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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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The Settling Earth
The Settling Earth
Price: £3.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Red ribbons..., 22 May 2015
This short collection of ten interlinked stories tells of the experiences of the British women who came as settlers to Auckland in New Zealand. From farmer's wife to prostitute, baby-farmer to temperance campaigner, each story stands on its own. But there's a red ribbon running through them, binding these women to each other even when they are unaware of it, their lives as linked as the stories about them. Themes run from story to story, of loneliness and belonging, of motherhood, of the gradual change from immigrant to settler.

The book starts with a new immigrant, a girl married off to an older man she barely knew, and uprooted from her life in England to live on an isolated farm in this new land. Through her, we see the strangeness of this new landscape and feel the nostalgia of the early settlers for the land they still think of as home. The second story takes us to her husband, but even in the rare circumstance that one of the stories focuses on a man, it's still there primarily to cast light on the lives of the women. Burns portrays this as a very male-dominated society where women are still almost entirely subordinate. In fact the theme of prostitution runs strongly through the book, both overtly when we are taken inside the brothel, and more figuratively, when many of the women are defined by their value as sexual objects to men. The one weakness of the collection for me, in fact, is that all the men are portrayed very negatively – while Burns is not suggesting she is showing every aspect of this immigrant society, the slice she shows us is perhaps a little unbalanced.

Motherhood plays a major role in many of the stories, but not at all with a rosy glow around it. There is the prostitute who becomes pregnant and hopes against reason that the father will take responsibility. The woman who gives up her illegitimate child to a baby-farmer in order to marry another man. The baby-farmer, who takes in unwanted children for money, and then kills them, until one day a child steals through her defences. The childless widow, doing good works to keep her loneliness and longing at bay. The daughter, sexually brutalised by her mother's new husband. But through it all, there is a sense of the strength of these women, surviving despite all that life throws at them.

The tone, however, is not irredeemably hopeless – it feels as though these women are on the cusp of change, that a new generation, native to this land as their mothers weren't, may play a different role. Burns very subtly shows how attitudes change as people settle and communities form – the new immigrants filled with nostalgia for 'home', while the settlers are beginning to feel themselves to be New Zealanders and resenting newcomers making comparisons that are always to the detriment of the new country.

The final story is written by a Maori author, Shelly Davies, giving a different perspective. In truth, I'm not sure that this works well. It feels a little contrived – in fact, each time the Maoris were mentioned I couldn't help feeling that the book was straying too far into 'politically correct' territory. There is a clear suggestion that Maori men treat their women far more respectfully than white men do theirs, and while there may be truth in this (I don't know) the comparison feels a little too slick and overdrawn, and depends on acceptance that all white men behave as appallingly as the ones in these stories.

The quality of the writing is excellent, as is the depth of characterisation, especially given the limitations of length. The links between the stories are often loose but overall there is a kind of completion of a circle, taking us back almost to where we began. Individually I found most of the stories absorbing and intriguing, and some are intensely moving. But it's when taken as a whole that the book has its full effect. Certainly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of the author's work. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the author via NetGalley.

Price: £6.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The demon in the darkness..., 18 May 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: You (Kindle Edition)
Back in 1995, a massive snowstorm brought traffic to a halt on the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. As people huddled in their cars overnight, trying to keep warm, The Traveler stepped out of his vehicle and worked his way along the line of cars, murdering the people inside. By the time the snowploughs got through, twenty-six people were dead and there was no trace of The Traveler. (Excuse spelling - the book goes with US English throughout.) In the present day, Ragnar Desche has found the frozen body of his brother Oskar and is out to get revenge against whoever killed him and stole the massive stash of heroin he was keeping for Ragnar. And four teenage girls are worrying about the fifth member of their little clique who has been missing for nearly a week...

If you only read one crime thriller this year, please make it this one! Grim and brutal, darker than black, and written almost entirely in the second-person present tense, so I should have hated it. But it's brilliantly written, with language and imagery that would easily fit into the 'literary' category, and with a depth and range of characterisation that is rare in any kind of fiction. Although there's no supernatural element to it, it feels strongly like a particularly savage fairy-tale. Fundamentally, it's about evil.

Drvenkar used second person very effectively in his previous novel, Sorry, but only in short bursts. I doubted very much if he could pull it off as the primary viewpoint in a 500-page novel. But in fact he uses it wonderfully to put the reader deep inside each character, seeing through their eyes and feeling through their hearts. By my reckoning there are a total of thirteen viewpoints rotating throughout the book, and as each takes over the reader becomes that person. It seems to me that this could only possibly work if the characterisation is convincing and individual enough to 'fool' the reader's brain into acceptance. Somehow Drvenkar manages this feat. At first when we don't know the characters it can be confusing but as he develops each into a separate entity it becomes easy to know who 'you' are at any point, and for avoidance of doubt each section is clearly headed with the name of the particular 'you' you are at that moment. What I found amazing was that he could not only make me identify with the 'yous' who were the girls, but at different times he made me be a ruthless gangster, a psychopathic serial killer, and an even stranger one that I won't reveal for sake of avoiding spoilers. Sometimes at the start of a chapter I felt I couldn't accept being this other person, but within a page or two Drvenkar had pushed me inside their character and my cynicism had retreated in defeat.

I understand from the author bio in the book that Drvenkar has written extensively for the YA market before turning to dark, very adult thrillers. This shows through in his characterisation of the girls - I found them entirely believable, both in speech and in their actions. The rotating viewpoint lets us see all of the main characters from each other's viewpoints as well as their own, and this makes them very rounded. But the second person perspective makes even the minor characters come to life. There's also a narrative voice, for which he uses first person plural - this has the effect of making it feel like all of the other characters who are not currently 'you', or perhaps like an all-seeing Greek chorus commenting on the action. And he uses foreshadowing superbly to add an ever-increasing air of tension and menace.

Sounds like it should be dreadful, doesn't it? But it isn't! His skill carries it off brilliantly, making this one of the best and most original thrillers I've read in years. The translation from the original German is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it's flawless - it never feels like a translation, which is the highest praise I can give. I've deliberately said very little about the plot, because it's so intricate that it would be almost impossible to avoid spoilers. The interest is in seeing how it all works, how all the various parts fit together. It's noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled - and quite stunning. It gets my highest recommendation.

A Good Way to Go: A Liam McClusky police procedural set in Bristol (A Liam McClusky Mystery)
A Good Way to Go: A Liam McClusky police procedural set in Bristol (A Liam McClusky Mystery)
Price: £11.69

4.0 out of 5 stars The body in the canal..., 15 May 2015
DI Liam McLusky has returned to his job after a nine-week suspension, but is under warning from his boss that one step out of line will result in him being fired. But Liam is fundamentally a good cop, so despite the black cloud hanging over him, when a woman's body is found in the canal he is put in charge of the case. A few days later another body is found, a man this time, and there are elements of the two murders that make Liam suspect they are linked, though he can't see what the two victims have in common. Then a third man is abducted...

I recently enjoyed Peter's Helton's Indelible, a PI novel with a Golden Age feel about the setting, so I was intrigued to see how his style would work in the format of the police procedural. And I'm pleased to say the answer is - very well.

The book gets off to a good start with a nicely scary chapter about a woman sensing an intruder in her flat. It turns out this is part of a sub-plot about a sex-pest who is graduating from stealing underwear from clothesline to more serious offences, and this storyline runs in parallel with the murder mystery. We then meet Liam for the first time, in this book, at least - there have been earlier books, which I haven't read, but this one works fine as a standalone. At this point Liam is still on suspension, is driving drunk and behaving like a stereotypical maverick, and my heart sank. However, I'm glad to say he improves on acquaintance - once he is back at work he proves to be a good detective and manages to remain sober. And although he has a string of failed relationships behind him, he hasn't given up all hope of finding the right woman.

The main plot is complex enough to hold the reader's interest throughout, even if it does require the odd bit of disbelief suspension. I admit I kinda guessed whodunit a good bit before the end, but not why, so it didn't spoilt the suspense too much. And the sub-plot about the sex-pest is very well done, getting increasingly creepy and chilling as it goes along. Liam and his partner, DS James Austin, work as a good team and their interactions help to make both characters likeable and enjoyable. And oh joy! It's written in the third person past tense!

I like Helton's writing style. I could complain that the story was a bit over-padded, and I could have lived with fewer descriptions of Liam smoking, drinking coffee, eating chocolate bars etc. But, in contrast, the violence is gritty without being graphic, the dialogue is realistic without the constant use of bad language, there's some humour that keeps the tone light, and the characterisation is very good throughout, and particularly of Liam himself. It all goes to show what a lottery crime writing is - I'd rate this book well above the average standard of most police procedurals out there, and better than many that have achieved a higher level of success. So if you're in the market for a new author, here's one I recommend.

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

John Knox
John Knox
by Jane Dawson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars God's Watchman..., 13 May 2015
This review is from: John Knox (Hardcover)
In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that's how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of 'The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women'. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She tells us that new material has recently been uncovered amongst the papers of Christopher Goodman, a fellow Reformed preacher and long-term friend of Knox. This material, she suggests, throws a different light on his personality, while changing some of the facts known about his life.

Dawson writes very well, with no unnecessary academic jargon, making the book an enjoyable read. In structure, it's a straightforward biography following a linear timeline. Not having read any previous biographies of Knox, I'm not in a position to comment on whether the new material makes a significant difference to what was already known about him, but I certainly found that I learned a good deal, not just about Knox, but about the history of the Reformation in Scotland, England and Europe.

Starting with his childhood, Dawson takes us through Knox's early career as a priest within the Catholic Church and, as she does at all points, sets his story well within the context of the period. She discusses the importance of the Church in medieval society and gives the reader an overview of the political situation in Scotland and England at the time of the 'Rough Wooing', when Henry VIII was using military might to try to force a marriage between his son and the infant queen of Scotland. The legend, of course, is that the Scots and English were sworn enemies, but Dawson shows how those Scots who were moving towards Protestantism, including Knox, were in fact keen for an alliance with England, perhaps even a union. Therefore when France pitched in to keep Scotland Catholic, Knox found himself on the wrong side, and began an exile that would take him first to England and later to Geneva, becoming heavily involved in the development of Reformed religion in both locations.

Dawson suggests that these experiences influenced Knox deeply. He had been a disciple of George Wishart, martyred for his beliefs under Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, and on more than one occasion came close to achieving martyrdom himself. His hatred of Mary Tudor's bloody persecution of English Protestants led him to expect the same in Scotland when the young Mary Stuart came to her throne. (I have to admit that if I'd had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.) It was around this time that Knox blew his First Blast, basing his case on the authority of the Old Testament, to declare that women were not fit to be rulers and should be opposed, even deposed if necessary. He had been warned by Calvin not to do this but, as always, Knox's belief in his own unarguable rightness led him to disregard this advice.

Big mistake as it turned out, since Mary Tudor's death brought Protestant Elizabeth to the throne. Thinking that he could now return to England to continue developing the Reformed Church there, Knox discovered to his surprise that for some odd reason Elizabeth had taken offence over the First Blast. It would have been a bit hard at that point for Knox to explain that it was only Catholic women who weren't suited to rule, but anyway Dawson didn't convince me that Knox's First Blast was more political than misogynistic. Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree - many people like cats but they don't necessarily consider them equals. Perhaps it's a semantic debate - perhaps he should be described as a sexist old killjoy instead.

Having blown his chances in England, Knox answered the call to return to Scotland, where he became embroiled in the Wars of the Congregation. For a brief period after this, he was able to set the Scottish Church up to run along the Reformed lines he had been planning for years, and he believed that by accepting this the Scottish people had made a covenant with God. But he soon became disillusioned when many prominent Protestants upheld Mary's right to rule and even to attend Catholic Mass. During the long years of ups and downs that followed, he never ceased to preach and prophesy, and never changed his core beliefs regardless of pressure and threats, which I suppose makes him admirable if not particularly likeable. In his later years, he suffered from repeated bouts of depression, believing that the covenant had been broken and that retribution would surely follow. Not against him, obviously - just his (and therefore God's) enemies. He saw himself as God's Watchman, constantly striving to prevent deviation from the forms of worship he believed the Bible specified, thumping his pulpit and prophesying doom on all who strayed.

My superficial overview doesn't do full justice to Dawson's book. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations. Though I knew most of the historical 'facts' already, I certainly have a better understanding of the man, and of the Church he was so instrumental in creating. And while I can't say I like him much better than I did, I at least accept that he acted always in conformance with his beliefs. An excellent biography and history combined - highly recommended.

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

Sherlock Holmes: The Dark Mysteries (Collectors Library)
Sherlock Holmes: The Dark Mysteries (Collectors Library)
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Vampires, hounds and lunatics..., 12 May 2015
This pocket-sized little book is published by the Collector's Library and contains some of the darkest of the Holmes stories. There is an interesting introduction by David Stuart Davies, himself a writer of crime and ghost stories, and an authority on Holmes. Apparently he has also written six Holmes novels himself. He reminds us of Conan Doyle's interest in things not of this world as a great advocate of Spiritualism, and has selected stories that show Conan Doyle's flair for going close to the edge of the supernatural, though in the Holmes stories the solution is always ultimately based in the rational world.

The book kicks off with the long story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the most popular of all the Holmes tales. This is Conan Doyle's writing at its finest, a thrilling tale with a dramatic setting amidst the mists and mires of Dartmoor, and a terrifying climax as Holmes and Watson finally face the hound that has been the curse of the Baskerville family for generations. Then there are seven of the short stories, all either with an element of the supernatural or with particularly dark and brutal storylines.

The Sussex Vampire - when a woman is found apparently sucking blood from her own baby and will give no explanation, her frantic husband applies to Holmes for help. What Holmes discovers reveals a very human darkness at the heart of this family, perhaps more frightening than had the woman truly been a vampire.

The Creeping Man - An elderly man who has fallen in love with a young woman starts exhibiting strange and frightening behaviour and seems to have acquired almost superhuman strength and agility. I must admit this is probably my least favourite of all the Holmes stories because it's so far-fetched. That's because the scientific explanation seems so ridiculous. However Davies points out that there were experiments of this nature going on in real life at the time, so the story probably seemed much more credible to contemporary readers.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place - a Gothic tale of crypts and corpses, greed and deception, this has definite elements of the horror story about it. The credibility might be a bit over-stretched but Conan Doyle's writing just about carries it off.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax - Lady Frances Carfax is alone and friendless, a perfect victim for any unscrupulous conman who wants to get hold of her property. Definitely a horror story this one, with a burial scene of Poe-like terror. And a very nice bit of detection too.

The Veiled Lodger - there's no detection in this one, as Holmes is simply the recipient of the secret behind the tragedy that befell the lodger of the title. Mrs Ronder and her husband were circus folk, lion-tamers... until it all went horribly and gruesomely wrong. Betrayal, brutality and cowardice are at the heart of this story - and it's one example of Conan Doyle's tendency to have Holmes leave punishment of wickedness to a higher power.

The Devil's Foot - one evening, a man leaves his two brothers and his sister happily playing cards together. The next morning, the two men are stark, raving mad and the woman is dead, with a look of utter terror etched on her face. When I first read Holmes at around the age of ten, this story frightened the bejabers out of me, and I still find it the most truly horrifying of them all. The image of those grinning mad men being carted off to the asylum lives in my nightmares, and the scene where Holmes and Watson come close to losing their own senses is both scary and moving, as one of the rare occasions when Holmes reveals his deep affection for loyal old Watson.

The Cardboard Box - the last story in the book is another that planted itself firmly in my mind from first reading and refused to go away. A woman receives a box in the mail and when she opens it, she finds it contains two freshly cut human ears - but not from the same body! Betrayal and brutality again, combined with the demon drink, are the cause of this horror. But, just as a little piece of advice, if you ever want to send body parts through the post, make sure you have the right address...

The book itself is rather gorgeous. It's only just over 4" by 6" so the pages are tiny, which explains why there are over 450 of them. The font is pretty small too, but very clear, and some of the original illustrations are included. Beneath the rather lovely sleeve, the cover itself is of dark red cloth with the title on the spine in gilt, and is beautifully tactile. With the finishing touches of gilt edged pages and a red ribbon bookmark, this would make a perfect gift, especially for someone just being introduced to the Holmes stories. Though even although I know the stories so well and have at least three copies of the full adventures, I still found this a little delight and enjoyed reading the stories grouped in this way. A most pleasing little volume.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collector's Library.

The Ghost Fields: A Ruth Galloway Investigation
The Ghost Fields: A Ruth Galloway Investigation
Price: £5.69

3.0 out of 5 stars Middle-aged hanky-panky..., 11 May 2015
When developers start to dig up a field prior to building houses on it, the work is brought to a sudden halt by the discovery of a buried WW2 plane, complete with partially mummified corpse. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in, and spots something the police have unaccountably missed - a bullet hole in the corpse's forehead. Immediately knowing (psychically) that this wound was not caused during an airfight, she leaps to the conclusion that the man was the victim of murder.

When Elly Griffiths is on form, she's one of my favourite writers, so it saddens me to say that she is most definitely not on form in this book. The fundamental problem with amateur detectives in contemporary novels is that it becomes increasingly difficult for authors to find ways to link them to crimes. Griffiths has got round that in this one by really pretty much ignoring the crime and detection element, and writing a rather tired middle-aged love triangle instead - actually a love star, to be more accurate, since there are a total of five middle-aged people all either getting up to hanky-panky or wishing they could, usually with people other than their partners. Fascinating if anyone still cares whether Ruth and Nelson will ever get together, but I lost interest in that strand about four books ago. Ruth really has to stop hankering over someone else's husband and move on, and in the last book I thought she might actually be about to do so. Sadly not.

The plot is both thin and full of holes, and drags on for ever with Nelson doing absolutely nothing towards actually solving the mystery. It shouldn't really be too hard either. Given that the victim was murdered during the war, then the killer must be either dead or in his late '80s at the youngest - narrows the field of suspects somewhat, don't you think? So since we know from the start by a quick arithmetical calculation that we can exclude almost every character from suspicion, there's not much tension. Except perhaps the tension of wondering how long it will be before Nelson and Ruth suss out what's staring the rest of us in the face. But their inability to work it out means that there's time for another murder to be done, finally expanding the field of suspects and throwing open the possibility that Nelson could start interviews or look for clues or stake people out or... well, something! But no, he sends off for DNA tests and we all wait and wait for them to come back, while the characters fill in the time with some fairly passionless flirting.

Oh dear! I could mention that the reason the body is in the field is silly and contrived, or that to go along with the no detection there is also no archaeology to speak of. I could sigh over the fact that the book is written in the usual tedious present tense (third person) which really is not suited to a book that takes place over a period of months, and which feels even clumsier in this book than usual. Or I could mention that Ruth's low self-esteem and constant self-criticism become increasingly tedious as the series wears on - another thing I thought she was beginning to get over in the last outing. Oh! It appears I just did mention them!

On the upside, Griffiths, as always, creates a good sense of place in this bleak Norfolk landscape, and her characterisation of Ruth is excellent, even if I find the character progressively more irritating. And while the bulk of the book is a drag with nothing much happening except love/lust affairs, the thrillerish ending is well written and enjoyable. But I'm afraid overall I think this is one for die-hard fans only - it's getting hosts of 5-stars, so it must be working for some people. But I think this fan has stopped being die-hard - the standard in the series seems to oscillate wildly from brilliant to pretty poor, and in my opinion it's time to draw it to a close and for Griffiths to move on to something different. Her last book, The Zig Zag Girl, not a Ruth Galloway one, was far superior to this in every way. 2½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum: Political Letters to The Daily Telegraph
The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum: Political Letters to The Daily Telegraph
by Iain Hollingshead
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To whom it may concern..., 9 May 2015
As any Brit will know, The Daily Telegraph is one of our more right-wing newspapers. This book contains a collection culled from the Letters to the Editor section of the paper, submitted by the intelligent, the witty, the grumpy and the occasionally downright weird people who are part of the readership. The letters cover the period from the last general election in 2010 through our recent experiment in Conservative/Liberal coalition government, and give a great flavour of the issues and scandals that have exercised the minds of retired colonels and maiden aunts in the leafy suburbs of Conservative England. While I try not to discourage anyone from any good book, this one is really only for UK political geeks. Many of the entries are humorous, but a lot of them depend on the reader knowing the personalities and politics of contemporary Britain.

The selection is grouped under headings such as Goodbye Gordon, Chillaxing Conservatives, Swivel-eyed Loons, etc. If you don't get these references, then I suggest the book is not for you. However, if you do, from whatever side of the political spectrum you hail, you will probably find this as entertaining as I did. There's no doubt that Letters to the Editor has become a competitive sport in Britain with people vying to be the funniest or the most intelligent or the most condescending as their character dictates, and the result is some very fine humour, intentional or otherwise. The book is also a lighthearted reminder of some of the treasured political moments of the last five years - just the thing to read during the current general election campaign to remind us not to take it all so seriously. Buffoons exist on either side of the political divide, so at least while they're wrecking the economy and destroying our society, we can be sure our politicians will always entertain us...

Price: £2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Mother love..., 6 May 2015
This review is from: Psycho (Kindle Edition)
Mary Crane, driving through a downpour with the $40,000 she has just stolen, takes a wrong turning and finds herself lost. But ahead she sees the welcome sight of the Bates Motel and decides to stop there for the night. The proprietor Norman Bates is alone there, except for his mother, since the new road that's been built means not many guests ever show up at the motel any more. Poor Norman. Fat and unattractive, he has never dated a woman, and spends his lonely evenings reading books on psychology, trying to understand his relationship with his overbearing and cruel mother. That's when he's not reading about the occult, or poring over his collection of pornography. Poor Mary. Driven to theft by her desire to marry the man she loves, she is beginning to wonder if she's made the right decision or if should she go back home and return the money. Poor Mother...

Anyone who has seen Hitchcock's film of Psycho knows that the real shock factor rests on two things - the shower scene, and the major twist at the end. I was intrigued to see whether knowing the twist would be such a spoiler that it would ruin the book for me, but I'm delighted to say that it didn't at all. It seems the film stuck pretty closely to the book with just one or two changes, but the way Bloch wrote the passages relating to Norman and his mother were intriguing even though I knew how it all ends. In fact, I wondered at points if knowing the thing that I know, but can't say for fear of spoiling it for anyone who doesn't know, didn't actually add an extra frisson of horror to the whole thing. I also wondered if I'd have been able to work out the twist, if I hadn't already known what I know. You know?

The major difference is in the appearance and to some extent the personality of Norman. In the film Anthony Perkins as Norman is kind of creepily attractive and seems quite functional, both of which add somehow to the evilness of his character. The book version of Norman, though, paints him as a bit of a sad and unattractive loner with a drink problem, and we get enough glimpses of his relationship with his awful Mother to feel that it's not entirely his fault that he's turned out the way he has. Without the restrictions of film censorship, Bloch can tell us more clearly about Norman's penchant for porn, a thing the film only hints at so subtly it's easy to miss. His other obsession with reading psychology lets us know that he knows himself that his relationship with his mother is abnormal, and that he worries about it. And despite the fact that the shower scene in the film is shockingly gory, it pales in comparison to the brutality of the same scene in the book.

The characterisation in general is excellent, with the emphasis very much on the psychology of the people involved. Mary (Marion in the film version) has a back story of sacrificing her youth to look after her elderly mother and make sure her sister Lila got through college. Now Mary feels time ticking by and desperately wants to marry her fiancé, Sam, sooner rather than putting it off for the couple of years Sam needs to get enough money together. Lila doesn't have quite such a major role, being more or less the catalyst for Sam to go snooping round the hotel, but she's still filled out reasonably well. Sam is more complex than I remember from the film. Having met Mary on a cruise and only really communicated with her by letter ever since, he's pretty quick to accept that she could be guilty of theft, and to go on to wonder how well he really knew her at all. So it's as much out of duty and to help Lila that he goes off detecting, rather than out of devoted love. Through Sam we also get a picture of small town life, both its restrictions and its sense of community, and this is very well done.

In the end, I enjoyed the book as much as the film but for different reasons. The film is scarier, but then I usually find films scarier than books, so that might just be me. But the book goes more deeply into the psychology of all the characters, making it much more substantial than a mere shocker. Bloch's writing style suits the material well - spare, almost noir in places - and he's very clever in the way he hides the truth from the reader until very near the end. Definitely recommended even if you've already seen the film.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing.

Falling in Love: (Brunetti 24)
Falling in Love: (Brunetti 24)
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vissi d'amore..., 4 May 2015
Famous opera star Flavia Petrelli is back at La Fenice in Venice to sing the lead in Tosca. But she has brought with her an unknown admirer who has been turning up at her performances in various cities and showering her with vast quantities of yellow roses. Although she has not been physically threatened, Flavia is finding the obsessiveness of this fan unsettling and when she returns to her apartment after a performance to find another bouquet propped against her door, her unease turns to fear. Over dinner with her old friend Commissario Guido Brunetti, she tells him what's been going on. At first he's not too worried, but when a young opera singer in whom Flavia had shown an interest is savagely attacked, he wonders if there's a connection...

This is only my second Brunetti book although it's the twenty-fourth in the series. Apparently Flavia appeared in the very first book but I didn't find it a problem at all that I hadn't read it. This one works perfectly well as a standalone.

Flavia's friendship with Brunetti is a distant one, enough for them to be glad to meet and catch up, but not close enough for Brunetti to really know about her life. In fact, most of what he knows he's gleaned from celebrity magazines. The first few chapters are told from Flavia's point of view, giving what feels like an authentic picture of the life of an opera star, on stage and off. She has a family - two children and an ex-husband - but her career means she is often on the road, and we get a good feeling for the loneliness she sometimes feels once the glamour of her performance is over. She can be over-dramatic at times, to Brunetti's annoyance, and this can mean that people think she's exaggerating. But Brunetti soon comes to believe that her fears are well grounded.

These books have a slightly old-fashioned air about them - no bad thing, in my opinion. Brunetti's family life is a happy one and the interludes with them add some lightness to the overall tone. The depiction of Venice feels as if it's stuck in a time-warp from thirty or forty years ago but perhaps Venice really is that out of date. Sadly, I've never been there. However, the way the police operate comes over as distinctly amateurish at times, with them having to find out how to requisition CCTV footage, etc., and the idea that the only person who can use the computer properly is the Vice-Questore's secretary is surely unbelievable. However, the tensions between the various officers give an indication of how much this society is still dependant on patronage rather than merit. And Brunetti himself is a thoughtful detective, relying on brain rather than brawn to solve his cases.

There is a slight whodunit element to the book but it's more about the why than the who really. The plotting is excellent and the characterisation of the main players is very strong. The pace is fairly leisurely, rather like the pace of life of Venice itself, but it never flags in what is quite a short book. And as it heads towards the finale both pace and tension ratchet up. In the last book in the series, By Its Cover: (Brunetti 23), I felt the ending let it down rather. Quite the reverse in this one! A true thriller ending, as dramatic as an opera itself, it had me racing through the last pages as it came to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Most enjoyable. I'm sure fans will love this one, and it would also be a good introduction for someone coming new to the series. If I ever get time, I'll go back and read the twenty-two I've missed...

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

Sony BDP-S3500 Smart Blu-ray Disc Player with Super Wi-Fi
Sony BDP-S3500 Smart Blu-ray Disc Player with Super Wi-Fi
Offered by K.K. Electronics
Price: £89.00

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The short review: Great!, 3 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The short review: Great!

The longer review: As someone with no particular technical expertise, I judge any new piece of equipment on its ease of set-up and use as well as its performance, and this Blu-Ray player passes both tests with flying colours. From box to playing a disc took under five minutes and connecting to the internet took roughly another ten, including downloading updates, and the whole process is so straightforward and obvious that I had no need to consult the enclosed instruction manual at all. The machine takes you through all the necessary steps, and there aren't many of them. This is the first time I've had a Blu-Ray with internet connection and my ageing TV doesn't either, so I am speaking as a complete novice - this is easy to set up.

The Blu-Ray side of it gives great pictures - I also tried it with a fairly old DVD too and it came out looking better than it ever has before. It makes claims about colours looking vivid and true-to-life and in my opinion it lives up to these claims in full. The internet side comes pre-loaded with a variety of apps - youtube, Facebook, BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, BBC & Sky News, and a few pay services, and you can also browse the web. I tried both youtube and Amazon Instant and the streaming works perfectly, with no drop-outs or wobbles at all, and with the same great picture quality. I used wifi but there's also the option for a wired connection, if preferred, through a LAN cable (not supplied). There's also a USB slot but I haven't tried this out, since I don't store stuff that way. I also haven't tried out the screen mirroring since I don't have a Miracast compatible device.

The one thing that I'm not quite so keen on is the internet browsing - the apps work brilliantly, but actually searching for an address is fiddly and not terribly intuitive. To be honest, I'd never use this in real life, other than testing it for review purposes, so it will never bother me.

The remote control is perfect for those of us who just want something easy and clear. It's about as simple as you can get, but does everything you need it to do. Small and neat, the buttons are big enough for chunky fingers and most of the buttons have actual words on them rather than symbols that leave you guessing what they mean. And batteries are supplied.

It claims that it will boot up within a second if you select the Super Quick Start option. I haven't tried this because as part of the set up process it advises that this will use more electricity when the machine is not in use, and it doesn't seem worth it to me, especially since it's normal start-up allows you to be watching a video or using the internet in roughly 25 seconds - generally speaking, I can hold out that long!

Packaging is great - hardly any plastic waste, so full marks from me and the environment.

All-in-all I am one delighted recipient of this - I got it for free through the Amazon Vine programme, but had I paid for it I'd still have felt it was money well spent. I shall report back if I encounter any problems, but meantime - highly recommended.

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