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unlikely_heroine "unlikely_heroine" (London, UK)

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
by Anna North
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Readable, but ultimately shallow, and with a void of a central character at its core, 21 Mar. 2016
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Anna North’s debut novel, an account of the life and times of an enigmatic film director told from the perspectives of those closest to her rather than the central character herself, is certainly readable and engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying. I galloped through the book over a weekend, but its faults loom large in the reading.

I agree with the minority of reviewers who found the depictions of filmmaking (and film criticism) somewhat vague and unconvincing, and Sophie’s career trajectory and critical acclaim for what sound like very minor efforts mostly implausible, but the biggest issue is Sophie herself. I am sure the author is well aware that all of the secondary characters in Sophie’s orbit are much more intriguing than Sophie, and that this is a somewhat intentional move, with the director both an enigma and a vacuum, something an absence of a person. Sophie very pointedly moves on from one individual to the next, taking what she needs in terms of artistic material and life support, and then absenting herself, leaving the art to speak for itself; she fairly obviously chooses to project the lives of others onto the screen because at her core she is herself, empty. This acknowledged as a deliberate device, it does leave the problem of Sophie remaining a fairly weak character around which to build a novel. Quite frankly, it is difficult to care what will happen to her, especially given how she chooses to behave with little to no explanation, and when it is very obviously signposted as to how she will end up. And on the journey, it is not at all clear why, for example, the three much more interesting people who fall head over heels for her (two male, one female) would be particularly interested in getting sucked into the Sophie machine, noting that her most intriguing facet is the films she makes, which in each case are lifted from events in her lovers’ lives.

On the plus side, there is a pleasingly modern and realistic depiction of female sexuality (albeit that the romantic obsession aspect doesn’t quite convince, for the reasons noted above); for me personally, the Allison character was quite compelling (I would rather read a whole book about her!), and the writing throughout is solid (that said, there is a touch of the writing class, perhaps, around some of the darker set-pieces). However, overall, the novel’s sense of progression is lacking, with no real plot to speak of, and no genuine moments of recognition that cause a reader to consider a book is really capturing the essence of life, art, success, failure, despair... And so on. A lack of story is sometimes forgivable, and perhaps would not even bear a mention in a deeper character study, but in the surface scratching we see here, it is noticeable by its absence.

Overall, a competently-written but very slight novel.

Cold To The Touch
Cold To The Touch
by Frances Fyfield
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sadly, not recommended, 29 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Cold To The Touch (Paperback)
I am always keen to try new authors and so I gave Frances Fyfield a whirl by reading "Cold to the Touch." The book opens quite strongly with intriguing scenes set in Smithfield in the heart of London. The action then moves to a seaside village and the pace of the book drops dramatically. The plot meanders around for a while, with a couple of twists that were relatively obvious to me at least, before the book ends in a reasonably short 240 pages. Even at this length, though, this novel dragged for me. In places the writing is skilled to a degree and I found the meat and butchery motif used throughout reasonably effective, but at times the prose lapses into page after page of showing and not telling, with lots of being told what certain characters think about other characters. There is one contrived section in which three characters end up having a conversation in a particular location, two of whom have arrived there for not particularly good reasons. It all feels rather forced. I think the protagonist, Sarah, is meant to be worldly-wise as well as well irresistible, but she doesn't seem like a real person. Her reaction to a particularly horrific discovery that should affect her personally is absurd. Perhaps she is meant to have an edge of steel but it just did not ring true to me given her other behaviour.

The book's central mystery is not particularly absorbing either in its inception or its resolution and ultimately I did not care what happened, or had happened, to any of the people in the book. Ultimately and unfortunately, reading this was not enjoyable enough even in relation to the relatively short time spent on it.

As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
by Rodney Bolt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.00

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and beautifully-written biography, 4 July 2011
I had never heard of Mary Benson before coming across mention on the internet of this biography, but Mrs Benson and her family sounded like extremely interesting characters, so I gave this book a go and am very glad that I did. Rodney Bolt has clearly undertaken extensive research into the Benson family and it shows in a compelling and utterly fascinating portrait of a young woman who becomes a wife and mother and after being widowed, later finds happiness with a female companion.

A good-natured and sensitive child somewhat pressured into a not entirely happy marriage with a distant cousin who later becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, Mary Benson enjoys a series of romantic attachments to individuals other than her husband, most of the objects of her affection being female. This causes some conflict with Mary's Christian faith, which waxes and wanes despite her marriage to such a prominent religious leader. In the meantime, Mary lovingly and thoughtfully brings up her six children with the help of her own old nanny, Beth. I like the way Bolt gives a sense of the Beth character, a servant all her life who dotes on the children of her employers - there must have been hundreds if not thousands of women with similar stories in Victorian England, and amidst all the histories of the rich and famous we get to hear little about them.

The only (minor) criticism I have of this biography is that it does not say enough about the fascinating character of Mary herself. This work is presented as giving an insight into Mary's life following the death of her husband; in fact, for much of the book Edward White Benson remains alive and kicking and we see lots of detail about Mary's marriage to Edward, as well the lives of their offspring. I enjoyed all of this and as a result of the extremely strong writing Bolt displays and the very interesting third party snippets included in the text (including extracts from novels of the time and so on), had trouble putting the book down. Nonetheless I was a little disappointed not to hear more about Mary's more "free" life post-Edward. I imagine that this is because the sources for these later years of Mary's, once she had been widowed, are rarer, but would still loved to have known more about how Mary lived with her friend Lucy.

Overall, this is an extremely interesting biography of a Victorian woman whose life has, until now, been overshadowed by that of her husband. The unconventional romantic lives of Mary and her children as depicted here, make the book of real interest to those who enjoy reading history with an LGBT aspect.

Season of Migration to the North (Penguin Modern Classics)
Season of Migration to the North (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Tayeb Salih
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing insight into the Sudanese culture and mindset, but not sure it is great literature, 1 July 2011
"Season of Migration to the North" (an effective, although a little cumbersome, English title) is worth reading for its insight into 1960s Sudan; I've never read a book by a Sudanese author before and was intrigued by the perspective into e.g. education, marriage, the roles of men and women etc. The sense of the small village on a bend in the Nile and the minor characters that populate it is very real and believable. There is some very strong writing in these descriptions, rendered extremely compelling to me by what appears to be an accomplished English translation. However, the plot and characters in this novel are not as strong as its setting.

The story is of a young man who returns home to the Sudan from Europe to find that a mysterious stranger, Mustafa Sa'eed, has his whole hometown talking. Sa'eed too has spent a number of years in Western society, and has cultivated a role as a romancer of women. This plot detail brings up one of the book's problems: the central concept that a whole series of Western women have been driven to absolute destruction by Sa'eed's actions. A sense of hurt and betrayal amongst these discarded lovers would be believable, and perhaps one character who mentally breaks down completely might have passed muster; what is harder to accept, even allowing for the fact the book is set in more socially conservative times and I am reading it with twenty-first century eyes, is that every single woman whom Sa'eed seduces would be utterly ruined beyond all redemption and unable to face life after him. I don't buy that - some of these women, even in the 1950s or 60s, would, in Britain, have picked themselves up and carried on.

Aside from highlighting certain differences between Western and Sudanese values and perspectives -as mentioned, not entirely convincingly for me, given I didn't believe in the Western women Sa'eed left behind - the narrative arc of the book is somewhat unstructured and our narrator does not seem to be on a real journey. The ending of the book is somewhat disappointing and melodramatic; I had expected more and it left me with the impression that Salih was not sure how to bring the curtain down on his tale.

Nonetheless, despite what in my opinion, were flaws in characterisation and narrative, "Season of Migration to the North" deserves four stars for the strong writing and sense of place, with a lasting impression of that village on the Nile, and life there, remaining with me.

Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl's Court (Penguin Modern Classics)
Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl's Court (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Patrick Hamilton
Edition: Paperback

3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Probably not an overlooked classic, 22 Feb. 2011
Patrick Hamilton was a writer whose early promise brought him admiration, positive critical reception and plenty of sales, but his fame and success faded in later years and for a time, this author and his works lapsed into obscurity. More recently, Hamilton's reputation has been revived with a BBC adaptation of one of his novels and reissues of his books, including "Hangover Square", in the Penguin Modern Classics series. For me, whilst this is a passable novel, it does not really belong in the "Classic" category. I can also see from the evidence of this effort (the first Hamilton book I have read) why this author's star waned.

There are a few reasons why this book did not totally convince or captivate. Firstly, Hamilton's writing varies from brilliant in places to decidedly clunky in others. To begin at the beginning, this novel opens with a dictionary definition of "schizophrenia"; not exactly the most subtle way for an author to tell us something about his protagonist. Said protagonist, George Harvey Bone, experiences repetitive thought patterns over the course of the novel, being obsessed with a certain course of action during particular "moods" that he experiences, a course that he appears to utterly forget each time the balance of his mind is restored. The repetition did, after a time, grate on me as a reader.

Hamilton does to some degree manage to evoke reader sympathy with Bone as the suffering victim of his own romantic obsession. Bone is fixated on an outwardly attractive but ultimately unpleasant heart's desire in the shape of Netta Langdon, an aspiring actress whose embryonic career has stalled and who spends most of her days and nights as Bone does: utterly inebriated. My sympathy was limited less because of Bone's lack of backbone than because of Netta herself, who is one of the book's major problems. She is something of a cardboard cut-out temptress whose motivations and machinations are distinctly obvious and to whom Hamilton chooses to give little life other than as a pure and simple antagonist to Bone. Netta's depiction not only evidences flaws in characterisation in this novel but highlights some of its less adept writing; for example, very early on the author elects to tell (rather than show) us, that there is not much to Netta: "Her thoughts resembled those of a fish - something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid." The book, whilst written in the third person, is almost entirely from Bone's perspective; this leap to a description of Netta's thoughts (or lack of them) changes voice to that of the omnipotent narrator and the cracks start to show at this early stage. Later accounts of Netta are along similarly basic lines; it is clear that this character is not a real person at all.

To my mind the book never really hits a pace or flow that really engages. With a plot that is slight and holds no surprises, the writing and characters need to be strong and for me neither really hit the heights here. Hamilton does succeed at times in creating a sense of place but I am unconvinced that he is truly (as has been claimed on his behalf) a master of depicting the pub atmosphere or the boozing culture - I just did not feel myself taken there when reading of Bone's drifting existence. There is some good writing at times about a lonely person looking for companionship, and particularly how a person with little to do and not much going on in his life fills his day, but overall, "Hangover Square" does not really do enough to recommend reading this or for me to be minded to pick up any other of Hamilton's novels.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 1, 2011 6:14 PM BST

by Rachel Ward
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Effective children's book, but not really for adults, 16 Dec. 2010
This review is from: Numbers (Paperback)
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"Numbers" is a book for young adults that has a great premise, namely that a teenage girl can foresee the date on which those around her will die. I think younger readers will enjoy the drama of the story but for me, the writing and characters were not really sufficient to properly hold my (thirty-year-old!) attention.

The slight air of cynicism and world-weariness in tone did not quite ring true for me. The book improves once the plot properly kickstarts and events race ahead but it takes a while to get to that point in the company of characters that unfortunately I couldn't get too interested in.

Sunset Park
Sunset Park
by Paul Auster
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, readable, but not sure of its significance, 29 Nov. 2010
This review is from: Sunset Park (Hardcover)
I find Paul Auster's writing highly readable and thought-provoking but for me, not everything he does entirely works. So it is with "Sunset Park", ostensibly a book about how the global economic crisis of 2008 impacts a set of characters squatting in a dilapidated building in the area of New York that gives the book its title, although really the focus is less on finances and economics and more on relationships - romances, sexual encounters, family interactions and friendship.

I raced through this novel as Auster's prose held my attention, even if at times his subjects - e.g. erotic drawings, baseball, the father-son dynamic - were not ones that really spoke to me. Some readers may have an issue with the less than structured narrative, jumps in perspective and the nature of the denouement, but my real criticism of the book would be of its characters. Too many are introduced and a number are insufficiently developed, rendering them unconvincing. Father and son Morris and Miles Heller ring true, together with Miles's actress mother, but Ellen and particularly Alice, the female contingent at the Sunset Park house, are not particularly well-drawn. Personally I didn't really buy the Bing character at all. And whilst Miles leaves an impression on the reader, for me it was hard to see why everyone around him warmed to him so much and wanted his approval; that didn't really strike a real chord with me, either.

Having made criticisms of the characterisation, I'll return to the engaging writing as a good reason to pick this book up, although it doesn't show Auster at his most imaginative, experimental or original, which means longstanding fans might find it one of his lesser works and those new to his novels might want to start elsewhere. If you are looking for a compelling read with some interesting stylistic flourishes and a literary novel that keeps you turning the pages, however, this might not be a bad bet.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 15, 2011 1:57 PM BST

When I Forgot
When I Forgot
by Elina Hirvonen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For me personally, just a short, decent read and nothing more, 25 July 2010
This review is from: When I Forgot (Paperback)
This is a passable debut novel, but neither the plot nor the characters are strong enough to hail it as anything out of the ordinary. I was expecting a little more based on the reviews and by virtue of the fact that this book has been translated from the original Finnish; not too many Finnish novels make it to print in English in the UK.

Whilst there's nothing too wrong with the author's writing and the story and characters do convince, there is little to set this apart from the thousands of books out there about young people growing up and finding a sense of self outside their family environment. This book trods the familiar path (particularly seen in debut novels) of the protagonist coming to terms with the difficulties of childhood being replaced by the somewhat difficult, if related, difficulties of adulthood.

"When I Forgot" passed the time reasonably enough, but there wasn't enough here to particularly convince me to look out for any future novels by the same writer.

The Black Dahlia [DVD]
The Black Dahlia [DVD]
Dvd ~ Josh Hartnett
Offered by ReNew Entertainment
Price: £3.64

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a misunderstood classic that people aren't "getting" - just bad, 25 July 2010
This review is from: The Black Dahlia [DVD] (DVD)
I wanted to like this adaption of James Ellroy's novel, but it was a real disappointment. This story of a 1940s murder case with a mostly top-notch cast (I've never found Josh Hartnett the most compelling of leading actors) looks great on paper, but despite an intriguing set-up, the film just doesn't work. The biggest problem is a lack of cohesion. The action and dialogue are confusing from the opening scenes and the story simply doesn't flow. The "twists" come flying thick and fast towards the latter stages, but one in particular is clearly signposted, and I felt more and more disappointed as each turn appeared. The denouement descends into totally unconvincing, overwrought melodrama. It seems to me that the direction from Brian de Palma is severely lacking, but it also appears that the underlying story features too many contrivances to convince (a disclaimer here that I haven't read the original novel, which perhaps worked better).

Whilst the film looks great and the period setting feels real, sound-wise, the overuse of incidental music, which plays throughout nearly every scene, is both distracting and irritating. Other, smaller things jar, such as the repeated insistence that Hilary Swank's character resembles "The Black Dahlia" murder victim, played by Mia Kirshner; as far as I can tell, these women both have dark hair, and there the likeness ends.

Fiona Shaw is a hugely talented actress but overdoes her performance here to a level that is embarrassing and I find myself pointing the finger at the director again, because Hilary Swank starts chewing the scenery as well and she is also a very gifted performer.

I own this DVD as I received it as a gift; I won't be lending it to any friends as it's not a film I can recommend.

The Man Without
The Man Without
by Ray Robinson
Edition: Paperback

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishingly good, 29 April 2010
This review is from: The Man Without (Paperback)
I picked up this book on a whim in my local library, not having previously been familiar with this author. The first couple of pages read well and intrigued me, so I decided to read on and found myself gripped by a terrific piece of writing.

Antony Dobson is a care worker with one particularly difficult client and a troubled personal life. As the story unfolds, the reader gradually comes to understand what makes Antony tick and takes a journey with him as he tries to find a path through his life's present difficulties, and to escape from the shadows of his past that haunt him still. For Antony, the big questions are those connected to his identity and what he must accept about himself and those close to him in order to find contentment in his life.

Original, heartfelt and with real quality in its prose, plotting and insight into the human condition, "The Man Without" was a real find that I raced through within a few hours, finding Robinson's style and the narrative voice he uses here, utterly compulsive.

I will now be getting hold of Ray Robinson's other work and look forward to reading it.

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