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ian m farrell (Wilnecote Tamworth, Staffs United Kingdom)

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The Manual of Detection
The Manual of Detection
by Jedediah Berry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative and engrossing debut, 16 Aug. 2011
This novel treads the same ground as the highly successful and intriguing summer blockbuster, `Inception', detection through dreams, and is a must for fans of Nolanesque circuitous narratives, noir, detective fiction and just plain excellent writing!

As a first novel this is stunning. Berry handles the conventions of the various genres he weaves through his story with a deftness and lightness of touch which is a delight to read. You are drawn in to the strange, dystopian world of Charles Unwin, a clerk at the ominous Agency which dominates an unnamed city where, in classic noir style, it is always raining. Suddenly promoted to detective following the disappearance of the pallindronically named Travis Sivart, Unwin undertakes the seemingly impossible task of finding him in a city which is reluctant to give up its secrets.

The novel is peopled with fantastically strange characters; the enigmatic woman in the plaid coat; the limping femme fatale, Cleopatra Greenwood; the Rook twins, once conjoined and now incapable of sleep and the strange and freakish inhabitants of Caligari's Travels-No-More carnival. The plot is circuitous and intriguing; often it is difficult to work out whether the characters are awake or asleep but it is an exhilarating journey nonetheless.

An absolute tour-de-force from a first time author. One can only look forward to what else he might produce in the future.

The News Where You Are
The News Where You Are
by Catherine O'Flynn
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing novel about what defines us, 16 Aug. 2011
This review is from: The News Where You Are (Paperback)
Second novels are always difficult territory, especially if your first won both plaudits and prizes. Catherine O'Flynn's first novel, `What was Lost', a beautifully written thriller set in the unlikely location of a Midlands shopping mall, managed to bag the Costa First Novel Award amongst a cluster of prizes and awards.

Her second novel, `The News Where You Are' also treads the familiar territory of Birmingham and its ever-changing urban landscape. We meet forty-something Frank Allcroft, a Midlands news presenter and unlikely cult figure, who sits on the sofa with his dated outfits telling corny jokes he buys from Cyril `joke writer to the stars'. Frank, much to his wife's chagrin, cannot leave the past alone; he continually reminisces about what used to be, has an unhealthy interest in people who have died alone and unremembered and is haunted by the memory of his distant architect father, whose brutalist buildings are slowly disappearing from the cityscape.

The novel traces Frank's attempts to find out about a local man, Michael Church, who died alone on a park bench with seemingly no-one to mourn his passing. As Frank explores Michael's past, he finds links with his former friend, Phil Smethway, the charismatic TV presenter who recently died in a hit and run accident. The novel is essentially a melancholic look at the role of the past in our present lives, identity, love and loss but is told with the lightness of touch and sharpness of observation that characterised `What Was Lost'. If I have a criticism, there are chapters inserted throughout that are written from different characters' perspectives and that I feel jar with and distract from the main narrative. The novel would lose nothing without them.

An engrossing, touching read; not as good as `What Was Lost' in my opinion but, nevertheless, a novel which makes you think about the way we live and what defines us.

Into the Beautiful North: A Novel
Into the Beautiful North: A Novel
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.47

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, funny, engaging novel, 16 Aug. 2011
The women of Tres Camarones have had enough. All of their men have left to travel to `el norte' in search of work, leaving a motley bunch behind (the ineffectual `rich man' of the town, Garcia-Garcia; the crazy Pepino and gay bar owner, Tacho). And the bandidos have moved into town...

Inspired by a screening of `The Magnificent Seven' at the local cinema (part of a Yul Brynner season demanded by the town's matriarch, Tia Irma, in homage to the best actor to come out of Mexico!) nineteen year old Nayeli (a martial arts trained footballer and waitress) sets off with her two friends and Tacho to bring back seven soldiers who will help rid the town of the bandidos. She packs two cards for her journey, one from Matt the missionary, who came to Tres Camarones hoping to convert the peasants and went away breaking the heart of every girl in the town and a postcard from Kankakee, Illinois from her father.

What ensues is a wonderfully imagined road trip from Tres Camarones to Tijuana and over the border to Los Yunaites. Along the way our group meet a colourful array of memorable characters, from the crazy, stick toting Atomiko to Don Chava Charavin, one-time Mexican bowling champion and paramour of Tia Irma. By turns moving and hilarious, this novel is that special blend of humour, pathos and social realism that is rare to find. A real gem of a book!

by Dan Rhodes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully engaging and VERY funny!, 16 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Gold (Paperback)
Dan Rhodes could be on his way to becoming my favourite new author; his collection of short stories `Anthropology' was witty and slightly crazy and the same is true of `Gold', the first full novel of his I have read.

Miyuki Woodward, a half Japanese, half Welsh lesbian interior designer arrives at the small seaside town she visits every year for her holiday (in January!) She spends her days walking, reading, eating a bizarre array of food as an antidote to her girlfriend's insistence on healthy eating (one of her `all-time favourite meals' is microwaved macaroni cheese and a side of Frazzles) and drinking pints of Brains in the local pub. Here she slowly gets to know the locals: tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes, Mr Puw and Septic Barry and the Children from Previous Relationships (the poor excuse for a local band!)

The novel tells of Miyuki's past and present, her increasing involvement with the misfit community and acts of vandalism, friendship and belonging. Rhodes' narrative is astonishing; he adeptly manages to balance pathos with moments of belly-hugging humour (there were two points in the novel when I couldn't read on, I was crying so much with laughter!) The locals are fantastically drawn and Rhodes manages to convey their characters precisely in a few confident brushstrokes; Septic Barry, the womanising sewage specialist (his van has the slogan `A GREAT SUCK-CESS SINCE 1994!) is perfect, as is the incompetent quizmaster and the cursing landlord of The Boat.

A wonderful, light and effortlessly funny read- strongly recommended!

American Wife
American Wife
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Confident but over-ambitious?, 16 Aug. 2011
This review is from: American Wife (Paperback)
It is hard to approach this novel without a sense of morbid curiosity; it purports to be a thinly veiled retelling of Laura Bush's story and it is natural to read it wondering if you can find out the answer to the big question, `What was it about George Bush that attracted her?!!' However, thankfully, once you start reading you forget about the whole George Bush thing and are drawn in instead to the life of a serious and attractive small town American girl, Alice Lindgren, who undergoes her fair share of troubles before she meets the attractive Congressional candidate, Charlie Blackwell.

It's a well written novel; Sittenfeld handles her characters in an assured way and the early sections of the novel, where Alice has to cope with the tragic death of her classmate and the revelation that her grandmother is a lesbian, are by far the best. It is a huge novel and I wonder if Sittenfeld has taken on rather too much. I was less convinced by the later sections which deal with Alice as the president's wife. How Charlie actually managed to get there and what their life is like in The White House is rather too hurried and episodic to engage as fully as the beginning of the novel.

However, a confident and interesting read which creates a thoroughly convincing protagonist and an intriguing insight into American life generally and the White House in particular.

Mr Chartwell
Mr Chartwell
by Rebecca Hunt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, imaginative debut, 16 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Mr Chartwell (Paperback)
It is 1964 and troubled widow, Esther Hammerhans, is nervously awaiting a new lodger in her London home. Mr Chartwell keeps the appointment but turns out to be no ordinary lodger. In Kent, Sir Winston Churchill is preparing for his retirement when he is disturbed by a familiar intruder he has not seen for some time. Over the course of the novel, these two disparate lives converge, drawn together by their strange bond with Mr Chartwell.

Mr. Chartwell, or Black Pat, is a dog. And not the loveable kind you pet and take for walks. A black dog the size of a human; dirty, slobbering and destructive, repulsive yet strangely alluring. He is opinionated and stubborn; neither character wants him in their lives and yet neither can quite get rid of him. For Mr. Chartwell is a metaphor for depression and the novel follows the way he ingratiated himself into Esther and Chruchill's lives and how the two respond; Churchill with weary resignation and Esther with an almost hypnotic compulsion.

This is a refreshing, beautifully written and thoroughly original novel; amazingly, Rebecca Hunt's first. The conceit never strikes you as clumsy or forced and, as you are drawn into the protagonists' lives, you understand completely how they can be consumed by depression, the "black dog" as described by Churchill. The ending threatens to descend into sentimentality but is rescued in a final poignant scene..
An assured debut from a writer who will be one to watch.

Hungry, the Stars and Everything
Hungry, the Stars and Everything
by Emma Jane Unsworth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant debut, 16 Aug. 2011
I was SO looking forward to reading this book. I follow Unsworth on Twitter (she is consistently one of the most humorous tweeters out there!) and, hailing from Manchester, was curious about this first offering from new artisan publishers, The Hidden Gem Press. It certainly didn't disappoint!

Helen Burns (a literary nod to Charlotte Bronte) is a twenty nine year old food critic. Seemingly, she has it all: an enviable job, beautiful house which she shares with adoring partner..but all is not as it appears. Helen has a past which she has tried, successfully up to now, to conceal from friends and lover but, after an unsuccessful birthday proposal and a visit to a mysterious new restaurant, tipped for a Michelin star, things start to unravel. Bethel, the restaurant in question, is an enigma; it has sprung up from nowhere, no-one knows who the chef is and yet it is developing a reputation for exquisite food. Pete, Helen's boyfriend, prophetically announces of the chef: "He's got to have a history." As Helen indulges in the eleven course taster menu, which seems to have been prepared specially for her, memories of her past begin to flood her present...

This is a beautifully written, assured debut from an exciting new writer. The blurb on the back sells this novel short, I feel, presenting it as pretty much chic lit. It is MUCH more than that. Certainly, there is a destructive and intense relationship in Helen's past which, as the meal and the novel progresses, she begins to come to terms with (the meal itself acts as a structuring device for telling Helen's complicated back story). But the novel also deals with gastronomy, astrophysics and, most importantly, the concept of wanting more. The characters are intelligently drawn and `real'; even Helen's antagonistic grandmother avoids descending into cliché, becoming instead a complex and difficult character.

The descriptions in the novel, particularly of food are wonderful: the description of malt whisky, "Oak decaying to sweet maltiness. Almost chewy. French toast and black tea" almost had me reaching for my husband's collection. And I don't even LIKE whisky! Unsworth also has a striking sense of place; knowing both Manchester and Liverpool well, I found myself mentally wandering their streets with the main character, looking at buildings and landmarks with fresh eyes.

There is little to dislike in this novel. Even the occasional appearances by the devil, whilst not fully developed, seem to work. A highly readable, thoughtful first novel from an author whom I look forward to reading more of in future.

Who is Mr Satoshi?
Who is Mr Satoshi?
by Jonathan Lee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.94

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, engaging first novel, 28 July 2011
This review is from: Who is Mr Satoshi? (Paperback)
Let me start by saying that my daughter (aged 3) is obsessed with this book! She has picked it up on a number of occasions and `read' to it from me (it seemed to be about car journeys and picnics!), she has been running round the house answering only to `Mrs Matoshi' and has insisted that I read some of it to her! Never has she been so taken by one of my books, although I must add that the feeling is mutual!

Car journeys and picnics it is NOT about. What it IS about is a world-weary, reclusive photographer, Rob Fossick, who is in his forties when his mother dies from a fall. She has left a mysterious parcel addressed to Mr Satoshi and seems to have been very insistent that it be sent to him. It seems that Mr Satoshi is an English expat living in Japan who was his mother's childhood sweetheart and the mystery surrounding him provides the momentum Foss needs to begin to break out of his life of seclusion. He journeys to Japan, determined to find Mr Satoshi and carry out his mother's last request.

This is a beautifully written novel about the past and how it impacts on the present. Lee manages to weave several mysteries into the story, giving it momentum and pace, although not at the expense of the quality of the writing. You are totally drawn into the mind of troubled Foss; you feel his pain, anxieties and neuroses all too acutely. Japan and its people come to life on the page, from the frenetic downtown area of Tokyo with its crowds and neon landscape to the fish market and knife shop in Sapporo. The colourful local characters are wonderful; Chiyoko, the MA student with bright pink hair and Daisuke, the gay ex-sumo wrestler with a penchant for all things Dolly Parton, are convincingly drawn and nowhere does Lee descend into cliché or stereotype.

Lee has written a wonderful, accomplished first novel. It deals with important issues, like truth, grief and redemption, with subtlety and skill. It had me laughing and crying and left me ultimately very satisfied. Except in one thing. Being a first novel, I know I am going to have to wait a long time for novel number two!

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