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Eleanor (Oxford, England)
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A Place Called Winter
A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Homesteading, 3 Mar. 2015
This review is from: A Place Called Winter (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"A Place called Winter" opens in a mental hospital. It is the early twentieth century, and the treatments Harry Cane is subjected to are horrific. The rest of the novel traces Harry's journey from a life of monied ease in London to a nervous breakdown in Canada. The result is an engrossing read, enjoyable for its characters, its love story, and the meticulous descriptions of the ways of Canada's homesteaders: people who have left their old lives behind in order to build a house and livelihood from scratch on the harsh Saskatchewan prairies.

An afterword reveals that Harry Cane is Gale's great grandfather and that he has filled in the bare bones of his relative's life with his own imaginings of the circumstances which brought him to Canada. Gale also includes a bibliography of books which inspired his novel, all of which look fascinating, especially as his evocative fiction has served to whet the appetite.


Single, Carefree, Mellow
Single, Carefree, Mellow
by Katherine Heiny
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wryly funny short stories, 21 Feb. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The title and cover of this collection of short stories made me inclined to dismiss it as chick-lit, however I'm glad that I overcame my aversion and gave it a try. Heiny's focus is women, many of whom are married, living in suburbia, and having affairs. Heiny portrays her characters with clear-eyed compassion, ever alert to the humorous potential of their lives. In 'The Dive Bar', Sasha is a writer of YA novels; Heiny (who wrote such novels herself) describes 'the weekend in which she had to read two dozen young adult romances so that she could write the next one in the series. (She did it, too, though sometimes she feels she was never the same afterward.)' This final, slightly wistful aside, is typical of Heiny's humour; as is the description of a hellish birthday party in 'That Dance You Do' where the dismal unappealing children's entertainer 'turns to you with outstretched arms and says, "One more thing, I always get a hug before a go."'. Heiny can also be savage, for example in 'The Rhett Butlers' which contains a merciless depiction of a history teacher having an affair with his initially love-struck teenage pupil.

I would advise leaving some gaps between the stories as sometimes the unfaithful women began to blend into one, but overall this is an enjoyable, funny, and sometimes moving collection.


Cinnamon
Cinnamon
Price: £9.49

2.0 out of 5 stars A Syrian novella, 21 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Cinnamon (Kindle Edition)
"Cinnamon", which was first published in Beirut in 2008, alternates between the thoughts of Hanan al-Hashimi and her young servant Aliyah on a night when Hanan has banished Aliyah for sleeping with her husband. Hanan's sense of betrayal comes from the fact that she and Aliyah have been having their own sexual relationship and as the night turns into day, we discover the back stories of rich well-connected Hanan and Aliyah, a poor fierce girl from the streets of Damascus (streets vividly evoked by Yazbek).

This is less a novel about love than about power and its abuses. Hanan and Aliyah both suffer from being female in a patriarchal society, but Hanan can use her own wealth and standing to oppress Aliyah, in turn. This makes for a draining read with page after page describing abuse of various kinds.

This is a very short book, but I almost gave up several times. From the start the writing felt overwrought and clunky and it took a real effort to press on. The original Arabic novel may have been less painful to read as, in addition to the clunkiness, the English translation also has distracting errors and inconsistencies which a proofreader should have picked up (for example, 'Aliyah felt nauseous and started to wretch once more.').


The Man Who Was Norris: The Life of Gerald Hamilton (Dark Masters)
The Man Who Was Norris: The Life of Gerald Hamilton (Dark Masters)
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'The Wickedest Man in the World', 26 Jan. 2015
In his introduction to this posthumously published biography, editor Phil Baker describes its subject thus: "Despite his physical and perhaps moral ugliness, he had a strange charisma." This immediately piqued my interest and what follows is a jaw-dropping account of what sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant man (albeit one who might make a rather fun dinner guest). Gerald Hamilton, who was the real-life inspiration for Christopher Isherwood's Mr Norris, went through life managing to amass a large number of distinguished (and not-so-distinguished) friends, despite being a liar, a thief, and completely two-faced. This is a man who was guaranteed in any political situation to choose the most repellent side, who fabricated almost every detail of his life, and would sell you down the river for the smallest amount of money. Somehow, despite being permanently bankrupt, he managed to live a life filled with five-star hotels, the finest wines, and the most luxurious of foods, whether in Weimar-era Berlin or London in the swinging sixties. As Cullen remarks in his final chapter "Gerald's ability to hold friends, once he had made them, is little short of astounding."

"The Man who was Norris" is a fun read (one interspersed with shudders at his sheer awfulness and something like a grudging admiration for his chutzpah), and cameos from such figures as Aleister Crowley, Colin Wilson, and Oswald and Diana Mosley add to the strange and rackety atmosphere which envelops its subject. Cullen wrote his biography in the seventies, but for legal reasons it was never published and it was only recently that the manuscript was rediscovered and edited by Phil Baker. Cullen obviously relishes describing Hamilton's exploits and he views him from an archly sarcastic perspective. Any statement of Hamilton's needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, and Cullen does not allow himself to be taken in too much by his subject; nevertheless Baker's notes add a further layer of scepticism and you sense that Cullen felt that some stories were too delicious not to repeat.


Big Art / Small Art
Big Art / Small Art
by Tristan Manco
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.37

4.0 out of 5 stars Senses of scale, 25 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Big Art / Small Art (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This large and lavishly illustrated hardback from Thames and Hudson showcases contemporary artists in whose works scale, whether large or small, is a key element. The first half of the book consists of 'big art'. Photographs of works, grouped by artist, are followed by a section containing profiles of the artists in question. The second half follows the same format, but the subject is 'small art'.

I could easily imagine this being two separate books, but the juxtaposition of large- and small-scale art allows the reader to make connections and think more deeply about how scale affects the work's context and reception. Big art, for example, because of its size is often in public spaces, it encourages public engagement, with the audience often being able to touch it or be enclosed in it. The art will change depending on where the viewer is situated and sometimes the whole picture can only be seen from a great distance or from the air. Small art, by contrast, can be encompassed by one look but its detail demands close attention and it lends itself to reproduction in books such as this. More of the small artists created their works as a hobby or side project, whereas art on a large scale is harder to achieve in this way. Sometimes the large and small collide, for example in the work of David DiMichele where large imaginary art installations are recreated on a small scale and then photographed.

"Big Art Small Art" profiles 46 contemporary artists from across the world. Of the large works, I particularly enjoyed the community murals of the Boa Mistura collective, Leandro Erlich's installations, such as 'Dalston House', which use mirrors to create the illusion that members of the public are hanging from windows and scaling the walls of a house in their neighbourhood. Highlights of the small art, included Diem Chau's pencil and crayon carvings, the playful objects created by Brock Davis, and Nicolás Labadia's beautiful, funny, and Kafkaesque creatures made from found objects.


In Search of Solace
In Search of Solace
by Emily Mackie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.58

5.0 out of 5 stars 'You are in safe hands. Of sorts.', 22 Jan. 2015
This review is from: In Search of Solace (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"In Search of Solace" is a twisting, tricksy novel in which a garralous omniscient narrator takes us (the 'dear reader') back and forth through time and space, alighting on various characters connected to Jacob Little. Jacob is a mysterious man who has assumed a number of identities in his life, following an epiphany that it is obsessions which make life worth living. Jacob's latest, last, obsession is in seeking a former girlfriend called (perhaps a bit too neatly) 'Solace'.

Emily Mackie describes her characters with a sharpness which highlights their flaws, but also leaves room for sympathy. I enjoyed being swept along by her narrator and the vignettes of ordinary lives disrupted by the mysterious man in their midst, or ruffled by his presence at their margins.


All Our Names
All Our Names
by Dinaw Mengestu
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.58

4.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful novel, 13 Jan. 2015
This review is from: All Our Names (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"All Our Names" alternates between two narrators: Helen, a lonely social worker in a soulless Midwestern town and Isaac, a young Ethiopian man who has travelled to Uganda's capital to experience city life. The novel is set around the time of the 1979 war which was to oust Idi Amin from power (although historical details are kept vague) and, through the eyes of Isaac and his friend, Mengistu skillfully leads us from campus politics to a place of absolute horror, a place where even far from the battlefields 'new victims and killers were being bred'.

Helen's story is depressing in a different way and Mengistu's description of her stifled life in a bigoted town feels drained of life and colour. When Helen first meets Isaac off the plane, she is surprised at how healthy and unmalnourished he is and the thought 'he wasn't bad looking' is enough to make her 'little Midwestern world tremble just a bit under the weight of them'. The development of Isaac and Helen's relationship and the narrative of events leading to Isaac's arrival in America together combine to create a quiet, thoughtful, and sometimes horrifying novel.


Travelling Sprinkler
Travelling Sprinkler
by Nicholson Baker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars 'I want to tell you something new', 8 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Travelling Sprinkler (Paperback)
"Travelling Sprinkler" consists of a monologue from Paul Chowder, the protagonist of Baker's novel "The Anthologist". Paul, a failed poet and reluctant ex-boyfriend, is recording this novel for us ("I have so much in my head that's screaming to get out. Politely requesting passage."), interspersing accounts of cigar-smoking, music-making (his compositions are available as a Spotify playlist) and Quaker meetings, with meditations on poetry, music, and anything else which comes into his head.

I loved this book. Nothing much happens, but that it isn't the point. What makes you keep reading is Paul's voice, alternating between profundity and bathos, the voice of a fundamentally decent, sometimes foolish man, trying to get through the days. I haven't read "The Anthologist", but I am now eager to seek it out and spend more time with Paul Chowder.

[I was given a free download of this book by the publishers for review.]


Ultrasport Women's Montpellier Tennis Top - Purple, Small
Ultrasport Women's Montpellier Tennis Top - Purple, Small
Price: £25.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Comfortable top, 6 Jan. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a comfortable top that washes well and dries quickly. I've worn it several times and have no issues with how it feels. My one complaint would be the sizing; I'm a size 8 and chose the small size, however, it seems designed for someone with a small waist but a much broader chest, so it gaped a bit at the arms and didn't look very flattering.


The Best Business Writing 2014 (Columbia Journalism Review Books)
The Best Business Writing 2014 (Columbia Journalism Review Books)
by Dean Starkman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.95

4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating collection, 6 Jan. 2015
Some readers may feel that the contents of "The Best Business Writing 2014" is likely to be rather dry; but, as this collection shows, 'business' touches almost every aspect of our lives This anthology, which consists chiefly of US newspaper and magazine articles, covers topics as diverse as homelessness in New York, Russell Brand's take on the GQ awards, the journey of a t-shirt from cotton field to shop, the excesses of Wall Street, the dangers of American football, and Amazon's avoidance of state sales tax. Highlights include Susan Faludi's bracing and sceptical examination of the 'lean in' phenomenon, an illuminating piece on rule-making in Washington, and an unnerving investigation into the dangers of paracetamol (dangers downplayed by the manufacturers of drugs such as Tylenol).

The overall intent of the pieces is dissent and exposé. Taken together they make for fascinating but depressing reading as again and again journalists reveal situations in which the desire to increase profits and protect brand reputations trumps any considerations of morality, humanity, or the common good. The few more upbeat articles, including profiles of J. Crew executive Jenna Lyons and Declara co-founder Ramona Pierson and a touching report on the artisanal toast craze in San Francisco, come as a relief.

The book might, less misleadingly, have been called "The Best Business Reportage 2014", as the collection includes transcripts of broadcasts (not always the easiest things to read), as well as newspaper articles, where the quality of the prose is secondary to the information being conveyed. But, although not all the pieces are as well-written as they could have been, and although you may not agree with all the arguments, this is a collection well worth reading.

[I was given a free download of this book by the publishers for review.]


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