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This book tells the history of New York from the 1660s (before it was called New York) through to – almost – the present day. The last chapter is set in 2009.

It mainly follows the fictional Master family through several generations, but other families also appear throughout, with actual real life events as the backdrop. Not always a backdrop actually – the American Civil War and the War of Independence are both huge storylines which affect the main characters greatly.

The novel is over 1000 pages long, but thankfully very readable and not at all dry. If you were interested in learning the history of New York, then this would be an excellent book to read, and by inserting fictional characters who a reader can invest in, it is so much more than just a history lesson. If like me, you just love New York, then I think you would find plenty to enjoy about this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I would have liked to have had something about World War II and the Vietnam War in there, but it would be impossible to include everything, and this is very much a history of New York rather than America.

It’s very clear that Edward Rutherfurd has researched his subject extensively and as a result the reader is rewarded with a vibrant and colourful history and love letter to one of the most exciting cities on earth. Highly recommended.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Vivacious Lady stars a young James Stewart as botany professor Peter Morgan and Ginger Rogers as the title character – a nightclub singer named Francey. When Peter and Francey meet, it’s love and first sight and they impulsively get married. However, Peter is then faced with the prospect of telling his conservative parents – not to mention his fiancee Helen! – what he has done. Lots of comedy ensues as he struggles to find the right time, and the couple have to hide their romance.

This film is a sparkling delight from start to finish. James Stewart is just so bloody likeable and sincere in everything he ever did, and Ginger Rogers had perfect comic timing, which made her shine in a hilarious fight scene. Not that she has the monopoly on physical comedy in this film – Stewart’s character getting drunk is terrific (he does a splendid drunken scene two years later in The Philadelphia Story) and there is a wonderful dance scene with Rogers, James Ellison as Peter’s cousin Frank, and Beulah Bondi as Peter’s mother Martha.

With Charles Coburn playing Peter’s father, who takes an instant dislike to Francey, and great turns from Frances Mercer as Helen, this is a great cast who all seem to be enjoying themselves. And this certainly translates to the viewer, because I can’t imagine anyone finishing this film without a smile on their face.

In short, this is called a classic for a very valid reason. If you like films from this genre, then don’t miss this one!

Captain Fantastic (2016)

In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children live off the grid, hunting and scavenging for their food. He ‘homeschools’ the children, and teaches them survival techniques, giving them dangerous knives and other weapons as presents.

However, when the death of Ben’s wife Leslie forces them to take a trip back to civilisation for her funeral, there is a distinct clash of cultures between their way of life and that of Leslie’s family (and indeed Ben’s own family). For while Ben has taught his children how to survive life or death situations, they are socially inept, as demonstrated by their eldest son when he meets a girl who has a crush on him.

The film raises the question of whether what Ben is doing is fair and right for his children, or whether it is a form of abuse. At least two of the children rebel against his authority and he is left with difficult decisions.

It would be easy to hate Ben for what effectively amounts to brainwashing, and for his almost smug attitude towards other people – for example when his sister’s two sons are unable to tell him what the Bill of Rights is, he calls down his eight year old daughter, who breaks it down for them without a second thought. But Viggo Mortensen is such a talented and subtle actor that while it’s one thing to see what damage Ben is – albeit inadvertently and with the best of intentions – doing to the children, we can also sympathise with him to an extent. But we can also understand the frustration of Leslie’s parents (Frank Langella and Ann Down), who are also basically very decent people.

With splendid acting from all concerned, and a compelling central character, this might not be as funny as you might expect, but it’s compelling and never gets boring. It’s almost two hours long, and felt half the time to me. Recommended.

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This audiobook, narrated by Todd Boyce, follows an unusual format, in that it starts at the end of the story and then goes backwards in time, with each chapter being set earlier than the previous one. It’s an interesting idea, and I’m not sure that it completely worked. The ending (or the beginning, as it were) was very satisfying and provided lots of ‘aha!’ and ‘wow!’ moments, but for the first few chapters (or indeed the last few!) it was confusing and somewhat frustrating. Jeffery Deaver has written some excellent books, and I don’t think this is one of them. It was good in the end, but I was tempted to give up on it after listening for the first hour or so.

Anyhow, the story revolves around a woman named Gabriella MacKenzie, sitting in a room with a man who is obviously there to look after her, while she anxiously awaits to hear if her kidnapped daughter Sarah has been rescued. Sarah was taken by a mysterious man named Joseph, who demands a huge sum of money and a mysterious document called The October List, which Gabriella’s boss has ownership of, and which contains details of people he had been dealing with in criminal financial activity. The boss has disappeared with the list and with Joseph’s – and several other people’s money – and Joseph wants it back. The story covers Gabriella and her new boyfriend Daniel’s attempts to retrieve the mysterious list and get it to Joseph before her daughter comes to any harm.

The narration was fine and the story was clever, but as mentioned above I’m not sure I would read something else written in this format. Normally when people are introduced into a story, there is some background or information provided about them which gives the reader an idea of the role they are going to play. Not so here however; characters are introduced with no explanation of how they fit into this story. It’s kind of like piecing together a jigsaw without ever having seen the picture you’re trying to make.

So a bit of a mixed bag. If you manage to get halfway through then it’s definitely worth sticking with it, but be prepared to be a bit lost at first.

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Scottsboro is fact based fiction. It tells the story of the nine Scottsboro boys – nine young black men who were wrongfully convicted several times over, of raping two young women on a train in the American south in 1931. The colour of their skin ensured their guilty verdict, even when one of the girls retracted her statement and admitted that they had both lied about the rape.

The main narrator of the book is a (fictional) journalist named Alice Whittier, who covers the trial and tries to help in seeking justice for the boys. Parts are also narrated by Ruby Bates, the girl who admitted that she and her accomplice Victoria Price, had lied about being raped.

I think it is a skilful piece of writing, expertly blending fact and fiction. It will make you outraged at the absolutely blatant racism against the young men, (and also at the blatant sexism against the women in the story). It’s very eloquently written and I found it easy to lose myself in the pages, and hard to put the book down at times. However, while I could certainly see the usefulness of Alice as a character – her job entitles her to sit in the court while the trials were taking place, and to get to know Ruby and the nine Scottsboro boys – I did feel that unnecessary details about Alice’s personal life intruded somewhat. Of course people want a well rounded character, but certain events which she wrote about, just stalled the narrative.

However, anyone who is interested in civil rights and how they can be denied based solely on the colour of one’s skin (and this is not something that should come as a surprise to anyone) could do worse than read this book. I would recommend.

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I listened to this as an audiobook, narrated extremely well by Michele Moran.

In the exclusive gated community of Withered Vale in Dublin, one of the occupants is found dead, having lain undiscovered in her home for three months. When it becomes obvious that her death was no accident, detectives Frank Brazil and Emma Child suspect that the culprit is one of her neighbours. As they interview the residents, it becomes clear that each of them had secrets which Olive had discovered, and all of them had reason to have killed her.

The narration alternates between all of the neighbours (seven houses in all) including Olive herself from beyond the grave, and the two detectives. This sounds like a lot of characters to keep straight, but Jo Spain did a super job of giving each character a distinctive voice. It’s true that Olive was clearly a deluded and often deeply unpleasant character, but I’m not sure that this is a community anyone would want to be part of! Some of the neighbours had more damaging and salacious secrets than others as you would expect, and each of them had had a falling out with Olive.

My favourite characters were the two detectives, who despite being of different eras and opinions, formed a respect and appreciation for each other.

I was kept guessing right until the end, and the ending itself did come as a surprise. Overall, a great listen and I would definitely read or listen to more by Jo Spain.

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I read Maria McCann’s novel The Wilding several years ago, in just a couple of sittings (most of it was read on a flight to Italy so I had little else to distract me). I had quite enjoyed that book so expected much of the same of As Meat Loves Salt, which was McCann’s debut novel. However, apart from the genre of historical fiction, there was little similar about these books. I far preferred As Meat Loves Salt, which is easily the darker of the two novels.

Set in the early years of the English Civil War, the anti-hero and narrator is Jacob Cullen, a man who is in domestic service with his two brothers, although they were originally born into wealth. Having committed murder (don’t worry, this is revealed in the first few pages and is not a spoiler), Jacob flees with his new wife and one of his brothers, but when things go wrong he finds himself joining the New Model Army fighting in the ongoing war, and befriending the enigmatic fellow soldier Christopher Ferris.

After they leave the New Model Army, Ferris returns to his home in London and offers Jacob a home there. For fear of spoiling the story for anyone who wants to read this book, I’ll not reveal more, except to say that things get very dark very quickly. Emotions run extremely high and Jacob in particular has little success in controlling his feelings. To say he is quick to anger is an understatement. He is a large, strong man, capable of committing much physical harm, and almost a slave to his own violent tendencies. He always acts without thinking and no matter how much he regrets his outbursts later, he is seeming unable to control his rage when it bubbles up inside him.

For all that he is a man who one would wish to avoid, he’s not the only one in this book. Ferris is charming and well meaning, but mercurial and manipulative. I actually cared for him very little, but the relationship between him and Jacob was a fascinating one. (It has just occurred to me that the women in this book come across by and large far better than the men.)

The one thing I would have liked to have known more about was the fate of Zeb – without giving anything away, I did think he would feature more than he did, and that there was an interesting story. If Maria McCann ever feels like writing the story from his point of view, I would definitely be interested in reading it.

Overall I would definitely recommend this book. It’s not an easy read, and there are a few very violent scenes. But it’s well written with a not very likeable but always interesting narrator – if this is the kind of book that appeals to you, I would give this one a try.

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I listened to this audiobook over the course of a week. It’s narrated by Lisa Coleman, who did an excellent job. This psychological crime thriller is apparently the eighth in a series featuring DCI Tom Douglas, and had I known that going in, I may well have skipped it; I have always felt that book series needed to be read in order from the beginning. However, it didn’t matter one iota – clearly there is a backstory to Tom’s personal life but it’s all explained clearly enough, and this book could actually serve as a standalone novel.

The story centres, and is largely narrated by, Anna Franklyn – mother, wife, headteacher, and a respected member of the community. As she is driving to work one day, Anna hears a voice from her past on a phone in radio show – that of her ex-boyfriend Scott, who says he is going to phone back in a weeks time and tell the story of himself and his lost love ‘Spike’ and their tragic relationship. The only problem is….Scott died 14 years earlier, taking Anna’s most guarded secrets with him…and now it seems he is here and ready to expose her past. Anna has a week to find out what happened to Scott, and to stop him ruining her life.

The narrative jumps forwards and backwards between Then (14 years earlier) and Now, and also includes chapters written in the third person which focus on the police investigation.

I actually really enjoyed this book. Yes, it is fairly implausible, and I did guess the twist about halfway through, but it was a well told story which did a good job of illustrating how a young naive woman found herself in such a predicament all those years ago. I HATED the character of Scott, but he was far from the worst character in the story. I felt sorry for Anna, but also wanted to shake her and tell her to get a grip! I’m not going to reveal any spoilers because the ending, although partly predictable, was still written well, and there was in fact one final twist which I didn’t expect.

My only niggle is that sometimes things were over explained. For example, there is a poker game that happens at one point where every play seems to be explained in detail. Unless you play / understand poker, this bit is all unnecessary filler – it would be enough to explain who won and who lost. But still – a minor niggle.

Overall, excellent narration and an enjoyable storyline (kept me listening for the most part anyway) made me give this a thumbs up, and I would definitely read / listen to moron this series.

 

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This is author and screenwriter William Goldman’s classic spoof fairy tale, which tells the story of Buttercup (the most beautiful girl in the world) and Westley (former farm boy turned swashbuckling hero) and their eternal love. Except that it is SO much more than that. There are pirates, kidnappings, death, swords, giants, princes, heroic escapes, magic and more besides. Apart from Buttercup and Westley, the main characters are Inigo Montoya and Fezzik the Giant, not to mention the numerous others, all of whom were highly entertaining in their own right.

It is framed in an unusual way – in the edition which I read, there is first of all a proper introduction by Goldman (I often skip introductions, but this is worth reading), and then a part where Goldman himself reminisces about being a young boy who had the story read to him by his father. The conceit is that Goldman claims that The Princess Bride was written by S. Morgenstern – who is in actuality entirely fictional – and he (Goldman) has merely edited it to get rid of the boring bits, and only tell the entertaining parts. Throughout the story itself, Goldman often interrupts the narrative to explain that he has cut part of the story and gives a brief synopsis of what happened in the part that he has cut. It sounds complicated, but all makes sense when you are reading it.

I actually didn’t realise quite how accomplished Goldman was – he wrote screenplays for such incredible and successful films as All The President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Misery. He also wrote several novels including Marathon Man, which was turned into an excellent film. His talent is undeniable, and his originality shines through in The Princess Bride. I am not normally a lover of fantasy fiction, which is why it took me so long to get around to reading this, but I would recommend this whether it is a genre you enjoy or not.

Truly deserving of it’s classic status.

 

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The Body in the Lake is the seventh episode/novella/installment – whichever you want to call it – in the Cherringham Cosy Crime Series. Laurent Bourdain, the mayor of a French village has been invited to Cherringham to pave the way for the twinning of the two small villages. A celebration party at Repton Hall (a large manor house owned by Lady Repton, who has appeared in a previous Cherringham mystery) turns to debauchery and ends with Monsieur Bourdain’s body being found floating in the lake at the manor.

Naturally there are plenty of suspects and an arrest is soon made, but our amateur detectives Sarah and Jack think that the wrong person is in custody and set out to solve the crime for themselves.

As with all the Cherringham series, Neil Dudgeon excellently narrates this episode and the story is enjoyable, although not the best so far but they can’t all be the best. Another fun slice of life in the sleepy Cotswold village with all sorts of secrets lurking below the surface…