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by Jem Lester
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This is not autism of the happy clappy CURIOUS INCIDENT or RAINMAN variety, 23 April 2016
This review is from: Shtum (Hardcover)
In contemporary England, Ben and Emma are parents to eleven-year-old Jonah who suffers from “autism”. This is not autism of the happy clappy CURIOUS INCIDENT or RAINMAN variety. This is the s*** in the bed, biting, mute, ferocious tantrums, ice-cream on the ceiling variety of autism, which makes for a substantially less jolly read. Ben and Emma’s problem is that they can more or less cope. Their lives are an endless sequence of days in Hell with no chance of reprieve but somehow everyone stays alive and reasonably healthy, tethers stretched to the absolute limit, every second of every day. Because they can cope, they are denied a place in residential care for Jonah. It is impossible to judge the health of Emma and Ben’s relationship because they never have a moment that is not dominated by the fear and love for the child who is effectively a monster with who they are obliged to live, and for whom they are obliged to care. Let’s just say that neither of them are particularly happy. In order to demonstrate to social services that they cannot cope, they decide to “fake” the disintegration of their marriage and because heartstrings are better twanged by struggling single fathers than by single mothers, Ben and Jonah are dispatched to live with Ben’s elderly, Hungarian father, Georg; their relationship is, to say the least, rocky. Emma’s “job” takes her to Hong Kong for a month. Ben sleeps in his childhood bedroom.

That’s the first twenty or so pages and it is no picnic. In fact, by this point, many readers will have turned off completely, and not because the writing is bad (the writing is excellent!) but because they have already been crushed by the weight of this horror story. Large numbers of readers will break down in tears and that kind of response can go both ways.

Thereafter we are into a predictable and somewhat formulaic (in construction rather than style) “fathers and sons” narrative with a “triangle” of “men” locked in a character development based narrative based on something like a war against women. The somewhat predictable nature of the PLIGRIMS PROGRESS style challenges and adversities to be faced and overcome, turns me off a little, but certainly gives SHTUM considerably more commercial oomph than the unreservedly painful material and really quite snazzy writing might otherwise possess. It’s a very bitter pill to swallow, but at least the size and timing of the doses are well defined. The whole work is “interesting” if you find it palatable, especially the disintegration of Ben and Emma’s marriage after they have split up.

Ultimately, SHTUM is a grindingly painful read, and even the ending fails to delight. Indeed, the “ending” is slightly boring – an amateurish short story tacked on the end. However, it sure is powerful. It loses a star for the bad ending

Tall Oaks: A gripping tale of a small town gone wrong
Tall Oaks: A gripping tale of a small town gone wrong
Price: £3.49

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Morally dubious, 23 April 2016
Jess Monroe’s son, Harry, disappeared over year ago and TALL OAKS opens at a monthly meeting between Sergeant Jim Young and Jess where they sit together and discuss developments in Harry’s case. There are no developments, there never have been, but the meetings are ground out, month by month. The ‘town’ novel, seems to me an almost uniquely American form, the best example of which is not a novel at all but Bogdanovic’s LAST PICTURE SHOW. TALL OAKS is a sequence of long dolly shots that zoom into some corner of town and recounts the activities of a couple of residents. The ‘plot’ more or less emerges, or remains in the background while an every expanding cast list rub against each other. The plot which emerges is the mental crumbling of Jess, both before and after Harry’s disappearance. There is a lot of grey area and a certain amount of moral prevarication on Whitakers part. Throughout there is an implication that Harry may have been killed by his father – which would have been an act of unspeakable evil – without there being any evidence that this was the case. When we discover who killed Harry, the feeling is that the event is a ‘tragedy’, an avoidable/unavoidable tragedy. We are definitely supposed to sympathize with the killer in a way I don’t like.

My moral quandary with regard to Whitaker’s position is perhaps the only thing wrong with TALL OAKS. In every other respect, it is a very well crafted book, which rattles along a perfect pace as a string of amusing interludes. There is nothing there to raise the novel up to the level of ‘very good’, but it is certainly ‘very adequate’.

Being a Beast
Being a Beast
by Charles Foster
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hunter misses his mark, 21 April 2016
This review is from: Being a Beast (Hardcover)
They undulate along the wrinkles in the land, and to know their journeys is to know how the earth has crumpled.

Charles Foster is a hunter-turned-naturalist attempting to write a completely new kind of natural history, best described in his own words. “This book is an attempt to see the world from the height of Welsh badgers, London foxes, Exmoor otters, Oxford swifts and Scottish and West Country Red deer; to learn what it is like to shuffle or swoop through a landscape that is mainly olfactory or auditory rather than visual. It's a sort of literary shamanism, and it has been fantastic fun.”

The first thirty pages consist of methodology and scene-setting: They are highly skim-able and peculiarly self-indulgent when one pauses to absorb them. The book proper begins with a long section on badgers and, to say the least, it is disappointing. The sad fact is it turns out to be far more about Foster than it is about badgers. It’s like reading a slightly more arrogant and less articulate Bill Bryson. There is no doubt that the work is informative, but it really isn’t much different from any other natural history and while Foster is an adequate writer, he certainly is nowhere near the level of the best natural history writers. I wanted to like this and I didn’t.

Price: £5.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Vidal and Wolfe, 21 April 2016
This review is from: Gull (Kindle Edition)
Set mostly in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, GULL is the riveting tale of the DeLorean Motor Company. It is not quite roman a clef, historical fiction nor an outright novel. It is not too difficult to draw comparisons to THE RIGHT STUFF or most of Vidal’s historical oeuvre, perhaps most significantly LINCOLN. With both aforementioned works occupying slots in my all-time top twenty, it’s fair to say I am hugely impressed by Patterson’s work. As in LINCOLN, DeLorean himself remains firmly in the background with his few personal appearances enigmatic and contradictory, while the story is told from the point of view of Edmund Randall, whose relation to the “great” man is comparable to the voice and point of view of John Hay. Like THE RIGHT STUFF, a tiny slice of life, a keyhole view almost, is described meticulously as a metaphor for the whole of society at the time.

The actual facts of the story are well documented and strictly adhered to. Golden boy of the American auto industry, hugely fragile, pompous, messianic DeLorean, gave up the virtual certainty of becoming president of General Motors to build his dream car in Northern Ireland at the very height of “The Troubles”, just as Margaret Thatcher came to power. A toxic combination of incompetent buffoon, cracked humanitarian and cock-eyed optimistic genius, DeLorean created one of the most iconic motor vehicles of all time (See BACK TO THE FUTURE), which barely functioned at all and fleeced the British taxpayer for several million pounds. Randall, an incompetent journalist with no experience whatsoever in running a business, was appointed by DeLorean as a factotum-cum-manager of the plant in Belfast, purely on the basis of a brief conversation ten years before. While Randall was sincere and genuinely doing everything he could to turn the DeLorean dream into reality, the endeavor lurched from fire to fire.

Around a third of the story deals with the workers in the factory, most notable Liz, her struggles with her husband, co-workers and her non-affair with Randall, but there is not much actual plot, with the workers used in an almost Shakespearean way to simply act out the spirit of the time and pantomime some anecdotes from the company’s history. None of those subplots actually work, but serve as attendants to the Behemothic corporate proceedings, marshalling it forward. It’s not so much that everything which could go wrong, went wrong; more like everything was wrong from the start and stayed that way. The third quarter of the book, pretty much dominated by day-to-day events, is a little dull. There is a feeling that Patterson might be looking a little too far into his future with his eyes prematurely on the miniseries or movie.

Patterson’s turn of phrase and style is not so different from Vidal and Wolfe, but slightly lacks the snootiness and malice of both those writers. He is a little too kind to is subject, afraid to stick in the knife when the knife is needed, but had he not been, DeLorean may have become entirely unpalatable, which would have been unfair on a man who made so much of very little other than charm.

Good fictionalized journalism of this kind requires the writer to use just enough words to allow the facts to stand on their own two feet. This is Pattersons strength.

Look at Me
Look at Me
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars If you have nothing else to read..., 21 April 2016
This review is from: Look at Me (Kindle Edition)
LOOK AT ME is a morality tale almost Shakespearean in its simplicity of plot, which starts off badly, hits its stride and rattles along very nicely, if a bit obviously, and ultimately goes nowhere. The ending is gutless. It is not exactly part of the murky tide of 1970s nostalgia books which sloshing around at the moment, but it still resides in the 1980s, for no reason, one would think, but to avoid the work of having to deal with the internet and mobile phones. Again, gutless.

Julian is a late middle-aged wine dealer in North London he lives with his two adult children, Lizzy the actor and Ig the Reiki healer. The live in a peculiar house, akin to something Ian McEwen would create. It is essentially a country house, hidden in North London, which Julian bought in the 1960s when he a gadabout hippy living in communes on free love and weed. The matriarch of the family Margaret killed herself some years before. She too was a sensitive arty type. The whole story would be twice as good if it was all transposed to a council house in Rotherham.

There are a number of scenes, mostly well done, during which relationships develop, culminating in the anniversary of Margaret’s death. All of the major characters are wretched people, utterly unlikeable. At thirty, despite absolutely no success whatsoever, Lizzy still thinks she can be an actress completely deluded into believing that she sleeps with her director because she has the part, not vice versa. Julian is simply foul in every way. Eunice is utterly horrible. All of the minor characters are likewise slimy, conceited people, except Ig, who does little but carry spears.

The beginning of LOOK AT ME, the prologue and first couple of chapters are pretty much disastrously bad writing. The basic premise of the interloper, cuckoo in the nest (or anti-cuckoo) is so traditional as to be completely unenticing , at least in so far as that kind of simple plot requires the author to do something totally original with it, or be unenticing. I’m afraid there is nothing in LOOK AT ME that could not have been written in Greece 2,500 years ago.

So we have a cute little plot and a bunch of revolting characters. Then Dugout hits a stride and the vast majority of the book is easy and very good reading, driven by some top quality writing and a strong desire to see how the plot is resolved. The ending is an huge anti-climax .

It’s a good, interesting, well-written tale which will be enjoyed by less demanding readers. More demanding readers are going to feel very let down.

Private Citizens
Private Citizens
by Tony Tulathimutte
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.61

2.0 out of 5 stars Backfiring Oomph, 21 April 2016
This review is from: Private Citizens (Paperback)
PRIVATE CITIZENS opens with four hipsters, all Stanford graduates on a class reunion road trip. The prologue simply tells us each character’s back story in turn.

Linda is the druggy, sexy one; Cory is the politically correct one; Will is the driver with the wheelchair-bound girl friend Vanya (not shown) and Henrick is the foreign one – Danish in this case. By the end of the prologue I had been sitting in this car with this dreary bunch of egomaniacs almost long enough. There is literally nothing in any of these characters that interests me at all, perhaps because they are all stereotypes, perhaps because this is dreary writing; perhaps both.

Cory’s boss dies and, in a slightly hard to swallow quirk of fate, leaves the company to Cory. Becoming a rich capitalist, albeit a touchy-feely deeply earnest one, will not sit well with Cory’s roommates who – completely dead-pan, with not twitch of irony at all – are Kaftan wearing, incense burning, vegetarians who always have worthy things to get up to.

Will is occupied by the sexual demands of his horrible girlfriend, who has read numerous sex manuals, makes a lot of statements about sex and is determined to prove the world/Will/herself that “as a woman” her absence of any feeling or motion below her waist should not impeded her sexuality… sensuality? Anyway, her introduction brings the number of horrible characters up to five.

Linda does too many drugs and needs a job and money. Henrik’s research is rubbish and he also has no money.

Here is writer who seems to despise all his characters, and inflict them on the reader with little or no story to bind them. The language is slick, but not in a good way. All characters are punished in the end, in pretty obvious ways.

It’s all too much, especially considering the arrogant style that is just not good. It’s got more oomph that the standard MFA drivel, but most off that oomph backfires.

by Antonia Hayes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bland, 21 April 2016
This review is from: Relativity (Hardcover)
Set in contemporary Sydney, RELATIVITY is a parent and child drama.
Former ballet dancer and current philanthropy manager for the same ballet company, Claire is single mother to Ethan, physics protégé known to his friends as “Steven Hawking”, who was shaken to the point of brain damage by his father, Mark, who spends the first half of the book watching his own father die in hospital. Mark was imprisoned for shaking Ethan and today Ethan has seizures accompanied by a kind of superpower of being able to ‘see’ time differently from other people; but in the sense of physics, not mystically.
There is a similar feeling in the book to both THE SLAP and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. There is quite a lot of unspecified threatening menace.
Mark and Claire are heading toward a reconciliation when Ethan finds Mark’s number‘s phone and makes contact off his own bat. Mark has a profound understanding of physics and the two set up an immediate rapport. Mark was studying for an astrophysics PhD when Ethan was born and – Einsteinishly – is a mediocre violinist. When Ethan and his seizure buddy Alison attempt to build a time machine, Ethan is electrocuted and taken to hospital where the shadowy Dr Saunders, who has taken care of Ethan from day one, decides to lobotomize him.
While RELATIVITY is an intriguing read the stories of Mark and Claire are not very interesting, nor are either of them particularly engaging. Only Ethan is interesting and it is very easy to skip through parts when he is not on stage – well over half the book.
There is also a problem with the style/voice/atmosphere. Sometimes, Sydney comes through as a kind of Kafkaesque dystopia. There is a kind of Pynchon feel. Sadly that kind of writing merely seeps through the cracks in the story and 80% of the writing, while clean and spare, never really gets going.
There is an awful lot going on in RELATIVITY so it is no surprise that ultimately very little works. The final third of the book – with life and death very prominent – succeeds in being quite dull. I’m not sure how fascinating a graphic baby-shaking interlude is for the general readership, but I found it… bland.

Rush Oh!
Rush Oh!
by Shirley Barrett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars She is intelligent, plain, 21 April 2016
This review is from: Rush Oh! (Hardcover)
“Rush oh!” was the cry which signalled the sighting of a whale off Tasmania, and the book takes place in whaling community there in 1908. The onshore whaling community is greatly helped by the orca who drive the whales into the bay and trap them there. The orca all have names and personalities. The story is told from the point of view of Mary, eldest daughter of a whaling headman and head of the family since her mother died. She is intelligent, plain, witty and brave – remarkably like a Jane Austen heroin. As a story teller, she is pretty much unsurpassable. Voice is everything in this book and it is utterly brilliantly done. Everything about the book is brilliantly done, by the way. Barrett is simply a natural raconteur and wit, just by doing it. There are laugh-out –loud moments every couple of pages but RUSH OH! is not a funny book. It is a deeply felt, deeply researched work about whaling, suspended in the love story between Mary and Dan, a former Methodist preacher who comes to her door one June, seeking work. For a writer who bears absolutely no resemblance to Jane Austen whatsoever, I am surprised (and delighted) to make three Jane Austen comparisons. As previously stated, we have a JA heroin, and we have JA kind of wit and humour, and we have a JA love story, full of subtle meanderings and changes of tempo.

Above all, RUSH OH! is about whaling, and, of course, is laden with parallels to MOBY DICK. Barrett loves diversions and chapters which add nothing to the story about the sociology of whaling. Like Melville, she even tells you to skip them if you are not interested – the story will resume in the next chapter.

It is pretty hard to imagine the person who will not fall in love with RUSH OH!, with Mary, with Tom the orca, and with Shirley Barrett. Everyone who reads this book will instantly become a genuine fan of Barrett. Book of the week!

Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery (Tannie Maria Mystery 1)
Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery (Tannie Maria Mystery 1)
by Sally Andrew
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

3.0 out of 5 stars Nice, unoriginal, dull., 21 April 2016

Set in more or less contemporary South Africa, TANNIE MARIA’S RECIPES FOR LOVE & MURDER, takes place in a small town in the bush. Tannie Mariai is a 50-something widow living alone and writing a recipe column for her local newspaper. When her column is cancelled by the callous powers that be in a distant city and demand that the newspaper runs an advice column instead, she writes that column but uses her recipes as a response to her readers’ woes. If you can get over that contrivance – which I found quite difficult – then you are merely opening the door to the very obvious. Obviously her column forces her into local people’s unhappiness to a greater degree than she had predicted, including the murder of the abusive husband of one of her correspondents.

The voice – tough but kindhearted, uber-sensible, survivor, frontierswoman – is well sustained and believable, but also dull and irritating. Good wholesome food and common sense are everywhere. The recipes which feature in the book (only 14!) are tacked on the end. At 450 pages of actual novel, the work is about 270 pages over long. It’s all very ‘nice’, but pedestrian and did nothing at all for me except make me feel a bit like I had had a ‘nice chat’ with and imaginary aunt, who I would only ever speak to in times of need.

The Natashas
The Natashas
by Yelena Moskovich
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.38

3.0 out of 5 stars Take with water, after foo, 21 April 2016
This review is from: The Natashas (Paperback)
There is no doub about it, THE NATASHAS is quite a piece of work. It’s not really readable, as a whole. Each chapter is named after a character and, bizarrely, every chapter is divided into verses. The Natashas are a collection of what seem to prostitutes, who all live together in one big room. Cesar is a gay Mexican, known to all as The Actor. Beatrice is French jazz-singing sexy-btch goddess, who lost her virginity to a staircase over-glossed by her father upon which she slipped. Cesar seems to be able to move among the souls of the dead. Figures swathed in black visit the Natasha’s when upon they participate in synchronized stripping. Obviously the characters are destined to collide, but I’m not really interested in where, when or how. I sense Moskovich is perhaps laughing at us, which is good, in a way, because no one is laughing at her book.

There is something crisp and refreshing about the writing for a couple of chapters and then it turns into a very, very show-offish, unintelligible, dull mess. One is tempted to read on, because each scene is engaging in and of itself, but more than three in a row and the reader is suffocated.

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