Archive for May, 2010

This book tells the story of the Radlett family, and primarily one of the daughters Linda. Set just before and during World War II, and told through the eyes of her beloved cousin Fanny, Linda embarks on a search for love with takes her through two failed marriages before she finally finds real passion and romance in Paris (no spoilers here; this information is on the back of the book).

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped. Much has been made of Nancy Mitford’s razor-sharp wit, and while she certainly is very witty and acerbic at times, the story was spoiled for me by the character of Linda (apparently based on Nancy Mitford herself).

Some readers may have found the character to be endearing, but I simply found her irritating. She seemed to have no thought whatsoever for anybody’s feelings except her own, falling in love at the drop of a hat with no regard for whether she or the man in question is already in a relationship. She also abandons her daughter and feels no guilt for it, blaming the girls’s father for making her daughter boring. Worse still is the fact that people around her seem to condone her behaviour for no other reasons than that she is charming and beautiful.

The other characters are not explored particularly well. I would have liked to have learned more about Fanny the narrator, who may have been the less glamorous cousin, but seemed infinitely kinder and more selfless than Linda. The only other characters who I felt the reader could really get to know were Fanny’s aunt’s husband Davey (who veered between being lovable and obnoxious) and their neighbour Lord Merlin – the only character who seemed to be able to stand up to Linda and tell her when she was behaving badly. Overall, it wasn’t a disaster and I still intend to read Nancy Mitford’s ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ but this book was generally a disappointment to me.

(For more information on the author, please click here.)

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This book tells the stories of the seven people who were beheaded in the Tower of London between 1483 and 1601. These people were Lord Hastings (1483), Anne Boleyn (1536), Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1541), Katherine Howard (1542), Jane Parker, Lady Rochford (1542), Jane Grey (1554) and Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex (1601).

At only 75 pages long, the book does not delve too deeply into the history of any of these people, or the circumstances which lead to their executions. However, I have given it 3 out of 5, because while it offers nothing new to people already familiar with the events, it certainly serves as a good introduction to the subject, which is probably the best reason to pick up this book.

Whereas some books on such subjects can get a little bit bogged down in details, this one merely serves to give a brief overview, but it certainly gives enough to make the reader want to learn more. For me, the most interesting stories were those surrounding Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard – two of Henry VIII’s wives, and Jane Parker, Anne Boleyn’s traitorous sister-in-law who was also involved in events leading to the execution of Katherine Howard. The sad tale of Lady Jane Grey was also an interesting read.

Overall then, not a book from which anyone is likely to learn anything new, but worth reading if this is a subject you are unfamiliar with.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Set in 19th century New England, this is the story of Ren, a young boy who lives at St Anthony’s orphanage.  Ren cannot remember his life before he came to St Anthony’s as a baby, he has no idea who or where his parents are, and he certainly cannot remember why he only has one hand.  He is considered unlikely to ever be chosen for adoption, but one day a charismatic young man called Benjamin Nab calls at the orphanage claiming to be Ben’s older brother.  Ren leaves with this man, but it soon becomes clear that Benjamin is a fraudster and a criminal.  

The young boy soon finds himself involved with thieves, grave-robbers and murderers, and his hopes and dreams of ever finding a proper family seem to be fading fast.  Will Ren manage to disentangle himself from his new and dangerous lifestyle?  And will he ever uncover the truth about his parents?

I have divided thoughts on this book.  There are plenty of positives – I loved the atmosphere – I did feel that the writing evoked the time and place where the action was happening.  There were also a lot of fascinating characters within the story – it was hard to like some of them, but they certainly made an impact and for the most part were very well drawn and distinctive.  The writing is also eloquent and descriptive.

However, I did find that there were a couple of coincidences which occurred in the narrative that just seemed too convenient and lacked credibility.  Also, a few of the lesser characters seemed to be drawn from strong stereotypes, and at times there was a little too much going on – much of which seemed to serve no purpose in the storyline.

Overall however, this is an assured debut novel, and I would certainly be interested to read more  by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This classic tells the story of a weekend in the life of disaffected post-war teenager, Holden Caulfield.  Told in the first person, Holden describes how having been expelled from his 4th school, he decided to leave early and go to New York, where he spends some time before going to visit his younger sister Phoebe.

The book is fairly light on plot – not a huge deal happens, but that is not a criticism.  The pleasure in reading comes from delving into Holden’s character, and his disillusionment with the world and most people in it.  He believes that most people are “phonies” (the ultimate insult), and he doesn’t seem to feel that he really belongs anywhere.

Holden was a much more sympathetic character than I expected him to be. Rather than being cruel and cynical, as I had expected initially, the portrayal of his character shows him to be an innocent in many ways, clearly struggling with isolation and loneliness.  Clearly he has the ability to care for people (in particular he seems very fold of his siblings, especially  his younger brother Allie, who died fairly recently before the story starts, and Phoebe).  At one point he also reveals his desire to become a protector of children and reveals himself to be a caring young man who just needs to find something worth caring for.

It is clear from the outset that the main character is now held in a hospital of some sort, from which he tells the events in the book, in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style.  The character is brought to life by some brilliant writing, which really reads as though it has been written by a confused sixteen year old boy.

I was pleasantly surprised by how ‘readable’ the book was – I had expected it to be drier, but I found myself turning the pages really quickly, because I did come to care about Holden Caulfield.  The other characters in the book were harder to know, with the exception of Phoebe.  This is perhaps because we only see them from Holden’s point of view, and he doesn’t think much of most people he meets.

Overall, this is a book I am glad I finally got around to reading.  It’s also a very quick story, and well worth the few hours it took to read it.

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This is the 8th book in the charming Inspector Montalbano series, and it has a slight change of pace to those which came before it.

The story starts with the Inspector recovering from a gunshot wound sustained in the course of duty. His girlfriend Livia has come to stay with him during his convalescence, and he knows that he should be resting. But when he is told of the kidnapping of a local teenage girl, he finds himself getting involved in the case.  Susanna Mistretta has been taken and a ransom is demanded – but the family are in no position to pay. When he delves deeper into the matter, Montalbano uncovers secrets and mysteries which he needs to unravel if he has a hope of finding the kidnapped girl before something terrible happens to her.

This tale finds Montalbano in a more contemplative mood than in the earlier stories. Having been badly injured, he is reminded sharply of his own mortality and of how the years are catching up with him. There is a much larger focus on the relationship between him and Livia than there previously has been, and there is less humour than before. However, Catarella, Montalbano’s hapless Sergeant is still on hand to provide light relief and (very) occasional surprising insights.

I did guess the ending of the book quite early on, which I have never done in any of the previous books in the series. There was certainly a lot less to disentangle in this mystery than in the others, but a lot of focus is given to Montalbano’s resistance against his advancing years, which constantly reminds him that whereas friends and colleagues are settling down and having families, he is still as solitary as ever (despite his relationship with Livia, which is often tempestuous). Overall then, this is probably the weakest book in the series so far, but it’s still worth reading, and a worthy addition to the series.

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Mildred Lathbury is an ‘excellent woman’ This book is set in the 1950s, when an unmarried woman in her early 30s, like Mildred is considered middle-aged, and forever destined to be a spinster. She is a woman upon whom so many depend – particularly at her local church, where she is always called on to help out at bazaars, fetes, jumble sales and the like – due to her sensible nature and charitable mind. However, Mildred’s life is shaken up when she gets new neighbours in the form of the impetuous anthropologist Helena Napier, and her dashing husband Rockingham ‘Rocky’ Napier. The Napiers have a volatile relationship, but Mildred tries to keep from becoming involved – but it is so difficult when both of them rely on her for advice and help…

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book. Certainly, it is amusing, with many wry observations on parochial life. Mildred – who is the narrator – is a likeable person, but I found myself getting frustrated at the fact that she was so obviously an intelligent and attractive woman, but she couldn’t see it for herself, because she had resigned herself to life on her own, thinking that she must not be interesting enough for anybody to marry. Maybe this was part of the point of the book.

However, it was certainly well written, and the characters were vividly brought to life. (I got the impression that if you ever met one of the characters, you would know them instantly.) Mildred herself was by far the easiest character to warm to, and as the book is told from her own self-deprecating point of view, perhaps this is only to be expected.

This is not a laugh-out-loud book, but it certainly made me smile on numerous occasions, especially when Mildred pointed out the ridiculousness of certain situations, which would normally seem so important.

Overall, I enjoyed the writing, and as this is the first book I have ever read by Barbara Pym, I would certainly be interested in reading more by this author.

(For more information on the author, please click here.)

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Derren Brown is well known for his apparent mind-reading skills, and magical illusions.  However, he is always totally honest about the fact that he has no belief in psychic ability whatsover.  In this book, he explains much about how he does some of his tricks on stage, and delves into the subjects of memory, illusion (where he explains the basics of how some illusions are created), the power of suggestion and susceptibility, and how psychics and mediums carry out their work – and the truth behind their ‘skills’.

I should say that I am a huge fan of Derren Brown, and was therefore perhaps predisposed into liking this book.  However, I think that anyone who had never heard of him would also find this a very entertaining read.  

At the beginning of the book, after a brief introduction as to how Brown came to be interested in his subject, he teaches a few simple tricks with coins and cards.  

There is then a subject on memory, with some tips and exercises for improving yours).  I liked this section a lot, and have tried the ‘linking’ system myself with measurable success.  I did feel that this section got a little bit bogged down, especially when talking about the ‘peg’ system (the system seemed harder to remember than it would be to recall whatever it is that it’s supposed to help you remember!).  

The sections on hypnosis and seances were very fascinating, exposing much about how these work.  

However, most interesting to me was the part where Brown talks about psychics and mediums, and shows how they can fool an audience using intuition and cunning and confusion (but no psychic ability) to yield apparently incredible results.  I would mention that of course many people have found much needed comfort from such quarters, and may find this part of the book upsetting for this reason.  I do not believe in the abilities of those who claim to be able to contact the dead, and therefore I thoroughly enjoyed reading about it.  Brown does go on something of a mild rant, due to his belief that such people prey on their audiences’ grief and distress.  He breaks down and analyses how psychics (particularly those who have made a celebrity career out of their work) fool their audiences, cheat and use their guile.

During the whole book, Brown makes for an engaging, witty and involved narrator, with a style instantly recognisable to anybody who has ever seen any of this television or live shows.

There is also a comprehensive list of suggested further reading at the back of the book, on all of the subjects covered.

Overall, definitely recommended and not only for fans of Derren Brown.  This book is challenging, funny and insightful.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is a courtroom thriller, based on a novel by John Grisham (which I haven’t read).  It features an excellent leading cast – namely Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack and Rachel Weisz.  Set in New Orleans, Dustin Hoffman plays Randall Rohr, the pro bono lawyer acting on behalf of a woman who is suing a gun company who she feels is responsible for the shooting of her husband two years earlier.  Gene Hackman is Rankin Fitch is a jury consultant, working on the side of the defence – helping them during the jury selection process in picking jurors who will tend to side with the defence and deliver a not guilty verdict.  Fitch has a remarkable success rate in his career and is clearly excellent at picking jurors who will be easily manipulated, and sympathetic towards his ‘side’.  However, somebody on the jury wants to manipulate the verdict from the inside – and when both Fitch and Rohr find themselves with an intriguing proposition, it becomes anybody’s guess as to which side will win…

I thought this movie was excellent.  The cast of big names does not disappoint, and Hackman and Hoffman in particular, shine throughout.  Cusack also slides easily into his role as amiable juror Nick Easter, who has his own agenda, which is not revealed until near the end of the film.

Although the film was a shade over two hours long, it felt like half that time, as it carried me along with it, and events moved at a rapid pace.  The plotting was clever, but not over-intricate and there were enough about-turns to keep me guessing.  Simply a good solid drama, with plenty to recommend it.

Year of release: 2003

Director: Gary Fleder

Writers: John Grisham (book), Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman

Main cast: Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Rachel Weisz

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Chicklit is not a favourite genre of mine, but I’m glad I picked this book up.  It is set in Churchminster, an affluent village in the Cotswolds, and we follow a number of the residents as they go about their lives.  Caro Belmont is married to the arrogant Sebastian and is worried that he might be having an affair (he is, as we find out within the first few pages).  Meanwhile her sister Camilla is feeling unfulfilled in her relationship with beer swilling farmer Angus, and both girls are worried at the news that their youngest sister, the outrageous Calypso, is returning to the village.  Their grandmother Clementine Standington-Fulthrope is the matriarch of the family, and watches over her brood with equal mixtures of strictness and love.

Other residents in the village have their own problems – at the age of thirty, Camilla’s best friend Harriet is despairing of ever losing her virginity, and Freddie Fox-Titt just can’t understand why he is feeling so lethargic and wanting to eat huge amounts of chocolate!

The whole village is excited when former pop star Devon Cornwall moves into the area, but an even bigger shock awaits them, as an evil land developer wants to buy part of their hometown and build a huge building estate on it.  All of a sudden, everyone pulls together in an effort to thwart his efforts…will the Save Churchminster Ball and Auction be enough to raise the money they need to buy the threatened land themselves?  Will Mick Jagger turn up at the ball?  And will certain members of the community find the strength within themselves that they need to make themselves happy?

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s very light-hearted, and moves quickly. Characterisation is not particularly deep (Sebastian for example, is practically a cardboard cut out character), but Jo Carnegie’s quick wit and perceptive sense of humour makes this a pleasure to read.  (I giggled all the way through one excruciating dinner party scene, and the book often made me laugh out loud.)

It’s unself-consciously outrageous in parts, with some of the most over-the-top character names imaginable, but it’s easy to lose yourself in Churchminster life even if this depiction of wealthy rural life is often verging on satirical.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, and I would definitely be interested in reading more by Jo Carnegie.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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