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Amanda Craig "Amanda Craig" (London United Kingdom)
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Past Imperfect
Past Imperfect
by Julian Fellowes
Edition: Paperback

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars as clever and touching as it is charming, 5 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Past Imperfect (Paperback)
I loved SNOBS but was rather put off this by the endless reviews which focussed on the Society element of the story and ignored what it's really about - ageing, memory, ugliness, love and yes, the poison of snobbery. Although you could say Fellowes has his cake and eats it in that he so obviously enjoys the lost world of the Ruling Classes of '68, he makes no bones about how it was time for change.

One of the many interesting aspects of PI is that most novelists, being middle-class, would have told the story from the point of view of Damien Baxter, the man the narrator hates but who is commissioned by to track down the unknown love child conceived in their shared youth. Damien's rise to fame and fortune, not the hollowness of it all or the devastating quarrel that wrecked the chance of happiness for three people, would have been the focus.

Instead, what we get is so much more subtle and well-crafted, I couldn't put it down. Shuttling between the narrator's quest to discover which of four women the dying multi-millionaire impregnated, and the events which introduced Damien to his gilded circle of Debs and Debs' Delights this is a marvellously funny and sympathetic examination of how things used to be. Very few novelists have the insider knowledge Fellowes does - I can think of only Nancy Mitford and Mary Wesley - and his forensic understanding of class is, as you might expect from the screenplay of Gosford Park, exceptional. Many of his sentences are almost aphorisms - eg, "anyone with a brain gets nicer as they get older" - though of an optimisitic bent. His observations on marriage, and why clever women marry bores, are particularly acute.

I hope the many publishers who turned down Snobs feel as stupid as they are. Fellowes is the Thackeray of our time, and shows that the long-derided "silver fork" novel is just as fascinating as it always was.


Dollhouse: Season One [DVD]
Dollhouse: Season One [DVD]
Dvd ~ Eliza Dushku
Offered by FREETIME
Price: £6.20

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stepford Wives of the future?, 16 Sept. 2009
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This review is from: Dollhouse: Season One [DVD] (DVD)
The very clever creator of Buffy and Firefly has come up with a format that's a cross between The Prisoner and Stepford Wives: what if, instead of going to prison, you allowed a company to erase your personality and imprint you with a different one? This is what happens to Caroline, from then on known as Echo (all dolls have names from the phonetic alphabet, which works surprisingly well, suggesting aspects of their lost personality). She works in the dollhouse, and can be programmed by Tofer (wonderful portrait of geeky Asperger's genius) at the dictates of the sinister Olivia Wiliams.

As a doll, Echo and her companions are totally passive, sexless, child-like creatures who sleep in glass-lidded beds in the floor and exercise mindlessly. When programmed, she can be anything from the passionate girl of your dreams to a hostage negotiator. This offers the star plenty of scope for displaying her acting skills, and is throughly entertaining but it's not until the sixth episode that the series really takes off. Why? Because it links the creation of dolls with slavery; then also puts them in positions in which dolls can do genuine good. There is also a sub-plot developig about how much each doll retains of their memories and real personality, especially as a detective starts searching for the lost Caroline and a psycho slasher, Alpha, interferes with programming.

Like all Whedon's shows, it's extraordinarily addictive, though the theme music sucks (unlike that of the glorious, much-lamented Firefly). As each character becomes more rounded, the nature of identity and freedom get debated through a series of dramatic and thrilling situations. It ends on an unexpected episode of high drama which will make many im[patient for the next series. One question: why hasn't it been shown in the UK?
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 6, 2009 9:32 PM GMT


One Apple Tasted
One Apple Tasted
by Josa Young
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars totally charming rom-com, 3 Sept. 2009
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This review is from: One Apple Tasted (Paperback)
One Apple Tasted is by far the best-written new romantic comedy I've read this year, and I'm amazed it didn't find a more mainstream publisher.

Beginning with the adventures of Dora in the early 1980s (a period so well rendered you can almost smaell the Opium - or, in this social circle, the Floris Rose Geranium)it moves back in time to the 1950s and the 1930s, linking three generations of women in love. Dora, the second last virgin in Britain besides Lady Diana, a bright, [pretty Cambridge graduate, works on a magazine called Modern Woman (a thinly disguised version of Vogue)and is mad for the handsome, enigmatic, and it turns out depressive son of a rich man. Their mutual attraction involves much fumbling and tumbling but no actual sex, and it's something of a surprise when he proposes to her. You have to remember just how weirdly fashionable weddings were (even before Richard Curtis)to make sense of it, but they do, secretly, get married.

The story then cuts back to the start of the War, when two women meet each other in a Harley St obstetrician's. One is barely out of childhood herself, a French Jewish refugee, the other a middle aged Home Counties wife and mother. A rapport is struck, and the younger woman comes to stay with the elder. They give birth almost at the same time; opne dies and the other feeds the other's daughter. When they grow up, the refugee's child finds out how hard marrying love and lust can be.

It would be unfair to give away too much of the plot - and, unusually for this kind of novel, there's a lot of it, making it reminiscent of Nancy Mitford as well as Mary Wesley. The posh but poor Dora and her mother Hilly are so alike that they could be the same person - sweet, innocent, sensible and idealistic. They are absolutely charming creations, and needless to say, the men they adore come across as horribly selfish, immature and snobbish (by far the nicest is Dora's father Stephen, and I'd have liked to see more of him). I can't imagine that Dora's future is going to be a bed of roses but then she's too sensible (despite the one absolutely bonkers thing she does) to expect this.

This is very much a novel set in a particular segment of upper middle class life, where men work as art dealers and women dabble in journalism. There's a LOT about clothes, which will no doubt win Young an ardent teen audience. The scenes set in India come close to parody, and weaken the rest even if, again, this is a typical rite of passage. But what it is absolutely marvellous at is capturing the beauty and intensity of being very young and passionate, and not really knowing what to do with yourself.


The Day of the Triffids (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Day of the Triffids (Penguin Modern Classics)
by John Wyndham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars evergreen SF thriller, 17 July 2009
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As a TV serialisation is to be shown of this in 2009, I thought I'd re-read it. The Chrysalids is one of my favourite books, but as a novel this is full of holes - not that these necessarily matter. What is interesting is the way "triffid" has entered into the language as a large, almost grotesque plant.

Where triffids come from is never adequately explained, but mankind has the advantage over them, even though the plants are mobile, equipped with a poisonous sting and, as it proves, able to communicate. This advantage is purely that of sight. When the novel begins, its narrator Bill has been in hospital having an eye operation after (ironically) being almost blinded by a triffid. He's a biologist, and triffids have been cultivated for their oil, speading rapidly all over the world. The hospital is curiously silent because a mysterious meteor shower has blinded almost all humanity. Only those who happened to be asleep or unconscious on the night of the meteor shower can see; and soon the triffids are hunting down all the rest.
Bill's fears concerning the plants are dismissed as eccentric, and the first third of the book is about what could be termed social conscience. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man can choose whether to wage a (hopeless) battle against disaster by trying to help the disabled, or flee with other able-bodied children and women. This, ultimately, is what Bill does, once he has found Josella, a best-selling author of Sex is My Adventure (an excuse for some heavy-handed jokes and a 1950s stab at depicting female independence). There is some dire dialogue between our hero and members of the socialist underclass, a romantic sub-plot and, to a modern reader, not nearly enough fighting with the triffids. It's very much a period piece.
WHat redeems it is Wyndham's consistent thoughtfulness about individual conscience, and a just society. Chrysalids is much better, being both darker and more fully-realised as a depiction of ecological disaster, fanaticism and love; I would guess Triffids was written before he had children, and Chrysalids after. Like John Christopher's Death of Grass, it ends with the middle-class survivalist fantasy (on the Isle of Wight)with humanity surviving if at all in pockets.


Sacred Hearts
Sacred Hearts
by Sarah Dunant
Edition: Hardcover

142 of 147 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars riveting - and her best yet, 7 July 2009
This review is from: Sacred Hearts (Hardcover)
Serafina enters the Ferrara convent of Santa Caterina as its prisoner, screaming like a madwoman. At sixteen she's one of two nobleman's daughters, but there is only dowry enough for one suitable marriage.

Like Dunant's other two historical Italian novels, this is set in the Renaissance - or the tail-end of it - but where her first two heroines were bold rebels, the story is seen more through the eyes of a middle-aged nun who has embraced the cloistered life.It's a time of political and religious ferment Serafina's dowry to the convent makes her especially desirable, but she is also possessed of a heavenly voice which will add to the lustre of their famous choir. In time, they believe, Serafina will, like the rest, accept that convent life is preferable to the brutality of the world outside, and turn to the ideal bridegroom, Christ. What they do not know, initially, is that she is already passionately in love.

Stroppy and silent, Serafina seems reminiscent of many modern teenage girls, and many readers will smile at some of the scenes Dunant depicts. Nevertheless, she forms a relationship with the humane, scholarly herbalist Suora Zuana whose pupil she becomes. Zuana was the daughter of a doctor, educated and impoverished so that the convent offered her both refuge and intellectual freedom to experiment. A tension between youth and age, science and superstition, love and chastity is set up. The convent's all-female world is deformed both physically, in many cases, but also morally and intellectually, with religious mania threatening to break out over a mysterious old nun who showed the stigmata. Yet it also contains genuine goodness and compassion. Threatened from without, the worldly Abbess also has an enemy within in Suora Umiliana, a fanatic who believes that the ancient Suora Magdalena's stigmata are a sign of insufficient piety.

Inevitably, when describing a life of privation and routine, there are some less gripping passages. We learn a good deal more about Zuana, her opinions of sex and her memories of her dead father, than the fiery young teenager who is central to the plot. There are stomach-churning descriptions of foul breath, starvation and purefaction. Serafina's attempts to contact her lover outside the impassably sheer convent walls seem unrewarded until, 150 pages in, comes the moment that makes your hair stand on end. Gathered together to sing invisibly for the city behind a grille, the choir's "best songbird" opens her mouth - only to be effortlessly outclassed by Serafina's voice, "ripe with youth and sharp as a golden spear," soaring unexpectedly above it. Why has she broken her silence?She knows that her lover is in the congregation; but the convent believes their novice has opened her heart to Christ.

From then on, we're never in doubt that Serafina is going to do all she can to escape. It's a battle of wits, feminine duplicity and politics of a kind that readers adore. The comical details delight: the posh, indoor nuns whose relations smuggle in silver trays to act as mirrors and aid in the removal of facial hair, or the breath-freshener and cure for piles concocted and sold to bishops. Yet what you remember most is the painful maternal passion nuns pour into small dogs - and the intellectual ability directed into musical composition and a culture which, in 1570, is doomed to be utterly repressed by the Council of Trent. An excellent read!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 18, 2010 8:21 PM BST


One Day
One Day
by David Nicholls
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars really fun and funny, 25 Jun. 2009
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This review is from: One Day (Hardcover)
If you enjoy Will Sutcliffe's equally clever and funny romantic comedies, you'll love this.It's a simple idea, pure Hollywood, about how two nice people get together but carried off with wit, honesty and a sense of fun.


The Tripods Trilogy: "White Mountains", "City of Gold and Lead" and "Pool of Fire" (Puffin Books)
The Tripods Trilogy: "White Mountains", "City of Gold and Lead" and "Pool of Fire" (Puffin Books)
by John Christopher
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars one of the best SF thrillers ever written for kids or adults, 17 Jun. 2009
If you haven't read this, lucky you. It's one of the very best SF thrillers ever written, and having read it to my kids I know it's as fresh as ever.

Set in a post-invasion Britain which has returned to feudalism, its hero and narrator Will thinks his biggest problem is his enmity with his cousin Roger. But when a Vagrant wanders into his village shortly before the annual Capping ceremony he begins to wonder about the Tripods which every adult over 13 serves. What happens to those who get Capped? Why do they lose their curiosity? Was there a time before the Tripods?

In order to be free, Will and Roger must make the dangerous jounrey to the White Mountains (Switzerland) where the last band of scientists are trying to find out more about the aliens which have obliterated all memory of mankind's freedom and knowledge. They're joined by a French boy, Beanpole, in an action-packed chase.

In the second novel, the leaders of the Resistance manage to get Will and a German boy, Fritz, he dislikes into the Tripods city. He discovers more about them, and their horrifying plans...and in the third book, the Resistance fights back.

What is so brilliant about these books is not just the suspenseful plot, but the imaginative details of how the world would be organised if civilsation as we know it collapsed. Christopher revisits this in another trilogy, the Prince-in-Waiting, and it is also the subject of his adult novels, The Death of Grass and A Wrinkle on the Skin. You can read him as a naive young reader, but also as a sophisitcated adult interested in moral philosophy and politics.


The Death of Grass
The Death of Grass
by John Christopher
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars chillingly prescient - totally brilliant, 17 Jun. 2009
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This review is from: The Death of Grass (Paperback)
I've been a fan of Christopher's ever since I read the Tripods trilogy, Prince in Waiting trilogy and The Lotus Caves as a child. This, for adults, is right up there with The Day of the Triffids and Liz Jensen's brilliant new thriller, The Rapture, as apocalyptic writing at its best. As Robert Macfarlane's excellent introduction shows, it is also prescient, for though written in the post-War period (and containing dated attitudes to women and to radio broadcasts) it describes what would happen if all the world's grass species, including wheat, rice, maize etc were to die out. The reason why it's so chilling isn't just that, like Lord of the Flies, it shows how quickly civilised people would descend to barbarism. It's that a disease like Chung-li already exists.

Two brothers, David and John, explore a remote 3-mile long valley as boys when the novel opens. David wants to be a farmer, and inherits Blind Gill, with its river and narrow entrance that,crucially, makes it defensible. John wants to be an architect. He marries and has two children who (horrifyingly) are sent away to prep school at a very young age. When it becomes clear that the Chung-Li virus is going to destroy every country's civilisation, John and his best friends escape out of London, accompanied with a sinister old man and rifle expert, Pirrie, and rescue their children - plus one other.
What follows is an account of how they make the journey, and increasingly brutal decisions in which murder, rape, and eventually open battle are described, in order to reach Blind Gill again. Christopher is always interested in the moral and psychological effects of desperation and survival. It's a very English tale, in which English values are both satirised and seen as something special; but what is also interesting is how adaptable and resourceful post-War characters could credibly be as they navigate, fortify a house, shoot and track. One that 13+ boys would enjoy, alongside Rogue Male, and definitely less comforting than Wyndham's Day of the Triffids.


The Rapture
The Rapture
by Liz Jensen
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars stunning apocalyptic thriller, 17 Jun. 2009
This review is from: The Rapture (Hardcover)
As an aficionado of apocalyptic thrillers (I've just re-read John Christopher's The Grass is Dying, which I recommend as a pair with Jensen's) this is one of the very best. Jensen has proved she can write both literary fiction (Ark Baby, Egg Dancing) and thrillers (The Ninth Life of Louis Drax) but this is of another order.

Gabrielle Fox is a crippled art therapist, assigned a particularly difficult case- a schitzophrenic teenager, Bethany, who murdered her mother with a screwdriver. One case-worker has already been sacked, and Bethany, who is as rude as only a teenager can be (She calls Gabriella "Wheels") is addicted to ECT. Yet her drawings are creepily predictive of disasters, as the world suffers from increased global warming. Is she the new Nostradamus? Is she actually causing the events?

Interwoven with an increasingly dreadful scenario is a remarkable love-story, in which Gabrielle, against all expectations finds a partner to replace the dead lover and child lost in the car-crash that crippled her. Her additional vulnerability and growing relationship with Bethany, child of a religious leader of The Rapture, a geniune movement which believes the saved will be beamed up to heaven at Armageddon, give rise to extraordinarily powerful writing. It's the kind of thing Michael Crichton would have written in his dreams - or nightmares. Jensen has obviously done a lot of research, but its her descriptions of what global warming is doing to nature that makes one shudder.

A brilliant achievement, both as a thriller and as a novel.


The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC)
The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC)
by Elizabeth Jenkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

48 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece about adultery and betrayal, 4 Jun. 2009
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Elizabeth Jenkins's The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the best novels I've ever read - a near-perfect work of art, like The Leopard and Emma. Yet its author is almost entirely unread, and has no presence on the Web. She should be feted as one of our most extraordinary authors simply on the basis of this one book.

Amazingly, Elizabeth Jenkins is still alive, at 105. She was made an OBE in 1995, and I was familiar with her only through her biography of Jane Austen, one of the few I feel sure JA herself would have approved of both for its elegance of expression and its insight.

But ...to describe The Tortoise and the Hare as a portrait of an agonising marriage is to do it an injustice. It is about Imogen, whose fading beauty and graceful self-effacement are insufficient to keep the interest of her husband, Evelyn. A 52 year old barrister - rich, successful, beautiful in an almost feminine way and selfish - he falls for the last person anyone would expect., a plain, dowdy middle-aged woman of wealth but no tact or taste. In a Bronte novel, our sympathies would perhaps be with Blanche, but it is Imogen in her passivity and silent agony who is the heroine. She can't even drive, she doesn't enjoy sex, she is bullied and derided by her own son... she is the kind of woman in a class which, according to Carmen Callil, has vanished since the early 19850s and yet I feel I know all too many Imogens. You want to scream at her to wake up, fight, do something more than suffer - like Nora in The Doll's House - and by the end of the novel it seems that she may yet make a life for herself, and the one person in the book who sees and loves her.

That makes it sound too grim, though, for the novel is shot through with dazzling wit. There is a gloriously funny portrait of a couple who would be all too familiar to denizens of North Oxford and North London - a woman writer, no less, whose pretentions and lack of maternal care are horribly satirised. Every character is drawn with an even-handed assurance. I haven't been so impressed by anything so much since I read 'Suite Francaise' for although this is about a very different kind of battle, it's just as tense. Who is the Tortoise, and who the Hare? The answers may surprise you. I can't recommend it too highly.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 22, 2009 9:35 AM BST


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