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Kado (London)

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The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
Edition: Hardcover

13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Partly Wonderful, Partly Weird and Baffling, 7 July 2014
This review is from: The Miniaturist (Hardcover)
THIS REVIEW HAS POTENTIAL SPOILERS (nothing explicit), I just feel like I cannot explain my mixed feelings on this book without going a tiny bit into spoiler territory.

The Miniaturist is about Nella, an eighteen-year-old girl in 17th century Amsterdam who is thrust into an arranged marriage with an older man and has to cope with living in a household of closely guarded secrets, puritan values and in-laws and servants who both intrigue and terrify her.

The premise is compelling but I feel that a potentially gripping story is let down by an unevenly executed, sometimes bizarre plot.

The first 50 pages or so are engrossing and purposeful and I was looking forward to settling in and being wildly entertained. But as the story goes on, the plot loses its sense of purpose and momentum, and at times, wanders aimlessly from one scene to the next. I found the narrative develops a sort of ‘then this happened, then that happened, Nella goes here, Nella goes there, quality. By the time we get to the last third of the book the plot has become perplexing, even bewildering, especially when it comes to characters and their motivations, which range from eye-brow raising to genuine WTF moments?


A certain heterosexual female character allows a certain homosexual male character to kiss her, apparently passionately and at length in front of people in the midst of a life-and-death emergency for no logical reason that I can think of. There is no precedent for this kiss and no explanation for it. It’s done and then forgotten about while we move on to other strange happenings. This is one of several examples I can think of (but don’t want to spoil any further) where characters do questionable things that are never explained.

My issues with the plot aside, there can be no doubting Burton’s talent and attention to detail, especially at the sentence level - the lady can write.

Some scenes are written very well indeed: an awkward dinner party is superbly sinister and yet darkly humourous; Nella trespassing in an off-limits room is unbearably tense, and a scene involving Nella, a keyhole and her sister-in-law has to be one of the most terrific scenes I have had the pleasure of reading for a good long while, perfectly paced and worded, at once boldly and subtly written, raising question after question – I was holding my breath reading it.

Other scenes don’t play out quite so well and fall under the Weird and Baffling category. One in particular features a lot of crucial moments piled on top of one another, then a character will suddenly appear at the top of the steps to delay the crisis, then another bursts through the door in a nick of a time, and still others arrive, or do things to escalate the crisis or hold it off. Bear in mind that in the midst of all the drama is the aforementioned ‘inexplicable kiss’! It reminded me of those dramatic 1950s movies with the bombastic music and the over-the-top acting.

I also failed to connect with Nella, the main character, partly due to the author’s choice of narrative perspective (third person present tense which, whilst impressive stylistically, does hold the reader at arm’s length) and partly due to Nella being a mostly passive character so that I never felt I was inside her head. She is literally an observer (spying through keyholes, overhearing conversations, gathering information secretively) rather than a participant until nearer the end, and she comes across as uninteresting.

The same cannot be said for Nella’s fierce sister-in-law, Marin, highly intelligent, deeply flawed, a shrewd business woman with a cut-throat attitude and the heart of an adventurer, Marin is an outstanding character and one I’ll never forget. How I wish Marin had been the main character, imagine the wit, the insight, the darkness within!

I can’t comment on historical accuracy as I have no idea, but the author certainly painted a vivid picture of that time period for me. As for the miniaturist, that character remains an enigma to the end, a phantom that flitters in and out of the story threads and I have no problem with that.

I suppose the bottom line for me is that I didn’t ‘get’ this novel, sadly. Others will I’m sure. Burton is a talent to watch and I appreciate that this is a hugely ambitious and complex debut – perhaps too complex. Even though The Miniaturist isn’t for me, I still look forward to seeing what other stories Burton conjures up. Next time, I’d like a main character more like Marin please!

Half Bad
Half Bad
by (Novelist) Sally Green
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Excellent beginning and end spoiled by poor middle section., 14 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Half Bad (Paperback)
Half Bad is about a teenage boy, Nathan, who is the only half Black, half White witch trying to find his notorious Black Witch father before the Hunters do, so that he can receive his three Gifts and become a fully fledged witch before his 17th birthday - or he'll die.

It's a great premise and there are some intriguing scenes and details that more than live up to the promise of this premise. There's just not enough of them.

While Nathan has a goal, and there are stakes, Green puts such insurmountable obstacles in his way that there is no possibility of his journey ever beginning - not until about three quarters of the way through the book. This means that the vast majority of the book is spent with a character who can't do anything to help himself. No matter how interesting the thoughts in his head might be (and they are often not) that doesn't make for a good read.

Put another way, if Half Bad were a movie in its current state, the first and last 15 minutes would be exciting and action packed and the hour in between would feature a lot of thinking, and a lot of talking.

Thinking and talking about what? Well, there are so many stories to tell and history lectures to give: the story of Saba, the history of witches, the story of Geeta, the story of Mercury, the history of Nathan's father Marcus, the story of Mary, the history of the Council and some of its members... Even the love interest scenes consist of lots of chatting on a hill. These scenes really drag on the pace.

It doesn't help that much of Nathan's thinking concerns his daily routine along the lines of: I wake up, I look around. I scratch my back. I think for a bit. I check the hens' eggs, I do the washing up, chop some wood. Have a nap. Go back to my cage.

Scenes like this make up roughly half of the book, maybe more. There are some fairly dynamic scenes in between all the talking/thinking but not many.

Green shows in the first quarter of Half Bad exactly what she is capable of and if she had written the rest of the book in the same manner Half Bad would have made for a formidable read indeed. That first quarter grips from the first sentence and does not let go...until it lets go.

Towards the end we are treated to some terrific scenes: one featuring Nathan and Bob brims with both humour and underlying tension and another scene in Liverpool, of all places, involves a low-key, yet chilling skirmish between Feins (non-witches) and White Witch Hunters. Scenes between Nathan and his keeper/tormentor Celia are brutal, disarming and the only saving grace of the middle section.

It's a real shame that so much of Half Bad is simply not up to scratch when compared with the exceptional beginning and end parts.

Would I read the next book, Half Wild? Based on potential, yes, because I have a feeling this author is going to improve, hone her craft and come back with a knock out novel. But as for Half Bad? I'd say manage your expectations.

The Bone Season
The Bone Season
by Samantha Shannon
Edition: Hardcover

54 of 63 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Potentially good story bogged down by too much world building, 27 Aug. 2013
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This review is from: The Bone Season (Hardcover)
There's a good story struggling to get out from beneath a mountain of information in The Bone Season.

It's a cliché to blame the editor but in this instance, Ed really should have taken this promising young author aside and said, `Look, how about we get the plot into shape, cut a lot of this info, yes? Hold it over for sequels? Good.' Ed didn't do that (I presume) and as a result, TBS almost collapses under the weight of its own narrative.

I won't recount the plot since so many reviewers have already done so.

I'll say there are two major reasons why the masses of information in TBS ruin the reading experience: 1. The information presented is not relevant to the current scene or the immediate goings-on of the plot; it's only relevant in The Grand Scheme of Things, or World Building in General, or Things That Happen Later. 2. It puts the plot in first gear and never changes up, until around Chapter 8. In the meantime, Paige has umpteen number of conversations during which she gets information, which leads to dialogue that has all the subtly of a sledgehammer, and sometimes skirts dangerously close to moments of, `As you know Bob...'

Yes, there's a lot of information in the first half of TBS and not nearly enough story, too much emphasis on world building and not enough on plot; much too much geeking out over the labelling of things and their definitions, categories and history and not enough on steadily building one or two characters we get to know and care about, gradually introducing the support cast.

Once we're past the half way mark, and all the tedious information is left behind, the plot finally cranks up a few gears and the story starts to cruise along nicely. That being said, the story itself is highly derivative; I'm surprised more people haven't picked up on the Twilight vibe. The Raphaite aren't vampires but they are moody, sullen types, sleep during the day and come out at night, are centuries old, sort of immortal, and occasionally feed off human blood. We also have inter-species romance (wisely, not too much of that) and a dominant (he) and a submissive (she). It's got a Hunger Games vibe in that there are training sessions and a survival-via-competition mentality but it lacks HG's tight story telling and streamlined narrative.

To be fair, Paige is one of the better female leads to come out of a YA/NA novel in recent years. She's smart, mature, realistic and more reflective than the emotionally stunted Katniss. Unlike Bella, she doesn't go weak at the knees at the sight of Warden, her beautiful Raphaite keeper/mentor. She is sensible enough to acknowledge that yes, he's rather hot, and later, that she has feelings for him, but she keeps a level head about it. She's analytical with a tendency to be impulsive, but she's also afraid, impatient and has trust issues - for good reasons.

Warden, the other lead, is suitably mysterious and sophisticated (he listens to Frank Sinatra on a gramophone, reads Mary Shelly's Frankenstein), as well as being a little bit grim. He's interesting to a point but I was far more invested in the wily Jaxon Hall, a sort of anti-hero, lovingly written, and by far the most complex and unpredictable of the cast. He can be sympathetic one minute and a brutal maniac the next. At least he's interesting, which is more than we can say for the main villain.

The prose is competent, functional - better than your average YA/NA - but lacking in complexity, imagery, or figurative language, it's short, snappy sentences not up to the job of capturing the author's passion.

I'm not convinced that TBS will have the cross-over appeal its publishers are hoping for. Its concept isn't simple or punchy enough and its narrative too meandering and wayward to hold a teen's attention. At the same time, it lacks a certain sophistication and its relationships and dialogue aren't nuanced enough to appeal to adults.

The author is obviously bright and hard working to achieve so much, so young, and really should be proud of her accomplishment. I can see that with more experience and better editorial guidance, book seven should be vastly superior to TBS1.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 25, 2017 9:12 AM GMT

Hands All Over
Hands All Over
Price: £5.02

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Some little gems lift the rating higher than album deserves, 7 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Hands All Over (Audio CD)
I'm only what you'd call a 'casual' Maroon 5 fan, in that I have all their albums, but only like about half the songs on each - so I'm not going to be too biased.

Many of the hardcore fans enthuse over Songs About Jane, and compare this one unfavourably to that album, but to my er, 'casual fan' ears, Hands All Over has more going for it than that album.

I've never been a fan of Maroon 5's dreary ballads (which accounts for why I dislike half the songs on any given album). Hands All Over has much more in the way of punchy, upbeat pop songs - some with surprising depth, which is more to my liking.

Misery has its roots in This Love but it's actually a much better song, with a more distinct bass line, more memorable chorus and it's catchy as heck. It rings joyfully in your ears for days after! For those who are attracted to upbeat pop songs, Misery is your benchmark for making your purchasing decision, as it's easily the best track on the album.

Give A Little More, Stutter, Don't Know Nothing and Runaway are tremendously good; infectious and well crafted. All upbeat. I recommend buying the album for those songs alone.

Never Gonna Leave This Bed is the only slower tempo track that I like on the album and it is fabulous. That together with aforementioned songs is what made me rate the entire album 4 stars. They are that good. The rest are utterly forgettable.

I Can't Lie is 'nice' at first, then quickly becomes boring.

Hands All Over tries too hard to be gritty and falls flat (Maroon 5 do not do gritty, they should steer clear).

How is an example of what I don't like about their ballads - boring, repetitive, with nothing to distinguish it from a million other ballads.

Get Back In My Life should work but lacks the strong direction of the first four songs on the album.

The opening chords of Just A Feeling told me all I needed to know about that song - background dinner music - and the rest of the song didn't prove my initial opinion wrong.

Out of Goodbyes is a truly awful song. Truly awful. It's as if they thought, let's take all that is bad about our ballads and intensify the badness three fold. It is beyond dreary. It drones relentlessly in your ear, with no change in pace, no variety of pitch, no build up and no climax. It's like a person speaking in monotone.

The Air That I Breathe is just passable.

Their cover of Crazy Little Thing Called Love should have been left as jam session song and never have made its way onto an album. I'm sorry, but Adam Levine does not have the pipes for this.

Overall, the album is stronger and more upbeat than I was expecting, however, it's business as usual in that once more, I only like half the songs on a Maroon 5 album. Difference this time is that those likeable first half songs are hugely promising for future albums.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire)
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good story but convoluted structure makes for a plodding read, 20 Jun. 2011
There's no denying the story itself is a good one and most of the characters are well rounded and sustain your interest. Martin's strength lies in his ability to describe battle scenes (it was a masterstroke to report the sounds of battle, at one point, rather than the images) and successfully convey fairly complex human relationships - for the most part. His portrayal of the acid tongued, yet achingly human, Tyrion Lannister is another masterstroke, and, to be honest, he is probably the highlight of the whole story.

So the story and most of the characters are at least 4 star quality; it's the telling of the tale that lets the novel down, and why I couldn't give it more than 3 stars or recommend it to absolutely everyone.

The multiple POV chapters are a big problem structure wise; it's fine in the beginning when the introductions are still being made and we're still getting to know everyone, but by the end of the novel, the story becomes fragmented, loses momentum and begins reading like a collection of separate stories with very little overlap. There is literally an entirely separate story being told side by side the actual story (Danerys) that we know will have a connection to 'everyone else' in book 2, but I ask, why tell it in book 1 then? Why not tell it in book 2 where it'll be relevant?

The other frustration with the multiple POV chapters is that you have just invested so much emotion and interest in character A, when his chapter ends and you have to plough through the stories of characters B, C, D and E before you get back round to picking up where character A left off, by which time, you have to get your interest up again. Furthermore, this way of telling things actually puts limitations on what the author can reveal and how. There are countless times when it would have been more natural (and would have kept up the momentum) to continue on with character A's experience, but because he can't have the same POV twice in a row, he is forced to abandon character A and go on with another.

Some people, indeed, many people, obviously don't have a problem with this but that ain't my cup of tea.

There are other structural and plotting problems (including the severe underwriting of the main conspiracy and time wasted telling irrelevant stories and going into far too much detail about things that don't matter) that can't be gone into due to spoilers.

Much has been made of Martin's prose but to me, it was nothing special, merely functional, with occasional moments of beauty here and there, but all too many clangers, 'His manhood glistened wetly' is one example that had me laughing out loud. On that note, there is not as much sex as reviewers led me to believe, and none of it is particularly graphic. There's a bit of swearing - the c word is mentioned about 4 times - and quite a bit of violence though nothing too alarming.

One minor gripe is the poor editing. There are actually quite a few typos and miss-hits of the keyboard - more than I've ever come across in a novel before. He uses the word 'stupid' five times on one page. Also, the first time I read one of the characters mention the title of the book in their dialogue I thought that was a nice touch. By the fourth time I was wondering if Martin's editor fell asleep on the job.

Overall, Game of Thrones is an enjoyable read if you can turn a blind eye to all the things I mentioned above. Many people don't care about prose so long as they can understand it, or an awkward structure so long as they love the characters, which is fair enough. If you're one of those people, then you'll enjoy this novel.

The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids
The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids
by Tom Hodgkinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

109 of 111 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Some good ideas but overall, poorly expressed., 3 May 2010
I agree with another reviewer here; The Idle Parent is infuriating. It has the potential to be a good read but there are far too many inconsistencies in Hodgkinson's theory. Plus, he has an awkward humour and style of writing, and his name dropping is tedious.

I agree with Hodgkinson's general principle that we should avoid over-parenting and that mindless consumerism is bad for us, however, he struggles to fill a book on this topic. As well, it seems as if he hasn't quite thought through his manifesto; he chooses which rules suit him, whenever it suits him.

Example: in one chapter where he talks at length about how 'childcare' has become outsourced, he warns against the hiring of nannies and talks about how the hiring of theirs was a terrible thing and how they became dependent on her. Yet, in another chapter he recommends hiring a nanny to make life easier, how theirs was the most wonderful thing and that she enabled them to get some sleep. There are many similar inconsistencies throughout the book.

Also infuriating are his many generalisations and silly assertions that range from the naive (all schools should aim to be more like Eton) to the absurd (the reason the examination results of his former school, Westminster - which he raves about - were better than everyone else's is due to their term time being 2 weeks shorter. Apparently, it had nothing at all to do with Westminster attracting the cream of the crop).

The chapter on No More Family Days Out is his strongest, genuinely amusing and insightful and giving us food for thought. I wish the rest of the book had been as effective as this one. The weakest chapter is Down With Schools, which comes across as smug and elitist and irrelevant. The book would have been better off without it.

I wanted to like this book as it showed promise. I did love the faithfully researched historical references and found those fascinating and you can't fault his enthusiasm. But the last straw was his list - an indulgent 12 pages long - of recommended children's authors: Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie, Blake...you get the idea. It's not that I don't also recommend these authors, but he goes on to rubbish all modern children's literature and says to ban them from the house - this, after telling us not to ban anything. Apart from the fact his, frankly, cliched list adds nothing to the book or the manifesto, surely the idea of a parent imposing on his children his idea of what makes for good reading goes against the very principles of Idle Parenting; of leaving children to be who they want to be, and, I presume, read what they want to read, be it Alex Rider or Peter Pan?

Finally, he ends the book by claiming, "It is far better to be poor in money but rich in time," but you've got to wonder a) just how poor this guy has ever been and b) how many of those actually living in poverty would agree with him. I can just see all those unemployed, struggling to survive, saying to themselves, ah! but I have time!
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 10, 2014 9:02 PM BST

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