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The Best of Adam Sharp
The Best of Adam Sharp
by Graeme Simsion
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.62

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Killing me softly with his song., 22 Feb. 2017
This review is from: The Best of Adam Sharp (Hardcover)
The Rosie Project was carried along on tide of love so strong that most readers extended our goodwill to The Rosie Effect despite its rather lame plot development. To those looking forward to seeing what Graeme Simsion can do when he tries something different, all I can say is 'manage your expectations'. The Best of Adam Sharp has appalling novice-like writing, relentless musical references, characters who fail to engage on any level whatsoever and some inexplicable sex scenes that I can only describe as the icky icing on an inedible cake. I couldn’t wait to wash my hands of this one.


Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up
Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up
by Xiaolu Guo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.21

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From there to here., 16 Feb. 2017
The opening chapter of this memoir describes the hardscrabble life of Shitang, a rocky, windswept little fishing village on a peninsula at the easternmost reaches of China. As a baby, Xiaolu was given away by her parents to a desperately poor childless couple living up in the mountains. Unable to provide sufficient sustenance for themselves, let alone a toddler, they bring her (now aged two) back down to the village, to live with her grandparents where she remains until the age of seven.

Seen through the eyes of a child, the tough life of the tiny port is all she knows. Xiaolu has no knowledge of the outside world – not even the next town – though she does have intense curiosity. A determined and positive little girl, she is quick to find splashes of excitement amidst her pitiful existence: her thrill at meeting a group of art students on the beach, the delight when her stooped, bound-foot grandmother brings her the last remaining drops of a melted ice lolly. While reading, one thought goes through one’s mind the entire time: how on earth did Xiaolu Guo get from there to here?

Gradually, we find out and it’s an extraordinary story of resilience and perseverance.

This is an astonishing memoir: remarkably frank and open, distilled with clarity and never self-serving or self-pitying. If there’s any justice in the world, this account will rank alongside Jung Chang’s Wild Swans as a book that opens eyes as to the real nature of China’s innate dichotomies: a state hell-bent on modernity whilst cherry-picking the traditions it chooses to retain, a state manically chasing wealth and superpower status whilst paying lip-service to socialism, a state from whose stultifying censorship Xiaolu Guo could not wait to escape.

Footnote: During the time I was reading this book, I watched a television documentary about Christian Dior. The head of the haute couture division described the challenges of seeking out new clients with the new wealth. As the skinny models strutted their stuff down the catwalk, the camera cut to the tiny, terribly select audience and there, in the front row, sat a row of plump Chinese ‘matrons’ all dolled up to the nines, their faces rigid with de rigueur cosmetic surgery. A snap-shot of the new China that seemed to capture just how fast things have changed.


The Fall Guy
The Fall Guy
by James Lasdun
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two's company, three's a plot., 12 Feb. 2017
This review is from: The Fall Guy (Hardcover)
What a welcome change: unlike most novels today with their various points of view, fractured timeframes and multitude of settings, here we have a straightforward linear narrative telling what appears on the face of it to be a simple story: a wealthy New York couple, Charlie and Chloe, invite Charlie’s impoverished English cousin Matthew to stay with them in their vacation home for the summer. Matt has always believed he and Chloe have a special bond between them. What could possibly go wrong?

In little over 250 pages, James Lasdun serves up a taut yet layered tale of love, jealousy and betrayal. Along the way he throws in some delicious food porn (Matthew is a trained chef and earns his keep through the summer by cooking up stunning meals for Charlie and Chloe) and Lasdun laces his plot with sufficient tension to make this a temptation to read in one sitting. From about the halfway point, I was absolutely convinced that I’d guessed the ending. I was wrong. 4.5*


Swimming Lessons
Swimming Lessons
by Claire Fuller
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.48

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Choppy waters., 10 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Swimming Lessons (Hardcover)
Claire Fuller follows her successful debut Our Endless Numbered Days with the familiar dual time-zone narrative and a peer into an unconventional marriage: that of half-Norwegian student Ingrid and her tutor, an elusive author called Gil. More on that name anon.

A strong opening shows a now aging Gil, browsing in a second-hand seaside bookshop and catching a glimpse of a woman he believes to be his wife who went missing over a decade ago. Older daughter Nan, a practical midwife, dismisses this as nonsense whilst his younger daughter, the adorably flaky Flora, has never stopped yearning for her mother and wishes the sighting into being.

Now, this is all well and good but the alternate flashback chapters describing Ingrid and Gil’s courtship and the early days of their marriage are conveyed in hidden letters scattered throughout stacks of second-hand books. I’m afraid that as a device to render past time, these detailed and allegedly ‘hand-written’ missives simply don’t ring true. Who would ever write that much? One letter has Ingrid remembering herself as a new mum taking her baby in a Silver Cross pram by bus, ferry and train into London for lunch. I ask you, is this even possible - let alone plausible?

And then there are the metaphors. Ms Fuller’s story is so awash with watery symbolism that it almost sinks under its own weight. And as a name for one of her main protagonists, isn’t ‘Gil’ perhaps just a tad too fishy?

But having aired my misgivings, I will say that I found this a brisk and absorbing read with some solid characterisation (the daughters are particularly well drawn) and some deft touches to the writing (artist Flora’s likening of smells to colours “the khaki colour of unwashed hair”, for example). I hesitate to call this novel a psychological thriller but it does have an element of tension that drives the reader on. The cover art is stunning. 3.5*
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 20, 2017 3:37 AM BST


All Souls (Penguin Modern Classics)
All Souls (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Javier Marías
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Oxford: cloistered, closeted and claustrophobic., 8 Feb. 2017
The Infatuations, Thus Bad Begins…Javier Marías is a wonderful writer - but I’m afraid I just couldn’t take to this one at all. All Souls was first published in translation in 1992 and is the account (one could not quite say ‘story’) of a 30-year old Spanish lecturer’s two-year sojourn at Oxford. With its yard-long paragraphs, maddening phantasmal characters and an elusive quality that one feels is not quite worth the effort, this is like the bastard love-child of Bolaño and Proust. With the virtues of neither.


Head Over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy
Head Over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy
by Chris Harrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.93

5.0 out of 5 stars Who doesn't dream of living in Italy?, 7 Feb. 2017
On a trip to Dublin, Australian journalist Chris meets Daniela, a beautiful girl from southern Italy, and they fall in love. More than a holiday romance, he later joins her in her little hometown of Andamo and throws himself into the Salento way of life. It’s not all sea, sunshine and vino though. Real life – in the shape of Italy's ignominious bureaucracy – intrudes at every stage as they try to establish their new life together.

First hurdle: how to accustom oneself to the early morning noise of the village, watermelon sellers, broom merchants and the quarter-hour ringing of the campanile bells. Second hurdle: ‘permesso di soggiorno’ - the administrative nightmare of achieving ‘permission to stay’. Third hurdle: meeting Daniela’s Sicilian side of the family. Fourth hurdle: at the end of their summer together, real life – in the form of work – must intervene and off they go to Milan. Fifth hurdle: mastering the language. Sixth hurdle: negotiating the traffic (“A red light is advice, not an obligation.”)

Heard through the sharp ears and seen through the observant eyes of Chris Harrison, this travel memoir may – or may not – convince you that going to live in Italy is a good idea. But it’s certainly a highly entertaining read. I close with a quote that in many ways illustrates the Italian way of doing things. The author has taken a job in Milan teaching English to adult students and his favourite part of the job is:

“...walking into a classroom and finding the vocabulary left on the whiteboard by the teacher of a previous class. Like an investigator sifting through clues, I would guess at the topics of ghost conversations by analysing their remaining parts. With a keen eye on current affairs this was often an easy process. One Monday afternoon, following a weekend when football giants Juventus had controversially been handed the championship, much to the dismay of Milan supporters, I inherited a whiteboard featuring the words: rigged, referee, bribe, disgrace, corner-kick and Rolex watch. And the day after Silvio Berlusconi was elected ‘primo ministro’, despite his hailing from Milan the whiteboard once again sang of scandal: fixed, corrupt, dishonest, monkey, circus, narcissistic, dwarf.”


The Outsider
The Outsider
by Albert Camus
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Catching up with Camus., 4 Feb. 2017
This review is from: The Outsider (Paperback)
Camus’s ‘The Outsider’ (aka ‘The Stranger’) is on every list of ‘top 100 books’. It was first published in 1942 and one reads it now - for the first time - with a tremendous weight of expectation. William Boyd’s front cover quote says that it’s “One of those books that marks a reader’s life indelibly”. Clearly, the book was a game-changer in its time but what does it say to us today?

Camus presents the reader with a challenging narrator. Meursault is a man of few words, a man who appears unmoved by his mother’s death, a man who cannot lie, a man who does not engage with the world around him, a man who commits a random act of murder. Meursault strikes the modern sensibility as being on the spectrum.

Even when it was first published, readers must have been puzzled by the nature of the narrator because in Camus’s afterword, written in 1955, he flatly denies that his narrator is, quote, ‘a reject’. Camus says that Meursault does not ‘play the game’ because he is incapable of lying. 'In our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.' But in my view, Meursault was extremely disturbed by his mother’s death and so it would seem that this slight book – at little over a hundred pages - still has the power to intrigue, confound and fascinate the reader. I found the Laredo translation excellent.


Footpaths in the Painted City: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home: An Indian Journey
Footpaths in the Painted City: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home: An Indian Journey
by Sadia Shepard
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A granddaughter, a grandmother, a love story., 3 Feb. 2017
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I have been re-reading some of my favourite books and this is one of them. Sadia Shepard, daughter of a Pakistani Muslim mother and white American Protestant father, gives us a truly touching memoir that encompasses religious insight, cultural differences, forgotten histories, family feelings and some rather intrepid travel in an emotional journey of self-discovery. At the heart of the book lies the author’s abiding love for her maternal grandmother who lived with Sadia’s family in Boston for the formative years of the author’s life.

I’m afraid I simply can’t do justice to this book because I don't want to reveal the pivotal point of the story which - although it occurs right at the outset - came as such a genuine surprise to me and I don't wish to spoil this moment for any prospective readers. All I would say is that this revelation eventually leads Sadia Shepard to India on a Fulbright Scholarship. She lives there for two years, falls in love with her ancestral homeland (and a guy) and succeeds throughout in conveying the deep bond with her Nana. My only caveat is this particular edition in which the type is way too small. Otherwise, very warmly recommended indeed.


Brave New World
Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Send in the clones., 3 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Brave New World (Paperback)
Damn tricky reviewing a classic such as this 85 years after it was written. It must have been shocking in its day - but now? Not so much. Apart from the initial glimpse into the future of bioengineering, this struck me as less a dystopian vision than a satire on the 1930s. The preconditioned snobbery between the castes of Alphas and Beta Pluses, Gammas and Epsilons. The underlying bigotry. The obsession with golf, sex and recreational drugs (for which I read alcohol). The puerile substitution of the word Ford for God (referring to the car-maker and laboriously overdone).

Huxley gives the game away rather, right at the beginning of the book, when he has the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tell students of a surgical operation “undergone voluntarily for the good of Society, not to mention the fact that it carries a bonus amounting to six months’ salary”. So Huxley's brave new world still operated on good old financial incentive. Nope. Nothing new to see here.


The New Book of Snobs: A Definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery
The New Book of Snobs: A Definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery
by D.J. Taylor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £21.10

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A definitive guide to modern snobbery? I beg to differ., 29 Jan. 2017
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DJ Taylor takes a serious look at snobbery through the eyes of 19th century writers like Thackeray and 20th century novelists such as Anthony Powell. He writes about yesterday’s politicians and sportsmen, and quasi-famous historical figures like Beau Brummell. I found most of this, frankly, boring. The last third of the book consists of a series of fictitious and achingly dull lampoons.

This claims to be a definitive guide to modern snobbery yet where is Hyacinth Bucket? Where is Margo Leadbetter? Where is the famous Cleese/Barker/Corbett sketch? Where are the cutting cartoons? (The ones here are baffling.) Where is the online one-upmanship? Where is American snobbery? (In my view, the Americans make us look like rank amateurs when it comes to turning up their noses.) And where, oh, where are the laughs?


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