Archive for July, 2009

As a child in California,  Jack Renoir witnessed the brutal murder of his uncle, and ever since then, he has cut himself off from emotion, refusing to allow himself to get close to anybody.  He gets a job in security clearance, which means that he has to unearth the secrets that people hope to keep buried.  But thirty years later, he meets Kate Palmer, an English businesswoman, and can’t help falling in love with her.  Jack moves to England to start a new life with Kate, and put his past business behind him…but it’s not long before little things start to raise doubts about Kate, and despite his intentions, Jack can’t help trying to discover exactly what it is going on…

This book has two storylines;  Jack’s life with his uncle Will and Will’s girlfriend Maris, and the events which led to Will’s murder; and Jack’s life with Kate and his suspicions about what she is not telling him.  The story switches between California and Belfield (Kate’s family estate in England) and also between the present day, and thirty years before.  I enjoyed the parts set in California very much.  I do believe that in fact, the story of Jack’s childhood and his subsequent approach to relationships, would have made an interesting novel in itself, without the storyline of his relationship with Kate. I do believe that the book would have been much better if it had been about 50 pages shorter, and had concentrated more on the events of Jack’s childhood (and their subsequent effects) than on his current life and relationship.

The storyline about Jack’s relationship with Kate was less interesting; the secret which Kate was obviously hiding from Jack was not as interesting as it should have been, and I ended up not really caring how that particular aspect of the story turned out.  I did not think Kate was a particularly likeable character, and found it hard to care about her or her family.

However, the book was interesting enough to hold my attention. I am not sure whether it was supposed to be a romance, or a mystery, and I think the mystery aspect worked better.  Renoir was a likeable character, and certainly easy enough for the reader to like.  I would certainly be interested in reading further books by this author.

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I’ve seen this film many times, but I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about it, which is unusual, as it is definitely one of top 5 films of all time (and definitely my favourite comedy).  Not only that, but it stars my all time favourite actor, Jeff Bridges.

He plays the Dude, a lovable slouch, who loves bowling, drinking White Russians (which, by the way, is a very tasty drink), and smoking joints.  After a case of mistaken identity, which causes the Dude to try to gain retribution for a ruined rug (“that rug really tied the room together”) he finds himself, together with his best friend Water (a Vietnam obsessed veteran, who definitely needs anger management lessons) embroiled in a case of kidnapping, trying to save the life of a young ‘lady’ – and I use the word lady in the loosest sense of the word! – who may or may not have been kidnapped by a group of nihilists.  The Dude is thrown from one hapless adventure into another, but all he really wants to do is go bowling…

I don’t want to give too much away about the plot; suffice to say that this is the funniest film I can remember ever seeing, and every time I watch it, I get something new out of it.  Jeff Bridges puts in an Oscar worthy performance, and all of the supporting cast are also fabulous.

Year of release: 1998

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Main cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

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An unnamed male teenage narrator describes summer in London in 1958.  In the earlier parts, his main concerns are his love for ex-girlfriend Crepe Suzette, his misgivings about his family, and spending time with his various friends. However, as the novel progresses, he describes the rising racial tensions of the time, which inevitably spill over into violence.

The narrator lives in a poorer part of London which he refers to as Napoli, and whose population is very multi-cultural, and also houses a lot of people on the fringes of society at the time, such as homosexuals and drug addicts.  A new youth culture is just emerging and so is the popularity of jazz music in Britain.

I enjoyed this book, on the whole, although I found the narrator hard to engage with, despite the fact that we were seeing events through his eyes.  He seems to have more acquaintances than actual friends, and many of those are fairly transient characters, who seem to serve as a sounding board for the narrator’s thoughts and beliefs.

Things do become more heated at the close of the book, and with it, the maturing narrator also starts to care about bigger issues. However, although he has strong feelings about the events that take place, I found little emotion in his telling of such events.

I wasn’t around to experience the era or the location of the times described, but the telling of the story does seem to have an air of authenticity about it, and described London as a vibrant and exciting place to be, but with an air of underlying tension.

I usually prefer character driven books, but in this novel, the characters take second place to the city of London itself, which is really the biggest character of all.

Overall, an enjoyable read, and much better than the film adaptation!

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Alfred White has always ruled his family with a mixture of tenderness and toughness.  Such was his toughness that he has alienated his two eldest children and doesn’t understand what’s happening in the life of his youngest child, but when he collapses at work, they all rush to be by his side in hospital.  However, just when the family should be pulling together, they find themselves fragmenting.  Oldest son Darren is married to his third wife, and when he comes over from his home in New York, old resentments float to the surface.  Daughter Shirley upset her father years ago by marrying a black man, and since being widowed she is still at odds with her father over her current relationship with another black man.  Youngest son Dirk hates all non-white people and his anger at Shirley over her relationship reaches boiling point.  Things must come to a head and when they do, who will step up and see that justice is done?

This book is told from the point of view of all of the different family members, who take turns narrating along with a few other people who also know the family.  The different viewpoints make for an interesting narrative as accounts of events overlap and are seen through different eyes.

I thought this was a fabulous read.  Each characters is brought realistically to life, and are very distinct from each other.  Many of them are not sympathetic characters (Shirley is easily the nicest), but in each case their motives and reasons for their beliefs and actions are explained, although certain actions are not excused or ‘softened’ – and nor should they be.  Opinions are explained and while it was impossible to condone the actions of certain characters, I could certainly understand why they behaved that way.  This is largely due to the excellent and eloquent prose.

Maggie Gee has written an excellent book which explores the prejudices which people hold and live with and certainly pulls no punches.  She forces the reader to consider these prejudices.  This was a very thought provoking book, which could have been heavy at times due to the subject matter, but was instead never less than compelling.  I would highly recommend this book, and will certainly be seeking out further work by this author.

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This is a fantastic movie starring the so-gorgeous-I-could-eat-him-with-a-spoon Benicio Del Toro, and the so-gorgeous-I-could-spit Halle Berry.  Berry plays Audrey Burke, a woman whose husband Brian (David Duchovny) is murdered. She invites Brian’s lifelong friend, recovering heroin addict Jerry (Del Toro) to stay with her and her two children.  Previously she had always hated Jerry, but when they share a house, they end up provided comfort and understanding for each other, as he was the only person who was as close to her husband as she was (indeed, she gets upset when she discovers that Brian told Jerry things that he had not told her).

I’ve said it before…I know I’m biased, but Benicio Del Toro really is a superb actor, and his skills are shown off perfectly in this film.  He has an ability to convey so much emotion, and he made it impossible for me not to care about Jerry.  Halle Berry also did a great job, as the grieving widow; this role should dispel notions that she is not a good actress.   It is an emotional movie – it made me cry several times, and I was still crying when it ended.  Definitely one to watch again at some point.

Year of release: 2007

Director: Susanne Bier

Writer: Allan Loeb

Main cast: Benicio Del Toro, Halle Berry, David Duchovny

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When troubled rich girl Emily (Alicia Silverstone) fakes her own kidnapping to get her father’s attention, she ends up getting more than she bargained for!  Her plan is that her father will pay a ransom and she will then be found safe and well in the trunk of her car.  However, car thief Vincent (Benicio Del Toro) is unaware of all of this when he steals the car, with Emily in it!  When he discovers that he has not only stolen a car, but has also unwittingly stolen a person, he just wants to get Emily away from him, before he winds up getting blamed for the kidnapping which she faked in the first place.  Initially he and Emily can’t stand each other, but as they spend more time together, they grow to respect each other and find an understand that neither of them has been able to find anywhere else.  Meantime however, Emily’s Uncle Ray (Christopher Walken), is on their tail…

I really enjoyed this movie.  Alicia Silverstone is as cute as a button in the part of the feisty Emily, and Christopher Walken gives a great performance, as always.  But this movie really belongs to Benicio Del Toro.  Now I might be slightly biased, because I think Benicio is more delicious than a bar of Green and Black’s chocolate wrapped in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but there’s no denying that he is perfect for the role of Vincent, who may be a car thief, but who  has an air of naivety, and – car theft aside – only wants to do the right thing.  I’ve always thought that he is a great actor, who can convey an emotion with just a slight change in expression – he also possesses great comic timing.

This is the perfect kind of movie to relax with, and one I can definitely see myself watching again sometime in the future.

Year of release: 1997

Director: Marco Brambilla

Writers: Max D. Adams, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais

Main cast: Benicio el Toro, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken

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When 19 year old Flora Poste finds herself orphaned and with little income, she decides to throw herself upon the mercy of her relatives, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort Farm.  When she arrives at the farm, she finds her hitherto unencountered relatives in a state of fragmentation and despondency.  Her relatives include her perpetually distraught cousin Judith, and Judith’s husband Amos, who loves to preach hellfire and damnation, the good looking but arrogant Seth and the reticent and suspicious Rueben, and the ethereal young child Elfine.  It being Flora’s nature to organise people’s lives, she decides that she must take the opportunity to lead the Starkadders into a more conventional state of existence.  However, the biggest obstacle to Flora’s plans is the elusive matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, a formidable woman who saw something in the woodshed decades earlier and has never recovered, and who has not left the farm for twenty years.  Will Flora be able to rise to the challenge?

This book is extremely well written, with some wonderfully descriptive passages, especially with regard to the dull and gloomy state of the farm, which reflects the attitudes of the people who live within it.

It’s described as hilarious; I would personally say that it was very amusing in parts, although it did not provide any big belly-laughs.  Nonetheless, it was enjoyable throughout, with plenty of acerbic observations.

Flora is of course the main character, and although the book is narrated in the third person, events are largely portrayed from Flora’s point of view.  Credit must go to Stella Gibbons for making her such a likeable person, when in fact she spends much of her life interfering in the business of others and making wry observations on their lesser qualities.  However, her good intentions shine through, and it was impossible for me not to hope that things turned out just as she had hoped (as for whether they did or not – I’m giving nothing away, but I would highly recommend that you read it to find out)!

All of the characters are portrayed well and with good humour.  Flora herself reminded me somewhat of Emma Woodhouse, from Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (Austen is referenced a few times throughout the book), and I like to think that if Austen herself had been writing novels some 120 years after her own lifetime, this would be the sort of thing she had written.

This is a gently diverting novel, which will make you smile, and it is an enjoyable book, which I suspect will benefit from repeated reads.

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Set in Philadelphia, construction worker Sean, whose main interests in life are drinking with his friend Jason and flirting with women, finds himself caught up in a nightmare, when a serial killer starts terrorising people who Sean and Jason went to school with. Sean decides that he has to find and stop the killer before more lives – possibly including those of Sean and Jason – are lost. Initially, Jason agrees to accompany him, but events take their toll on him, and Sean finds himself largely alone.  As he finds himself drawing closer to the truth, he can only hope that he will get there before the killer gets to him…

I have mixed feelings about this book.  On the positive side, the storyline is interesting and fast paced enough to keep the reader from losing interest.  I was also wrong-footed on both of my guesses about who was committing the murders, and I always like to be surprised.  I also liked the fact that Sean was not a stereotypical hero – he seemed to drink probably much too much, could be dismissive of others, and showed little respect for authority at times.  I find this more believeable than having a ‘picture perfect’ hero, who could do no wrong.

However, at times I did have to suspend my disbelief.  Sean seemed to figure out the connection between the victims pretty quickly, while the Police were still struggling to make the obvious connection.  I found it difficult to believe that it wouldn’t have been one of the first things they had realised.  There was also one particular part of the storyline which seemed far too convenient and unlikely, which spoiled my enjoyment somewhat.

My main quibble with the book though, was the lack of grammar and good spelling. However, I should point out that the copy I was reading may have been an unedited proof, which might explain this.  Nonetheless, it did make it difficult reading at times – and one character’s name changed completely during the course of the story!

In short, I definitely think that there is an interesting story here, but it would benefit from a strong edit.

(I would like to thank the author for sending me this book to review.  Ben Gibbins’ website can be found here.)

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Set in the 1870’s, Selina Dawes finds herself imprisoned at Millbank Prison. Selina is a medium who insists that a spirit committed the crimes for which she has been incarcerated.  When Margaret Prior becomes a visitor at the prison, in a role which sees her befriend prisoners and try to offer support to them, she finds herself drawn to Selina, to an extent which seems beyond her control. As their bond gets tighter, events start to hurtle out of control…

Sarah Waters is fast becoming one of my favourite authors.  The story drew me in slowly, but surely.  The main narrator is Miss Prior, and the book is interspersed with short accounts of events leading up to the incident which led to Selina’s imprisonment; these parts are narrated by Selina herself.  Miss Prior has herself suffered a great loss, and illness and depression are part of her recent past.  As much as she helps Selina cope with prison life, Selina helps her to cope with her own life, living with her stifling mother.

The characters are distinctive and believable with human strengths and flaws which were easy to recognise.  All were very well drawn.

The story unfolds beautifully at a pace slow pace, which nevertheless does not fail to hold the reader’s attention.  The ending was a genuine surprise, and one which I could not have predicted – here I could not help but to feel what Miss Prior felt.  It is was a pleasure to be genuinely shocked by a story’s conclusion.

As always, Sarah Waters captures the atmosphere and surroundings of 1870s London, and the setting is brought to life through her words.  This book doesn’t have the Dickensian feel of Fingersmith, nor the bawdy sauciness of Tipping the Velvet (both of which books I thoroughly enjoyed), but is rather more subtle.  It works beautifully and is further evidence to show what a talented writer Waters is.  I found myself wanting to keep reading, as I was eager to know what would happen next.

I would recommend this book very highly – I don’t think you will be disappointed!

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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