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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)
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Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Price: £10.46

4.0 out of 5 stars Worth trying..., 3 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Although this is more expensive than the usual crunchies my cats eat, I'd be more than happy for them to change over to something a bit healthier. Unfortunately, after an initial burst of enthusiasm at the idea of something new, Tommy and Tuppence lost interest quite quickly and started demanding a return to their usual diet. I tried the gradual mixing it in approach and they will eat it, but only reluctantly. I admit T&T are the fussiest cats I've ever owned, and so their reluctance doesn't mean this stuff isn't good, so I'm not downrating it for that. The loss of one star is mainly because the bags are not resealable and being bags rather than boxes makes them trickier to pour from.

If your cats are less fussy and obstinate than mine, the stuff looks and smells good to me, and if the health claims are true (which I have no way of knowing), then this would be something worth trying.


Olympus Stylus Tough TG-860 Camera - Orange
Olympus Stylus Tough TG-860 Camera - Orange
Price: £231.94

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Depends on your perspective..., 3 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I'm a casual camera user with no particular expertise, so this review is purely about the usability of the camera. If you're looking for more specifically technical info, then I'm sure there are other reviews which will be much more useful.

The camera comes well-packaged, without much in the way of waste, so that's always a good point. The instruction booklet is pretty basic - it's OK, though tiny pics make it hard to understand, and I felt it could be much clearer. The downloadable instruction manual is better. The set-up disc that comes with it is not the slickest in the world, and I was unable to register the product via the disc, though this may have been because my camera was provided in advance of launch, I believe, for review purposes.

The general picture quality is fine. However, the 'auto' setting, which is what I would normally use, is actually a very wide setting that totally distorts perspectives at the edges. So much so, that it makes a portrait style picture on my wall turn into a landscape one. So absolutely useless as far as I'm concerned, meaning that the user has to be willing to start using the other settings. The setting that gives correct perspectives to my eye doesn't allow zooming. Or if it does – too complex for me. A camera at this price point is not going to appeal to serious photographers so I'd have expected much more simplicity of setting and use.

The same applies to the editing software – I don't find it either particularly intuitive or terribly functional. Of course, you can also download your photos into another editor of your choice, but it would be nice if you didn't feel you had to.

The camera seems tough enough and well-sealed, though I haven't tried it underwater. But this means that it has to be opened any time you want to do anything – recharge, download photos, etc, leading me to wonder if the bit you open will be subject to wear quite quickly – only time will tell on that one. I find it odd that for recharging you leave the battery in the camera and recharge via the camera. This means you can't be charging a spare while using the camera. Won't be a problem for me, but could be for someone who wanted to take lots of pics – on a holiday, for instance. Also, no memory card is included and the camera itself ran out of memory after only ten photos, so you will need to make sure you either have or buy a suitable card as an extra. The camera is a good bit heavier than my existing compact, probably in order to make sure it's tough.

All in all, I'm not sure the toughness makes up for the downsides, and the distortion on the 'auto' setting is a huge downside, as far as I'm concerned. I think I'll be reverting to my little Nikon Coolpix – it takes just as good photos more easily, and is smaller and neater. It may not stand up to hard knocks as well as this one, but I'd rather have to be a bit careful than have the annoyance of having to work out the best settings for each photo. However, if the underwater feature appeals to you and you're willing to either accept the distortion or set the camera manually, then this might work better for you than for me.


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Unabridged Audio CD Set) [AUDIOBOOK] by Lewis, C. S. (2002) Audio CD
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Unabridged Audio CD Set) [AUDIOBOOK] by Lewis, C. S. (2002) Audio CD

5.0 out of 5 stars Always winter, but never Christmas..., 29 Jun. 2015
I loved the Narnia books as a child and read them many times, especially this first one. As a child, I was completely oblivious to any religious symbolism in the book, so for me it was simply a great adventure story with a fantastic hero in Aslan. I think I was around eighteen when I last read them and, as with many childhood books, have always been a bit worried to revisit them in case my older, more cynical self has turned me into a Susan - unable to remember the magic and find my way back to Narnia. But when I came across this series on Audible, with some great narrators, I decided to take the risk.

And it was worth it. The book didn't have quite the same effect on me as when I was seven, but it's still a great story very well told. This time around I was obviously more aware of the parallels to the Christ story but I was intrigued to note that there are a lot of other references too - Bacchus puts in an appearance, as does Silenus, and of course all the stuff about fauns and centaurs and other creatures from folk legends and mythology. It's all a bit of a mish-mash really but it works, and stops it from becoming overly preachy. Occasionally the messages are a little heavy-handed - about the evils of lying and so on - but this was fairly standard for children's literature of the time from what I recall, and isn't nearly as blatant as in some of them.

I was also much more aware of how terribly middle-class the children are, and how indoctrinated we were through the books we were reading to accept the subordinate, nurturing role of women and the heroic warrior status of boys. It's amazing that the generation of women who grew up reading books like these, and Blyton and most of the other books I remember, managed to both love the books and rebel against the message. I did wonder if young mothers of young girls today would be quite so happy to have them reading books where girls help lay the table while boys go off in a manly way to catch fish for dinner, not to mention the girls ending up on the diplomatic marriage market when they were older. Daughters of Eve, Sons of Adam...hmm! Correct me if my knowledge of biology is a bit shaky, but my understanding is that the procreation process requires both genders to participate (or a test-tube or turkey baster at the very least). But I'd encourage young mothers not to let it put them off - my generation seemed to survive the onslaught of not-so-subliminal messages. (I also found myself thinking how little had changed in the role of women in the thousands of years between the Old Testament and this book and yet how much has changed, for those of us in the West at least, in the sixty or so years since. It rather made me proud...)

But apart from all this adult over-analysis, I enjoyed the story a lot. The descriptions of the frozen world are great and the Queen is just as scary and horrible as I remember. Edmund is still a revolting little oick, Susan and Peter still badly need brought down a peg or two from their superior teenage smugness and I still identify with Lucy - youngest of four siblings, you see - even if she is a bit too sweet to be true. I loved the thaw - the way he matches the returning of life to the landscape with the returning of joy to the characters. Mr and Mrs Beaver are lovely, and poor Mr Tumnus! The bit with Aslan and the Stone Table is as moving and beautiful as ever it was and I still want to run and play with him, and put my hands in his golden mane! But why, oh why, must it end with them all having turned into stuffy, pompous adults complete with mock medieval language? I hated that bit when I was young and I hate it now - in fact, it was surprising how in tune young FF and old FF turned out to be. Perhaps my inner child isn't so deeply buried after all...

Michael York's reading is excellent. He gives all the characters distinct voices, and uses different British regional accents for the creatures. Mr Tumnus is Irish, the Beavers are some kind of rural English - Somerset-ish perhaps? - and I laughed a lot at Maugrim the wolf's vurry, vurry Scottish accent. The children's voices grated a bit on me - awfully posh standard English - but I did think they were right for the characters. And crucially he does Aslan's voice (and roar) brilliantly - just the right deep tones filled with power and menace, but with a warmth beneath.

So overall a happy visit to my childhood and I can now look forward to enjoying the rest. Since I'm sticking with the original publication order, next up will be Prince Caspian, narrated by Lynn Redgrave. Doesn't that sound good?


The Dinner
The Dinner
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars We need to talk about Michel..., 22 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The Dinner (Kindle Edition)
Paul and Claire meet for dinner with Paul's brother Serge and his wife Babette quite often, and Paul usually finds them uncomfortable occasions, having a contempt born out of jealousy for his brother's successful political career. But on this occasion, things are more tense than usual because the two families need to talk about an incident involving their children. When it becomes obvious they're not going to agree on how to handle the situation, the tension begins to grow and the conventions of polite behaviour begin to fall apart. The question the book asks is - how far would you go to protect your children?

The book gets off to a flying start, with some great observational humour as Paul, the narrator, looks forward apprehensively to the evening ahead. Koch is great at 'showing' rather than 'telling' and we learn as much about Paul's relationship with his wife and brother from reading between the lines as from what he actually says. But this is only the first layer of the onion - as the book progresses, outward appearances are stripped away until eventually each character is laid bare to us in all their prejudices and flaws. And a pretty unsavoury bunch they are, with Paul himself turning out to be far more complex than he gives us to believe at the beginning. The whole thing slowly becomes very dark, and though it's clearly heading for a dramatic climax, it's not at all obvious what that will be until it arrives.

I read Koch's Summer House with Swimming Pool a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The twisted morality and dark storyline mixed with some great black humour to make an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The focus was on the father and asked the same question - what would you do to protect your children? I've noticed that many people who read The Dinner first found Summer House a bit disappointing because it trod a similar path. Reading them in reverse, I found The Dinner a little disappointing for the same reason.

The Dinner is one of those books where it's important to know as little as possible going in to get the full effect of the various surprises, so I'll say no more about the plot. But there were a couple of other things that made me like it a little less than Summer House. Though there is some good observational humour in The Dinner, it doesn't have quite the edge as in Summer House. In it, the humour is often cruel, but wickedly close to what we maybe all think but don't say from time to time - and then feel appalled at ourselves for thinking it. In this one, I didn't get that feeling of delicious recognition and guilt - the humour was more straightforward. But the big difference - and I'll have to be a little oblique to avoid spoilers - is that there is some small degree of moral justification for the actions in Summer House, but absolutely none that I could accept in The Dinner. Therefore while I had some sympathy for some characters in Summer House, I had none at all for any of them in The Dinner.

But the mild disappointment in this one is only because of the comparison. In itself, this is a good dark psychological thriller, where the quality of the writing and characterisation helps to get the reader past the lack of credibility at some parts of the story - for most of the time. Personally, I found the ending asked me to suspend my disbelief a little too much, but this didn't destroy my enjoyment of the book overall. The translation from the original Dutch is again by Sam Garrett, who does another very fine job with it. I'll be interested to see where Koch's dark imagination takes us in future...


After the Fire (Maeve Kerrigan)
After the Fire (Maeve Kerrigan)
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Maeve goes maverick..., 19 Jun. 2015
A fire in a block of flats leaves three people dead and one little girl terribly injured. The fire inspectors suspect it may have been arson and, when it turns out that one of the victims was a much-hated politician who had no known reason to be in the building, it looks as though murder may have been the aim. But as Maeve Kerrigan and the team begin to investigate, they discover that many of the residents have secrets, and that there is more than one possible motive for the arson.

This is another strong entry in the Maeve Kerrigan series, with a complex and interesting plot and Casey's trademark 'fair play' - the clues are all there, though the reader will probably only spot them after the solution is revealed. The setting of the block of flats allows Casey to develop several different story strands for the various residents, and she handles them with aplomb, making sure that each is brought to a satisfying conclusion. Two of the victims are women who have been trafficked into the sex trade; one is a lonely old woman, almost a prisoner in her flat because of the constantly-broken lift; another is in hiding with her young son from her abusive husband. Then there's the extended family who seem to be under the thumb of their elderly matriarch, and who are suspiciously well-off considering none of them seem to have legitimate jobs. Maeve, working again in partnership with Josh Derwent, must try to discover which of them was the target, in case the 'wrong' people died and the intended victim might still be in danger.

The running sub-plot regarding Maeve's stalker also continues in the background, and I fear in this storyline Maeve seems to be turning into a traditional maverick copper, willing to bend or break the rules and use - or instigate - violence even when it seems unnecessary. There's also a lot more angst in this than in the earlier books, with Maeve's personal life having taken a nose-dive. In fact, she doesn't actually seem to have a personal life any more - not even the fun phone messages from her mother. But then, I accept I seem to be in a small minority - of reviewers, certainly, though I'm less sure about the wider group of readers - who prefer their detectives not to be more messed up and violent than the criminals.

For the most part, however, the book concentrates on the main plot regarding the fire, and is at its strongest when it does, with Maeve behaving as the competent, team-playing officer she has always been. Una Burt is now in charge, and she and Maeve are beginning to appreciate each other a little more now that they're working more closely. Casey is always excellent at characterisation, and not just of the main characters. Each of the residents in the flats is well-drawn - she gives us enough information to make us care about them (or dislike them, as appropriate) without bogging us down in endlessly detailed backstories.

The Maeve/Josh relationship is developed further, becoming something that feels almost dark as Maeve leans more and more heavily on this bullying, sexist, macho man, who is the only person she confides in, and who seems to have appointed himself her guardian and watchdog, telling her how to run her life outside work as well as in. I'm not at all sure where Casey is heading with it (hopefully not towards romance!), but it's intriguing, especially the way Maeve appears to be allowing him to control her. He seems as much of a stalker as her stalker at points, but at least this means he's always at hand to rescue her from the difficulties she's constantly getting herself into. In their lighter moments, however, the pair still provide the humour that lifts the tone of the book and keeps it an enjoyable read despite the darker and more maverick elements.

Overall, another strong outing that I am sure most fans will thoroughly enjoy. Because of the running storylines I would suggest that anyone new to the series should read them in order, starting with The Burning.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ebury.


Printer's Devil Court (Unabridged)
Printer's Devil Court (Unabridged)
Offered by Audible Ltd

3.0 out of 5 stars Victoria sponge..., 17 Jun. 2015
A young medical student has taken rooms in Printer's Devil Court in London, sharing them with three other medical men. One evening, the four men have a discussion as to whether the story of Lazarus could possibly have been true - is it scientifically possible to bring someone back from the dead? Two of the men hint that they have been carrying out experiments on the subject and ask Meredith and the fourth man if they would like to join in. The fourth man considers the whole idea to be blasphemous and refuses, but Meredith's curiosity wins out, and he agrees to be a witness to the experiments - a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.

Susan Hill has written this very much in the style of a Victorian ghost story although it's set in the 20th century. It feels very much like working to a recipe...

1 notebook revealing a terrible secret
1 creepy street name
4 medical students
2 or 3 graveyards to taste
2 corpses
1 late night adventure in a mortuary
1 man racked by conscience and haunted for the rest of his life

Mix all together with a wooden spoon until smooth, and bake for 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, the resulting cake is somewhat bland - a Victoria sponge without the jam perhaps. One feels that a vital ingredient has been forgotten...

1 generous splash of essence of horror

The quality of the writing and storytelling is quite high - it's just that it's a story we've all heard so often in various forms and Hill brings nothing new to the recipe. I felt she was so busily ensuring that she got it to sound authentically Victorian, which she succeeds in doing very well, that she lost sight somewhat of the fact that a ghost story ought to be scary, and in order to be scary it must have some element of unpredictability. I kept hoping there was going to be a twist that would turn expectations on their head, but I'm afraid it ran along too smoothly from beginning to end without deviating from the obvious route. And there's no added ingredient to make up for the lack of the scare factor - no great moral questions are raised, there's no element of humour.

The most effective bits are the mortuary scene and the first graveyard scene, in both of which the quality of the writing does manage to create a chilling atmosphere, but from there on the story meanders on, not really going anywhere at all, until it reaches a completely anticlimactic end.

I listened to the audiobook version which has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. The narrator Stephen Pacey does a good job with the material available, but I'm afraid that my spine remained untingled and my hair unraised.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible UK via Midas PR.


Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics)
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics)
Price: £2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The streets of London..., 17 Jun. 2015
What better venue than London, home of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and innumerable other villains and detectives, for a collection of classic crime stories? In this book, Martin Edwards has selected 17 stories from the Golden Age of crime writing, some from names we are still familiar with – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – but many from authors who have since faded into obscurity. He has arranged them into rough chronological order, allowing us to see the gradual transition from the heyday of the amateur detective to the beginnings of the police procedural with which we're more familiar today.

The overall standard of the stories is variable, as in any collection, but I found most of them good or excellent, with only a couple that I felt really hadn't stood the test of time. But even these added something to the collection in showing how trends were just as strong in early crime-writing as they are now. For example, I was underwhelmed by Richard Marsh's The Finchley Puzzle, starring deaf, lip-reading amateur detective Judith Lee, but was intrigued to note that there seemed to be a fashion around that time for detectives with a physical quirk, since a couple of stories later we meet Ernest Bramah's blind detective Max Carradine – not unlike our current obsession with autistic detectives, but happily without the angst (or drunkenness).

The influence of Holmes and Watson is clear in some of the partnerships between brilliant detectives and admiring narrators, (though I suppose I should grudgingly give the credit to Poe's Dupin and his unnamed narrator really). R Austin Freeman's Dr Thorndyke in particular struck me as very Sherlockian, as did the aforementioned Max Carradine.

Many of the stories rely on intricate plots – 'locked room' mysteries, innovative murder methods, unbreakable alibis, etc. But others veer more strongly towards the psychological, using atmosphere to great effect to build suspense, and a couple of them could easily be classed as horror as much as crime. All round, an excellent collection that I highly recommend to all crime aficionados, and I'm looking forward to reading Edward's selection in the companion volume, Resorting to Murder.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.


The Grapes of Wrath (RSMediaItalia Classics Illustrated Edition)
The Grapes of Wrath (RSMediaItalia Classics Illustrated Edition)
Price: £2.49

5.0 out of 5 stars "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn" Robert Burns, 15 Jun. 2015
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When Tom Joad returns to his parents' farm after serving a prison sentence for murder, he finds it deserted. In the four years he has been gone, the land has turned to dust through a combination of drought and poor farming practices. The onset of the Great Depression has meant that the banks have taken over ownership of vast tracts of the land and, in pursuit of profit, are expelling the small tenant farmers to create massive one-crop farms, worked by machines rather than men. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Tom and his family join the exodus.

First published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression, and Steinbeck's anger and disgust come through loudly in the power of his prose. A starkly political novel, it's interesting that there is little or no reference to either the politicians or policies of the period. This adds to the feeling of the farmers being isolated, abandoned by their nation and utterly reliant on their own limited resources. It falls somewhere between a call to arms for the poor to unite to overthrow the forces of capitalism, and a warning to the powers that be that the result of driving people to the limits of desperation might be just such an outcome. I didn't know Steinbeck's own political stance before reading the book, but was unsurprised to read later that at this period he was involved in the Communist movement within the US.

It's undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I've read and it has left me with many indelible images. The writing is never less than excellent and is sometimes stunning, while the characterisation and brilliant use of dialect make the Joad family and the people they meet on their journey completely real. The story is a simple one, of man's inhumanity to man - a story that has been told often, but rarely with such concentration and power. But it's several weeks since I finished reading the book and I still haven't quite decided what I think of it.

On the one hand, most of the first half of the book drags terribly as Steinbeck tells the story of the journey in minute, endless detail. I feel I could now get a job as a car mechanic working on 1930s models. I get the importance of the car to these families, but I don't care whether bronze wire will wear away as the widget rubs against the doodah - I truly don't. But the tedium and repetitiveness of parts of the book didn't bother me as much as the heavy-handed and unnecessary polemical interludes, where Steinbeck spells out his message in case the reader has been too stupid to understand it. I'm guessing any reader who doesn't `get' it, will have given up the book long before Steinbeck gets to the political pamphlet chapters. Occasionally it stops feeling like a novel at all and becomes almost like a ranty student essay on the evils of capitalism. If he explained the process of supply and demand once, he must have explained it a hundred times - ironic really, since it is surely only needed once, if at all. And the constant misery! Again, yes, absolutely - the story is appalling, more so for being true, and of course we need to see the horrible impact of absolute poverty on people's lives and humanity. But when authors feel they have to top up the human misery with the old `dead dog' technique, I fear they cross the line between emotional truth and emotional trickery. Of Mice and Men was the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn into bathos, and decades later I feel exactly the same about this one. And then there's the ending... but we'll come to that...

On the other hand, the story is an important one that is as relevant today, sadly, as at the time of writing. Whether one agrees or not with Steinbeck's call of Workers Unite! and class struggle as the solution to poverty and ongoing waves of mass migration, whether one believes that capitalism or socialism is the system most likely to bring a more fair and just society in the end, the vivid picture that he draws of humanity's imperative struggle for survival in even the most hopeless of circumstances cannot fail to move and must surely stir the consciences of those of us whose present comfort depends on the poverty of others. I found myself drawing parallels with the current influx of people from Africa and Asia into Europe, and the issues surrounding illegal immigration in the US. But more than that, I discovered I was making comparisons to slavery and reflecting that at least under that repellent system, the owners felt that they had to protect their 'investment', whereas these people belonged to no-one, had no intrinsic 'economic value' and were thus ultimately even more dispensable. An uncomfortable train of thought and a tribute to Steinbeck's anger that he made me think it against everything I believe.

Sometimes the quality of the writing takes the book almost to the sublime. From the first chapter, with the unforgettable images of the windstorm and the dust and the dying corn, with the women watching to see if their men will break, he makes the land a character in its own right, as important as any Joad, and its death as moving as one of theirs. The story of the turtle's indomitable spirit as it unwittingly spreads the seed that will allow nature to have its rebirth is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read. While I was never quite sure what message he was attempting to send with the biblical themes, they added a sense of eternality, of inevitability, to the struggle for a more just society. The sheer power and anger of the 'Moses' scene will stay with me forever, as will that ending - which I hated even while I recognised the force of its essential truthfulness, and which left me as angry about humanity being reduced to this as Steinbeck could possibly have desired. And just as angry about the emotional manipulation he used to achieve that effect.

Not a book that I can say I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but one that I am glad to have read and will not forget. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.


Dark Matter: A Ghost Story
Dark Matter: A Ghost Story
Price: £5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I dare you..., 12 Jun. 2015
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It's 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. Part scientific expedition, part adventure for the group of upper-class men who are arranging it, for Jack it is an escape and a possible way back into the scientific studies he had to abandon when his father died. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don't end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive...and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning...and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks...

This is billed as a ghost story, and like the best of those it's totally amibiguous, not to mention totally terrifying! Is there a malevolent presence haunting Gruhuken, or is it all a product of Jack's mind? Since the story is told through his journal, his is the only perspective we have, and we see his mind being affected by the vastness of this empty landscape and the ever-deepening darkness. And the loneliness. And the silence. And the ice beginning to freeze his only escape route – the sea...

Did I mention it's terrifying? There was actually one point late at night where I thought 'Nope! Not reading that till the sun's shining tomorrow!' And yet, what happens? Very little – no gore-fest, no clanking chains or shrieks (except mine), no werewolves, vampires or zombies. It's all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from 'don't go there' warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, distorted perspectives, and mysterious legends of barbarous cruelty. And all added to some fabulous descriptive writing that puts the reader right into this cold, dark, threatening landscape where the only contact with the outside world is through the fragile valves of Jack's wireless, and where help would take days to arrive, if at all.

The depiction of Jack's growing loneliness is superb. At first resentful of his companions' effortless social superiority, he gradually begins a tentative friendship with Gus, the leader of the group – a friendship that borders on hero-worship. And it's for Gus' sake that he tries to keep the failing expedition alive. As a natural loner, he thinks he'll be fine on his own, but soon learns the difference between being alone in the midst of the teeming city streets of London and the total solitude of his new surroundings. Well, maybe total solitude – or maybe not. (Cue spooky music.)

I have regularly commented in reviews on my aversion to first person present tense narratives. I've explained in the past that the reason I usually hate these is because they are used when they're not appropriate or else they are handled clumsily. This book is an example of how FPPT should be used – Paver handles both person and tense brilliantly, slipping in and out of present and past at exactly the right moments and never once allowing herself to be trapped into a particular tense when it doesn't suit the narrative. As a result, this achieves its aim of reading like a genuine contemporaneous journal, and should be a compulsory text in all creative writing classes. But only ones that are held in daylight because – did I mention it's terrifying?

There are lots of other things I'd love to praise but really this is one where every incident adds to the overall effect so I'll restrict myself to saying cryptically – loved all the stuff about Jack and the huskies, and loved the way Paver used human contact to increase the effect of the all-pervading loneliness. If you've read it you'll know what I mean, and if you haven't – do! I dare you...


Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator
Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator
Price: £20.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good ol' Uncle Joe..., 10 Jun. 2015
Josef Stalin's 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations. Khlevniuk claims that many previous biographies have given inaccurate portrayals of Stalin, either because of lack of information or because the biographers were apologists for the regime, or sometimes because they repeated inaccuracies from earlier sources that have passed into the historical mythology. Despite the huge amount of material, Khlevniuk makes the point that there is still much more not yet released by the Russian government. One bonus for historians is that, because Russia was somewhat backwards technologically, Stalin continued to communicate by letter rather than phone until well into the 1930s.

I give my usual disclaimer that I am not qualified to judge the historical accuracy of the book. It certainly appears well researched and gives a coherent and convincing picture of the period. Khlevniuk has used an unconventional structure that I think works quite well. The main chapters provide a linear history of the period, while between these are short interludes where Khlevniuk tells the story of the Stalin's last hours as he lay dying, using this as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of his life, such as his relationships with his family and the other men at the top of the regime, his reading habits, his health issues, how he organised and controlled the security services, etc. These are not just interesting in themselves – they provide much-needed breaks from what might otherwise be a rather dry account of the facts and figures of his time in power.

Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia in 1879, Stalin was the son of a cobbler, but had a relatively privileged upbringing and education for someone of his class. As a student, he began to associate with the Bolsheviks, gradually rising to a position of prominence. Although he was initially a moderate, believing in a gradual evolution towards socialism, he was clearly a pragmatist, willing to change his views when politically expedient. So when the Revolution kicked off in 1917, he threw his lot in behind Lenin. During the war he had his first experiences as a military commander, at which he failed badly, and it was at this early period that he first developed his technique of 'purging' opponents that he would use with such brutality throughout his life.

After Lenin's death, Stalin became even more ruthless in pursuit of power, eventually emerging as the de facto head of government, though the Socialist committee structures remained in place. He seems to have been bull-headed, forcing ahead with policies regardless of advice to the contrary, and completely uncaring about the consequences of them to the people. He appeared to hate the rural poor, considering them a 'dying breed', and they suffered worst throughout his dictatorship. But he would occasionally do an about-turn if circumstances required, using what we now think of as Orwellian techniques for distorting the past so that his inconsistencies would be hidden. These distortions of course make the later historian's job more difficult in getting at the real truth, hence the ongoing debates around just how many people were imprisoned or died under the Stalinist regime – debates which may never be fully resolved.

Khlevniuk looks in some depth at the Great Terror of 1937-8 when Stalin's purges reached their peak. He tells us that it has been suggested that Stalin must have been going through a period of madness (it's hard to imagine a completely sane brutal murdering dictator somehow, setting targets for the numbers of people each district must purge). But Khlevniuk suggests that the root of his paranoia lay in fear of the approaching war. Stalin remembered that the upheavals of the previous world war had created the conditions for civil war within Russia and wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of that in the next. This, he suggests, was also the reason that Stalin tried hard to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. However this led to him being unprepared for the German invasion, and as a result the country suffered massive losses of both men and territory in the first few years of the war, while famine, never far away during Stalin's experiment in collectivisation, again reared its ugly and devastating head as the war ended.

Khlevniuk gives an overview of Stalin's relationship with his unlikely war-time allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and describes his frustration at their delay in opening a second front to relieve some of the pressure on the hard-pressed USSR forces. It was at this time that Stalin was portrayed in the west as Uncle Joe, good ol' friend and staunch ally, suggesting perhaps that the American and British governments were pretty good at Orwellian propagandising too. Of course, when the war ended, so did this uneasy relationship as the 'Great' Powers haggled over spheres of influence and political ideology.

Stalin was to live another eight years after the war ended, during which time he continued his firm grasp on power by periodically purging anyone who looked as if they might be getting too powerful. Khlevniuk paints a picture of Stalin's somewhat lonely death that would be rather sad if one didn't feel he deserved it so much. The most powerful men in his government had secret plans already in place for after Stalin's death, and quickly reversed some of his cruellest policies along with some of his extravagant vanity building projects. A rather pointless life in the end – so much suffering caused for very little permanent legacy. Such is the way of dictatorship, I suppose, and Khlevniuk ends with a timely warning against allowing history to repeat itself in modern Russia.

Overall, this is more a history of the Stalin era than a biography of the man. Despite its considerable length, the scope of the subject matter means that it is necessarily an overview of the period, rarely going into any specific area in great depth. And I found the same about the personalities – while Stalin himself is brought to life to a degree, I didn’t get much of a feeling for the people who surrounded him, while often the suffering of the people seemed reduced to a recital of facts and figures. It’s clearly very well researched and well written, but it veers towards a rather dry, academic telling of the story. I learned a good deal about the time, but in truth rather struggled to maintain my attention. One that I would recommend more perhaps for people with an existing interest in and knowledge of the period rather than for the casual reader like myself.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.


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