she seems to have little character at all; like so many protagonists, she's defined by what happens to her rather than who she is as a person. This isn't necessarily a fatal flaw - not all novels need to be character-driven - but it makes the relatively uneventful opening of Girl At War a slow read, because nothing has yet happened to Ana, and so we know very little about her. The skilful structure comes into its own at the end of the first act, when Nović employs a genuinely surprising twist, and from then on, I found the story much more gripping.

I'll be interested to see what Nović writes next, because there's no doubt that this is a successful debut. Her strong handling of structure, of story-form, should not be underestimated; but I wanted a little more voice, a little more personality, and I suppose, a little more heart in this novel that contains such loss.

I received a free copy of this book directly from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It's out now in the UK.


Midori Spring Organic Ceremonial Matcha - Gold Class - Premium Japanese Green Tea Matcha Powder [Certified USDA Organic, Vegan, Kosher] (30g)
Midori Spring Organic Ceremonial Matcha - Gold Class - Premium Japanese Green Tea Matcha Powder [Certified USDA Organic, Vegan, Kosher] (30g)
Offered by Life & Food Amz Uk
Price: £29.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Premium-class green tea, 31 May 2015
I have tried a range of green teas before, from the bog-standard Twinings varieties that are softened for an English palate, to more traditional loose-leaf green tea that tasted much more like this Matcha powder does. As other reviewers have commented, this is probably not the best place to start if you are not used to drinking green tea. It is bitter, strong, and distinctive in flavour. I very much enjoyed this tea, however. While I do not own any of the specialist equipment you are advised to use, I found that whisking a small amount of powder (you don't need much more than 1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon) together with hot water with an ordinary, small whisk worked well, then topping the drink up with further hot water. The tea should be drunk quickly, before the powder settles, although you can of course stir it throughout. The colour of the tea is a vivid green, which I liked, and its taste is excellent. I've knocked one star off because of the cost of this product. While I'm sure it is a good price for the quality product you receive, I'm afraid my palate isn't yet refined enough to tell the difference between it and the cheaper loose-leaf I've tried before. So perhaps one for the real connoisseurs.

I received this product free from the manufacturer in exchange for an honest review.


What She Left
What She Left
by T. R. Richmond
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.49

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Teenagers write better than this, 26 May 2015
This review is from: What She Left (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Journalist Alice Salmon has drowned in a river in Southampton aged only twenty-five. As her friends and family mourn, the news hits one person surprisingly hard; a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Southampton who once taught Alice, Jeremy Cooke. Using the skills of his trade - although these 'skills' seem loosely linked to Jeremy's actual research to date - Jeremy determines to put together the pieces of Alice's life from the diary entries, Facebook posts, tweets and texts she left behind. But as the story behind Alice's death becomes clearer, Jeremy realises there may be more to this tragedy than meets the eye.

What She Left struggles under the weight of its far-fetched premise from the start, and unfortunately TR Richmond would need to be a much better writer than he is to pull off this story. A book about yet another young woman who disappears in mysterious circumstances inevitably draws comparisons to the seemingly endless series of novels that have rehashed this theme over the past few years, some more effectively than others; Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, Elizabeth is Missing. However, my main reference point for what Richmond is trying to do here was Lottie Moggach's excellent thriller, Kiss Me First. Thinking about why Kiss Me First, which deals with similar questions about digital identities and virtual reality, works so well when What She Left doesn't, I realised that the answer lies in both voice and characterisation. The dreadful opening of What She Left (how did these pages attract 'heated auctions' between publishers?) sums up both of these problems. The novel opens with an 1000-word essay on 'What's in a name?', purportedly written by Alice when she was fifteen for a competition that she won. Now, we all know that if asked to write a similar essay at a similar age we would probably have produced incredible drivel. But this is not a real essay written by a real girl; it is supposed to be the opening to a gripping thriller, and it needs to tell us why we should care about Alice if we are to spend 350+ pages unravelling the mystery of her death. For me, it managed to invert everything a good opening should do. Alice comes off as any badly-written teenage stereotype - apparently quirky, quite annoying, and not as intelligent or ironic as she thinks she is. There's no reason for us to think she will become any more interesting as she grows older.

More importantly, though, I could already tell from these first pages that Richmond is not good enough at voice to pull off what he wants to do in this novel. These thousand words do not read like a prize-winning essay written by a gifted teenager - frankly, they're an insult to teenage writers, and show a real misunderstanding of how a talented teenager might write. Alice's essay sounds exactly like an adult trying to write as a teenager, and getting it wrong, slipping into phrases that are too childish: '"You'll change your mind," mum says about the babies, but she said that about asparagus and I haven't.' or too self-congratulatory in their 'knowledge' of how teenagers 'really think': '... if Mr DiCaprio is reading this, I am free on Friday...' (Furthermore, I am around Alice's age and by 2001 we were all completely over Leo - he was so 1998 - although this may be a bit of an unfair criticism to make of the novel!) The voice problems persist throughout as the narrative moves between rambling letters written by Jeremy to his collection of Alice memories. Richmond tries hard to make Jeremy's voice distinctive, but as other reviewers have pointed out, he slips up too often, not simply with grammatical errors, but with misguided word choices. For example, Jeremy writes in an email that he's 'going to get pie-eyed', an odd word choice that echoes a newspaper article on drunken behaviour included earlier in the text, where Alice's friends are accused of being 'pie-eyed' on the night she drowned. It seems unlikely that a pedantic academic and a trashy newspaper would use the same jargon, and although this might seem nitpicky, it's these sort of things that build up to make voice a problem for all the characters.

Overall, we don't care about what happened to Alice, because we've been given very little reason to care, either about her or those who surround her. There are lots of good thrillers out there dealing with the digital age, tragic young women and conflicting identities; unfortunately, this is not one of them.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 27, 2015 6:06 PM BST


I Am China
I Am China
by Xiaolu Guo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not enough of a story, 23 May 2015
This review is from: I Am China (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This novel, Xiaolu Guo's fifth, is both important and interesting in terms of subject-matter, but for me, did not really work as a piece of storytelling. Iona Kirkpatrick is a rootless translator in London, who has been rather randomly assigned a collection of Chinese letters to translate (the editor who gave them to her admits himself that he has no idea what they are or what he means to do with them, and this plot device feels a little contrived). The correspondence she is translating is a series of exchanges between two lovers, Jian and Mu; Jian is now in a detention centre at Dover for illegal immigrants, waiting to find out what will happen to him, while Mu, in Bejing, is desperately trying to track him down. As Iona translates the letters, the narrative jumps from point to point in the trajectory of Jian and Mu's relationship, and the reader is left to piece the sequence of events together.

The two earlier novels by Guo that I have read, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, were enjoyable, but slight, and felt superficially very similar, both narrated by a young and vulnerable Chinese woman. I Am China is a very different enterprise; much more ambitious, and much more structurally complex. For me, it was hampered rather than helped by its structure. The sequence of very brief chapters made it difficult to become completely immersed in the world of the letters, or Jian's present-day experiences, or Iona's isolation, before we're jerked away to focus on something else. A more serious flaw, for me, were the sections that focused on Iona. She never really comes to life as a character in her own right, so the time we spend with her feels a little pointless, a way to demonstrate that she isn't the plot device that she seems, and Guo dwells on a series of endlessly dull details, from predictable email exchanges to endless repetitions of Iona getting up, going for a walk, observing London or looking up things in books. The Jian/Mu story is much stronger in comparison, especially in its depiction of life in modern China, which I found fascinating, but it is difficult for it to really get going when it's constantly being dragged to a halt by Iona.

In many ways I Am China is a worthwhile read, especially if, like me, you know little of China's more recent history. Nevertheless, its structural flaws made it difficult for me to enjoy.


Nespresso Pixie Clips Capsule Coffee Machine by KRUPS - Black/Yellow Neon
Nespresso Pixie Clips Capsule Coffee Machine by KRUPS - Black/Yellow Neon
Price: £99.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent coffee machine, 20 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The coffee machine we had before this one was the De'Longhi Coffee Machine EC220.CD, which I bought my husband for Christmas a few years ago. While it's held out well in terms of durability, I've always been a bit disappointed in its performance, as there isn't a huge difference between the coffee it makes and what I could make in a cafetiere. It was half the price of this Nespresso machine when I bought it, but has since risen substantially in cost, though it is still a lot cheaper. This is to say that trying out a Nespresso machine became more attractive after the disappointing performance of the De'Longhi, although I was still concerned about the cost and availability of the replacement pods. I have to say I've been very impressed by the performance of the Nespresso so far. It looks great, is easy to use, and the pods aren't too expensive and are easy to order online. Most importantly, the coffee does taste a lot better than your bog-standard machine-made coffee. I hope that it continues to perform well.


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