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Matt (London, UK)

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The Graveyard of the Hesperides: Flavia Albia 4 (Falco: The New Generation)
The Graveyard of the Hesperides: Flavia Albia 4 (Falco: The New Generation)
by Lindsey Davis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.24

4.0 out of 5 stars Six Murders and a Wedding, 5 May 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I read several of the early Falco novels but this is the first book I've tried in the sequel series featuring his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. Here Flavia is preparing for her imminent marriage to Manlius Faustus while simultaneously trying to solve the mystery of six recently unearthed skeletons found buried in the courtyard of a bar named The Gardens of the Hesperides.

As with the previous Lindsey Davis novels I've read, the mystery itself is diverting enough but the real joy comes from the characters and the setting; the highs and lows of daily life in Rome are richly evoked, with plenty of wry humour and a wide cast of memorable characters. I warmed to Flavia with her no-nonsense attitude and sarcastic observations, and was pleased that Falco and Helena made brief appearances in the story (along with much of their extended family!). The plot does touch on some dark deeds and unhappy lives - Davis doesn't shy away from the more unsavoury aspects of Roman times - but the overall tone of the writing is kept relatively light.

I very much enjoyed my first taste of Flavia's adventures and I would definitely recommend this, particularly to former Falco fans.

Blackwater (DI Nick Lowry)
Blackwater (DI Nick Lowry)
by James Henry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A bit disappointing, 30 April 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's January 1983, and Colchester CID has plenty of trouble on its hands - an armed robbery on nearby Mersea, drug smuggling, a headless corpse on the Mersea causeway and violence brewing between locals and the soldiers garrisoned in Colchester itself. When two murder victims turn up in a council estate squat, Detective Inspector Nick Lowry and his team begin to wonder if these different cases may have more in common than they first thought...

I was looking forward to reading this, the first in a projected series of police procedurals featuring DI Lowry set in and around Colchester in the early '80s, but it turned out to be rather disappointing. I was initially attracted by both location and period, having spent several school summer holidays on Mersea around the time the book is set; the sense of isolation is well captured and I did recognise many of the places mentioned but I'm not sure I would've been able to visualise them without knowing the area a little. Also, I didn't feel the era was very strongly evoked. Henry mentions the Flaklands in reference to the soldiers and throws in the names of fashion brands, pop groups and TV programmes popular at the time but this amounts to little more than window dressing. I had expected to read more about the attitudes prevalent in the police back then - especially the struggles of WPC Gabriel as a woman in what was very much a man's world - but apart from the character of Superintendent Sparks, who is not averse to using violence on suspects and sneers at female officers, the story could just as easily have been set in the '90s or '00s.

The plot itself is reasonable enough but the investigation drags rather aimlessly for a large chunk of the book before finally picking up pace in the final third. I didn't feel the characters had a great deal of depth; in fact some of the secondary police, army and criminal characters were fairly indistinguishable. The female characters seemed particularly weak, with Gabriel's transformation from catwalk model to police constable hard to take seriously.

As usual with ongoing detective series, there are some domestic subplots featured, most of which were left hanging at the novel's conclusion...but I'm not sure they'll be enough to lure me back for the second book when it appears. Overall, pretty disappointing.

This Must Be the Place
This Must Be the Place
by Maggie O'Farrell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderfully warm, often moving read, 20 April 2016
This review is from: This Must Be the Place (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This Must Be The Place is the story of the marriage between Daniel, an American linguistics professor, and Claudette, once a celebrated film star and now a somewhat eccentric recluse. As the novel opens, Daniel is preparing to travel from their isolated, ramshackle Donegal farmhouse to visit his estranged father in New York; however, on the way to the airport he chances to hear news of a former lover which derails his plans and sets the reader off on a journey into both his and Claudette's pasts.

I loved this book. I've read two of Maggie O'Farrell's previous novels but this one felt quite different; it has a bigger scope, is more ambitious and structurally more complex. The main thread of the plot begins in 2010 but there are frequent digressions into the past, where the story is taken up by a variety of different characters - some are family members with their own ongoing role to play in the events, others only touch Daniel and/or Claudette's lives briefly at a pivotal moment. Personally, despite the constant narrative shifts I never felt lost or confused; the fact that so many different strands gradually weave together to form a coherent history is a testament to the author's consummate skill.

Daniel certainly has his faults but he remains a sympathetic figure for the most part. Claudette is a little more elusive perhaps, although never less than fascinating. There's a wide cast of supporting characters who are all memorable and convincingly drawn. The writing is a pleasure to read; warm and witty one minute, poignant the next, but always so perceptive and insightful. At around 500 pages it's a fairly long book but I could've quite happily read on and felt a real sense of regret at reaching the end (although it's a very satisfactory conclusion).

I think this is the best Maggie O'Farrell novel I've read so far, and it's definitely won her a place on my list of favourite authors. Highly recommended.

Dear Amy
Dear Amy
by Helen Callaghan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.49

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It has a few issues, but I still enjoyed it, 10 April 2016
This review is from: Dear Amy (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Dear Amy tells the story of Margot, a classics teacher living in Cambridge who is also a part-time agony aunt for her local newspaper. One of her pupils has recenty disappeared without trace; not long afterwards letters begin to arrive at the paper which purport to be from another missing girl - only this one was abducted twenty years previously and was presumed dead long ago.

It's an intriguing premise which develops into an entertaining read. Margot is a pretty interesting and likeable character with a troubled past of her own, and the setting of Cambridge and the surrounding Fens is evocative. The plot is well-paced and kept me gripped, especially towards the end; it's somewhat far-fetched, and I have to admit I guessed the big twist early on, but the story was still compelling enough that I wanted to know how it would be resolved.

However, the book does have a few problems. It's a bit of a curious mixture...primarily a thriller of course, but every so often it threatens to morph into a chick-lit style romance. Some readers will enjoy these touches, I'm sure, but it felt jarring to me for a highly intelligent woman caught in the middle of a child abduction case to suddenly start admiring the muscles of the criminologist assisting her, or to begin daydreaming about him putting his arms around her. Then there are the plot holes; I can't go into specifics without giving away spoilers but there are certainly a few occasions when things don't make sense or even contradict what's gone before - mistakes an editor really should've picked up on. There are also instances where the prose becomes rather laboured and stilted by odd choices of metaphor, as if the author was trying too hard to be erudite and original.

Nevertheless, I must reiterate that I did enjoy the book overall. It's certainly worth considering if you're a thriller fan. I will be interested to see what Helen Callaghan comes up with next.

How to Measure a Cow
How to Measure a Cow
by Margaret Forster
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A question of identity, 6 April 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: How to Measure a Cow (Hardcover)
Margaret Forster's final novel tells the story of Tara, newly released after a decade in prison and trying to restart her life under an alias, Sarah Scott, far away from her former haunts in London. She moves to a town in Cumbria and begins a quiet, unassuming existence with a new persona to match her new name; however, her true self proves harder to leave behind than she imagined. Her elderly neighbour Nancy has taken an intense interest in her, and friends from her past make contact: can she reinvent herself as Sarah or will Tara re-emerge once more?

Forster's great gift was for illuminating the details ordinary lives - the facades we show the outside world and our true natures within. Both Tara and Nancy are conflicted by this duality: Tara finds it difficult to repress her naturally strong, rebellious personality while trying to live as 'Sarah', while Nancy longs for companionship but her self-sufficiency and loathing for any display of emotion prevent her from articulating her need. Meanwhile, Tara's former friends are torn between a sense of guilt for dropping her from their lives and a dread of letting her back in. None of the characters are entirely sympathetic, nor are there any easy solutions to their problems, but the novel feels all the more believable for that.

Much is left unsaid and unexplained for readers to deduce for themselves; although I prefer this to a conveniently neat ending, I must admit I wished we had learned a little more about Tara's early life, her relationship with her foster parents and with her husband. Her financial situation also struck a slightly jarring note; we are told at one point Tara has £3000 in savings yet, although she lives a fairly frugal existence as Sarah, she seems to do an awful lot with what is hardly a huge sum of money. However, these are minor criticisms and I enjoyed the book overall.

A quietly compelling read; perhaps not one of the author's best but nevertheless a fitting testament to her skill as a writer. She will be missed.

Air Wick Wax Melter Mums Baking 33 g
Air Wick Wax Melter Mums Baking 33 g
Price: £6.00

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great value and works well - cleaning can be a bit of a pain though, 4 April 2016
This smart little Airwick device is great value, one of the cheapest electric wax melters I've seen on the market. To use, you simply break off a tablet of wax (three are included), place it in the bowl, position the bowl over the heating plate and switch on. It takes around 15-20 minutes for the scent to begin filling the room; I usually allow the wax to melt for a couple of hours, which is enough to pleasantly fragrance an average-sized room and leave the scent lingering for a while after.

This particular variety, Mum's Baking, is a combination of pear and sweet pastry, just right for the kitchen. I find one wax tablet lasts about ten hours altogether before it loses its fragrance, which adds up to around five days of use for me. The instructions insist you should only use AirWick wax of course, but to be honest I've tried a Yankee wax tart in mine and it worked just as well.

Cleaning the bowl of used wax can be troublesome; the bowl is separate from the base, which is handy, but trying to remove the wax once it's cooled and solidified is not easy without damaging the bowl itself. Instead I pour the wax into an empty pot or jar while it's still warm and runny, then wipe the bowl round with a cloth. I must point out that the instructions strongly advise against this, but I found it impossible to clean the bowl out when the wax is solid. A word of warning: be careful pouring the wax out, hold the bowl by the rim and don't let the liquid wax drip on your skin - I always wear a pair of kitchen gloves.

Despite the cleaning niggles, I would still recommend this melter; it's a very good price and does a good job.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 11, 2016 1:17 PM BST

The Steel Kiss: Lincoln Rhyme Book 12 (Lincoln Rhyme Thrillers)
The Steel Kiss: Lincoln Rhyme Book 12 (Lincoln Rhyme Thrillers)
by Jeffery Deaver
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable thriller, but with a few too many unlikely twists, 31 Mar. 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is Jeffery Deaver's twelfth novel featuring Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs; I hadn't read any of the previous books and only knew of the characters from the film version of The Bone Collector, but it's not too difficult to pick up the threads if you are new to the series. In this story the duo find themselves investigating a series of elaborate murders committed using electronically controlled devices and equipment - an escalator, a gas oven, etc. - apparently by a fanatic with a hatred of consumerism. There are also a number of subplots, including an old flame of Amelia's who unexpectedly appears needing her help.

The plot begins with a bang but then the case builds slowly and methodically, with Deaver gradually ratcheting up the tension as it progresses. In fact I was enjoying the book considerably, right up until the last fifty pages or so. There are a couple of clever twists in the story up to that point, but then as the climax approaches Deaver piles on several more surprises which I found unbelievable and unnecessary. A good plot twist is often a major part of the enjoyment when reading crime fiction, but in this case it's just too much. I can't go into details because I don't want to spoil anything, but I found some of these twists very hard to swallow, and it's even harder to swallow that Rhyme and his team have somehow anticipated it all (despite leaving the reader in the dark).

My impression is that Deaver delights in repeatedly pulling the rug out from under the reader just because he can, or perhaps to demonstrate his own cleverness. The amount of technical detail covering a wide variety of subjects squeezed into the plot and Rhyme's constant carping about precise grammar also suggest the author wants us to be in awe of his vast knowledge; I found this unnecessary and off-putting. It's a great shame, because otherwise the book is a very decent thriller.

Fans of the series who are accustomed to the author's idiosyncrasies will enjoy it I'm sure; for newcomers I'd still say it's worth reading, but be prepared to considerably suspend your disbelief at the end. It's great when an author skilfully pulls off a major surprise - as happens a couple of times in this book - but it's far less satisfying when the twist is achieved simply by withholding pertinent information from the reader.

Zootropolis [Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray] [2016]
Zootropolis [Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray] [2016]
Dvd ~ Byron Howard
Price: £18.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A funny, fast-paced adventure for the whole family, 28 Mar. 2016
Disney have really been on top form for the last few years and Zootroplois continues that run with a witty, hugely enjoyable caper set in an all-animal city, where a new rabbit police recruit finds herself teaming up with a rather cynical fox con-artist to investigate a case involving citizens suddenly and inexplicably turning ferocious.

The city itself is incredible, beautifully animated, and the sheer amount of thought that has gone into creating a world where so many different species could live together is impressive. Fast-paced and filled with laughs for both children and adults to enjoy (the sloths, a loving pastiche of The Godfather and a nudist camp are among the highlights), the film also has the warmth and heart that Disney and Pixar are known for, and a positive but not overly preachy message to take away.

Both the children and the adults in our party enjoyed Zootroplois equally - what more could you ask? Highly recommended.

No Title Available

4.0 out of 5 stars Well-built and powerful vacuum cleaner, 27 Mar. 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have always previously favoured upright vacuum cleaners but I was pleasantly surprised by the AEG Ultracaptic AUC9220.

There are five power settings; I found the suction pretty powerful even on the lowest (even the middle setting threatened to uproot my entire hall carpet in fact), and it picks up dirt, fluff and hair admirably. Surprisingly, it's also fairly quiet, by far the least noisy vacuum cleaner I've ever used. The power cord is unusually long which is a godsend, and has a rather neat self-rewinding mechanism. The whole machine seems well-made and robust, including the hose. The dirt collected is compacted right down which eliminates much of the problem of getting faintly showered in dust when emptying it into a bin.

My only criticisms: the machine is pretty heavy and I found it a little difficult to get upstairs (despite the strong carry handle), it's missing some of the attachments I've had with previous cleaners - most notably a thin head for getting into corners - and storing the machine when not in use is complicated by the stiff hose bulging uncontrollably in the air - some kind of clip or fastening to keep it tamed would've been useful.

The AEG Ultracaptic certainly isn't cheap, but if you're looking for a vacuum cleaner in this price range, it's definitely worth considering.

The Missing
The Missing
by C.L. Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not what I would call a thriller, 22 Mar. 2016
This review is from: The Missing (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I usually enjoy thrillers but I really had to force myself to finish this novel. The writing is full of cliches, the characters are unsympathetic and the dialogue unconvincing. The missing boy comes across as an unpleasant thug and I really didn't care if he was found or not. The plot twists are contrived and ridiculous; one involving a laptop with child pornography on it is not only absurd but distasteful. There are also text conversations between the chapters which are pretty sordid and unpleasant.

The ending was a surprise but I was past caring what happened by then; I was just relieved it was all over. It feels like the author was trying to create a dark, gritty read but ended up producing the modern equivalent of a Victorian potboiler, without any of the charm. Less a psychological thriller, more like chick-lit. One to avoid.

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