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brokenangel

brokenangel
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      07.03.2014 15:29
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      An interesting story about secrets, family relationships and why people act in the ways they do

      Secrets. Everyone has at least one. But would yours destroy your marriage? John-Paul's might.

      In an instance of pure serendipity, this month's book group choice was one I had recently placed on my wish list, so I was glad to get the opportunity to try-before-you-buy.

      Aussie author Liane Moriarty has published five best-selling novels for adults, including this one, all of which have been translated into a variety of languages. I hadn't previously read anything by her, but I also like the look of 'What Alice Forgot', which I plan to seek out soon.

      == What's it about? ==

      Confident, organised, mother-of-three and tupperware-selling-queen Cecilia finds a letter that isn't meant to be opened. Curious, she reads it, and her heart breaks. Her husband, John-Paul, confesses to a terrible mistake with life-altering consequences. Can Cecilia keep the secret to herself? And if not, what will happen to her family?

      == What's it like? ==

      Not quite as advertised. The blurb focuses exclusively on Cecilia and her dilemma, and although the first chapter opens with her sitting gazing at The Letter, the second chapter abruptly introduces us to Tess and her fragmenting family. Poor Tess is informed by her husband and cousin that they have fallen in love - but not had sex, mind, so really they've been VERY well-behaved - and want her blessing. Funnily enough, Tess doesn't much feel like giving it. By the end of the chapter she's planned her escape from Melbourne to Sydney with her son, Liam. Chapter three introduces Rachel, who's also receiving Bad News: her son and (much resented) daughter-in-law are moving to New York...with Rachel's only grandchild and the light of her life. Since her husband died relatively recently and her daughter was murdered many years previously, this will leave poor Rachel all alone.

      Three chapters introducing three sets of characters...this isn't my preferred way to start a book and if the fourth chapter had introduced another set I might have given up. Fortunately, after this the third-person narration moves back and forth between these three women and their families and so the plot becomes easy to follow - I had simply found the number of characters a little jarring after the singular focus of the blurb and title.

      By the end of these introductory chapters, it is clear that Moriarty intends these characters to meet, if they haven't already, as she emphasises the connection developing between them. Ironically, of the three women, Cecilia is the only one whose bomb has not yet exploded, perhaps because she possesses the trigger. In fact, it doesn't explode until nearly two hundred pages into a four hundred page story.

      Sometimes, it is easy to know oneself. If I found a letter from my husband addressed to me, with the caveat 'to be opened only in the event of my death', I'd open it. Obviously, there'd be a moment's hesitation, while I wrestled with feeling that to do so was wrong, but it would only be a short moment. While that admission doesn't paint me in a flattering light, it should explain my frustration with Cecilia, who dithers and procrastinates until almost forced into action by her husband's unusual behaviour.

      The secret itself is guessable if you're the type who likes to predict plot developments, especially if you consider the situation of the characters Moriarty has chosen to focus on. However, I prefer to read 'blind' when not reading critically for work, and would probably have had no idea what was coming IF I hadn't got so frustrated by Cecilia's inaction that I skipped ahead to read the letter. (Did I mention that patience isn't always my strong point? I can read 'What a Busy Baby' to my toddler umpteen times in one day while indulging in the merest hint of a sigh or rueful shake of the head, but make me watch a tediously slow film and I'll criticise it relentlessly until you switch it off in despair.)

      The characters themselves are convincing, but Tess' story suffers from the compact time-frame of the narrative. The whole story takes place over the course of just one week, so Tess has her heart broken on Monday, but somehow seems rather less sad by Wednesday after meeting up with an ex-boyfriend... A story like hers seemed to need more time and space to grow and develop naturally. It also doesn't paticularly fit with the other two stories, which are more obviously related.

      In contrast, Cecilia and Rachel's stories work well within the time constraints: there is only so long Cecilia can remain in a state of sheer shock, and Rachel's convictions gather an appalling momentum that hastens the denouement. I found their stories interesting, though I was well aware of the Jodi Picoult-esque focus on 'issues'. (How would you treat your the man you believed murdered your daughter?) However, unlike in some of Picoult's books, the focus here did seem to be on telling a story rather than on examining an Issue.

      There are some oddities that could irritate readers (they certainly irked me): the prologue is strange in tone, though utterly fitting for the storyline; sometimes the omniscient narrator steps out in full view and tells the reader strange things (like exactly how many colds Janie would have endured, had she lived); and then there's the ending.

      The ending is something you'll love or hate. I loathed it. In a final omniscient epilogue, Moriarty's smug narrator looks forward and backward in time and in so doing, completely changes your perception of a key event. (Unless of course, you were paying attention during the book, in which case you could probably predict this too.) When I read this I felt that it undermined everything that had gone before, but in retrospect it develops the central themes in interesting directions and will certainly help to make the book interesting to discuss.

      == Final thoughts ==

      Overall I enjoyed reading this and would recommend it to fans of chick-lit and relationship dramas. It's worth noting that the title suggests a mystery / crime element but that's not the focus of the book at all. Instead, it explores the harm secrets can do, to individuals and families, especially over time.

      The £7.99 RRP is standard for a book of its type and reasonable for a story that most readers could happily pluck from the bookshelf to reread a few years later, once the exact details of the plot and machinations of the characters have faded from memory. It is, of course, available more cheaply from the usual places, including my own source - the library.

      So will I be buying this? Actually, no, but largely because now I've read it, although I enjoyed it, it wasn't so exciting or well-written that I desperately want it as part of my permanent collection. And I really did loathe the ending. That said, if I had purchased it, at full-price or, more likely, as part of an offer, I wouldn't be feeling short-changed and would happily keep it. I'll be keeping an eye out for Moriarty's earlier books and would be happy to purchase the next one...though as I mostly browse charity shops to prevent my compulsive book-buying from bankrupting me, I probably still won't pay full-price!

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        20.02.2014 17:56
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        A picaresque caper that is steeped in history and mildly entertaining

        Why did I pick this up? I had never heard of the author, Swedish ex-journalist Jonas Jonasson, and don't typically read books set in old people's homes. I'll admit it: the marketing worked. The long, vaguely humorous title drew me in to the extent that I sometimes wonder whether I properly read the blurb, which on reflection doesn't really appeal to me!

        == The premise =

        It's Allan Karlsson's 100th birthday and he is about to attend a party in his honour at his residential care home. Except that he isn't. Reluctant to attend the party, he steps out the window and is soon on a bus with a suitcase full of cash, a petty criminal on his tail and some incompetent police officers fumbling in the background.

        As his increasingly unlikely journey continues, Allan collects associates, commits a few manslaughters and continues to outwit the police. Meanwhile, Jonasson reveals Allan's earlier life, a life in which he has played a surprisingly important role in world history.

        == What's it like? ==

        A bit mad. Nothing daunted by his frail body - after all, he reminds himself, he once crossed the Himalayas, and that was no picnic - Allan gathers together a ragtag group of slightly unusual people, eventually including Sonia the elephant. Despite the realistic descriptions of events, this is a rather fantastical tale from the start and may not suit readers who prefer straightforward realism or fantasy instead of the muddle of the two which inspires this picaresque novel.

        On the other hand, if you like people who off-handedly say things like "when I worked for Stalin" or "when I infiltrated the embassy", you'll love Allan, who has seen quite a lot of the world in his 100 years. He's also helped to blow up a fair bit of it.

        Despite Allan's complete lack of interest in politics, readers might be advised to refresh their historical knowledge; Allan meets many of the leaders of the twentieth century, often in some rather odd situations. I was mildly amused by this habit of his, but feel I would have been much more entertained if I had greater knowledge of or interest in the cold war in particular. History buffs should love this, if they don't mind the liberties taken.

        Most of the minor characters are intensely politically minded, so there is much focus on dictators, despots and the ideals of democracy throughout; uninterested readers can skim these spiels much as Allan does, but there is an awful lot of politics to consume if you aren't politically minded. Interestingly, the major characters tend to share Allan's apathy, unless of course they can make some money out of a situation. If Jonasson has something he wants to say about politics, domestic and international, it seems he has a rather bleak view; the idealists die, the fanatics prosper...until they all die too.

        Black humour is present throughout, not least in Allan's habit of taking everyone at their word and being ready to blow things up for them. (If Stalin says that he's a nice bloke, who is Allan to doubt him?) Jonasson's humour seems very mild but I am not sure that Rod Bradbury has translated it particularly well and have heard (via a friend of a friend) that the book is much funnier in the original Swedish.

        Comedies are tricky things. Jokes or conceits that I find simply dull, you may find hilarious - or offensive. (I remember loathing 'A short history of tractors in Ukrainan' despite it being universally feted as a 'jolly romp' and I found that 'Then we came to the End' - supposedly a satire of modern office-life - left me cold.) Humour in translation is even trickier; the cultural barriers can be more damaging than the language difficulties. Something that fits beautifully into one country's comedic tradition may fail to make a similar impression abroad.

        However, the reality may be simpler than that. Much of the comedy here is a bit slapstick and perhaps more suited to a TV cartoon than a book. I can easily envisage this as a cartoon with 2D characters chasing each other across the screen. The joy of this approach would be that the story could be consumed in bite-sized chunks and therefore would remain lightly amusing. Personally, I find the difficulty with this kind of sustained light humour is that after a while it actually makes for quite dull reading. You almost need a break in order to more readily appreciate the daft, dark humour.

        The story itself is also quite simple and some members of my book group felt that, as seems to be the case with many contemporary fiction books, the book would have benefitted from more stringent editing and fewer pages to tell what was perhaps a short story in disguise. I don't agree, but did find that the story dragged a bit towards the end, so maybe they were right!

        Chapters alternate between modern day events and Allan's past. I felt this worked well as, unlike some books which use this technique, I didn't ever find myself skipping ahead or wishing I could finish one strand so I could return to the other. Both stories were equally interesting and unusual enough to hold the reader's attention.

        One aspect I did enjoy was the focus on story-telling towards the end. Allan is, of course, a consummate story-teller, used to adapting his narrative to suit his audience, whether that's a president ir a gaoler, and it was entertaining to see him putting together a story to suit the final situation he finds himself in. The ending itself is just as surreal as the rest of the book and requires a hefty suspension of disbelief. If, like me, you sometimes read to the end of a book you aren't really enjoying 'in case it gets better', I probably wouldn't bother here. If you have stopped enjoying it by half-way through, you'll find it only gets worse. If, on the other hand, you find you enjoy the odd events throughout the book, you'll most likely love the ending, which includes an epilogue. It's really quite appropriate for the book and gives a good amount of closure.

        == Final thoughts ==

        I quite enjoyed reading this book as long as I read it in small chunks, but I wasn't sufficiently interested in Russian-American politics to find it deeply engaging. When I started reading large chunks at a time to get it off my currently-reading pile, I became quite uninterested; it is probably best to savour it like tiny calorie-rich chocolates.

        I prefer realistic books and occasionally became a bit frustrated with the random coincidences and odd characters, but if I had approached this with different expectations I don't think that it would have bothered me. I read it alongside more straightforward fiction and non-fiction, which I don't think helped me to adjust to Jonsson's style.

        The £8.99 RRP is typical for a contemporary novel of this length and doesn't seem unreasonable given the potential for enjoyment. I received this as a gift but would have paid full price. That said, I'm not sure that I would read it again as it is just too whimsical for my tastes, so perhaps paying full-price wouldn't have been the wisest investment! Given its popularity it will be available for less, whether as part of a marketing deal or on the second-hand market.

        'The hundred-year-old man who...' has been such an 'international best selling sensation' (according to the front cover) that the cover design and title has been imitated not only by Jonsson himself, who will publish his second book, 'The girl who saved the king of Sweden', in April, but also by his fellow Swedish novelist Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, whose book 'The Little Old Lady who broke all the rules' was published in the UK in January. Interestingly, Ingelman-Sundberg's crime caper is also translated by Rod Bradbury, so presumably his work on Jonsson's book was received positively.

        As for me, I'll be steering clear of both those capers and settling down with the latest book group choice for some (hopefully) more realistic drama.

        Read this if:

        - you enjoy farce, slapstick and black humour;
        - you enjoy books which make (liberal) use of historical facts, events and people;
        - you enjoy adventure stories featuring grown-ups and comically incompetent police officers.

        Avoid this if:

        - you prefer to read thoroughly realistic novels with believable characters and convincing scenarios;
        - you find politics very dull or completely uninteresting;
        - you don't enjoy narratives that move regularly between the past and the present or write off large chunks of time (e.g. 21 years) at once.

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          04.12.2013 15:43
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          A dramatic but ultimately largely unsatisfying read

          Like most people, I love a freebie. Free ebooks always seem like a great way to fill up my kindle, which I only tend to use when a bulkier book would be inconvenient to pack. Unfortunately, in my experience, these books are usually only free because no-one would buy them and very little money has been spent producing them.

          'The One You Love', billed as a suspense thriller in the style of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah, topped the free ebook charts when I downloaded it. Somewhat worryingly, I noted that Amazon felt compelled to advise potential readers that the latest edition HAD been copy-edited and that readers who had purchased an earlier version could get an upgrade. (Since when do books work like computer programs?)

          A quick glance at the reviews revealed a large number of readers who had purchased the book pre-upgrade and had given up in disgust upon encountering masses of errors, including spelling mistakes and places where chunks of text were clearly missing. This rang warning bells. Surely no author who cared about their work would allow it to be published in such poor condition? Despite these concerns, I downloaded a copy on the grounds that it would be nice to enjoy an unchallenging read on my holiday. (This was important as I knew most of my holiday reading would take place while a small child was crawling over and around me, thereby requiring most of my attention.)

          == What's it about? ==

          Emma Holden's hen night is interrupted by terrible news: her fiancé is missing and his brother has been brutally attacked in their kitchen. Could Dan have tried to kill his brother? As if this wasn't enough trouble, someone is stalking Emma and her family are hiding dark secrets from her. Can she find out the truth and save the one she loves? With the help of her brother, Will, and best friend, Lizzy, she's certainly going to try.

          This is the first book in the 'Emma Holden suspense mystery trilogy' by Paul Pilkington, author of a previously published suspense story.

          == What's it like? ==

          Rather disjointed and fragmented. Pilkington wants to keep the reader in suspense by sharing what certain characters are doing without revealing their identity. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of confusion since the author uses the pronoun 'he' to describe his characters, rather than any more individual tag, even when the scene is focusing on two male characters. Sometimes even more awkward monikers are used, such as "the man who caused all this". I quickly found this irritating rather than suspenseful.

          Of course, such minor issues wouldn't ruin a decent storyline. This story contains plenty of twists and turns, but I found these implausible rather than mysterious. It quickly becomes clear that this is the second time Emma has been stalked and the second time she has had a fiancé run out on her. Rather than making me feel sympathetic towards her, I felt incredulous.

          The main character needs to be interesting, especially as she has a trilogy to carry. Instead, she is rather bland and lacking in emotion, especially for an actress. The reader never sees her grieving over Dan's disappearance, or getting angry at him, or doing anything other than being a bit confused. She accepts shocking revelations from her family with barely a blink, which is particularly annoying after reading pages and pages where they fret about telling her things.

          The other characters are under-developed and exist purely to keep secrets from Emma. The idea that you can't trust anyone - especially family and close friends - is a well-worn trope in this genre, but these characters could still have been more fleshed-out.

          More irritatingly, Pilkington either doesn't trust readers to be paying attention, or he is unfamiliar with the idea that authors should 'show, not tell'. The narration is often repetitive and occasionally redundant. A police officer on the phone sounds distracted, then Emma tells us that he sounds distracted. At another point we are told that 'wire mesh covered the window, indicating that this was probably an area that required some protection against glass breakages'. Surely the first clause implies the latter? Similar instances abound.

          And yet none of this was the worst flaw. All of the above are forgivable if all the reader wants is a bit of forgettable entertainment while soaking up the sun. For me, the real problem was the book's structure. This is presented as the first in a trilogy, admittedly, but I still expected it to work as a standalone book. I'd understand the author throwing in a cliffhanger or two at the end - although I probably wouldn't much like it - but Pilkington hasn't actually finished this book.

          Oh, it has an 'ending', but it's rather abrupt and, more importantly, completely insufficient; there are several very obvious narrative gaps left to be filled in by a later book. It's telling that the action in the sequel, 'The One You Fear', picks up one week after this book finishes. The sequel, by the way, is not free, although it's still very cheap (currently priced at £1.88). Essentially, the free book is a big hook to get readers to buy the next two.

          == Final thoughts ==

          Comparing this to Nicci French and Sophie Hannah could kindly be called ambitious. It lacks the genuine suspense of the former and the psychological depth of the latter. Despite its flaws, this could have been a reasonable suspense thriller if its author had been happy to create one complete book from all his material. Unfortunately, the 'ending' to 'The One You Love' is completely unsatisfying. There is just too much that is obviously unresolved.

          I found this book very disappointing, though I feel it is worth mentioning that there are far more 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon than there are 1, 2 or 3 stars, and many of the really bad reviews were written pre-upgrade (still having trouble applying this concept to a book!) which means that my opinion is in a minority. Perhaps I wanted more from my beach read than I thought. Unsurprisingly, I won't be buying the follow-up, especially as I imagine it will develop in a similarly unsatisfactory way in order to make book 3 necessary.

          However, the joy of a free book is that it is exactly that...free. So if you are even vaguely tempted by the premise, you may as well read the first chapter and delete the ebook from your reading device if you find it unsatisfactory. There is a time cost to be considered of course, but can nearly 1,500 Amazon readers really be *that* wrong?

          Read this if:

          - you enjoy quick-paced, dramatic thrillers that involve you questioning everything and everyone involved;
          - you enjoy reading sequels / series of books in order to resolve all the questions you have;
          - you like to relax with a very undemanding book.

          Avoid this if:

          - you like mystery thrillers with well-developed characters, a coherent plot and a mystery that is at least mostly resolved within the confines of one book;
          - you dislike unrealistic scenarios and books that involve a lot of people acting the way they do because they are (lazily) presented as 'unhinged';
          - you like well-written books that require careful attention to resolve the case.

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            09.09.2013 19:02
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            A dramatic police procedural with some interesting twists.

            Why are libraries constantly having book sales these days? Once upon a time I'm sure they had sales bi-annually or every quarter, but these days - much like the high street - the sales seem to be on constantly. This means bad things for my overcrowded bookshelves which this week became reluctant hosts to another small stash of ex-library books. 'The Surrogate' caught my eye because it seemed to promise my favourite kind of crime story: a psychological thriller.

            == What's it about? ==

            "After a loveless, abused childhood, Phil knows evil well, but nothing in his life has prepared him for this."

            The incredibly dramatic blurb can be reduced to this basic premise: a serial killer is cutting out babies from the wombs of full-term pregnant women; DI Phil Brennan thinks this killer is seriously evil; criminal profiler, Marina Esposito, is called in to help and suggests that a childless woman may be involved.

            However, reducing the drama is the last thing the publishers want to happen. This killer is "sickening", the "most depraved" killer Brennan has ever encountered and "a serial killer like no other". Well, gosh. Like the blurb, the storyline feels OTT and out to shock. Attacking pregnant women? Stealing their babies from the womb? The culprit is a horror show, more a boogeyman than a person. Some readers may find this insistence on sensationalism off-putting; I simply found it underwhelming.

            == What's it like? ==

            Perhaps surprisingly, despite the potential for gore, the murders themselves are described, during and after, in ways that successfully convey their horror but are not actually that graphic. I have quite a sensitive stomach but there was only one truly wince-inducing scene (perhaps ironically, NOT a murder) and I never had to put the book aside to compose myself. Indeed, the first death becomes almost dull: "Her lungs stopped inflating, her heart stopped beating. Her eyes closed for the final time." We get it. She died. Move on already.

            The pace of the investigation is quick and there are plenty of twists and turns which help to make this quite a compelling read. Chapters are short, often only a few pages long, and end with gentle, effective cliffhangers. Chapters following the exploits of the investigating officers and Esposito are interspersed with italicised insights from the killer which emphasise how much he enjoys stalking and attacking women. This is perhaps an over-used strategy in the crime genre and there is no real novelty in its use here, but it is effective at building up tension.

            The twists are largely predictable but that doesn't make them any less shocking or enjoyable. This is a book where it's probably best not to think too long or too hard about the plot though: the whole construction relies upon some big coincidences and the final twist is rather implausible, depending as it does upon a bit of a cheat.

            For me the real disappointment was in the lack of psychological profiling. Esposito never actually gets round to writing her criminal profile and her contributions to the investigation mostly consist of standing in the crime scene explaining that the killer saw the women as simply carriers, husks, objects in his way. Admittedly, she does also point out that the police have the wrong guy nailed as the killer, but as no one listens to her that isn't particularly helpful. She also seems to be very attractive to lunatics, which is unfortunate to say the least and, in its regularity, slightly unconvincing.

            Rather than being a psychological thriller, this is a police procedural with some insights into the mind of a killer. The police work is logical, the suspects are living cliches (the woman-beater and the adulterous husband) and there's the seemingly obligatory awkward relationship between two members of the investigative team. In short, despite Carver's best efforts to shock readers, there's nothing really that striking about the book. I found it easy to read, mildly compelling, slightly predictable and a bit too focused on the lives of the investigating team. Personally, I prefer to read about the crime-solving in crime stories; if I want romance I'll read a romance.

            Tania Carver is actually a pseudonym for Martyn and Linda Waites, a husband and wife writing together. It appears to be a successful partnership as the writing doesn't feel at all disjointed in the way some team efforts can. (Hello Emlyn Rees, Josie Lloyd.)

            This is Carver's debut novel and the first book in the Brennan/Esposito series, but, oddly, it feels like it must be the second. Brennan and Esposito already have a whole back-story, focused around one case in particular, the details of which unfold throughout this story. There's so much back-story that it almost feels like the book needs a prequel, but it all unfolds clearly enough as the plot develops.

            More problematically, I found Esposito a rather annoying character. Her reasons for breaking up with Brennan are, frankly, daft (albeit entirely psychologically plausible) and the way she treats him and her live-in partner, Tony, is terrible. Her pregnancy seems to be little more than a plot device to make her a potential victim for the killer and I found the end of her story to be far too abrupt.

            == Final thoughts ==

            Of course, you don't have to like the characters to enjoy a story, and I did enjoy this, just not as much as I thought I might. Will I read the next book in the series? Yes - but largely because I purchased 'The Creeper' at the same time as 'The Surrogate'. Despite the shocking storyline and dramatic characters, this isn't a book that I found memorable or especially interesting and I doubt that I'd make a special effort to seek out the third in the series.

            Although it didn't impress me much, this book was short listed for the 2010 Theakston's Prize and is now part of a growing series (four books published so far) featuring DI Phil Brennan and Marina Esposito. In fact, despite my minor quibbles, it is a fairly good example of the genre, it's just not the revolution the over-excited blurb promises.

            You might enjoy this if:

            - you enjoy a quick-paced police procedural;
            - you enjoy crime stories which are as much about the lives of the detectives / personnel involved as they are about loving the crime;
            - you like stories which focus on the killer's motivation as much as the evidence.

            You might prefer to avoid this if:

            - you are looking for a truly gory and forensically detailed crime story;
            - you prefer crime fiction which focuses in depth on the psychology of the characters and in which the killer may be one of several characters;
            - you aren't interested in starting a series of books and prefer to read genuine standalone books.

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              22.05.2013 15:59
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              Victorian crime novel in Dickens' style focusing on issues Dickens couldn't write about

              I enjoy reading Dickens' books so when I heard about this book, the plot of which runs parallel to the events of Dickens' 'Bleak House', I was keen to find out more. Listening to a talk given by the author convinced me that the book would be worth a read and I was recently lucky to receive a copy as a gift.

              == The premise ==

              London, 1850. Charles Maddox has been forced to leave the police force after daring to criticise a superior officer. In the process of trying to establish himself as a detective he accepts a job from a powerful lawyer to the wealthy and aristocratic: Tulkinghorn. However, what seems to be a simple undertaking gradually becomes more sinister as it becomes apparent that Tulkinghorn and his clients have a secret they'd kill to protect.

              == Bleak House - take 2 ==

              So why play about with a classic? Shepherd wanted to directly address the topics Dickens couldn't: child prostitution, the murder of unwanted babies, and the nature of the filth coating London's streets. She also felt that 'Bleak House' could be seen as the inaugural detective story and wanted to write her own detective story that used elements of Dickens' original story. Shepherd has form in this area: her previously published novel, 'Murder at Mansfield Park', plays a similar trick with Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'.

              == So do I need to read 'Bleak House' to enjoy this? ==

              No. Although if you have read Dickens' book it will allow you to appreciate the literary nods Shepherd makes. Many blurbs claim that 'if you love x you'll love this' but I think in this case such a claim is likely to be true for a large percentage of readers.

              == The Evil Tulkinghorn ==

              Initially I found the links to Dickens' original story entertaining but also a little irritating. Several of the characters were familiar, although some names had been slightly adjusted, but the personalities and situations jarred slightly. For instance, Mr Tulkinghorn is described by the narrator as a man who will not move to act without being paid to do so, but this does not marry up with the Mr Tulkinghorn in 'Bleak House' who appears to act independently in order to preserve his master's high status - and his own ideas of propriety. Initially I was frustrated as it seemed to me that Shepherd was simply getting things 'wrong'. This feeling may have been intensified by the fact that I have not just read the original but studied it as part of my degree. I suspect that other readers may not have to endure the annoyances that I felt in the first hundred pages or so. Regardless, if the first few tweaks of Dickens' world do irritate, it is definitely worth reading on.

              As the story progressed and the logic behind such adjustments developed I began to appreciate Shepherd's decisions more. For instance, Tulkinghorn is coldly cruel to Lady Dedlock, a very minor character in this text but a major one in Dickens' original novel. His cruelty to Lady Dedlock, likely to seem excessive to a modern reader who does not live with the weight of Victorian social stratification and expectations, is justified here in an interesting twist that leaves Tulkinghorn heartless but purposeful rather than simply spectacularly cruel. (The Tulkinghorn portrayed here is truly menacing and I cannot read his dialogue without picturing the wonderfully cold Charles Dance from the 2006 BBC serialisation of 'Bleak House'.) I thought the change in Tulkinghorn's motivation managed to simultaneously suit modern concerns and be realistic for a nineteenth century novel - quite an achievement.

              == Narration ==

              Most of the book is narrated in an omniscient third person which allows the reader to be given slightly more information than the characters at key points. This is logical and allows the narration to leave Charles and focus on other characters at helpful junctures. However, there are two key deviations from this.

              Firstly, Shepherd makes frequent use of second person narration throughout the book. From the beginning I found it odd to read about 'us', 'we' and 'you', as in 'our young man', 'we might think' and 'you might say', but the oddity was heightened when I was informed that 'you are standing' and 'we can see'. These are not simply turns of phrase: Shepherd genuinely tries to evoke a sense of place by insisting on the reader's physical presence. Personally, I found this disconcerting and therefore ineffective. Each insistent 'you' removed me from the story and reminded me that I was a reader located outside these events. However, it seems likely that these passages, which tend to foreshadow later events and reveal information hidden from Charles, seem to be designed to draw the reader in by creating a confidential tone and other readers may feel very differently about this device. Personally I began to find it rather annoying and found myself rolling my eyes whenever the narrative voice took this kind of diversion. (Yes, I am aware that Dickens himself sometimes broke the fourth wall, most notably in 'Bleak House' following the death of the crossing sweeper, Jo, but when he did he seemed motivated by a pure kind of fury, whereas this narrator seems to jut enjoy being privy to little-known information and therefore seems meaner.)

              Secondly, a few chapters are narrated in the first person by a young girl called Hester. Unfortunately, Hester (like Esther in the original novel) is rather an irritating narrator. She is insistent on her lack of self-importance and her virtue but is simultaneously obsessed by the minutiae of her existence - perhaps unsurprisingly, given how cloistered it is. Her narration felt like an irritating diversion at first, especially as I could not understand why Shepherd had stopped using characters taken directly from the pages of 'Bleak House' and was instead creating her own very similar characters in comparable circumstances. Perhaps more problematically, Hester is as boring as Esther was. Initially I felt that Shepherd had simply echoed a flaw from the original text.

              Gradually, however, as I paid more attention to the things Hester was saying, the oddities intrigued me. Why was the beautiful Clara shut away? What illness did Hester suffer? Why are the girls wards of Jarvis? I have to admit that I allowed my initial impatience to rush me through these chapters which seemed to be completely unconnected to the main plot and so I did not make the connections that a more thoughtful approach would have allowed. I know that I am not the only reader to feel this way about Hester, but perhaps this in itself is a trick of Shepherd's. My initial dismissal of these chapters meant that when the connection between the two worlds became clear - and, of course, as the story has its roots in Dickens, everything is connected - I had to re-read Hester's chapters so that I could properly appreciate the situation of all the characters at Solitary House. I still think that Hester is an irritating narrator, but she turns out to be a rather unreliable one and one whose story is at the heart of the narrative. Should I have seen the twist coming? Probably. I was thinking along the right lines, but the story is so different from Dickens' work that it was hard to believe what I suspected could be correct. I wonder whether readers who are not familiar with 'Bleak House' might be better able to recognise Hester's position.

              == Solitary House ==

              Hester's narrative is where the world of 'Bleak House' is paralleled rather than entered. Hester (modelled on Esther) arrives at Solitary House an orphan and a ward of Jarvis (Jarndyce). She helps to look after the other wards, Anne (Ada), Caroline (Caddy) and Rick (Richard). She is given a lady's maid, Carley (Charley). I found it interesting (especially on a second reading) to note the similarities and differences between characters and their situations in the original text and this one. Essentially, Shepherd seems to feel that Dickens' works were rather too saccharine. Here's what would REALLY happen to these individuals in this place and time, she says, and it isn't pretty. In this book, there is no John Jarndyce to play the pleasant rich aristocrat and rescue everybody. Instead, it's up to Charles - and Inspector Bucket.

              == Characters ==

              Charles Maddox, ex-policeman, is introduced to the reader briefly before we find him at Tom-All-Alone's, slipping in the filth and briefly, sickeningly, grasping hold of the dead. He comes across as a rather modern detective: he is flawed, possessing a temper and an inability to let go of a case, and has difficult family circumstances. These elements mean that he is quite a well-rounded character, although he seems a little selfish: despite his investigations leading to his witnesses losing their jobs or their lives, it never occurs to him that he might stop investigating. He also has dependents who would suffer if he were to disappear but he never once considers this. I did find his persistence a little dubious, but not as doubtful as the developments in his relationship with another character. Given how well every other element of the book eventually comes together, I could not understand why Shepherd included this rather odd and completely unconnected development. These are minor issues but they did niggle at me as I read. (I was similarly irked by Shepherd's decision to call her main character 'Charles'. It just seemed unnecessary and, perhaps, a little crude.

              It is a delight to meet so many characters from 'Bleak House' along the way and I enjoyed a number of 'aha! That'll be x' moments as I read. I think this would appeal to any fan of the original book.

              However, what I found extremely odd were the references to Dickens himself and his movements through London. It felt quite bizarre to read about Dickens' characters in one paragraph and about Dickens himself in the next as if the two were peacefully co-existing within the pages of the novel. This kind of meta fiction can work (it works delightfully in Jasper Fforde's 'The Eyre Affair') but I did not feel that it worked here and was glad that the references to Dickens himself petered out as the novel got underway.

              In 'Bleak House' London itself is a character and Shepherd has clearly tried to mimic this element of the original text. I feel she succeeds in creating a real sense of place through her descriptions of chaotic London scenes and enjoyed this aspect of the book.

              == Dickens through and through? ==

              From the use of the title (which is one of several titles Dickens considered using for 'Bleak House') and the rather Victorian front cover of this edition to the neatly wrapped up ending reliant on a few coincidences and dubious actions from minor characters, Shepherd invokes Dickens' spirit throughout. There were two occasions when I felt that Shepherd was just showing off her research and knowledge of the era, but I found this was forgivable  as it was still really rather rare in the book as a whole.

              There are significant references to characters and events from another well-known nineteenth century author, too...but you'll have to spot those yourself!

              Everything is neatly wrapped up at the end until in what is almost an epilogue there is some strange revelation that I absolutely could not make sense of. Perhaps this was a failure of my part but I found it a little disappointing, after all that had gone before, to find myself baffled and irritated by the last two pages.

              == Conclusions ==

              I really enjoyed this mock-Victorian detective story and feel it would appeal to quite a wide readership. It is not essential to have read the book Shepherd echoes in order to enjoy this work, but as a fan of 'Bleak House' my knowledge of that book certainly heightened my enjoyment of this one. Characters are interesting and the central mystery is sufficiently engaging to keep the readers' attention. Places are well-described without causing the novel to labour under the weight of descriptive detail.

              I received this as a gift but would happily pay the full RRP (£12.99) for it as I feel that I would enjoy re-reading this after a decent interval has elapsed and spotting how all the details prepare the reader for the denouement. Besides which, the hardback edition is rather lovely. If you like the sound of this but don't fancy spending that much, it is available for less in paperback (£7.99) and kindle (£5.27) and, of course, even less if you shop around.

              Read this if:

              - you enjoy reading Victorian, historical, detective or historical detective fiction;
              - you are a fan of Dickens, particularly if you enjoyed 'Bleak House';
              - you like stories with many characters and a couple of different plot lines in which everything is drawn together rather neatly at the end.

              Avoid this if:

               - you dislike stories which are reliant on coincidence and in which every clue turns out to be relevant at the end;
              - you do not enjoy crime fiction or Victorian fiction, especially Dickens;
              - you dislike stories with 'gritty' storylines.

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                17.05.2013 13:20
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                An entertaining and surprisingly interesting thriller

                Barclay is a former newspaper columnist and the author of several internationally best selling thrillers. This author was recently chosen by my crime writing book group and I selected this book to read based on the interesting blurb.

                Praise on the back of the book comes from the Financial Times, The Daily Mail, The Mirror and Stephen King, although, slightly irritatingly, it is not clear whether the praise is for this book, another book of Barclay's, or just the author generally. Regardless, the contributors may help to give you some idea of whether or not you are likely to enjoy a book by this author.

                -- The blurb in brief --

                While moving down a street one day Thomas spots a murder happening in a window. Should he tell anyone? The trouble is, he wasn't actually  there. And it's unlikely anyone will believe him since he's not the most reliable witness...

                I was hooked.

                -- My initial thoughts --

                The first few chapters felt awkward as Barclay tried to reveal and hide relevant background through rather clunky dialogue and irritating obfuscations. The blurb on the inside cover makes it clear that either Thomas thinks he's psychic or he's using something like Google street view so the comment that "He meandered down the center of the street, not particularly worried about traffic" felt pointless and clumsy. I quickly found myself getting a little irritated by the awkwardness of it all.

                Initially, everything felt similarly clumsy. Characters have discussions they must logically have had before, which seem to happen purely in order to allow a gradual revealing of relevant information about Thomas, his brother Ray and the death of their father. The first time one particular new character, Allison, is introduced there are all kinds of points driven home for the reader in preparation for later events. On a first reading these points were already clunky. I felt sure that on a second reading they would be unbearable.

                Of course, everything jars once a reader is predisposed to be critical. Suddenly the whole narrative seemed to consist of daft statements like "all someone had to do was wander through [the hallway] with a lit candle" to cause a fire. A lit candle? Have we suddenly gone back to the 1800s? Even in a power outage most people would reach for a torch. Niggles abounded and I wondered whether I would find the whole book just too irritating to finish.

                -- Picking up pace --

                As I read past the first few chapters these minor irritations dropped away and I realised I was gripped by the threads in this crime thriller, especially as Thomas and Ray waded unknowingly deeper into danger.

                It quickly transpires that Thomas is a schizophrenic who has an astonishingly powerful memory. He believes there will soon be a catastrophic world event that will render his photographic memory of vital use to the CIA, and in the meantime he might be able to rescue a trapped agent or two. Utterly convinced of the importance of his future role, Thomas spends his days using Whirl360 (Google Streetview with a different name) to memorise tracts of various major cities and communicates regularly with the CIA and former US president Bill Clinton to keep them informed of his progress. As you do.

                Meanwhile, his father has recently died in a slightly odd accident and his brother Ray has come home to organise the funeral and decide what to do about Thomas. Ray tries to be patient as he learns more about his brother's beliefs but struggles to cope and adopts a generally patronising attitude which means that he initially dismisses his brother's concerns about the scene in the window out of hand. One of the nicer aspects of the story is the way that local journalist (and obligatory love interest),  Julie, encourages Ray to stop being so patronising and realise Thomas' strengths. The relationship between the brothers helps to make this more than just a standard thriller and I liked seeing Ray begin to really consider his brother's value. (After all, unsurprisingly for a crime thriller, Thomas is right: someone has been murdered.)

                Once the story gets going there are some interesting twists, some minor, some major. I enjoyed this because it made the story gripping, especially as there are initially two different time periods some six months apart and it was interesting moving between them and seeing how the events in the past were affecting those in the present. Chapters often ended on dramatic revelations but, unlike James Patterson style thrillers or Point Horror writers, these were dramatic without being over-the-top shocking. I found that they interested me but didn't feel overly staged or cliffhangery, which can annoy me. I thought the final twist was particularly bold and effective as it was impossible to put the book down without thinking through the possible consequences but the book still felt 'finished' by ending where it did.

                -- A gripping read --

                Despite the main character being obsessed with maps and spending a lot of time on his computer, the narrative and dialogue is mercifully free of technical details and unnecessary geography. Often writers seem to feel the need to show off all the careful research they have been doing; there is none of that here and so the plot can continue to move at a good pace. There are some nice touches of humour along the way too as the criminals reflect on their past and on their career choices.

                Barclay uses Ray as a first person narrator for most of the chapters which helps to add a sense of immediacy to the action. Chapters focusing solely on Thomas or characters involved in the murder are narrated by an omniscient voice. I found the switches between narrators easy to follow and felt that this approach worked well to allow the reader an insight into developments surrounding the murder.

                I also liked the way the crime develops. It snowballs in a manner that is slightly farcical and new players are introduced gradually. I liked the mix of naive opportunists and hardened criminals and the way that one problem spirals out of control. It made the events seem more believable.

                In the prologue there is a mysterious reference to a boy in a window. I liked the way that this rather odd comment gradually gained in significance as the narrative progressed and became quite significant. The denouement contains few surprises and is quite talky as characters try to explain their actions to other characters. Despite this I felt that the ending worked well to tie up the various plot elements in a satisfactory way. There is a brief final chapter that works as an epilogue and gives an effective coda to the whole story.

                -- Conclusions: --

                After a rocky start I really enjoyed this crime thriller and will be keeping an eye out for other books by Barclay. I liked the depth added to the basic plot by the relationships between the brothers, although the obligatory blossoming romantic relationship left me cold. I enjoyed the touches of humour sprinkled throughout and felt that the plot was suitably dramatic without becoming ridiculous. Although the beginning was clumsily constructed the ending was well-handled. Chapters short and pacey, appropriate for the genre without being ridiculously short (or indeed irritatingly long). The same can be said for the length of the book itself which runs to 498 pages of approximately size 14 font: enough length to develop the story, not enough to send a reader to sleep. The criminal proceedings are easy to follow while still being engaging and the topic (political manoeuvrings and corruption) is very relevant and therefore likely to have a wide appeal for contemporary readers of crime fiction.

                The RRP is a rather eye-watering £18.99 which I personally feel is rather expensive for a work of fiction, even if it is in hardback. On the plus side, most retailers are selling it for rather less (currently £12 from some online sellers) and due to the nature of story you could happily re-read this after a decent interval without feeling like it was a complete waste of time. Still, I would be tempted to wait for this to come out in paperback unless you are a big fan of Barclay's. Even the kindle version is currently retailing at £9.99. Recommended - but shop around.

                Read this if:

                - you enjoy crime thrillers which follow the investigations of complete amateurs who happen to become involved in the crime;
                - you have enough patience to disregard a slightly awkward beginning and remain interested during a rather talky conclusion;
                - you like books in which all the threads are carefully prepared and neatly drawn together the end.

                Avoid this if:

                - you prefer your crime thrillers to follow the investigations of professionals and focus on clues / forensics / mysteries;
                - you like to discover who-dunnit at the end, rather than observing the criminals throughout and simply waiting for the main characters to work out who and what they are dealing with;
                - you like crime thrillers with high stakes (there's no danger of the world ending here)...or don't like crime thrillers at all!

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                  02.05.2013 10:31
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                  A letter to a terrorist that makes readers question how "civilised" Western society really is

                  Having read and loved 'The Other Hand' by Chris Cleave, I was keen to read his first novel, 'Incendiary', and snapped it up when I saw it on sale for £2 at my local charity shop.

                  The book won several respectable prizes when it was first published and is an international best seller. The author has published three books to date which have all been well-received in literary circles.

                  -- The blurb --

                  Instead of having a traditional blurb on the back page a nameless narrator tells the reader that she's not a perfect mother, that she cheated and was punished but she loved her child and she will tell you the perfect truth. While this is attention-grabbing, it doesn't actually tell you very much. If you are happily intrigued and don't want to know any more, I suggest you skip over the next section...and possibly the whole body of the review!

                  This lack of information is a marketing device that has presumably served Cleave well as his second book has less guidance than this one and the blurb for his third book simply states that it is 'about the limits of human endurance, both physical and emotional'. (Apparently it's actually about Olympic cycling.)

                  -- The idea --

                  While engaging in an illicit liaison, a woman loses her husband and son in a terrorist attack on a premiership football match. She struggles to cope with her bereavement and her sense of guilt and develops relationships with two journalists and a senior police officer who all have their own connections to the attack and to her. In an effort to prevent more "boy-shaped holes" being made in the world she begins to write a letter to Osama Bin Laden (and, as she reassures him, western leaders, too). After all, while she recognises that The Sun would simply dismiss him as EVIL, she is sure that if he only understood the pain he was causing then he would stop blowing up boys. This book is her letter.

                  -- Writing a letter --

                  The narrator is working class and lives in Bethnal Green. This is a significant point in itself as much is made in the novel about the different experiences, expectations and treatment of working class and middle class people. Presumably in order to make this background clear, Cleve writes how he feels a woman in this situation in life might. This means that commas are frequently absent and many sentences deliberately 'run on', by which I mean there are also a number of full stops which are simply missing. Initially this irritated me greatly, partly because of my teaching background and partly because punctuation exists for a reason and I did sometimes have to reread bits to make sense of the narrative. Gradually I stopped noticing this so much, although the repeated use of "would of" and "could of" (instead of "would have" and "could have") continued to grate until the end! The narrator also sometimes writes in capital letters when writing something she imagines The Sun using as a headline. Some readers may find this attempt at verisimilitude irritating or even patronising (working class = uneducated, tabloid reading etc.) but it may be worth persevering if your complaint is the former rather than the latter. If it is the latter, you are likely to find that it only gets worse.

                  Despite being uneducated the narrator is evidently meant to be wise and witty and makes effective use of metaphor and simile to help describe her world. The narrative is a pleasure to read as the prose has a rhythm of its own even as it describes horrible things.

                  Rather than organising the letter into chapters there are simply four sections, one for each season. This seems very appropriate as the story begins in Spring, the season associated with new lives and hope, and gets darker as the seasons change and move closer to winter. The sections are not of equal length and by the time I reached Summer I had forgotten I was reading a section headed Spring! The lack of chapters means it can be difficult to find a good point to put the book down. It also reflects the slightly meandering nature of the story, which is largely chronological but follows the narrator's thought processes as much as actual events. I found this style quite appealing as it felt very immediate and raw, like I was really experiencing the narrator's thoughts.

                  For some reason, perhaps to reinforce that this is a diary-style piece of writing, dialogue is prefaced by dashes rather than being identified by speech marks. Again, this was a minor irritation until I became used to it.

                  -- Writing a woman --

                  Chris Cleave, a male writer, places himself in the mind of a female character, which is no mean feat when imagining her losing her family, having sex and losing her mind. I felt that he did this successfully: if I did not know from reading his previous book that this was a male writer I would not have guessed.

                  -- Writing tragedy --

                  I found the book became more difficult as it developed. The initial dramatic events are shocking but plausible. However, as the narrative progresses and the narrator's relationships developed I did not find those developments particularly convincing. I thought some of the changes were almost surreal and felt that if I could not believe in what the characters were saying and doing then I could not believe in the story. The journalists, Petra and Jasper, were alternately lovely and awful while often acting rather bizarrely. I have never been in any of the situations the book describes so I could be mistaken about their plausibility but for me this detracted from my enjoyment.

                  I also felt that Cleave was using the characters' relationships to make some points about class which I personally was not particularly interested in. Or rather, the way in which the narrator repeatedly commented on class became a little irksome to me.

                  More interesting is the erosion of civil liberties that follow the initial incident and how the population reacts. London's reactions to the earlier events and particularly the twist in the middle - which is probably easy to anticipate if you think about it but I didn't and found it shocking - were convincing and very, very frightening. The book certainly develops in tension as it continues and the ending is quite startling as well as sad.

                  Despite the plot's focus on a horrific event and its terrible consequences, there is a good amount of humour in the narration, which is essential to stop this becoming completely bleak and depressing (everyone is out for themselves or mad or both). For instance: 'This is London Osama so if I do ever forget to mention the weather you just imagine it's raining and cold and you won't be far off.' The narrator's attempts to converse with the international terrorist that she refers to simply as Osama become increasingly surreal as the narrative continues and she comments on links and divisions between them, theorising about the possibility of him stacking shelves in Tesco's and managing not to behead his fellow workers and record their executions. In this way the humour effectively builds tension as well as helping to release it as the reader can see how tenuous the narrator's grip on reality has become.

                  -- Some difficulties --

                  I like to read about characters I can respect or perhaps empathise with to some degree, but none of the main characters in this story are particularly nice and and at times they are all utterly repellent. For instance, I am not sure why Cleave chooses to have his narrator fornicating adulterously when the incident happens; I assume it is to help explain her descent into post-traumatic stress disorder, but it means the reader is likely to begin the book by feeling, at best, ambivalent towards a wife who cheats on her husband and leaves her young son alone at home to go to the pub. (Cleave justifies this behaviour in a number of ways but I still found it rather disconcerting.)

                  In a horrible coincidence, 'Incendiary' was released to UK bookshops on on July 7th 2005 - the date of terrorist attacks on London tubes and buses (7/7). Given the proximity of the book to the attacks, some reviewers have suggested that Cleave exaggerates the reaction of politicians and public in her fiction. Reading about the restrictions in place in the novel I felt that perhaps Cleave did have rather less faith in Londoners than he could have done. Cleave has noted that there is a difference in magnitude between the event he imagines and the events of 7/7, and has suggested that there are more similarities than we might, as a society, like to admit. Regardless, when I was reading the book it reminded me more of a dystopian vision of the future - like we find in Orwell's '1984' or Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' - than a feasible reality in today's England. However, that may well be just my naivety speaking and the measures taken in the novel did not seem completely implausible. Furthermore, when comparing the developments in London to the developments in the characters' relationships the former began to seem positively convincing!

                  Perhaps the biggest problem is simply the bleakness of Cleave's vision. Despite the often almost jaunty tone in which the nameless narrator recounts what happens to her, she gradually sickens of the world around her - and so does the reader - until she, and we, are forced to question to what extent this is a world worth saving. This is not a cheery beach read and such pessimism will not suit all tastes.

                  -- The film --

                  There is a film based on the novel but a quick read of the synopsis confirms that it takes a significantly different direction to the book, so if you have seen and enjoyed the film you will want to be aware that the book is much darker.

                  -- Conclusions --

                  I am still not entirely sure what I thought of this book. It was a powerful and compelling read - I read it in two days - which was beautifully written despite the deliberately uneducated style of narration. The subject matter is an important one and Cleave makes valuable points about the dangers inherent in an emotional response to terrorism. The rush of events compels you onwards and the moments of humour sparkle in what is otherwise really rather grim reading. I think it is definitely worth reading, but 'enjoyment' is not quite the result. In a word: disturbing.

                  Most readers seem to love it or hate it, which is worth £7.99 of anyone's money. (Even if you hate it you'll have plenty to think about and to say about it.) This seems to be the standard price point for a book of this sort of format and length (338 pages) although it is available for less in all the usual places online. Although I still can't quite decide if I liked it, I found it very powerful and am glad that I read it. I will continue to keep an eye out for other books by Cleave and to recommend 'The Other Hand' in particular.

                  Read this if: 

                  - you are interested in powerful stories that deal with loss, grief and madness;
                  - you have enjoyed other books by Cleave due to his writing style, or enjoy books which make poetic use of prose;
                  - you are interested in reading about the impact terrorism can have on places and lives.

                  Avoid this if:

                  - deliberate lack of punctuation and grammatical errors are likely to annoy you to the extent that you cannot enjoy the story they help to shape;
                  - you are of a particularly sensitive or squeamish disposition as there is some description of the dead and dying (this is graphic without being gory so my sensitive stomach was fine);
                  - you like a simple story with at least one primary character you can like or admire without significant reservations.

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                    18.04.2013 16:52
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                    A detailed but also very repetitive guide to weaning without using purées

                    As a first-time mother much of my current to-read pile consists of books about child development and various aspects of parenting. As my son (somewhat unbelievably to me) approached four months old I wanted to learn more about weaning. After hearing about baby led weaning from a health visitor at my local sure start centre I was keen to find out more about it. This specific book was recommended and lent to me by the leader of my postnatal NCT course.

                    ** What is baby led weaning? **

                    Weaning is the gradual transition a baby makes from living on an entirely milk based diet to eating a typical diet based on solid food. Like most other topics surrounding babies and childcare, there is a great deal of debate between parents and experts over when and how this process should begin, develop and be completed.

                    Essentially, baby led weaning happens when your baby is given solid food in a grab-able form (not purées) from 6 months and is allowed to gum / play with / eat as much or as little of it as they want. The idea is that they will gradually eat more and more but will remain 'in control' of their food and will eat to suit their appetite while experiencing a range of textures and tastes. This differs from the 'usual' approach of parents spoon-feeding their babies puréed foods alongside selected finger foods. In 'conventional' weaning parents decide when the baby is ready for solid food and which solid foods they are ready for. In baby led weaning the baby 'decides' (although of course the parents still provide the options).

                    The key difference between this approach and a more conventional one is that Rapley and Murkett advocate avoiding purées entirely. In fact, they are rather evangelical about it, suggesting that baby-led weaning has myriad benefits and no real flaws while stating that purées have numerous flaws and scarcely any benefits. It is a shame that their approach is so strict as it seems very likely to alienate some readers in its totalitarian approach and exaggeration of the benefits (of finger foods) and flaws (of purées). After all, given that most adults alive today will have been weaned using some puréed food it seems exaggerated to claim, as these authors do, that feeding these to babies increases the risk of diabetes, obesity and fussy eating.

                    ** Why the change of strategy? **

                    The authors argue that conventional weaning methods are the result of babies being weaned too early in recent decades. They give a short history of official advice from the 1900's to now with some explanation of how and why the advice has changed. I found the history very interesting and it helped me to understand why some people say that you can wean from four months old and others say you shouldn't start weaning until six months old.

                    The current advice from the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation is that all babies should be fed on an exclusively milk diet until they are six months old. This is because milk is specially formulated to provide babies with all their nutritional needs up til this point and their developing reflexes and gut may not be quite ready to handle solid food until this time. The authors of this book state that if you are feeding a baby solid food from six months rather than four months, they should be physically developed enough to start handling it themselves, rather than needing it to be mashed up.

                    Rapley and Murkett also claim a wide range of benefits from using baby-led weaning, although some of these are a little dubious. For instance, they insist that baby-led weaning is less time consuming for parents because, rather than spending 'hours' creating purées they can simply feed the baby the same food they are eating. This sounds quite reasonable, until you think it through. My diet isn't perfect and although I enjoy cooking I do make frequent use of ready made sauces, pies and filled pastas. In order to minimise a baby's exposure to salt, all these kinds of foods should be home-made and any salt added at the table. Less time-consuming?

                    Similarly, the authors state that eating out in restaurants will be easier because, rather than asking the restaurant to heat up jars of baby food, you can just feed the baby from your plate or even order them a small dish or let them share some tapas style dishes with you. Again, this seems disingenuous. How difficult is it to ask a restaurant to heat up a jar? How difficult might it be to order a baby friendly meal with no salt, limited sugar and food cut into appropriate shapes for the baby to grip?

                    By insisting so hard on these kinds of advantages the authors actually undermine their own argument, which is a shame. There are definite advantages to baby-led weaning, not least the fact that it might make parents eat more healthily and enjoy more fresh fruit and vegetables, but there are also some difficulties and it would be better to acknowledge and address these. Instead, they create multiple 'benefits' by stating that (a) families can enjoy eating together and that (b) babies won't have to eat alone. Spot the difference?

                    The demonisation of spoon-feeding is also problematic. The authors equate spoon-feeding with force-feeding and are insistent that it leads to unhappy babies and stressful mealtimes. I am sure that this can be the case, and equally sure that it is not always the case. Parents who have previously spoon-fed children may justly feel offended by the implication that they were in some way harming their children. Perhaps to mitigate such feelings, there are many statements throughout the book from parents who struggled with spoon-feeding.

                    ** Does anyone really need this book? **

                    You may be wondering whether this approach is really so new and unique that a book is required to discuss it. This is a worthwhile question and, if you've already happily weaned children using purées or a mixture of purées and finger foods then you may feel you have very little to gain from reading this. However, if you are a first time parent considering your options or an experienced parent who would like to consider a change in strategy then this book may be of use to you. Personally I found it very interesting reading and I found that it seemed to involve a lot of common sense. For instance, babies love to copy their parents, so surely they would rather copy how and what their parents are eating.

                    However, I would question the length of the book. The basic principles are easy to grasp and I quickly became impatient with the endless repetition of the basic points re-worded and explained under slightly different subheadings. There are only 256 pages, but this is about 200 pages more than necessary. Once you grasp the idea that babies can be fed almost everything you eat if it is suitably presented and prepared, you only really need a bit of guidance regarding preparation. Presumably the reader is already interested in the concept of baby-led weaning or they would never have picked up a book with this title, so it seems rather pointless to repeatedly oversell the benefits of this way of feeding.

                    There are a few Q and A sections and a final troubleshooting chapter which constantly refer to earlier parts of the book. This is because the vast majority of the answers involve repetition of earlier chunks of the book. This is not surprising since the questions are the same throughout. In fact, I can sum up all these exchanges as follows:

                    Q: "My _ month old is playing with her food / not eating a lot. I / my partner / my parents (in law) are worried that s/he may not be getting enough nutrition."

                    A: "Milk is a baby's primary food until they are 1 year old. They go through phases and may eat less food at times. You need to trust them to eat what they need."

                    After a while this becomes rather boring and I skimmed the trouble shooting section in seconds rather than minutes, learning little that was new.

                    I did appreciate the BLW stories interspersed throughout the book. These are anecdotes from a variety of parents who have tried this method of feeding and found it worked well for them (unsurprisingly, given the focus of this book). I found the anecdotes reassuring as there were clearly a number of people other than the rather insistent authors who had found this a viable and indeed positive way to feed their children.

                    It is important to note that this is a guide to the theory and practice of weaning and not a recipe book. Rapley has subsequently published a baby led weaning cookbook which can be purchased separately. (I find this interesting since Rapley and Murkett insist in this book that special recipes are not required...)

                    ** My baby is precious... Can I trust the advice this book gives? **

                    The only difference between this book and the department of health advice is the embargo on purées. I do not believe there is anything dangerous being advised here and the authors are clear that, if you have any concerns about your child's eating or weight then you should see your child's GP. Although I feel that the benefits of this way of weaning are over stressed and the possible difficulties minimised, the advice given is largely common sense and would be safe to follow.

                    I was a little disappointed by the lack of references and research based information in the book. While I found that almost everything the authors wrote appealed to my common sense, I was conscious throughout that nothing they say has been independently, scientifically verified and tested. In fact, the 'references' section of the book is laughably short, containing a mere nine references, two of which are to Rapley's previous publications on this topic and one of which is a dictionary definition.

                    In an attempt to gain credibility, there is a short section titled 'the history of baby-led weaning' which explains that this theory essentially arose from Rapley's work as a health visitor for twenty years and her research for her masters dissertation. Clearly she has a lot of practical knowledge in this field, which I found reassuring, but there is rather a lot of guesswork. Baby led weaning may / could / might / possibly / seems to have certain effects and strengths, (these words are used exhaustively throughout the book,) but in the end this is an anecdotal and theoretical book rather than one based on solid research and data. If that makes you uncomfortable then this isn't the book for you.

                    ** Is it worth buying? **

                    £10.99 feels costly for a paperback, especially one that's so repetitive. However, it is comprehensive and offers a great deal of reassurance to parents trying this way of weaning. If you think baby-led weaning might suit you then this is probably the best book on the topic to read, written as it is by the lady who developed the theory behind the practice, but I would advise borrowing this from a library or buying a cheaper copy, perhaps second-hand, to check that you find this useful enough to invest in. There are lists of suitable first foods and there is clear advice about allergies and nutrition. Overall, this is a thorough guide to the topic and nothing has been left out. I am planning to try baby led weaning myself, although I do not intend to religiously avoid pureed food, and I am seriously considering buying a copy of this - although not for nearly £11!

                    Read this if:

                    - you are keen to try baby-led weaning and would like to know what it's all about;
                    - you are happy to adopt a common sense approach that is logical but has only anecdotal evidence to support it;
                    - you have a grandchild / nephew / godchild whose parents are following baby-led weaning and you are concerned about their development / nutrition.

                    Avoid this if:

                    - you find yourself irritated by repetition and bias;
                    - you prefer to choose parenting strategies that are supported by scientific data and widely published research;
                    - you find yourself irritated by repetition and bias.

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                      28.02.2013 18:11
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                      An informative, quite personal overview of what to expect in the first year after having a baby

                      I love reading and my way of preparing for / coping with change has always been to read about relevant subjects so it was inevitable that becoming a parent would lead to an influx of parenting books. This is one I purchased online after seeing a number of positive reviews about it. The subtitle ('the honest guide that's on your side - what to expect and how to cope brilliantly') was appealing and the image on the front cover of a chuckling baby reinforced the idea that this book would help to create a positive start to the mother-child relationship. (The apparent neutrality of the title is rather undermined by the one quotation on the front cover which claims that this is 'a great book for any first-time mother'.)

                      -- The set-up --

                      After a very brief introduction which aims to establish just how chaotic parenting can be and how normal (and therefore, presumably, able to be 'on your side') the author is, Atkins organises her book into eleven main sections which cover the first year of parenthood: preparing for your new baby, the likely events in the first few hours, the first few days, sleeping, crying, eating, growing, playing, health, your changed life and work. Her stated aim is to equip new parents to understand the likely challenges and triumphs of their baby's first year and to help them trust themselves.

                      -- Who is Atkins and why should I trust her? --

                      In her introduction Atkins reveals that she is a parent to three children and clearly feels that this is sufficient to allow her to offer advice to other parents. A little research reveals that she also writes about health, but essentially she is speaking to readers as one knowledgable parent to more newbie parents. Whether you find this actually quite reassuring or whether you are now wondering what distinguishes her from helpful mothers at the local bus stop is up to you.

                      -- An honest guide? --

                      You do get honest advice. For instance, Atkins explains why you are not supposed to heat bottles of formula in the microwave...and how most mothers do. I did find this very reassuring as a novice parent because in many books and leaflets there is very clear-cut, quite 'strict' advice that other parents (especially my own!) will dismiss with a wave of the hand and a comment about the nanny state. This book tries to reconcile the two by providing the official advice and explaining how many parents 'really' operate. I did find this approach quite positive.

                      Atkins adopts a personal approach, including some very honest details about her own sexual experiences post-baby. In doing so, she clearly aims to reassure the reader that everyone is likely to find certain aspects of parenting challenging and that this is natural but not terminal. However, it is clear that, despite her efforts to quote a few other parents, the reader is primarily being given the benefit of Atkins' own opinions, which does lead me to wonder how reliable and trustworthy her statements are. She frequently claims that "studies show that" without any references or specifics, which makes her sound glib rather than trustworthy.

                      It also leaves me with several questions. When discussing weaning she states that: "six months old is the official kick-off point". Why? Says who? Similarly, why am I aiming to give all drinks in cups, not bottles, by 18 months? In truth, I know the answers to those questions, but I know them because I have read other books, not because I read this one. If I was relying purely on this book, I would have a lot of questions still. I do not like being given rules without reason, 'facts' without at least a nod in the direction of the research / source of the consensus. Personally I prefer factual books to clearly refer to reliable experts / organisations. The lack of such anchors in this book made me hesitate to completely true Atkins' advice.

                      -- On your side? --

                      Possibly. Depending on what your side is. Atkins maintains a decisive, even authoritarian, tone which is outright judgemental on many topics: little man clothes are 'silly' and breastfeeding t-shirts are 'pointless' and a 'fashion crime'. Personally, I have found breastfeeding t-shirts very useful, though I appreciate that they are not essential. For a guide that claims to be parent friendly I am just a little surprised by her tone at these junctures. Personally, I did not feel very supported in my choices at these points. This meant I was a little surprised when, upon discussing smacking, Atkins decided to "come off the fence". Amusingly, her argument is lucid and polite at this point, and yet a mere paragraph later the reader is told "If anyone tells you to...(behaviour management strategy)...for God's sake don't - you're trying to teach by example, aren't you?" Yes, miss.

                      Similar examples abound. Atkins is pro ready to eat formula when out and about: "I'm not sure why anyone would do anything else, but you can also prepare a feed to take with you." Hmm, why would someone not choose to buy ready made formula? Um...cost?! Her tone is not exactly supportive. At another point she suggests that refusing to ever allow your child sugar is "bordering on child abuse". None of these examples detract from the fact that there is a wealth of useful advice in this book, but the tone can be slightly sharp, bearing in mind the book's subtitle.

                      Speaking of formula, mums who have taken this route to feeding for whatever reason can at least feel reassured that, unlike some books, they will not be subjected to a barrage of commentary about how breast is best. In fact, there is no discussion of feeding decisions in this respect, merely lists of equipment and tips for each type of feeding. If, conversely, you would like some information on the pros and cons of each type of feeding, you will need to look elsewhere for this kind of information.

                      The focus of the work chapter is, unsurprisingly, how to cope with going back to work. However, I thought it was a bit of a shame that there was no equivalent section for staying at home. This section does seem to imply that a return to work is obligatory and could perhaps cause pressure on mums who think they might like to stay at home. Atkins also addresses the guilt of working mums and not the guilt of stay at home mums. (Can you guess which one she was?) As someone who is weighing up her options carefully I thought that this was a disappointing omission, and once again I did not really feel that Atkins was 'on my side'.

                      -- What to expect? --

                      I found that Atkins' personal approach did help me to feel a little bit more relaxed about some subjects, but I also felt that it had its limitations that her frequent references to her own experiences only highlighted. For instance, although Atkins makes an effort to include a range of experiences, such as what will happen if your baby needs to have special care or if you are a single parent, some aspects of parenting are almost or completely ignored, presumably because they do not fit in with her parenting experiences. Real nappies are mentioned very briefly with no guidance about how to use or what they cost or where to buy. In contrast, she is happy to suggest which brands of disposable nappies she trusts. Sleeping with your baby is only mentioned briefly in a set of instructions that tell you when NOT to do it. This means that the guide is not quite as comprehensive as the structured, bullet-pointed approach might suggest at a glance. Furthermore, her written style is very personal at times with frequent use of "I would..." and some mild bad language (e.g. "hell") which some readers may find off-putting.

                      The book feels a little bit like an encyclopaedia. Many topics are addressed but most of them are only treated briefly. For example, Atkins spends one paragraph on breastfeeding at work with no mention of the legal or practical realities. This isn't surprising as each section (first days, feeding, etc.) could easily be the subject of a complete book in itself. There is a contacts section at the back of the book which is organised by chapters and is useful for guiding readers towards more comprehensive sources of information.

                      Atkins hits all the key notes, though there are some surprising omissions, which I noticed because I actually read this book when my son was already nearly three months old. For instance, Atkins states that there is "no reason" to wait to express breastmilk until babies are six weeks old. Most books and midwives will tell you to avoid doing this to prevent nipple confusion. Again, details like this are a reminder that much of the book consists of Atkins' opinions presented as facts.

                      -- So will this teach first-time parents how to cope brilliantly? --

                      Well, Atkins uses several colour pictures throughout which make the book quite pretty... More seriously, she includes clear guides in words and pictures for aspects of parenting including swaddling a newborn baby and changing a nappy. If I had not already done these things multiple times, I think I would have found these pictures helpful.

                      As mentioned previously, this book gives a brief overview of most topics a new parent might reasonably be interested in. This could work well as a basic starting point for a parent who feels fairly comfortable in their own skin. I think a reader would already need to feel some confidence in their initial thoughts due to Atkins' decisive (and sometimes judgemental) approach.

                      Information is organised and clear subtitles make it easy to find what you need. There is an easy to navigate index and bullet points are used where appropriate to make steps and lists clear. The section on illness is where this style comes into its own and Atkins' bullet point approach is useful and reassuring. I thought that the brief guide to the most relevant illnesses / problems a baby might have and the suitable response / first aid was very useful and reassuring. I feel it is almost worth buying the whole book just to have that key information available at your fingertips in a clearly expressed form.

                      Things can change quickly in government policy, healthcare and official advice on childcare. This book was published in 2009 so her figures relating to the cost of childcare should be revised upwards and new parents should be aware that the rules regarding child benefit have changed. In my area at least, the polio vaccine is no longer given as drips on the tongue and appointments for immunisations are not made by the doctor automatically and sent through the post. Parents will still need to check how systems work in their area. Although a few details like these will need to be amended in any reprint, most of the advice - on sleeping, eating, playing etc, - should be good for several years yet.

                      One minor thing I liked about this book was the fact that it is relatively easy to rest the book open on your knees without it closing and the print is easy to read with plenty of clean white space around the edges. This meant that I could read it while holding my son, which meant that I could actually find time to read it. This gave it a big advantage over other child care books!

                      At £12.99 the price for this paperback seems much more suited to a hardback book, but I believe this is fairly typical for a non-fiction book on this subject. Once read, there is enough here that a parent might want to refer to again for the book to remain on your bookshelf through the first year. Therefore, I feel that it is worth the RRP. However, it is, as always, possible to get this cheaper from the usual places online.

                      Read this if:
                      - you would like concise, focused guidance on the basics of child care from 0-1 years;
                      - you are confident enough in your own decisions and feelings to tolerate some rather definite opinions;
                      - you would like a parent-to-parent type guide rather than an expert-to-parent type guide.

                      Avoid this if:
                      - you are a second or third time parent (this really is a book of first time basics);
                      - you like clear links to research and experts to validate advice given;
                      - you want detailed guidance on one or two particular aspect of child rearing rather than a diffuse guide to everything.

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                        05.01.2013 21:35
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                        Typical chick-lit focusing on remarriage and mistakes

                        Years ago I enjoyed reading several of Green's earlier books, so when I saw this for sale for a mere 25p - and on bogof! - at my local library, I snapped it up. Would the story telling be as good as I remembered?

                        -- The premise --

                        A group of characters step out of their ordinary lives - and romances - and meet at a rented beach house in Nantucket. The blurb informs us that the owner, Nan, is mischievous and free-spirited while her guests are rather more unhappy. Daniel is breaking wife Bee's heart; Daff is struggling with her relationship with her daughter, Jess; and Michael, Nan's son, is having an ill-advised fling with his boss. Quickly, new relationships form and old ones change, but will any of them find the new beginning they are hoping for?

                        -- My thoughts --

                        Green is a well-established writer of chick-lit so I was fully expecting the answer to the above question to be yes, and I wasn't disappointed. This is the kind of book you read anticipating a happy ending and the only question mark is over the exact shape of it. I didn't find that this spoiled my enjoyment, but it does make for a slightly predictable story and will not suit all readers.

                        Originally a journalist, Green's style sometimes feels a little bit clunky. She feels the need to briefly describe characters when they first appear and her descriptions add little to the plot or the readers' understanding. I found them distracting and not helpful. Her characters also feel a little bit too glamorous sometimes. How many people can really own massive houses or drip with diamonds or throw up their job at a moments notice? Again, I think this tilt towards impulsivity and financial security is a fairly common feature of some chick-lit and, really, these are minor quibbles. Ultimately, this is meant to be a feel-good read and it is definitely that.

                        What I did find surprising was how long it took to get to the point described on the book jacket. It is not until half way through the book that all the characters are gathered at the titular beach house and most of the first third of the book focuses on establishing the situations already described in the blurb. The reader learns all about Bee and Daniel's relationship from meeting through marrying to breaking point. The breakdown of Daff's marriage and the subsequent problems with her daughter are also fully described. Michael's whole relationship with boss Jordana is described from the moment they begin to be more than purely employer and employee to the moment he realises what a terrible error he has made. I found this established the characters well but it did mean that it felt like the whole first half of the book was set-up rather than story. This didn't really bother me, but it might irritate some readers. This approach does allow you to get to know each character well which helps you to care about them.

                        More problematically for light chick-lit, the beginning of the book is rather depressing. Marital infidelity is rife and all the initial relationships have been discarded by a third of the way through the book. I found this rather sad as Green seemed to suggest that most marriages fail. Of course, this does rather match the real-life statistics! I did not find it reassuring that, by the end of the book, all these characters have decided that their original marriages were terribly flawed. I think I prefer chick-lit that ends with marriage rather than chick-lit that begins with the destruction of one - or several! ('Pride and Prejudice' is one of my favourite ever books.) There is only one successful long-term relationship in the book and this is between peripheral characters. Even the minor supporting characters are all divorced. Green's moral voice is also a little worldly for me. Her characters acknowledge that men can't resist infidelity and that an affair doesn't have to mean the end of a marriage. This certainly makes her romantic fiction more realistic than some; I think my prefer my romantic fiction to be unrealistic! It is interesting to note that between this book and Green's earlier books she has gone through a divorce herself. I do not know the details of this but I suspect that it has influenced her writing. I seem to remember her earlier books being more positive and I preferred them to this more realistic, or perhaps simply pessimistic, mode.

                        I also felt that the characters were rather cliched. Gay characters are not into sport and teenage girls hate their mothers. Furthermore, gay characters are able to magically recognise other gay characters and old ladies have amazing intuition. I appreciate that you don't typically look for well developed characters in chick-lit, but I still felt that Green could at least have avoided ticking as many stereotypes as she does.

                        The story is suitably interesting as the various plot lines develop and converge. Sometimes it is very predictable (newly single woman meets newly single man and they fall in love) and there are the obligatory misunderstandings that are rather easily resolved, but there are also a couple of twists that I didn't see coming. I was always ready to pick up this book and continue reading, although I never found it gripping or compelling. That said, I don't expect to find chick-lit gripping or compelling, so that is a statement of fact rather than a criticism.

                        Green is a British author who has moved to Connecticut and this book is set in America. Interestingly, some reviewers online have complained that the characters are too British in their idiom and that this spoilt their enjoyment of the book. This is not something that I noticed but it didn't feel American in the way that some books by American authors do and it may be that for some readers this lacks a strong enough sense of place.

                        Something the book certainly possesses is a few twists. I didn't anticipate any of them, but I do tend to read this kind of fiction with my brain switched off, so I cannot really comment on how surprising other readers may find the twists. I think they are actually relatively common twists for this kind of fiction and so keener readers may find the story a little too predictable.

                        -- Conclusions --

                        I felt that this was a mildly enjoyable read as it had a set of likeable characters with distinct plot lines that made their histories easy to follow. The story is ultimately rather reliant on coincidence and the happy ending is unrealistic because of that. However, if readers are willing to suspend disbelief at the end then the story is otherwise quite realistic, which I liked. The paperback is priced at £7.99 for 420 pages, which I think is a little steep for something that you are only likely to read once. I think it would certainly be worth getting as part of an offer or second hand as it would then offer value for money as well as being entertaining. I found this easy to read but did not enjoy it as much as Green's earlier books. I would recommend reading one of her earlier books rather than recommending this one specifically, but I imagine more dedicated fans will really enjoy it.

                        Read this if:

                        - You are already a fan of Jane Green's recent offerings.
                        - You enjoy reading straightforward chick-lit.
                        - You want a relaxed, easy read that focuses on relationships.

                        Avoid this if:

                        - You enjoy fiction with a strong and accurate sense of place.
                        - You enjoy more intelligent fiction.
                        - You dislike stories which are predictable and simple.

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                          11.11.2012 12:46
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                          A modern police procedural with a historical bent that should suit fans of Donna Leon.

                          David Hewson has worked as a journalist for most of his life and has written several travel and crime fiction books. This is the second book in a crime series which features Detective Nic Costa and is set in Rome. Personally, I do not find the title or the brilliant green cover appealing and only read this as it was a book group read. Could it possibly be better than it looked?

                          -- The premise --

                          Having spent six months recovering from the events of book one in the series, Nic Costa returns to work with a predilection for drink and a new partner who has recently been demoted. They are quickly embroiled in two cases: a dead girl's body is recovered from the peat and a mother declares her daughter missing. Could the two be related? The physical appearances of the girls and the timing of the two events quickly suggest a connection and the pressure is on to find the second girl before she also turns up dead.

                          Meanwhile, a local mobster has difficulty controlling his family, another mobster is refusing to talk to the police, the DIA are stalking Inspector Falcone and his detectives, and the team's pathologist has such difficulty sticking to her job that it seems likely she will get herself killed.

                          -- My thoughts --

                          I found the 20 page long introductory sequence off-putting. A rather unpleasant American couple bicker, ruin their rental car and begin to dig up a dead body without realising that's what it is; they think it is a precious, life size statue that they can somehow smuggle home to show off to their equally imbecilic friends. I have no problem with the plot device itself, but I did question why it required twenty pages of explication. I had no desire to know any more about Bobby and Lianne than was strictly necessary and could only assume that the author was lavishing such attention on them because their characters would recur later on. They didn't. Given that the blurb clearly states that they a dead girl is dug up from the peat, the reader's understanding of the situation is so far ahead of the characters' that it became annoying to read in an I'm-bored way, rather than an I'm-frustrated-but-excited way.

                          After this, there is an equally prolonged section during which the pathologist explains why she believes she has a two millennia old corpse on her table. Again, given that this is a crime fiction novel and that the blurb states that this discovery will start 'an investigation that will take the police deep into the murky underworld of modern-day Rome's most disturbing and sinister secrets' the reader KNOWS that this cannot really be historical find. This means that the lengthy discussions about Tollund and Grauballe man (actual peat bodies preserved for many years) simply delay the reveal that the reader knows is coming. Personally, I found this frustrating in a negative sense; I just wanted Hewson to get on with the rest of the story, the bits I didn't know about. This section is interrupted by introductions to other characters and issues: the newly partnered police officers, the concerned mother and the mob boss's family. In a way, this added to the sense of a drawn-out opening and made me even less interested in proceedings, but I am quite an impatient person and there is no reason to think that other readers would necessarily feel this way.

                          No one character is the main protagonist or focus of the story, which gives Hewson the flexibility to use particular viewpoints as and when they are helpful to develop the plot further. I think this is a strength of the story-telling, especially since I prefer crime fiction to focus primarily on the crime, rather than on the relationships between the investigating officers and their families. While there are some romantic entanglements here (Inspector Falcone has a past with the DIA lead and Nic Costa swiftly develops sexual chemistry with the distraught mother) the main focus really was on solving the crime and every scene, sometimes indirectly, sometimes directly, is leading up to that. Every cast member who is introduced has something to do with the original death and as the storyline developed I found it genuinely interesting to see how each was involved. That said, there were a couple of characters who seemed to be introduced purely to be killed off and used as part of the final reveal, but that is fairly typical of crime fiction and not a significant complaint.

                          Obviously, as this is set in Rome and there is some speculation around how old the body is, there is quite a lot of historical background. This is relayed to the reader through conversations and can be a little bit repetitive (ok, yes, I understand that this ritual involved sex and drugs) but is fairly interesting and is all (except the earlier discussion of peat bodies) highly relevant to the case. I felt that the historical content was appropriately utilised, which is refreshing as often in historically-informed-fiction the historical detail feels shoved in anywhere it might fit in order to show off how much research the writer has done. Perhaps conversely, I would have liked to get more of a feel for Rome from a novel which is set there. No matter how often a character rents a flat by Tiber Island or spots some carabinieri eating prosciutto, I never had the sense that I was in Rome. On the plus side, this means there are no lengthy scenic descriptions that detract from the pace of the plot or result in me skimming passages impatiently. I would have liked a little more detail, but realistically, if you work in Rome, as these detectives do, you're hardly going to take time out from questioning your witness to reflect on the colour of the city walls or the sound of the traffic.

                          The plot picks up pace as you read through and it becomes clear that everyone has something to hide. I found the ending itself interesting and thought that it mostly worked, although it is quite a twist. It helps that the reader can see it coming before one of the main characters so has time to begin re-thinking the case. However, the specific way the story is told I found extremely confusing in places due to the involvement of drugs. I found it impossible to work out what was real and what was a hallucination. There is a brief epilogue of sorts, but it still doesn't fully explain what happened in the final showdown and what exactly one of the characters was trying to achieve. I suppose the loose ends make the story a little more true to life and therefore realistic, but if I were being more cynical I would suggest that Hewson doesn't quite know how to make the disparate bits of the story fit together and so has not even bothered to try. Because of the slightly disjointed nature of the ending, I did find the ending a little disappointing. However, I did find it quite interesting to reread snippets from earlier in the book in light of the knowledge gained at the end and I didn't feel that it ruined my overall enjoyment of the story. Furthermore, I really liked the final realisation on the last page. It's a really 'duh!' moment that, again, forces the reader to re-evaluate what they have read before. I thought this was an effective way to close the story.

                          -- Conclusions --

                          * I found this story very slow to get started and thought it could have either moved more quickly or revealed less information in the blurb.
                          * The characters were suitably developed and changed as the storyline developed which helped to make the reading experience interesting.
                          * The actual resolution was a little far-fetched but understandable and made use of all the threads set up during the story, so I liked the way that everything and everyone came together at the end.
                          * I didn't find this compelling reading because there was something about the way it was written that didn't really 'grab' me but it works well as a police procedural with a historical background.
                          * The book is organised into three or four very lengthy sections and there are no chapters within these sections, which I don't really like as it can be difficult to find a suitable stopping place. However, these sections are further broken down into different scenes, so the actual scenes are a reasonable length.
                          * Although the story involves sex, violence and drug taking, there is nothing explicitly gory or difficult to read so it should still suit a wide audience.

                          So who would it suit? According to the sticker on the cover, fans of Donna Leon will love this. Not having read anything by Leon myself, I can't comment on the accuracy of that statement. I think it would suit most fans of crime fiction as the storyline is well-focused on the crime itself rather than getting too caught-up in the love lives of the officers and the twist is surprising but plausible. I also like that, unlike in some series, there were no cliff hangers or major hints about what will happen in the next book to urge you to keep reading. I like this because it means that this book can happily be read as a standalone crime novel, which is what I did, and because it means the writer is trusting that their writing style can persuade you to keep an eye out for their name in future, rather than relying on a great big cliff hanger.

                          Whilst I will not be actively seeking out another book by Hewson, this is largely because I have a teetering To Be Read pile by my bed already and cannot even think about adding another one to the stack without being at risk of a landslide in the middle of the night. I would, however, happily read another book in this series at some point.

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                            31.10.2012 09:39
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                            Anger + humour = an engaging YA novel about relationships

                            Klass is an American screenwriter (for adults) and novelist (for teens). This book focuses on the difficulties of a 14 year old boy, John, who is abused at home and drifts through school. I read this book because I was given the opportunity to teach it to a group of 13-14 year olds.

                            == The premise ==

                            John is angry. His mother is too caught up in the man-who-is-not-his-father to see how miserable his life is. This man also beats him when his mother is not around. School is not much better: he has a crush on a seemingly unattainable girl and his best friend is an eggroll thief. His other friend cannot speak to girls, algebra is gobblydegook and music practice is an on-going battle with a frog pretending to be a tuba. John normally copes by applying lashings of irony and some fantasy to his situation, but in a dramatic turn of events he dares to ask out the girl of his dreams. Could things be about to change for the better?

                            == My thoughts ==

                            John's anger is immediately and powerfully in evidence from the opening lines of the first chapter. He insists repeatedly that 'you don't know me', and although it gradually becomes clear that he is talking to his mother, the reader is likely to feel a little under attack in the first few pages. I felt that this device worked well to ensure that readers are immediately pulled into John's world and his way of thinking. We quickly learn about all the key elements of John's life and this prepares us well for the story to follow.

                            Writing that the book deals with John's anger makes the book sound heavy-going, but in fact it is written in a very humorous tone which means that although the reader feels the weight of John's bitterness, it doesn't weigh them down. In particular, frequent reference is made to the Lahasha Palulu, a fictitious tribe who have interesting ways of dealing with the situations that John finds himself in. I felt that Klass did well to create this kind of levity and that teens would respond well to the style of writing and John's desire for things to be different.

                            This is not a ground-breaking story. John's crush is, predictably, not worthy of his attention, and he completely fails to notice the more suitable, pleasant girl who is in his orbit. However, the characters are handled well: Gloria (known to John in his imagination as Glory Hallelujah) is convincingly airheaded and Violet is pleasingly practical. It is interesting that someone as open to irony as John does not 'see through' Gloria earlier on and one of the things I liked about teaching this book was that young readers have to learn to detach themselves from the narrative perspective - which can be quite challenging in a story with first-person narration - and form their own opinions about the other characters. This is a good skill for young people to be developing.

                            There is plenty of plot to keep young readers interested but it never overwhelms the strong narrative voice and the characters behave in believable, although gradually more melodramatic, ways as the tension ratchets up. The last section of the story is perhaps rather over-the-top and the final events are a little predictable for an adult reader, but most of my teenage readers did not accurately predict the ending and felt that the story was still convincing. Personally, I would have liked a little less melodrama and action, but I think the views of the intended audience are probably more important here than mine!

                            What I did like about the ending of the story is that I felt it promoted a good morality and would help to encourage young people who were being abused to speak out. I think that this is important and that Klass has handled a difficult topic very well.

                            Descriptions of the abuse within the book are not graphically gory or extensive, but are present at a couple of key points. I am very squeamish and was able to read these accounts of violence without difficulty, so I do not think this would present a problem to other readers. Perhaps similarly, the youth of the characters means that there are only limited references to sexual experience, and this becomes more a focus for comedy than anything a parent might rather their child wasn't reading. Pleasingly for a teen book there are no diversions into alcohol or drug abuse. (This definitely isn't 'Skins'!) There is some bad language but it is not excessive and is used in a way that is relevant to the plot.

                            == Conclusions ==

                            This is a great YA book that deals effectively with a difficult topic and could even encourage teenagers who are suffering abuse to want to seek help. Certainly it encourages readers to develop their empathy for others and to be wary of simply accepting other people's story of themselves. John's character is convincing and Klass gives him a strong narrative voice that grips readers throughout. The other characters are suitably developed, although an adult reader might feel that a couple border on being mere caricatures. The ending is perhaps a little melodramatic and predictable for very mature teens, but is a suitable ending thematically and is likely to please as it is very heart-warming.

                            This story would be particularly well-suited to 13-16 year olds (girls and boys). Although I found it a pleasant enough read, it is not a crossover book that adults are also likely to enjoy. This is certainly not a criticism of this book, which the majority of my class really enjoyed reading. Recommended.

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                            26.10.2012 13:17
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                            A crime story which focuses on the situation and motivations of the killer.

                            Karin Fossum is a well-established writer of crime fiction whose novels have been translated from their original Norwegian into more than 20 languages worldwide. She has won several awards and her Inspector Sejer series, of which this book is the first, has been published in more than thirty countries. (Although the second book in this series was published in England in 2002, and many others from the series have since made the transition, it has taken another ten years for the first to be published here.) This was not an author I had previously heard of but came highly recommended by my reading group.

                            -- The premise --

                            Eva is walking by the river with her daughter when she sees a body floating on the surface. Assuring her daughter that she will call the police, Eva steps into the phone booth - and calls someone else entirely.

                            Inspector Sejer quickly establishes that the dead man, Egil, suffered a violent death six months earlier - just a few days after a local prostitute was murdered. Could there be a connection? If so, what? In the months between these murders and the discovery of the body, both cases have gone cold.

                            At home, Eva receives a phone call late at night. When the stranger hangs up, she stares fearfully into the dark night. Who called? Why? What does Eva know?

                            -- My thoughts --

                            I found the premise interesting, especially the idea of a detective having to pick up a 'cold case' and try to find new clues. It seemed obvious from the blurb that Eva knew more than her daughter did and I was looking forward to finding out exactly how much she knew.

                            The first few pages are gripping. There is a brief piece of text in italics which works as a prologue and involves a woman running into a dead end. This obviously creates great suspense, especially as the man chasing her is so calm in comparison to the woman's panic. This is followed by a very brief initial chapter in which Detective Sejer leads a bruised and bleeding Eva into an interview room. Again, I felt that this worked well to create suspense and I was keen to read on to find out what happened.

                            Fossum is clearly more interested in the motives behind these crimes than in the detective work itself. Although Sejer does the necessary re-interviewing of witnesses, and in doing so manages to discover a new angle on the case, the real focus is on the personalities and feelings of the main characters. Eva is intense, burdened with secrets and surprisingly casual about her abandonment by her husband. Her father is lonely and struggles to eat more than porridge without company. Sejer lives a quiet life and occasionally visits his daughter and grandson. He seems to care a lot about the people he communicates with through his work and, in particular, is very kind to Egil's son. Necessarily, this focus on thoughts and feelings rather than dramatic discoveries means that the pace is a little gentle, yet there are sufficient developments for the crime solving to seem suitably brisk. At this point I still found the story quite compelling.

                            This initial pace is well maintained until around a third of the way through the book, when there is a dramatic shift in the focus of the narration and the reader finds out what actually happened six months ago. This is a slightly unusual and therefore perhaps risky approach for a crime writer to take. It becomes evident to the reader who committed the murders and the only question left becomes why. Gradually, most of the rest of the book answers that question and, in places, it almost becomes an exploration of the life of a prostitute. I was initially surprised by the rather positive spin placed on this 'profession', but this is soon undermined by subsequent events and Fossum does not ultimately endorse the career, even if her detective refuses to condemn it. I was not surprised to learn that Fossum has previously worked with addicts and other vulnerable people; she seems determined to explore the psychology of people who commit crimes, rather than simply condemning them. That said, there is a suitable smattering of villains here to keep the reader's interest.

                            During this section I didn't feel the same urge to read on, as I thought I knew roughly why the murders had happened (I was right) and didn't feel that interested in knowing the finer details. However, the narration continued to flow in a way that occasionally revealed surprises, and there was enough interest in the way the story was written to keep my interest. There are some tense and dramatic experiences along the way that help to keep suspense high.

                            The ending is rather melancholy and contained an appropriate twist that I hadn't foreseen but could completely believe in. I liked this as I felt that it made the ending stronger. As the story closes, Sejer is already beginning to work on his next case. Unusually, this does not seem to be intended as a whopping great cliffhanger for the reader to ensure that they buy the next book, but simply as a realistic way of ending this story; a detective will always have work to do. I think the realism was key to my enjoyment of this book, although 'enjoy' almost seems inappropriate: this is quite a dark story and no-one is redeemed.

                            I was slightly surprised to discover that this was the first book in the series as Fossum does not spend a great deal of time establishing her detective. He has a dead wife, an old dog and spends his weekends at the Aerodrome. For this reason, I had assumed that I had picked up the series midway through. However, Fossum is on record as stating that her detective is really a necessity for the plot rather than necessarily important as a character in his own right. Again, I liked this approach. It means that the crime is the important element of the book, and the psychology of the other characters, and the plot is not overshadowed by the detective's own life.

                            Fossum is also a published poet and I felt that this has influenced her writing style, which feels very poetic and descriptive, in an understated way. Her characters are very reflective and there is some discussion of the purpose of art and the true meaning of selling oneself. This helped to make the book read more like a literary novel than a simple work of crime fiction and I quite enjoyed the way it was written.

                            -- Conclusions --

                            Although the book developed in a way that I hadn't anticipated and became a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit, I quite enjoyed reading this and would be happy to read another book in the series. However, at 314 pages this is a reasonably quick read (the font is large and clear) which means that I would hesitate to pay the RRP of £12.99, especially as this is a paperback book (albeit a sturdy one) rather than a hardback. I felt that this worked well as a standalone book, which I liked, although this could partly be because it was the first in the series.

                            Read this if:

                            * You are a fan of Norwegian crime.
                            * You enjoy a reflective writing style which focuses on characters' thoughts and feelings rather than epic car chases or detailed analysis of forensic clues.
                            * You like crime novels that focus on the criminals and their motivations rather than delving too deeply into the personal lives of the police officers involved in solving the crime.

                            Avoid this if:

                            * You like crime fiction with a lot of suspects and a lot of potential paths.
                            * You like crime fiction that focuses very firmly on the crime solving rather than on the psyche of the villains and victims.
                            * You want a main character you can develop a bond with and follow through a crime series to see them develop (although Sejer has his own series, in this book he is certainly a conduit for the action rather than a compelling character in his own right).

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                              19.10.2012 10:38
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                              Murder at Pemberley turns out not to change much at Pemberley.

                              As soon as I spotted this in the book shop, I was hooked. One of my favourite books - 'Pride and Prejudice' - now had a sequel in the crime genre? Fabulous. I had never previously read anything by P. D. James but I recognised the name and was aware that she was a popular and well-established crime writer (she is 90 years old). Could this be as good as it promised? Sadly, the answer was no, not quite.

                              -- Did you ever read 'Pride and Prejudice'? --

                              If not, fear not, as James spends the first chapter essentially recounting the plot of the original novel, with a few embellishments to bring the story up to date. (For instance, perhaps surprisingly, dull Mary has married reasonably well, while the more engaging Kitty is the sole remaining daughter at Longbourn.) This section could perhaps have been handled better. While James succeeds at conveying the necessary background information, attempting to do so as part of the story results in some rather contrived attempts at humour. This is primarily achieved, as Austen often did, by focusing on how the local gossips interpreted the events that befell the Bennett family. Of course, Elizabeth only married Darcy for his estate. Of course, no one believed that Wickham had actually intended to marry Lydia. This is perhaps funnier if you have read the original, but it does all feel a little awkwardly done. I had almost rather simply read a summary of the plot as a separate thing from the story itself so the story could have a more dramatic starting point. That said, handling information from a prequel is always a challenge and James does at least try to do this in an engaging manner. Those who have read the original, and those who haven't, should be mildly entertained by the opening chapter. Other relevant information is woven into the text relatively well at appropriate junctures and feels less heavy handed than the opening chapter.

                              -- So what did happen in 'Pride and Prejudice'? --

                              (If you have already read the book, please do skip this section.)

                              Essentially, Austen explored contemporary attitudes to marriage, criticising lust, condoning financial sense and encouraging the romantic attachment allied with a good dose of common sense. Most importantly for this novel, she established the characters of Jane, Elizabeth, Darcy, Bingley, Lydia and Wickham. Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia are three of five sisters who must marry well as their home will pass on to a distant cousin in the even of their father's death, leaving them dependent upon the cousin for a home and financial support. Bingley is a rich young man who moves into their neighbourhood, causing much excited gossip about his marriage prospects, and Darcy is his rather rude friend who quickly causes offence at a local ball by being proud.

                              Jane is beautiful and modest and ultimately marries Bingley, who is a polite but rather pathetic figure who relies entirely on his close friend Darcy to tell him who he can marry and when. (In the rather wonderful revisioning of P&P that was the short TV series 'Lost in Austen' Jane actually marries someone else due to Darcy's interference and a heartbroken Bingley turns to alcohol for comfort.) Elizabeth is a rather feisty young woman who is not afraid to tell Darcy's exactly what she thinks of him when he manages to propose to her while insulting her, her family and himself. Eventually, after seeing his beautiful estate, Pemberley, she decides he is really a good man after all and they end the novel in a rather embarrassing engagement. It is embarrassing because she has spent the last year telling anyone who will listen just how odious she finds Darcy, and it appears to most of the other characters that she is simply pursuing a life of wealth through marriage. Finally, reckless Lydia runs away with a handsome young soldier, Wickham, who then has to be persuaded by a hefty financial inducement to marry her. Coincidentally, this is the same Wickham who heartlessly chased Darcy's innocent young sister, Georgiana, in an attempt to gain access to the Darcy family's money. Unsurprisingly, Darcy doesn't like him, although he is too well-mannered to spread gossip about him.

                              Crucially, Austen's style is satirical and the story is most frequently developed through conversations which allow characters to reveal their true natures to the reader. Elizabeth and Darcy both learn valuable lessons throughout the novel and it is often hailed as a great romance, but it is also a rich comedy with many minor characters who provide great entertainment.

                              -- So what happened next? --

                              According to James, there has been six years of happily ever after since the events of P&P. Elizabeth has two healthy sons (the heir and the spare) and Jane and Bingley also have children and now live further away from the rest of Jane and Elizabeth's rather embarrassing family. Even Lydia and Wickham seem to have done reasonably well: he has been celebrated for his heroics in battle and they both somehow survive on handouts from unnamed sources. But of course, this is a murder mystery, so everything is about to change - or is it?

                              On the night before Lady Anne's ball, an annual celebration held at Pemberley, an unexpected carriage comes clattering desperately up the driveway. Out of this harbinger of doom tumbles a hysterical Lydia, screaming that her husband has been killed. After recovering from the displeasure of receiving this definitely uninvited guest, Darcy and two other males go out to investigate. Yes, there is a body in the woodland. As Lady Catherine might say, why have the shades of Pemberley been so polluted? Darcy seems to have found the murderer standing over the deceased body and admitting responsibility, but Darcy doesn't believe that he is guilty...so who is? And can Darcy prevent a wrongful conviction for murder?

                              In a minor additional plot twist, the lovely Georgiana has two suitors: an Earl and a Baronet. Lucky girl. Elizabeth thinks she knows who Georgiana favours, but will Darcy allow his sister to marry where she wishes? As the blurb promises that Darcy and Elizabeth's perfect marriage is "threatened" by events, it seems likely that this may be the cause. Will Darcy's pride cause trouble between them once again?

                              -- My thoughts --

                              The ineptness of the investigation was the first thing to strike me as I read: Darcy moves the body from the wood to an outbuilding on his property, potentially destroying valuable evidence, while the local magistrate accepts a rather pathetic alibi from Darcy's cousin simply because he is so respected. Writing a story set in the past allows James to make a few jokes ("I don't suppose you have yet found a way to tell one man's blood from another") which may raise a wry smile as the reader thinks about the progress we have made. I found that reading this made me feel grateful that times have changed and people are (typically) no longer automatically considered innocent due to their status. In fact, I wanted someone of high status to turn out to be guilty in this novel just so that Darcy could REALLY learn a lesson about status and morality, but James is not that daring.

                              Instead, the murder mystery itself is quite a disappointment. While Darcy is adamant that the chief suspect cannot be responsible, there are no other convincing contenders for the role of villain and there is no real investigation. Witnesses give their evidence, most of which the reader has already witnessed, and "justice" appears to be unobtainable. Eventually, James relies on Dickensian coincidence to allow for a shocking last minute court room announcement that actually makes little sense. I found neither the who dunnit nor the why they dunnit to be convincing. Clearly, James herself felt that this might be an issue as she has Darcy question one of the other characters about this series of events. They reassure him that it is all perfectly plausible, but I did not find it so. I like to be able to guess at the backstory and villain when reading crime fiction, and although I could guess at some of the denouement here, I felt that too much was held back and only revealed at the end. In fact, the killer is revealed 60 pages before the end of the 310 page book. When you need 50 pages of conversations between characters to unwrap the plot, it does suggest that there might be a tad too much plotting.

                              As this is meant to be a crime novel, I feel I ought to say more about thecrime element, but there is really very little to say. The denouement revolves around typically nineteenth century concerns: the seduction of young maidens, the difficulties produced by their illegitimate children and the machinations needed to hide them both from shame. This is all very appropriate for the period, but it does not perhaps grip readers in the same way that a more modern resolution could. It is difficult for readers today to understand the sheer horror attached to the mere thought of an unvirtuous woman. (Darcy practically chokes on his loathing for Mrs Younge, a key figure in the denouement, who blackmails young men after sleeping with them.) I think the story could have been gripping if told from a slightly different perspective. As it's written, James relies upon multiple narrators who reveal bits of the story to Darcy, but most of the main characters are denied a voice. As such, the emotions seem very muted and the tone is rather factual. I thought the crime element of this was therefore quite disappointing.

                              So what about the Austen angle? I enjoyed the brief references to other Austen novels (fans of Anne Elliott will be glad to hear that she is doing well, as is Harriet Martin) and the occasional comic touches that James adopted ("Although the library shelves, designed to Darcy's specification and approved by Mr Bennett, were as yet by no means full, Bingley was able to take pride in the elegant arrangement of the volumes and the gleaming leather of the bindings, and occasionally even opened a book and was seen reading it when the season or the weather was unpropitious for hunting, fishing or shooting.") However, I felt these were moments that gleamed in the dark, for the rest of the characters were rather dim.

                              Rather than hearing Elizabeth's voice throughout, James must use Darcy as she recounts the masculine world of the inquest and the court room. This wouldn't be a problem, except that Darcy's character is not as lively as Elizabeth's. His emotions are all guilt and concern for propriety. He simply does not create as engaging a window on the world.

                              Even Elizabeth has been tamed. Despite the promise of the blurb, their marriage is in no way threatened by the events of the novel. Rather than the anticipated scenes where Elizabeth instructed her husband not to be blinded by pride and to let Georgiana marry where she will, this promised plot development fizzles into nothingness. The previously spirited Elizabeth, now in charge of Pemberley's future, simply defers to her husband and hopes that he will have the sense to see what is right. The reader is cheated of even this satisfaction as one of Georgiana's suitors loses interest by the end of the novel, rendering the 'problem' obsolete. I think this is quite a serious problem with the novel as the whole appeal of Elizabeth Bennett in the original P&P was her willingness to say what she thought and her refusal to simply accept established hierarchies. Here, she actively works to promote them - when she is seen. Despite repeatedly assuring the reader that Darcy and Elizabeth are very much in love, they spend barely any time together over the course of the novel. Elizabeth is restricted to the feminine sphere (her house and her flower arrangements) while Darcy engages with the murder enquiry. I thought this was a disappointing conclusion to what had promised to be a more fiery marriage.

                              When the couple are reunited at the end of the novel, James seems to have panicked that there was not enough reference to P&P in the story. Suddenly, Darcy is apologising for things he said and did six years previously and Elizabeth is lovingly forgiving him. I found this rather odd, as this was all resolved satisfactorily at the end of the original novel. I also wonder how well this would work with readers who have not read the original. After all, you don't usually expect the last ten pages of a book to return to the previous novel in the series. We are also reminded at the end that the couple have two children. I did find myself forgetting this as I read; due to the fashions of the time, the children live in the nursery and their parents basically have visiting hours. This is not a criticism of James' writing as she is simply being true to the historical setting of her novel, but it is once again a little disappointing to see the revolutionary Elizabeth Bennett treating her own offspring as roughly as worthy of her attention as her plans for Lady Anne's party.

                              -- Conclusions --

                              When I started writing this review I had three stars in mind, but I have to confess that I have talked myself out of it. Although I found this perfectly readable, I didn't find it either as interesting as I would want a crime thriller to be or pitched quite as I would like an Austen adaptation to be. Fortunately, I bought my copy at a charity shop for a few pounds, but the hardback version of this would set you back £18.99 which I think is far too much for a book that one is likely to read just once and then only for the novelty value. The paperback is better value at £7.99 RRP and can, of course, be found cheaper online and in many popular shops. Chapters are a reasonable length to allow you to breathe and the font is a decent size so it is easy to read. This deserves two stars for the interesting premise and the flashes of Austenian wit, but it loses three stars for failing to really excite, interest or convince me.

                              Read this if:

                              You are a devoted Austen fan and want to see what all the fuss is about.
                              You are a devoted P. D. James fan and want to see what all the fuss is about.
                              You like stories set in the 1800s which investigate mysterious events without becoming gory or overly complicated.
                              You are able to borrow it or get hold of a cheap copy.

                              Avoid this if:

                              You have previously found yourself bored by Austen.
                              You dislike gentle crime fiction.
                              You prefer modern, high octane fiction.
                              You dislike lengthy, chatty denouements in which everyone 'fesses up to everything they have previously hidden.

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                                14.10.2012 21:03
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                                A psychological crime thriller with a bizarre and fascinating premise.

                                Sophie Hannah is a published poet and an established crime fiction author. 'Lasting Damage' is her sixth psychological crime thriller and is similar in style and approach to her previous offerings.

                                == Now you see it... ==

                                At 1.15am, after waiting for her husband to fall asleep, Connie Bowskill begins to watch a virtual tour of a house for sale in Cambridge. She's watching the tour to set her mind at rest - but when the camera reveals a dead body in the living room, she is thrown into panic. Waking her husband, Kit, she insists that he watches the virtual tour, but when he views the living room there is nothing to be seen but a spotless beige carpet...
                                This is the reason I read Sophie Hannah's books: I find the premises really strange and immediately want answers to about a million questions. Why was Connie looking at this house in the first place? Did she imagine the body? If not, who is it, what happened and who on earth would upload the image to a virtual tour on a property selling website? If she did imagine it - why? And if Connie isn't mad, can her husband be trusted?

                                In case this wasn't gripping enough, the actual story opens with a frightening scene involving Kit and Connie set a week after the events of the first chapter. I found that while I was reading the story and my suspicions were shifting it was helpful to reread this introductory snippet from the story's denouement.

                                == ...now you don't. ==

                                As the story develops, Hannah gradually draws in a range of supporting characters and develops a tale about trust and obsession. Personally I found the events convoluted but plausible - not likely, but possible.
                                This story is structured in the same way as Hannah's previous crime novels. Chapters alternate between the first person viewpoint of a female protagonist and a third person viewpoint from Spilling's police force. Inbetween some of the chapters are documents relevant to the case, though in this instance it is initially impossible to understand how they could be relevant. I like this approach as it allows Hannah to create a range of cliffhangers and to carefully control the flow of information. It can mean that the beginnings of her books feel a little disjointed as three different perspectives are introduced relatively quickly, but once all three have begun they work together well.

                                This is not a straightforward police procedural as there is rather more focus on the detectives' interaction and personal lives than one might expect, and the case is solved through lots of discussion and intuition and not much evidence, as the evidence itself is so minimal and difficult to interpret. I find this style appealing, if a little too reliant at times on Simon Waterhouse's ability to make connections that nobody else can, but if you prefer more evidence-based crime solving then you'll need to look elsewhere. There's not a fingerprint to be seen here.

                                == A secret series ==

                                Although there is nothing on the cover or in the blurb to indicate that this story forms part of a series, this is actually Hannah's sixth book following the investigations of Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. I still find this lack of publicity rather odd, but feel that newcomers should find that the portion of the book which follows the investigations (and, more commonly, the relationships of the police officers) is easy enough to follow. Anything which needs recapping is briskly recapped at an appropriate point, which meant that as someone who has read all the previous books, I did not feel that I was being bored by being forced to revisit old information.

                                Interestingly, Hannah brings back a character from her first book 'Little Face' here and there is a suggestion that she may yet recur in the next book. I think this is a nice nod to fans of the series without being intrusive or confusing to newcomers.

                                The relationship between Charlie and Simon continues to be bizarre and I, for one, wouldn't object to the whole idea being dropped. Since the changes brought about by 'The Point of Rescue' (the third book in the series) I have found their relationship increasingly odd and, personally, I would rather focus on the policing. However, for fans of previous books and this relationship in particular there is plenty here to keep your interest.

                                == How not to run a police department ==

                                Simon's preferred style of investigation is to ignore his superiors and chase seemingly insignificant details which ultimately allow the complexities of the entire case to be revealed to him. While this works for him (to the great annoyance of his boss, Giles Proust) it is obviously not the preferred procedure as dociumented in the Detectives Training Manual and I am left wondering quite how he has managed to keep his job. It is also, if one is in realistic mode, a little odd that, as Simon mournfully observes at one point, all his cases seem to involve extremely unusual and unconventional motives. If you're willing to set these minor quibbles to one side, you might just enjoy this.

                                The denouement is very heavy on discussion. Simon explains his astonishing theories to his colleagues in a convenient traffic jam while Connie receives detailed explanations from another source. I like endings where everything is neatly wrapped up so this style suits me, but some readers are likely to find the ending too heavy on conversation. Hannah's books aren't thrillers where the reader is given sufficient clues to catch the killer before the end; instead, the fun is in piecing the story together retrospectively, and it does all fit together well.

                                == Conclusions ==

                                * If you have liked Sophie Hannah's previous novels then it's likely you will enjoy this as there are plenty of similarities in style and structure.
                                * If you've never read her books before, there's no need to start at the beginning (although I do recommend 'Little Face') as, although this is part of a series of crime novels, there is sufficient information to help you understand the relationships between the detectives.
                                * Read if: you enjoy crime where motive is crucial and evidence is minimal; you don't mind talky denouements where all is neatly wrapped up; you like reading about people's relationships.
                                * Avoid if: you like to be able to solve the crime as you read; you enjoy plots driven by forensic or other, tangible, evidence; you like action packed endings with some things left unsaid or unresolved.

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