Tag Archives: review

Hoots mon, the scones are unbearably light!

Phil: Although I’m not Scottish, my ancestry does permit me to wear the Lamont tartan, I’m partial to a bit of Lorne sausage and even a portion of fried haggis. I also consider the Tunnocks teacake one of the finest delicacies in the shops. The caramel wafers aren’t bad either.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones caught my eye in the book pile at work for a couple of reasons. I like scones, and it’s set in Scotland Street, Edinburgh.

I’ve been there, mainly because at one end of it was a railway yard and I spent much time helping out a friend who had built a model of it exhibits his efforts around the country. That it is written by Alexander McCall Smith was less appealing as I’ve never got into his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, no matter how good people tell me it is.

Anyway, this is an interesting book that defies many literary conventions.

For a start, there is a huge amount of text that doesn’t move the story forward. All that stuff we are told to edit out. Well, not here. The characters head off at tangents, spend a long time thinking of random things and generally using lots and lots of words. Far from light, it’s actually quite dense and took me a couple of attempts to get going with.

The other oddity is there isn’t really a plot. Things happen, but we never get the feeling that anything significant is happening, but this isn’t a bad thing.

What we have a literary soap opera. My understanding is that the 100 (yes one hundred!) chapters are from the Scotsman newspaper and published on a daily basis. The books are collections of these for those who want their tales of Edinburgh life in a single helping. So, there are lots of characters living independent, but sometimes interconnected lives.  Along the way, several points are made by the author – for example, one of the characters is a small child whose overbearing mother could come straight out of the Guardian cliche lineup with her strident feminist ideas.

It’s a book riven with tartan too. You don’t see the pretender to the Scottish throne pop up very often not Jacobite being used as a slur. Do people still care about that stuff? Even one of the art sub-plots centres on a portrait of Robbie Burns.

If you can get past the style, then I can understand why the residents of Scotland Street become as popular as those of Glebe Street, albeit, representing a very modern take on their home city that will be a revelation to many readers from south of the border. This book could have been set in London in many respects. That it isn’t is a credit to the author, and probably a credit to his previous success allowing him to say a firm “No” to any publisher suggesting that he’s picked the wrong capital.

I got into the story after a few chapters and once in, worked my way through pleasantly quickly. I didn’t dare leave it too long between reading sessions for fear of losing the plot, but as the chapters are short, and the focus moved between different plot threads, it’s an easy book to pick up and put down for short bursts of reading between other jobs.

Now if you don’t mind, I think there is one more teacake in the fridge…

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Relaxing reads for taxing times

Phil: Here’s a handy hint. Don’t publish a blog post about how you are starting to feel more comfortable with the current situation. It’s a prelude to your metal state heading downhill fast for several days. Just shut up and read some books. To help, here are the two most recent that I’ve finished in my regular post-lunch tea and reading sessions.

Warning: Contains Spoilers. Or at least spoilers if you’ve never read any chick-lit before and can’t spot the bleedin’ obvious plot lines.

The Hidden Cottage by Erica James

Mia Channing appears to have an enviable life: a beautiful home, a happy marriage, a job she enjoys and three grown-up children to whom she’s devoted. But appearances can be deceptive…

When the family gathers for her son’s thirtieth birthday, he brings with him his latest girlfriend, who, to their surprise, has a nine-year-old daughter. Then, before the birthday cake has even been cut, Mia’s youngest daughter Daisy has seized the opportunity to drop a bombshell. It’s an evening that marks a turning point in all their lives, when old resentments and regrets surface and the carefully ordered world Mia has created begins to unravel.

You’d think from the blurb that this is all about Mia, but the main character is Owen Fletcher who buys a cottage in Little Pelham. The cottage was part of his childhood when he lived for a while in the village. He’s one of those annoying people in novels with bucket loads of cash but no obvious way of earning it, but we let that pass because he’s not a dick. I did have a “what does he DO all day?” moment, but in the current situation, adults not actually doing much to fill the hours doesn’t seem so odd.

Anyway, this is quite involved with Mia’s three children and most importantly, overly controlling husband, all walking on eggshells with each other, finding their way in the world, loving and losing etc. The actual main romance isn’t prominent in the book. It’s there, but takes up very little of the story compared to the rest of the characters, and is all the better for it.

I’d say that this is the thinking readers chick-lit with some well worked parallel storylines, especially Mia’s marriage and Owen’s childhood. There are a few shocks along the way too. Maybe the supporting characters in the village are a bit cartoonish, but the background hangs together well enough not to be obtrusive.

I read this one in small chunks, but it’s one of those books I’d make little bits of time during the day to grab another chapter of.

A Summer Scandal by Kat French

When Violet moves to Swallow Beach, she inherits a small Victorian pier with an empty arcade perched on the end of it, and falls in love immediately. She wants nothing more than to rejuvenate it and make it grand again – but how?

When she meets hunky Calvin, inspiration strikes. What if she turned the arcade into an adult-themed arcade full of artisan shops?

Not everyone in the town is happy with the idea, but Violet loves her arcade and business begins to boom. But as tensions worsen and the heat between her and Calvin begins to grow, life at Swallow Beach becomes tricky. Is it worth staying to ride out the storm? And can Violet find her own happy ending before the swallows fly south for the winter?

Violet inherits a pier and apartment in the childhood town her mother refuses to return to. There are secrets from her grandmother who died in mysterious circumstances. And her neighbour is hunky Calvin Dearheart.

Reader, she shags him.

She also turns the pier into a series of workshops for those making things for the adult entertainment industry. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but a couple of them were “That’s really a thing?” moments. You don’t want to search for them on-line either on a work computer.

I wasn’t wild about this, the idea that you’d turn the centrepiece of a pier into a series of workspaces where the most public-friendly thing on offer would be a leather whip seemed odd. Artisan workshops would work, but I suspect that the Great British Public aren’t ready for X-rated goods while strolling along the seaside.

To be honest, the characters are all ridiculous, but it’s all played straight and so the book gets away with it. There are more historical parallels, outrageous coincidences and the ending is a bit weird, but overall, it’s everything the cover suggests. Light fun with a happy ending. Just like that that the pier’s customers are expecting.

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Middle England – These aren’t my people

A comedy for our times – The Guardian

Phil: I’m middle-class. I work in magazine publishing. The only manual labour I do involves making model trains. I have been down coal mines, but only at museums. Years ago, I could even follow the plot of The Archers.

It seems I’m not the right sort of middle class though.

Proper middle-class people earn mahoosive amounts of money doing jobs even more pointless than mine. They then spend their lives spending money without any visible means of financial support. Ideally, they will have made a killing in the London property market, sold up and bought a rather nice converted mill to live in somewhere less fashionable. They drink posh wine and eat the sort of nibbles that I’ve read about but would probably ignore in preference to sausage on a stick.

I really wanted to like Middle England. It’s set in the Midlands for a start. There are mentions of places I know like central Birmingham (the library is being built) and Solihull.

Sadly, the characters might occupy the same geography as me, but they live in another world.

Look, our book is set partly in central Solihull. All the characters have jobs. Jobs they do to earn money. We set it there because we didn’t want to set it in London and Solihull is a nice place. Nice enough for Kate anyway. She doesn’t want to jump into the pool that is London. Better be a big fish in a smaller pond than just another in the capital’s shoal. Besides, when she needs to go to the big city, there’s a perfectly good train service with at-seat coffee and WiFi, so she can have the best of both worlds.

Maybe the author lives in a rarified world of London journalists and politicians and so struggles to connect with the rest of us plebs. I’ve long been a fan of the idea that our capital needs to be hived off as a city-state, leaving the rest of us to do things our own way. It’s not that I don’t like London, far from it. It’s just that I know it’s very different from elsewhere, something the inhabitants don’t grasp much of the time.

Anyway, Middle England is supposed to be a satire on the newly formed coalition government (something we also satirise) but it’s not very subtle. A government adviser pops up every so often as a caricature who keeps changing his story without bothering about facts or the truth. I should be right in tune with all of this, yet I didn’t get it.

Talking of story – I couldn’t actually find a plot. There are lots of words, the pages seem slightly more densely printed than normal, but nothing actually happens. I didn’t get the feeling that we were on a journey anywhere. Mind you, I gave up 1/3rd of the way through. Even reading on a train, normally something that gets me into any book didn’t help. All I was left with were characters I didn’t care about.

A pertinent, entertaining study of a nation in crisis – Financial Times

Middle England is the novel about Brexit we need – Daily Telegraph

Insufferably smug – Phil Parker

 

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Evil word counting

Phil: Imagine a world very like the one we live in, but where women have no passports, money of their own, jobs – and are limited to speaking 100 words a day.

That’s how America looks in Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The word limit is enforced by a wristband every female is fitted with at three months of age. Each word spoken is counted and when you reach 101, you receive an electric shock. Keep talking and the shocks become stronger until you “learn your lesson”.

All of this is enforced because of a new brand of “Pure” Christianity that has taken hold. Spreading from the bible-belt, it’s now controlling the White House and everyone else.

As you read, it becomes obvious that people are adjusting to the new normal. Jean McClellan is the main character and we see through her eyes as her sons tell her that according to their lessons at school, a woman’s place is in the home. Chillingly, her daughter wins a prize for not speaking at all. Women haven’t just lost their place in society, they have literally lost their voice.

I found this a scary read. OK, it turns into a thriller towards the end, but the scene-setting is very, very effective.

What makes it especially uncomfortable is that you can see how this sort of thing could happen for real. Vice President of the USA, Mike Pence, won’t eat alone with a woman and has been applauded for this by the religious right. His boss isn’t exactly known for his consideration towards women either.

Don’t think women would all stand up and fight – the rise of the #tradwife movement is sending women back to the 1950s and while they might not be queueing up to wear an electric word-counter, they love the idea that women should stay at home doing what their husband tells them they are allowed to do.

Like all good sci-fi, Vox is a commentary on the present day. It holds up a slightly distorted mirror to our lives and the reflection acts as a warning to things that could happen if we don’t pay attention.

Mind you, I think the Nolan acts as a perfectly effective word counter when we meet, there is a look far more potent than any electric shock that says, “Shut up Phil, and do some work!”

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Killer blurb

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other..

Phil: When I read this on the back of My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite while browsing the new books shelf of my local library, it did its job, grabbing me enough I wanted to read the story. With three books in my hand, I left it but came back a couple of weeks later and searched for it on the shelves.

Set in Lagos, it tells the story of Korede who keeps having the clean up when her sister murders her latest boyfriend.

As a nurse with a cleaning compulsion, she’s ideally placed to help, but when the sister hooks up with a doctor Korede facies herself, things get complicated. She can’t tell anyone about this except a patient in a coma.

Through the story, we learn some backs-story about the girls’ abusive father and his death (not their fault, but they were present) and this might give an insight into Ayoola’s behaviour. That, and she’s a little princess who’s never heard the word “no”.

The book has won awards, but I wonder if this is down to a metropolitan art crowd being excited by a book set firmly in Nigeria and making good use of the rules and traditions of that country. You are immersed in a way no non-native could ever do and some of the characters’ behaviours are appalling by Western standards. If you think the British class system is bad, the Nigerian one is far worse. It troubled me that the “house girl” never seems to warrant a name, nor any consideration for her constant servitude by the main characters for example.

I’m not sure the story every really gets going despite two deaths and a third close-call. The coma patient wakes up and remembers some of the stuff he has been told, but nothing happens with this.

The premise is really strong, possibly stronger than the book itself. Having said that, the setting fascinated me and I’m tempted to look up many of the foods mentioned. Maybe this is the best part – I was really taken to a new world, and that’s what reading should be about.

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Do you read reviews? I really should.

Phil: I’ve just come back from the Tutankhamun “Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition in London. I shelled out good money to get in and for my ticket to travel. Sadly, by the end, I was disappointed and felt cheated.

We were promised 150 artefacts, many leaving Egypt for the first and last time. That much is true, but my motivation was to see the iconic golden mask of Tutankhamun – the thing everyone pictures in their mind’s eye when you say the name.

I gazed at many amazing and fascinating objects, gradually nearing the end. Turning in to the last room, I was faced with….a stone statue. An interesting statue with 3000-year-old paint, but not the golden mask.

Querying this with a steward, it became obvious that I’m not the first person to ask. The reply about the mask being “too delicate” to travel from Egypt came out very quickly and with much practice.

Looking back at the booking, I realise the organisers had never said the mask would be there. They had simply used an image of one of the other objects, a miniature version of the coffin used for holding some of the King’s internal organs. It’s beautifully made and from the picture, you wouldn’t know the thing was about a foot tall. I simply saw the picture and assumed, something the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer guessed would happen.

Now, if I’d taken the time to read some reviews beforehand, I’d have realised I wasn’t going to see the mask. On that basis, I’d have given the exhibition a miss.

This makes me think, I’m a bit rubbish at checking this sort of thing out in advance. I don’t generally read book reviews in advance either.

Is this just me?

Maybe authors can stop worrying quite so much about a bad review. Most people have better things to do than research a book in advance – a nice over and slick synopsis on the back probably sells more.

OK, there will be some who pore through reviews, probably looking for the bad ones. A slew of good reviews can’t hurt either, but maybe we can afford to be a bit more relaxed. And maybe, I need to be a little more prepared in future when planning a day out.

 

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The worst Deus ex machina ever?

Deus ex machina: A plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence, typically so much as to seem contrived.

Phil: I like nerdy reading. I like sci-fi. I like space ships and I love the TV show Thunderbirds. Not for the plots, which are mostly rubbish, but for the models and whizz-bang stuff. The twenty-first century doesn’t look as good as it did when Gerry Anderson designed it!

Anyway, I was browsing in an especially nerdy (even for me) shop and spotted book for a couple of quid.

Thunderbirds Lost World isn’t a novelisation of one of the TV shows. No, it’s a brand new (for 1966 when it was published) novel offering a thrilling tale.

Investing the disappearance of two airliners over New Guinea, Thunderbird One and pilot Scott Tracey find themselves crash landing after his craft is hit by a mysterious invisible force. After some escapades that would be impossible to film with puppets, he is rescued by Thunderbird Two.

Separately, a boffin is planning an expedition to the island. He disappears and Scott heads off to find him. They suspect International Rescue’s arch-enemy, The Hood, might have something to do with it all.

Spoiler Alert.

Anyway, it turns out there is a race of being hidden on the island who are using alien technology to do bad things and are planning to take over the world.

Things look sticky for our heroes – they are trapped in jail with no hope of escape or rescue.

Then there is an earthquake, the jail doors fly open, the baddies disappear and everyone gets away to live happily ever after.

Seriously?

Pretty much an entire novel-worth of buildup, the ground shakes and everything is OK?

How on earth did author John W Jennison get away with this?

I had wondered as the bookmark was nearly at the back and we seemed a long way off a plot resolution, but I didn’t see this coming. Can anyone name a more blatant ending thrown in because the author wanted to go down the pub or was just close to their deadline?

(Nerd note: If you have a copy with a dust jacket, it shows Thunderbird One flying over a dinosaur. There are no dinosaurs in the story.)

 

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Demon Seed – so good he wrote it twice?

Phil: An odd one this. Heading into my local library in search of something to read, I spotted a book called Demon Seed on the shelf.

I knew of the film and decided to give the original version a go.

Or did I?

In the first chapter, there is mention of both the Internet and the World Wide Web. “Hold on”, I think, “I’m pretty sure the film was made back in the 1970s. How come we have talk of things not developed until the late 1990s?”

The plot revolves around a sentient computer program, so some sort of moving around the world’s networks is fine, but I’m pretty sure that neither term was in common us back then.

To Wikipedia, I head and I’m right about the film, it was released in 1977. Assuming the book predates the film then how does the author know about the web?

Well, a little more digging and it turns out that Dean Koontz has written the book twice. Once in 1973 and again in 1997.

All is explained at the end of the novel. Koontz simply says he didn’t think the original was very good so decided to have another crack at it. This allowed him to add in all those future references to computing technology.

I wonder how he pitched it to the publisher though. “You remember that great book I wrote years ago? I’d like to do it again and see if people buy another copy to find out what I’ve changed.”

Is it a brave move to decided that the story you are best known for isn’t good enough, or a cynical one to cash in?

I suppose I ought to say whether I enjoyed the book. Not much. All the talk of the computer controlling Susan, the main character, made me very uncomfortable. There’s also a fairly graphic murder of an innocent man as well as passing mention of several others. Not my thing at all, but then we’ve mentioned I’m a bit of a wuss about these things in the past.

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The Muse by Jessie Burton

Image result for the muse

Candice : I’ve just come back from a lovely week sunning myself in Gran Canaria.  The holiday hit all the usual Nolan criteria – sun, tick (though it took a day or so to appear), pool tick, mini disco, tick and happy child, tick.

We’ve been to Gran Canaria before when she was a bit younger, and I’ve also been when I was hitting the club 18-30 world.  Its a great for guaranteed sun but, to be the honest, its a bit characterless.  Being a volcanic island, they have to import sand from the Sahara to make the beaches yellow not black and its so small you can get from one side to the other in about an hour.  The other half and I discussed holiday options for our next trip and decided we wanted more character – but that’s another post for another time.

However, the sun and pool options meant that I did have time to crack open the odd book and get on with some reading.  I’d struggled to have time to pop somewhere to get a book before this hols so had ordered some of Amazon.  Its harder to pick that way because you do need to have an idea of what you want to read or an author in mind.  I picked Jessie as I’d read ‘The Miniaturist‘ the other year and had really enjoyed it.  It was quirky and different, not my usual read but I was hooked all the way through the twists and turns of the strange story.

‘The Muse’ was similar.  A strange premise of a woman who comes across a painting which has a complicated history.  Set in the 30s and 60s the story twists between the discovery of the painting and the actual painting of it.  But its more than that as it touches on what it is like to be a person of colour in the UK when that is frowned upon, the impact of war on a country and how deceit leads people to do strange things.

In brief, Odelle comes to the UK from Trinidad, degree educated she struggles to find a job until she is taken under the wing of Marjorie, second in command at prestigious art gallery.  Odelle meets Lawrie, who’s once rich family are now struggling after the death of his mother, he has been only left a painting in her will.

The painting weaves a tale of a Foreign diplomat and Art Seller in war besieged Spain, where his wife and daughter are trying to fit in.  His wife struggles with depression, his daughter a gifted artist who is ignored by her father.

The daughter falls for one of the servants who is also an artist and through a twist of fate (orchestrated by the artist’s sister) her painting is represented as his to her father.  Fame and fortune follow for the man, but he doesn’t want to take the glory of his girlfriend’s work.

War breaks, and the family and artist are separated and some end up back in the UK, with the final painting in their possession.

When Lawrie shows the painting to the gallery it causes uproar, an undiscovered work by this celebrated artist.  But all is not as it seems and Majorie becomes cagey, Odelle thinks she is hiding something about the painting.

The story twists and turns nicely, with an added plot twist I thought I’d worked out but wasn’t quite what I expected.  The book is well written, and unlike other stories where it moves from different story lines I didn’t struggle to keep up with who is who.

Being able to read it over a few days definitely helped but one to recommend.

 

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A twisted last post?

Phil: This might be my last blog post. I may not get the chance to write another. The reasons should be clear by the time you reach the end.

Sharing books can be an enjoyable thing. You find yourself presented with something you might not have chosen yourself. Maybe even a complete genre that had previously passed you by.

I’ve never been into books which involve people getting killed. I know they are called “thrillers” but I like to read for escapism, and that generally doesn’t involve me being reminded that I could be killed randomly just because some loon wants to send a message to someone else – usually a detective. I mean, why can’t they just pick up the phone and dial 999? Maybe send a text, or even a postcard?

Anyway, the latest novel to come my way is Twisted by Steve Cavanagh.

I wasn’t really intending to read this but found myself short of books, and I quite liked the orange and black cover which is a bit stylish.

By the end, I enjoyed it. Not just because I found some matching colour cake either.

The plot is confusing. Apparently, the novel is written by JT LeBeau, a mysterious and very, very successful author. Or is it?

You see there are twists, turns and red herrings aplenty.

Halfway through, you think you know what’s going on and the whole thing turns on its head.

By the end, we have an author who is a killer, and a woman with nice shoes lying on a beach.

Now, I know a woman who has nice shoes and is partial to lying on a beach. How far would she go in pursuit of said shoes and sunlounger? Has she got a list of previous writing partners that I don’t know about, all of whom have disappeared in mysterious circumstances? Why does she keep giving me books about people being murdered?

If you don’t hear from me again, please send flowers. And cake….

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