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L. Cooney (York, UK)
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What I Saw and How I Lied
What I Saw and How I Lied
by Jordan Cray
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A coming of age historical murder mystery, 10 Mar. 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
There's a strong hint of old fashioned 1940s film noir about Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied - the femme fatale figure of Evie's mother, in combination with the mysterious disappearance of a young man with dark secrets about her family, makes for a potent and heady cocktail in the oppressive environment of the Florida winter, where storms seem to ravage the area, and not just weather-wise. Under this cloud of impending doom, 15 year old Evie grows to be a young woman, craving the picture perfect, glamorous lifestyle her mother enjoys. However, this coming of age has a sting in its tail - in achieving maturity, Evie is forced to confront the darker side of human nature, as well as find out the extremes she will go to to protect those she loves, even if that means sacrificing someone else she cares about.

I don't read a lot of books set in this time period, but the imagery and setting that Blundell evokes is completely captivating. It feels like watching a classic Double Indemnity type movie play out in front of you, with the 'polka dots and moonbeams' world of adulthood that Evie idealises, and the twisted side of that world, captured wonderfully, not least in the striking cover art. And by transporting the reader to that environment, we are transported into Evie's story. Although the plot can be a little slow in places, it is truly gripping due to the voice that Blundell gives to Evie, adding depth in its simplicity and well drawn small cast of characters, and meant that whilst I spotted how the book would end a few pages before, I didn't want it to end.

This is a novel that's wasted on being marketed at the young adult readers. That isn't to say they won't enjoy it - they will - but if you've been overlooking this book because you think it's just for teenagers, think again.


Short Girls
Short Girls
by Bich Minh Nguyen
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not just for sisters, but for all of us, 10 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Short Girls (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Van and Linny are two sisters living in the Chicago suburbs. Van, the eldest, has a high flying law career and a seemingly perfect husband - who's just walked out on her for another woman. Linny, on the other hand, is struggling to hold down a job and is having an affair with a married man. But when their father goes for his American citizenship test to try and sell his invention, the Luong Arm (which helps short people reach items in high places), they grow closer than they ever expected to.

I'm sure that anyone with siblings, and particularly two sisters, will be able to relate to not just one, but both of the Luong girls. In a world - and a culture - where strigent expectations are placed on them, their flaws in failing to succeed in these expectations make them instantly more lovable. Most of us know one or the other, perhaps both, or can identify ourselves with them, giving the novel a strong resonance to its target audience. However, the overarching theme of the book to me is distance and escape. Every main character is isolated from the other main characters - the sisters themselves, the sisters and their father, Van and her husband, Linny and her lover, their father from his home in Vietnam, it goes on. For that reason, the most touching relationship for me in the novel is that between Linny and her father, culminating in an argument with Van where she bursts forth into marking herself out as one of the only characters to lower her defences and make us truly warm to her. That said though there are also some funny (if unintentionally so) moments, such as the sisters' stakeout of Van's husband's new home which ends in a dramatic twist.

In short: There are dark undercurrents bubbling away in the background, but overall this is a charming, heartwarming tale of two sisters learning to become friends as well as family.


Under This Unbroken Sky
Under This Unbroken Sky
by Shandi Mitchell
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, haunting, wonderful, 10 Mar. 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Under This Unbroken Sky is the story of the pioneer Teodor Mykolayenko and his family - wife Maria, several children, and sister Anna and her family - as they attempt to make new lives for themselves in America. However, when their past catches up with them, everything slowly and unstoppably begins to crumble around them, destroying their dreams and their chance for a new start...

First of all, you can tell Mitchell is a daughter of the prairies - she paints that flat endless landscape so vividly I almost felt I'd been transported to 19th century Canada. It's an oppressive world, but her hands it stays with you as this empty world, initially full of potential and possibilities but quickly coming to represent the oppressive tragedies which draw the family and the reader into their grasp. Her language when she talks about her characters, especially as the novel races towards its terrible but unstoppable and gripping conclusion, is equally stark. This is not an author who pulls her punches. The Mykolayenkos' lives are hard, and Mitchell wants us to know that. Scenes such as the killing of one child's favourite hen, which is loved despite being unlike the others, are absolutely heartrending in their brutal necessity, done out of love but still horribly fraught.

But it is the souls of the most promiment members of her ensemble cast - the women and the children - which shines through this novel. The tenacity of Maria (in comparison to her sister Anna, who has all but despaired of life with her brutal husband Stefan), her work ethic and tenacity in the face of dark times, lack of money and another mouth to feed, as well as her attempts to instill such philosophies in her niece and nephew, as well as in her children, are truly admirable, making every further hardside they face increasingly unbearable for the reader as one wills them to succeed just once. Comparisons have been drawn with Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck, but for me, the echoes of the book were strongly reminiscent of the earlier parts of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, for the compassion and will to survive that Maria and Ned's mother demonstrate, in contrast to their despairing husbands behind the prison walls.

In short: A harrowing, wonderful novel that will stay with you long after the final page.


Mathilda Savitch
Mathilda Savitch
by Victor Lodato
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars The female Holden Caulfield for a new generation, 25 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Mathilda Savitch (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Many characters of the last half century have received this title, but Mathilda Savitch truly deserves it. This debut novel, set in an alternative present or very near future (references to 'the planes' and 'the war' abound, implying that the war on terror has moved up several notches) and in a nameless small American town, crackles with a narrative voice full of sparks, barbed yet strangely vulnerable, an outsider who rather than seeking self-pitying acceptance revels in her 'difference'. Any novel that starts with "I want to be awful" purports to a unique heroine.

Although Mathilda constantly fights with the reader, who she categorises with her not-quite-spiritual belief in 'the watchers' - giving this novel a voyeuristic edge with tinges of interaction and helplessness in equal measure - it is impossible not to fall in love with her. Her determination to solve the mystery of what happened to her elder sister Helene, who threw herself in front of a train a year before the novel begins, resulting in her eventual realisation of her responsibility towards others and their actions and achieving emotional maturity. The novel also adds empathic qualities to her by minimising her identity - we know more about her dead sister than we do about Mathilda herself, whose age is never revealed and who is rarely referred to by her first name. Similarly, the supporting characters are drawn with clear strokes, maintaining the novel's status as Mathilda's story yet painting them as vivid individuals in their own right and intriguing parallels to Mathilda - it seems like everyone but the dog is struggling with his or her identity.

I have taken off a star for the abruptness of the ending - admittedly I would have dearly loved to find out what happened with Mathilda and Kevin - but I adored this debut novel. It's beautifully poetic, poignant and funny by turns, and voiced with a unique heroine whose ferociously forceful voice bursts forth from the pages and makes you want to keep turning them.


Breath
Breath
by Tim Winton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Unique, fresh and timeless, 14 July 2009
This review is from: Breath (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I admit I haven't read many books about surfing - before this one the closest I'd got was Gidget - and this is nothing like. By which I mean it's fresh, and yet it feels timeless and placeless, with an urgency absent from Kohner's novel. Several times when reading it I forgot it was set in Australia and found myself imagining its characters as teenagers in a sleepy British seaside town. And in my book, when a novel can be applied to any place whilst maintaining a unique location, you've got something special in your hands.

What is most appealing about the novel is its detachment from the traditional image of surfing so often seen plastered in advertisements for the likes of O'Neill and Billabong. Not for Winton the clean-cut wholesomeness of the California scene; this is down and dirty, elemental, wild and occasionally brutal, in all its aspects. It's not for nothing that there's a strange exclusion of sunlight in the book. And this attitude transfers to the characters: you can never quite shake the feeling that something is always being held back, in both a pleasurable and frustrating way.

This is a novel that leaves you hungry, craving more but knowing you won't get it, and very reluctant to leave its world.


The Piano Teacher
The Piano Teacher
by Janice Y. K. Lee
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A vivid depiction of a forgotten world, 2 July 2009
This review is from: The Piano Teacher (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have to admit I knew very little about the impact of World War Two in Asia before reading The Piano Teacher, but I now feel not only enlightened on the subject, but also very keen to find out more. Janice Lee's novel, spanning two decades in Hong Kong and telling the story of two women (one of whom is the titular piano teacher) and their relationships with the Englishman Will Truesdale, is almost startingly vivid in its depiction of all sides of the city her characters inhabit. One can almost smell the streets of Hong Kong and see oneself surrounding by the glittering parties as much as the oppressiveness of the POW camps.

However, I found it it to be a very patchy novel and almost frustrating at times. The major plot twist is visible a mile off and consequently the ending felt very flat. I also found myself feeling indifferent towards Claire - she just didn't seem as well developed as Trudy and Will - and become increasingly impatient to get through her sections. By the end of the book I was almost questioning her inclusion, and wondering if the novel wouldn't have been vastly improved if it had just focused on Trudy and Will's story, with perhaps the payoff coming as an epilogue of some kind.

In short: A beautifully and seductively written book that evokes 1940s Asian cities in a way few novelists can - Lee is up there with Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World for this - but one I believe would ultimately have worked better by streamlining the text and focusing on Trudy's story - I would have loved to know more about her past.


Mr Toppit
Mr Toppit
by Charles Elton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Funny, dark yet oddly charming, 8 Jun. 2009
This review is from: Mr Toppit (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
For a novel that opens with a death and named for the antagonist from a series of children books, there is a strange humour permeating throughout Mr Toppit. It opens with the death of Arthur Hayman, author of a Harry Potter-esque series of books called The Hayseed Chronicles which star his son Luke in the main role, who is accompanied to the hospital by an American tourist named Laurie Clow. Laurie creates a relationship with Arthur, and an assumed responsibility towards his books which makes them world-famous, much to the chagrin of Arthur's widow Martha and his teenage children, Rachel and Luke.

As one digs in deeper and deeper to the mysteries of the Hayseed family, much in the way that Laurie becomes intertwined with them, you feel yourself being drawn into the history of the books and the secrets they contain. Yet there is a strange humour about the novel: the events of the latter half of the book in particular, when Luke visits Laurie in California, are darkly funny in their dealings with American subculture. Elton creates a vibrant world of truly believable characters, drawing parallels between the lives of Luke and Laurie and painting possibly the most vivid secondary characters I have ever seen in literature.

This, then, is a novel about the haunting of a child's past, and the 'Mr Toppits' of one's life, the dark figures that lurk at the corner of the imagination, whom we can choose to face up to or attempt to shut out, whatever the consequences. It is about what a tragedy can do to a family, the fickle nature of fame, and what happens when the outsider becomes the insider. Strangely seductive, it will stay with you long after the last page.


Map of the Invisible World
Map of the Invisible World
by Tash Aw
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The other side of the Harmony Silk Factory fence, 17 May 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I adored Tash Aw's first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, so had high hopes for his second book, and can safely say I wasn't disappointed. Map of the Invisible World tells the story of two brothers, Adam and Johan, whose mother leaves them in an Indonesian orphanage. Johan is later adopted by a wealthy childless couple and taken to Malaysia, whilst Adam is adopted by a Dutch man named Karl, with whom he lives on a small island named Perdo. However, when Karl is captured by President Surkano's forces, Adam sets out on a quest to discover who he really is, becoming embroiled in the revolution that bubbles under the surface throughout the novel but never really bursts through.

In a way, this novel is very much the reverse of Aw's previous work. Unlike the damp, moist jungles of The Harmony Silk Factory, in Map of the Invisible World we find ourselves in the hot, bustling city of Jakarta. This is not a novel dealing with the nouveau riche (indeed, for much of the novel such people are vilified, with the exception of the character Z, but even she resents her wealthy position), but rather with those in the thick of things, being forced to do whatever it takes to survive in a volatile anti-West environment on the brink of turning to Communism. And yet it also deals with similar themes to The Harmony Silk Factory - those of loss of one's identity owing to circumstances and not knowing how to start trying to find it again. This is a novel about the secrets we all keep, the memories that haunt us all, and the chances we have all lost.

In short: Think of this as a companion to The Harmony Silk Factory, with a much more refined level of characterisation (the character of Margaret Bates in particular will make you yearn for a prequel about her pre-Map life) and detail. Not necessarily an introduction to a fascinating period of history, but definitely a jumping off point, and a wonderful tale that stays with you long after the last page to boot.


The Thing Around Your Neck
The Thing Around Your Neck
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars An escape, but not the one I was expecting, 7 May 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Having spent the past few months immersed in the taxing world of novels and revising for university finals, I chose this book of twelve short stories as I thought it would be an escape from exam stress. And in a way it was, but not quite in the way I was expecting.

I must confess I hadn't read any of Ngozi Adichie's other work, or indeed many other novels about Africa, apart from Alexander McCall Smith's The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. And if, like me, that's the extent of your ideas of African literature, then be prepared to be shocked; there are elements of these stories that are considerably darker, with the harsh issues of African society talked about in a way that McCall Smith's novels only skirt. However, the stories do not all end sadly; whilst many characters' lives are tinged with a palpable loss, be it that of a spouse, a child or a homeland, the very nature of the book means that there is always a vague glimmer of hope at the end of each story.

In addition to this, the legion of voices in the text are particularly noteworthy. As well as a sparkling cast of supporting characters, one of the book's main strengths is the diversity of its central characters: young and old, male and female, whether their stories take place in Nigeria or America, Ngozi Adichie gives each of them the voice of an individual. Not for her the stereotypical cardboard cut-outs; these characters could almost be in the room with you, with their own traits, their own unique personalities. This skill at evoking character further extends to her depiction of their world; one can almost smell the food cooking, particularly in the Nigerian stories with their air of vitality and heritage (in contrast to the stories set in America, which at times can feel slightly clinical and detached, but suffer no less for it in evoking powerful emotions and attachments to the characters).

In short, then, this is a beautiful, sad, haunting and vividly described book, ideal to dip in and out of or to read straight through, and I highly recommend it.


Stadium Arcadium
Stadium Arcadium
Offered by Assai-uk
Price: £6.99

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Red Hot Chili Peppers - Stadium Arcadium, 21 Aug. 2006
This review is from: Stadium Arcadium (Audio CD)
If our first samples of the Chilis' post-By The Way material was the two frankly unessential inclusions of 'Rolling Sly Stone' and 'Leverage Of Space' on their Live In Hyde Park album were an appetiser, then 'Stadium Arcadium' is a six-course banquet of musical goodness. From the opening groove of 'Dani California' to the closing bars of 'Death Of A Martian', every song rings with quality.

Certainly most of the tastiest nuggets can be found on Jupiter rather than Mars, particularly 'Snow ((Hey Oh))', which boasts the finest intro between Chad and Flea since 'Higher Ground', the title track - which practically begs to be sung back at you by a crowd of thousands at a summer festival - 'Dani California' and 'Warlocks', which bears an almost uncanny resemblance musically to Californication's 'Purple Stain'. Other highlights of the first disc include the ambiguous 'Charlie', 'She's Only 18', 'Especially In Michigan' and 'C'mon Girl', which strongly echoes the Chilis' pre-Frusciante party boy days, as well as the vastly underrated 'Slow Cheetah' - 'Breaking The Girl' for the Noughties - and 'Torture Me'.

That's not to say the red planet doesn't have its highlights either. It's here that the band shows signs of evolution, particularly in the albums two songs which deal with life's most complex emotions - love and death (even if the latter is that of Flea's dog). 'Hard To Concentrate' certainly ranks as the most heartbreakingly gorgeous ballad of the year, whilst 'Death Of A Martian', though tinged with melancholy, offers hope for the future. This is a Chilis who, now reaching their forties and becoming family men, are evolving from their roots rather than betraying them, as shown on the likes of 'Tell Me Baby' and 'Storm In A Teacup'.

In short: Far from going downhill with every new album they make, the Chilis keep getting better and better, and the proof is encapsulated here. However, the special edition is for serious fans alone - be honest, space-themed marbles are really not essential to your life.


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