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NickR (UK)

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The Pinecone
The Pinecone
by Jenny Uglow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.38

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but flawed, 6 Dec. 2013
This review is from: The Pinecone (Paperback)
I've been a fan of Jenny Uglow's for some while, but this book was a little disappointing. Here are a few reasons:

The book has clearly been researched in depth, but it lacks focus. It claims to be the story of Sarah Losh, yet as other reviewers have commented it is at least as much about her family - a very interesting family, which would merit a book in its own right. Also, every time the narrative drifts off into the family archives, it accumulates a clutter of miscellaneous and distracting trivia which should have been sifted out.

The sub-title is "The story of Sarah Losh, Romantic heroine, architect and visionary". Romantic heroine - eh? SL appears to have been a good and distinguished person, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing in this book to substantiate the word "heroine". That's just plain misleading language. I'll bet it helps sell more copies, though.

The writing is also sometimes uncharacteristically careless. A couple of random examples: on p 193 there is the ugly sentence, "This would hurt Sarah, being such a careful gardener herself"; and in pp 281-3 there is a cataphoric shift from 1884 to "this century" which I think will catch most readers off-balance.

Overall, then, the book gives the impression of having started from an unclear brief, and of the raw material having been bundled together in some haste.

If that sounds over-critical, I should also say that I couldn't put the book down, that I would still recommend it with reservations, that it revived my interest in a fascinating period of our past, that I'll visit the church at Wreay just as soon as I can.

LATER: I visited the church, twice - what a wonderful place.

The Big Man
The Big Man
by William Mcilvanney
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A terrific book, 29 Nov. 2013
This review is from: The Big Man (Paperback)
I'm grateful to Canongate for reissuing McIlvanney's Laidlaw trilogy, and so introducing me to this overlooked author.

The Big Man is a gripping tale with simple - possibly simplistic - themes: the essential decency of the rust-belt working class; the need for clan loyalty; and implicitly (and more worryingly to the modern reader) the virtual impossibility of retaining one's decency if one's aspirations lie outside the clan. It's strange stuff, with Glasgow villains sharing the page with the protagonist's existential musings. I can't put my finger on where I've read such material before. Hemingway, maybe? Jack London? Orwell? Anyway, Canongate, could you please re-issue the rest of McIlvanney's books so I don't have to trawl the second-hand shelves, and so more readers can re-discover this fine writer?

An Officer and a Spy
An Officer and a Spy
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable, 24 Nov. 2013
I don't think I associate Robert Harris with such slow-burning procedural novels, and for the first hundred or so pages I wondered whether he might have made a mistake in his choice of subject. I was wrong. The book manages to be quite gripping, and this despite the fact that two of its protagonists, Picquart and Dreyfus, are portrayed in a chilly and unflattering light.

I am full of admiration for the author. The idea of retelling the Dreyfus story came up, he says at the beginning of 2012. He researched the subject widely, and this vast and elaborately crafted novel appeared just 18 months later. Remarkable.

Saints of the Shadow Bible (Inspector Rebus Book 19)
Saints of the Shadow Bible (Inspector Rebus Book 19)
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Back in the groove, 21 Nov. 2013
Ian Rankin went through a bad patch a few years ago (think 'Doors Open'); then he introduced Malcolm Fox, who for many of us seemed a thin and unattractive character, into Rebus's stamping ground; now, at last, he has brought Rebus and Fox together in a partnership which makes some kind of sense. They are still polar opposites, but some of the angularity has gone from Rebus, and some of the puritanical dorkiness from Fox, and they're both more credible as a result. Which of the two gets lead billing? Neither - the city of Edinburgh does.

Excellent book, and the first one for years which I would recommend to a Rankin newbie.

The Circle (Penguin Essentials)
The Circle (Penguin Essentials)
Price: £4.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exhilarating, depressing, important, 23 Oct. 2013
This is a terrific book. Eggers' spare, linear style is well suited to the simple core premise and to a plot-line which ramps up logically, inexorably to a horrible last page which, the reader knows, isn't the end of the story at all. I finished the story in a state of fury: fury against The Circle (an obvious Google-alike); fury against the brain-washed, Stakhanovite protagonist, Mae; fury against our society for marching ecstatically and unquestioningly into slavery.

This book isn't a simple rant against social media. Eggers is dispassionate in the face of some huge issues, though we can probably read his true thoughts in the eloquent letters from Mae's ex-boyfriend, the refusenik Mercer.

Be warned: after reading this book you will want, if you haven't done so already, to shut down your Twitter and Facebook accounts, switch to duckduckgo as your search engine, and possibly even abandon Amaz-

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
Price: £7.49

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth the wait, 5 Oct. 2013
I was initially reluctant to like this book: Artemis Cooper's recent biography had revealed aspects of PLF I didn't greatly like, and I was still sulking as a result; and the fact that the book had been patched together after the author's death made me over-sensitive to the occasional stylistic or grammatical howler. I should have been less prickly. The book is terrific. As usual, Leigh Fermor manages to combine the lyrical and the encyclopaedic in a leisurely way which never bores. Highlights for me were his slow meandering through the Balkan mountains, the bright lights and chatter of Bucharest high society, and the memorable scene in the cave on the Black Sea coast, with the dancing Greek fishermen.

Unlike some other reviewers I found the section on Mount Athos a little disappointing: monasteries are ticked off one by one, and the narrative has little space in which to breathe. I was surprised to learn that PLF apparently made several attempts to polish up the manuscript of this section, as it reads more like unreconstructed juvenilia than the earlier part of the book. Good in its way, though, and an interesting waystage in the development of the writer.

The book has an excellent jacket by the way. Ed Kluz is a worthy successor to John Craxton, who did most of PLF's covers.

Laidlaw (Laidlaw Trilogy Book 1)
Laidlaw (Laidlaw Trilogy Book 1)
Price: £4.53

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wish I'd found McIlvanney earlier, 6 Sept. 2013
Definitely lives up to the hype. I've just ordered the next two in the series. Grim, grubby, but very humane.

by Sofi Oksanen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing, 13 July 2013
This review is from: Purge (Paperback)
Like other readers, I found it took me a while to get into this book, but by the end I was hooked. And like other readers, I could have done without Part V.

The emotions are raw, the crimes are extreme, the staging is narrowly domestic, the motivations are shabby and very human - this book has all the makings of a terrific opera. Seriously.

Leaving the Atocha Station
Leaving the Atocha Station
by Ben Lerner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fear and loathing in Madrid, 9 May 2013
First of all, congratulations to Granta Books for picking up this book by a first-time novelist who should go on to do more, and even better.

It's a fine book, but I don't believe it lives up to the hype that's been loaded on it. The professional reviewers who described it as "the funniest book I read this year", and full of "gales of laughter" have a very odd sense of humour. It's wry, it invites schadenfreude, it has an initially loathsome and drugged-up protagonist who sort-of comes good - but "hilarious", really..?

Ben Lerner is clearly bright and well read, and enjoys playing with language. In just 180 pages he delivers more of an intense literary experience than Roberto Bolaño managed in his comparably-themed 600-page bloat-fest, 'The Savage Detectives'. I hope Ben Lerner will write more fiction.

PS: the use of the capitalised Spanish definite article in place names was odd. Phrases such as "I would cross El Paseo del Prado", and "the noise from La Plaza Santa Ana" sound jarring. I think most people would find "the Paseo del Prado", and "the Plaza Santa Ana" more normal (and Lerner's Adam does leave for "the Prado", not for "El Prado").

A Delicate Truth
A Delicate Truth
by John le Carré
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something old, something new, 29 April 2013
This review is from: A Delicate Truth (Hardcover)
Le Carré has a wonderful capacity to re-invent himself. I remember a time when most of us thought he needed the Cold War to fuel his writing. Then came the break-up of the Soviet Bloc, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and le Carré responded with the splendid 'Russia House', which had a foot in both the pre- and post-Communist worlds. And so he has continued to evolve, and to be at the forefront of our contemporary concerns. 'A Delicate Truth' is largely a Blairite tale, but is there also a sideways glance at the more recent story of Liam Fox and Adam Werritty?

As Le Carré evolves, so he also remains recognisably himself. His characters speak in baroque curlicues. They italicise their speech, creating curious rhythms and emphases. They have very Le Carré names. In this book our protagonist is a Toby. But of course he is (though our author - slightly shamefacedly, I think - explains the name away on p48).

A very satisfying book, which thumps all the right bogeymen on the nose.

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