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gracefacedaisy

gracefacedaisy
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Member since: 06.01.2010

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      02.09.2010 20:26
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      Just read it!

      It's 1889 and Paris is buzzing. The famous World Fair is being set up, seeking to represent spectacles from each corner of the globes, as well as displaying new advances in science and technology. One profession representing itself at the World's Fair is the detective.

      Think Sherlock Holmes and multiply him by twelve, scattering the clones all over the planet. Each one has his own methods, idiosyncrasies and, of course, his own faithful assistant. These detectives make up the Twelve Detectives, the greatest and most famous detectives in the world.

      The only member of this elite group who does not have an assistant (or 'acolyte') is Renato Craig, an Argentinian.

      Meanwhile, Salvatrio Sigmundo, son of a shoemaker living in Argentina, longs to become a detective. An avid follower of the exploits of the Twelve Detectives, Salvatrio knows everything about their methods and habits. One day, he reads that Renato Craig is setting up an Academy. Without hesitation, Sigmundo applies.

      The application is successful, and Sigmundo, along with 20 other budding detectives, is taught the methodology behind Renato Craig's detecting skills. However, due to a concatenation of circumstances, Craig falls ill just before the meeting of the Twelve Detectives at the Paris World's Fair, and he chooses Sigmundo to take his place.

      Shortly after Sigmundo arrives in Paris and meets the detectives and their acolytes, a murderer strikes. Louis Darbon, the Parisian member of the Twelve Detectives, is found dead after falling from the (at this time incomplete) Eiffel Tower.

      Viktor Arkazy, co-founder of the Twelve Detectives, commits himself to the investigation of Darbon's murder. However, because his acolyte is of waning health (and therefore ill-equipped for the more rigorous aspects of detective work), Arkazy employs Sigmundo to be his acolyte for the investigation. For Sigmundo, it is the chance of a lifetime. But can a mere acolyte ever advance to become a detective? Sigmundo's fellow acolytes say it is impossible. However, Sigmundo sets out to prove his ability, even if it means breaking a few of the group's rules.

      I have to say I had extremely high expectations of 'The Paris Enigma', and so I was potentially in a position of great disappointment. However, this book not only fulfilled my expectations but positively surpassed them! From the moment Sigmundo entered Paris I fell head-over-heels into a world where fact and fiction overlapped, where the Sherlock Holmeses and Hercule Poirots were no longer confined to the realms of fiction but dazzled the 19th century population with their exploits. For many readers, it's an all-too-tempting world.

      Another strong part of the novel's appeal is the pace. The momentum of the book is extremely clever. There are moments of slowness that last until they are almost-but-not-quite unbearable, and then the drama kicks in with a BANG as excitement fills the atmosphere. Then, things calm down for a bit until another discovery is made. It's a simple but effective tactic on the part of Argentinian author Pablo de Santis, one which maintains a happy balance by leaning towards the extremes.

      As to the murder mystery itself, the plot is so full of twists and turns that I would have never guessed the ending despite all the clues Sigmundo finds. You'll be pleased to know that it ends in a thoroughly satisfying way, and nothing is unexplained.

      The novel is narrated by Sigmundo throughout, and is told in a clear manner. He doesn't dive into his own background too much, which was an advantage in my opinion as it put the main focus on the plot rather than Sigmundo himself. Moreover, the first person narration was useful because Sigmundo is a newcomer to the meeting of the Twelve Detectives, as is the reader, and so while Sigmundo learns the reader learns.

      Pablo de Santis being an Argentinian author, the novel was translated from its original Spanish. I didn't find this made the style awkward; on the contrary it was remarkably fluid, and often yielded beautiful philosophical gems. My favourite part of the book (apart from its brilliant ending) was when the Twelve Detectives discussed their different philosophies on the subject of murder and detection. They waxed lyrical on their theories and all used different analogies and case studies to back up their arguments. I think it shows the author's great imaginative power that he could create all these metaphors. In addition to this, he had to create a large number of cases for the detectives and Sigmundo to refer back to, and each is as inspired and complex as the last.

      At 355 pages, the book is of a fairly standard length. Each chapter is usually around 5 pages long, although sometimes they are shortened for dramatic effect. I finished this book in just two days on holiday because I became so enthralled with the adventure. It certainly is a page-turner, so be prepared to stay awake until the early hours reading!

      Overall I was absolutely delighted with 'The Paris Enigma'. It ticked all the boxes for a good murder mystery and kept me hanging on until the very end. It is perfectly crafted in its structure and leaves no loose threads untied. On finishing the book, I felt totally satisfied, as well as marvelling over the fantastic ending. This is not a book you will forget in a hurry.

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        07.08.2010 16:11
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        A strange mix of parody and depth

        I have to say that upon picking up this book and skimming over the front cover and blurb, I was slightly confused. On one hand, the title suggested that the book would be something rather silly, and this notion was enhanced by the quote in the synopsis from Inspector Wilkins - "Don't expect me to solve anything". On the other hand, on the front cover one newspaper calls the book 'A triumph of ingenuity', and another calls it 'A tightly gripping story'. So was it going to be a massive joke or a really well-thought out murder mystery? Suitably intrigued by this riddle, I began to read.

        The novel starts with a plan of the first floor of Alderley, the stately home which forms the setting for the murder, along with a list of all the main characters. A pretty clichéd start, but one familiar to readers of Agatha Christie. I felt that I was in safe territory.

        However, the character list isn't really needed since the first six or seven chapters are devoted to the introduction of all the main characters, as well as setting the scene to the various different plot strands. The story is set in the 1930s, although it is not clear exactly which year. In the prologue, the reader is made privy to a plot by foreign spies to discover how far Britain will go to defend the Duchy (which appears to be a small, fictional country) in the event of an invasion. This suggests that the year is somewhere near to the beginning of the Second World War.

        To cut to the chase, as a result of various coincidences (some of which are contrived), the Earl of Burford and his wife Lavinia end up inviting about ten people over for a long weekend at their grand old stately home, Alderley. Most of the people don't know each other (or at least, that is what they say).

        The Earl's daughter, Lady Geraldine, has invited her friend Jane Clifton for the weekend because Jane has recently lost her job. The Earl's brother, Richard (who is a government minister), is using the house as an inconspicuous place to meet with a foreign envoy and his aide. Algernon Fotheringhay, a young and rather stupid young man, has invited himself over. Hiram Peabody and his wife have come over from Texas to inspect the Earl of Burford's famous gun collection (which incidentally houses a large number of viable murder weapons...it's so obvious it's laughable). Giles Deveraux has come over to research a book on stately homes. Then at dinner, an old flame of Richard's, Baroness Anilese de la Roche, appears, claiming that her car has broken down and she has nowhere to stay. Naturally, it was only polite to invite her to stay for the weekend too. You can see that the author has provided a rather large range of suspects for this looming murder. And of course, there's always the butler.

        Unfortunately the real action doesn't emerge until about half-way through the book, although the author does make good use of the space; building up the tension, creating puzzling incidents and throwing suspicion on all members of the house party. The first crime occurs when Mrs Peabody's expensive diamond necklace is stolen during the night, while the intruder escapes through the window. The local policeman, Inspector Wilkins, is called to investigate, although when he arrives he doesn't instil the gathering with any confidence, insisting that the whole affair is too big and complicated for him to unravel, and repeatedly assuring the company that he is 'not sanguine, not sanguine at all'.

        The next day, the body of Martin Adler, the foreign envoy who had been meeting with Richard, is found in the lake. Baroness Anilese de la Roche is nowhere to be found. As the case turns into a murder enquiry, the darkest secrets of all the guests at Alderley are about to be discovered. But will anything ever be solved with the hopeless Inspector Wilkins on the case?

        I began by treating this book as a bit of a laugh, something light-hearted to pass the time. To some extent, it does fulfil these qualities. The murder is all too predictable, with Lord Burford conveniently owning a well-publicised gun collection, and the robbery also comes as no surprise as Mr Peabody has just told a reporter all about his wife's diamonds while a notorious society jewel thief is on the loose. Then comes the bumbling inspector who appears in most Agatha Christie novels (most notably Chief Inspector Japp) having no clue about how to proceed.

        However, delving deeper into the book I found that it was actually very clever. Even before the murder the various plotlines and motivations of all the different characters are highly developed even though there is such a variety of suspects. The reader comes to believe that nobody is entirely who they claim to be, and that everyone has something to hide.

        After the arrival of Inspector Wilkins, the ingenuity of the book really comes into focus. While it appears that the inspector is just fumbling about, not really understanding the whole situation, he is in fact investigating the murder as well as any Poirot or Miss Marple. His extreme modesty and lack of showmanship are humorous because he becomes the exact opposite of the arrogant Hercule Poirot. While Poirot likes to call a melodramatic gathering of suspects in order to reveal the murderer, Inspector Wilkins gets someone else to do it for him because he would "probably get muddled and mess it all up".

        The way that the murderer is revealed takes up a large portion of the book (about eight chapters), mainly because it is so complex with all of the various sub-plots running around and complicating things. The ending came as a massive shock to me, which I liked because I'd invented so many theories in my head about who had done it, and they all turned out to be absolute rubbish! It only added to my admiration of the author.

        The book is pretty long in comparison to an Agatha Christie novel at 366 pages. However, each chapter is about seven pages long, so it is split up into pretty bite-sized chunks. The novel is quite gripping at times but it's not something that will keep you awake reading until the small hours.

        Overall, this book is not what it seems. It looks like a really silly parody of the work of Agatha Christie, but it is in fact far more ambitious and complicated than that. It is humorous, but also a challenging mystery. The one thing that still concerns me, though, is that the purpose of the book isn't clear, and so it is bound to disappoint the reader. If one reader expects a ridiculous satire, it doesn't quite happen because this is a complete murder mystery in its own right. If another reader expects a full-blown mystery, though, that view isn't quite right either because of all the clichés and predictability.

        I really enjoyed the book, I thought it was both clever and funny, but there was something not-quite-right about it as I have outlined above. I think that the novel really just needed to decided whether it was an outright parody or a just a plain old murder mystery in order to truly succeed. Although this is a good read, it is slightly unsettling for the reader to not know whether they should be taking it seriously or not. I'd recommend this as a fairly good book, but just try not to expect too much from it.

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          30.06.2010 17:41
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          One for the charity shop pile...

          'The Book Of Murder' is a title that many a seasoned crime-fiction fan would find hard to resist. Though I myself tend to only dabble in the Agatha-Christies, I read Guillermo Martinez's 'The Oxford Murders' a couple of years ago and thought it was nothing short of a masterpiece. So, faced with another of the Argentinian author's murderous novels, I must say I was lining myself up for a treat.

          To start with, I was very much hooked. The book is narrated by a struggling author (who is unnamed throughout the book) living in Buenos Aires. One morning he receives an unexpected phone call from an old typist of his, Luciana. They hadn't met or spoken in ten years. Luciana sounds desperate and terrified as she begs the author to meet up with her.

          When they do meet, Luciana has clearly changed a great deal in the ten-year transition from 18 to 28. Not only is she considerably plumper but she appears to have sections of bare scalp on her head, as if her hair has been torn out in a neurotic fit. The explanation? Luciana believes that Kloster (another author and the narrator's rival) is killing off her family, one by one. It appears that Luciana had once worked for Kloster, but left her job accusing him of sexual harassment. The allegation caused Kloster's wife to divorce him. Now, with her boyfriend, parents and brother dead, Luciana is certain that Kloster is getting his revenge. Kloster, on the other hand, claims that it is all coincidence.

          Sounds good so far, right? I was thoroughly intrigued from the beginning, and as I read further the plot seemed to grow more and more complex. The dizzying intricacy of the plot made my head spin, and all the while I thought to myself what an excellent book this was, and what a fool I was for listening to the critics' derogations.

          It was only really when I got to about Chapter 10 (there are 12 chapters) that I began to get a bit worried. Luciana's dilemma was becoming like an ever-increasing web which Martinez had not seen fit to untangle as of yet. In most murder mysteries I have found that small hints are dropped from time to time, but I didn't seem to have picked up on a single one. I wondered if I was merely being dense. However, as I got to the end of the book I realised it wasn't just me - there really aren't any hints because the book doesn't actually appear to have an ending.

          I think most people would agree that for murder mysteries especially, the ending must be rock-solid, otherwise it tarnishes the rest of the book. However, 'The Book Of Murder's ending was possibly the weakest I have ever seen. It was bordering on 'Then I woke up and it was all a dream' on the weakness scale. The book had such a meaty concept that you could really get your teeth into, but reading the end it was as if I discovered I wasn't eating meat but rather a pathetic stick of candy-floss. I don't want to go on about it but I really haven't been so disappointed by a book since I read Lemony Snicket's 'The End' years ago.

          I got the sense that everything all just got a bit too big for Guillermo Martinez. As his plot thickened, it was as if it had spun out of control and the author was unable to rein it in, even at the very end. To be fair, he had a brilliant idea to begin with, and I feel that if Martinez had stuck closer to his original vision, this book might have been more successful.

          The book was originally written in Spanish, and has been translated into English. The original title was 'La muerte lenta de Luciana B' or 'The slow death of Luciana B'. I think this does slightly affect the reading of the book as it puts the focus on different things, but on the whole I don't think it affects the perception of the quality of the book. I don't think the style of writing is affected by translation too much - although I'm no authority on the matter since I don't speak Spanish - because the narration was clear and fluid and the descriptions were often elegant and polished. I supposed it could be suggested that Martinez had written an amazing ending which resolved all the dilemmas and answered all the questions, but the details were lost in translation. I don't really believe this; I think there would have to have been a really serious translation fault for that to occur.

          I also found the fact that Martinez used a nameless author to narrate the novel a bit clichéd - I've read countless novels about authors and they all seem to have an autobiographical slant which can be rather tiresome. I mean, as an author, surely it is rather unimaginative to write about your own trade? That's the feeling I get anyway, although having said that I did enjoy Robert Harris' 'The Ghost'.

          After finishing the novel in about two weeks (I usually read about the chapter a night, with the chapters being around 30 pages each) I felt disappointed and annoyed. In fact, I felt that my time had been completely wasted, because the book didn't form any sort of conclusion. It was pretty much a pointless book (hence the broken pencil in the title) which I could have done without. I am giving it two stars purely because it was based on such a clever concept, and I did enjoy the book until I realised that it was really just one big rhetorical question. But as I said, the ending is probably the most important part of a novel, especially a murder mystery, and this is where the plot seemed to stumble and fall flat on its face.

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            20.06.2010 19:29
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            A lovely amusing book

            'Love Over Scotland' is the third book in the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith. Having dipped into all of McCall Smith's popular series, such as the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I have to say this is my absolute favourite. In contrast to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the novel is set in the author's native Edinburgh; however this does not in any way affect McCall Smith's dextrous and delicate style as he weaves together the various different plotlines.

            The novel follows various different characters who are connected to (or used to be connected to) 44 Scotland Street, an Edinburgh townhouse which has been split into apartments. We have Domenica MacDonald, a middle-aged woman whose anthropological interest has led her to the Malacca Straits, an area where (Domenica has been informed) there is a thriving pirate community. While she is away, her good friend (and maybe something more...) Angus Lordie looks over her flat on 44 Scotland Street once in a while, as he also lives there, in a different apartment. However, Domenica has invited her old friend Antonia Collie to come and stay in her apartment for the duration of her absence, and has asked Angus Lordie to befriend her. But it seems that Antonia is harder to get along with than Angus had first imagined.

            Meanwhile, Pat MacGregor, after having 2 indecisive gap years, moves out of her apartment at 44 Scotland Street and begins her History of Art course at Edinburgh University. As an attractive young woman she is spotted by Wolf, an extremely good-looking student on her course, and she finds herself in a rather awkward situation when it becomes clear that Wolf has a girlfriend. All of this is much to the chagrin of Matthew, Pat's boss at the art gallery (where she works part-time), who has never been able to get over his love for Pat.

            In my opinion, the funniest storyline is that of six-year-old Bertie Pollock (who also lives at 44 Scotland Street), a child prodigy who is daily oppressed by his pushy mother, Irene. Bertie is forced to learn Italian, attend yoga classes and have psychotherapy from Dr Fairbairn (who Irene seems to spend more and more time with lately...). Much to Bertie's embarrassment, he is also forced to audition with his saxophone for the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, despite being younger than all of the applicants by at least seven years. Most of the incidents to do with Bertie are told from Bertie's point of view, which makes for very humorous reading as we discover that although Bertie is brilliant by anyone's standards, he is still very much a child and often has a childish way of looking at things. His mother is also shown to be enormously hypocritical, and her refusal to ever acknowledge that she is anything but the perfect mother is always amusing.

            Because the book was first serialised in the Daily Scotsman before it was published as a novel, the chapters are very short, being usually about 2 or 3 pages long. However the chapters don't tend to skip about from storyline to storyline too much, as they tend to focus on one storyline for perhaps 3 or 4 chapters at a time. In a style reminiscent of Dickens, McCall Smith tends to make it almost impossible for a reader to just stop reading at the end of a chapter! The ending sentence always wanted to make me read on. The thing is, in books with average-sized chapters I will usually read one chapter a night; however with this book I could probably read two or three chapters in ten minutes, so I tended to just keep reading until I was too tired to read any more! Luckily there are 113 chapters, so the book still lasted me a week or so.

            The style of writing is very gentle and yet charming in its own way. As an author, McCall Smith tends to let his characters lead the story, through their thoughts and conversations. If he wishes to make a comment on Edinburgh life, or just life in general, he usually does it through his characters. This sometimes means that the characters can seem overly philosophical about life, but the solemnity of these thoughts is often lightened by a humorous comment or incident. As for the style of humour, it isn't exactly in-your-face, flashy humour, but nor is it cynical or sarcastic. It's a very tender and yet gently mocking humour; it observes the daily routines of life and exposes their folly, but in a very paternal manner so that nobody need be offended. Having said that, I laughed out loud quite a few times whilst reading the book (most of the time it was about poor Bertie), and it is genuinely very entertaining.

            My one grievance with this book is the ending. I didn't feel that all of the loose threads were thoroughly tied together by the end of the book. Although this is obviously part of a series and there is a follow-on to this book, I still would have liked to see it end in a more satisfying way.

            The thing that I found fascinating about all the books in the 44 Scotland Street series is that the characters and events are based on the author's observations of life in Edinburgh. As McCall Smith states in his prologue, 'this is no fanciful picture of Edinburgh life, this is exactly as it is'. You can tell that despite exposing his characters' various foibles, McCall Smith is very passionate about his hometown, and you get a real feel for the spirit of Edinburgh through this book. In a way, it is a rather ingenious advertisement for the city; I found myself longing to go there after finishing the book.

            To conclude, I think this is such a heart-warming and amusing book that you could easily dip into without having read previous novels in the series (I myself have read the books in completely the wrong order!). It's a shame about the ending because the rest of the book is so beautiful and delicate that the ending seems all the more clumsy. However I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anybody; it is so very accessible that I believe even those who don't particularly enjoy reading would take pleasure in this book.

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              05.06.2010 13:48
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              A beautiful merging of historical and scientific elements

              Let's be honest, 'Random Acts of Heroic Love' seems like a bit of a soppy title. On seeing the front cover my assumption was that it would be a collection of short, sickly-sweet love stories. Thankfully, the title doesn't do the book any justice, as it turned out to be insightful, profound and incredibly moving.

              The novel begins on a bombshell in 1992 as we discover that Leo Deakin, a student, is in a hospital bed in South America. As he gradually regains consciousness, a doctor tells him what he already instinctively knows - his girlfriend Eleni is dead. Presumably there has been some sort of terrible accident but Leo cannot fully remember the events due to severe concussion. As his memories eventually sharpen he comes to the conclusion that he is to blame for Eleni's death, and so begins the long journey through grief, love, despair and guilt.

              Back in 1917, however, Moritz Daniecki is stuck in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp, thousands of miles away from his beloved Lotte, who is living in their hometown of Ulanow in Austria. Moritz' desire to be reunited with Lotte is so strong that he soon decides to escape back to Austria... on foot. Even of Moritz survives the death-defying journey, will Lotte still be there waiting for him at the end of it?

              I know that there are many books which use a historical storyline as a parallel to a modern-day storyline, but this one is truly remarkable. For one thing, I was deeply impressed at how deeply emotional the book was for one so dominated by male characters. I don't mean that men aren't emotional! It's just that in my experience, the most emotional books are typically driven by women; for example, Little Women or Tess of the d'Urbervilles. This book, however, proves that deep emotion is not necessarily confined to the realms of femininity.

              An aspect of the book which really captures its beauty is the use of excerpts from Leo's notebook at the beginning of most chapters. After being advised to collect inspirational facts or quotes, Leo makes a notebook filled with incredible stories from the animal world. For example, an eel is born in the Sargasso Sea but is carried away for thousands of miles by a great current. After several years, however, it develops a strong desire to go back to its birthplace and reproduce. For around 6 months they will travel through ponds and streams, not feeding until they are back in the Sargasso Sea. Once they are there, they spawn and then die of exhaustion, their life's work complete. These stories often draw parallels with the stories of Leo and Moritz, and therefore lend colour to their journeys. The excerpts are in Leo's handwriting and are often accompanied by photos of different animals mating. This sounds a bit disgusting but as someone who is easily disgusted I can tell you that they were actually very sweet photos which made me smile. The excerpts serve to emphasise the theme of love further throughout the book.

              The storyline involving Moritz is clearly well-researched as well as being absolutely amazing. It turns out that the character was based on Scheinmanns' own grandfather who walked from Siberia to Ulanow to find his childhood sweetheart. It took him 3 years. The fact that this is based on a true story makes the whole account even more extraordinary, and reinforces the sense of this book being Scheinmann's labour of love; it says in the acknowledgements that it took him 6 years to write.

              Leo's storyline, whilst being initially the most exciting, becomes slightly shallow after a while as his mind becomes so twisted with grief that his friends begin to think him insane. However the story does develop well as it leads us through Leo's emotional journey with just as much skill as Moritz's physical journey.

              The impression I've probably given you of this book is that it's a bit soppy and wet. But throughout the book there are dotted some wonderfully humorous incidents which often made me chuckle. I think that this really helped to round off the serious edges of the book so that it became less heavy, and therefore a more enjoyable read overall.

              Another thing which impressed me was the use of physics to aid the storyline. As a student, Leo meets an Italian lecturer (Roberto) whose subject is the Philosophy of Physics. Struggling to find a meaning for his life, Leo has many conversations with Roberto, and discovers some beautiful parallels between the human world and the world of particles. The scientific parts were explained in a very easy way, although I found Roberto to be a fairly implausible character. On the other hand, developing Roberto's character would have probably detracted from the main plot and so this isn't such a major niggle.

              I found this book incredibly addictive. Each chapter is about 12 pages long, and every 3 or chapters the narrative will switch from Leo's perspective to Moritz' perspective (although the book is told in the 3rd person throughout). The end of each chapter always seemed to leave me hanging and I, desperate for more, was simply unable to stop! The climactic ending was very dramatic, meaning that I read about 10 chapters at once because I wanted so much to know what happened! There are 32 chapters in total, and around 400 pages, which is a pretty manageable size.

              I really believe that this debut novel by Danny Scheinmann is something of a stroke of genius. Towards the middle of the book I began to wonder if all the incidents mentioned were really relevant, but the ending really pulls together all the loose ends for a very satisfying conclusion. This is an incredibly beautiful book which I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone.

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                17.05.2010 17:24
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                I don't want to read the word 'ichthyosaurus' ever again.

                The cover of my copy of Remarkable Creatures is awash with quotes from journalists singing its praises. One that particularly caught my attention was a quote from the Daily Telegraph:

                "Chevalier recently stated that making fossils sexy was one of her chief aims in writing Remarkable Creatures. She has certainly succeeded"

                In my view, this was a pretty bold statement to make. I've never found all this business with rocks and the little marks on them even remotely interesting, and so I began this book hoping to be converted into a positive enthusiast by the end of it. Let's just say that perhaps I raised my expectations a bit too high.

                The book is basically a novelisation of two prominent fossil-hunters from the 19th century, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Mary is a young girl from a poor background who sells the fossils she finds upon the beaches of Lyme Regis so that her family can afford to buy food. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a middle-aged woman in need of a hobby to keep her from the boredom of being a spinster in Lyme. Together they form an unlikely bond which serves them well through the twists and turns of life, being seemingly the only female fossil-hunters to their knowledge. They have to face a great deal of prejudice from the male-dominated Geological Society as well as from respectable society at the time who viewed fossils as a threat to everything Christianity taught. Despite this, they did eventually find fame in geological circles, and now many of the fossils that they found are in museums up and down the country. However Mary's discoveries of ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus fossils somewhat outshone Elizabeth's collection of fossil fish, thus breeding some jealousy between them.

                This is the first Tracy Chevalier novel I have read, but I did once watch the film Girl With A Pearl Earring and was thoroughly bored despite being an art-lover. However I bided by the rule 'don't judge an author by the movies based on their books' and went into the novel with an open mind. However I found that the distinct lack of momentum that I detected in Girl With A Pearl Earring was also present in this book. Chevalier says in her Postscript that she had to embellish quite a lot on the lives of Elizabeth and Mary in order to entertain the reader. However I still felt that this novel could have been told in a far more exciting way. By the end of the book I didn't really feel like very much had happened, and indeed I struggled to remember what actually had happened.

                It is a credit to Chevalier that she managed to make a book with what appears to have been such dull material, but I have to say that I don't think the lives of Elizabeth and Mary were ever meant to be a novel in the first place. Their lives were dominated by fossils and they would spend almost every day combing the beach for them. Occasionally they would receive interest from the Geological Society and sometimes zoological authorities such as Baron Cuvier. Sometimes Mary would discover another dinosaur skeleton hidden in the cliffs of Lyme Regis. But ultimately that was it, and it doesn't really make for an enthralling read.

                When I read books as well-researched as this one I do expect to glean some factual knowledge from them, because I am genuinely interested in finding out new things. A good example of this is a book I read a while ago called 'The Behaviour of Moths' by Poppy Adams, which was both a thrilling novel and a minefield of information about lepidoptery, something I hadn't the first clue about until I read the book. However, in Remarkable Creatures I didn't feel that I really gained very much informatively from the book. My knowledge of fossils is pretty much non-existent, even to the extent that I couldn't actually remember what a fossil was until I found a picture of one on the front cover. With all the talk of vertebrae and ammonites and plesiosauri I found myself completely lost as to how a whole dinosaur could end up as a fossil, and there was no explanation throughout the book. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth seemed to even share their thoughts on the matter. Perhaps this book would appeal to someone far more knowledgeable than me, for now I find myself even less well-disposed towards fossils than I was to begin with!

                Another thing which irritated me about this book was that I found no less than 3 or 4 mistakes which had obviously been missed in the proof-reading process. For example, it says at one point 'The room with vibrant with interest' instead of 'was vibrant with interest'. Although I know this is isn't necessarily the fault of Chevalier, it did not help to endear the novel to me.

                There are 10 chapters spread over 343 pages, meaning that the chapters are fairly long, too long to read in one session before bed. On average the chapters were 30-40 pages long, and so I often had to stop reading in the middle of a chapter. The chapters are told in the first person, narrated alternately by Mary and Elizabeth. I personally would have liked to see the voices alternate more frequently, as perhaps this would have given the book a bit more momentum. It also often omits to mention dates, which is frustrating as you don't know how old the protagonists are for long periods. For example, a man begins to court Mary when I thought she was 15. However it turned out later that she was actually about 21, which totally put a different light on the situation. For a book that sweeps across a timescale of about 25 years, it needed more precision.

                Overall, I was really disappointed with this book. I was excited to begin it having read the critics' praise littered all over the back and inside cover, but for me it lacked drive and the ability to really inspire and captivate a reader. Chevalier chose a really interesting time period for the subject matter she was pursuing as the whole idea of extinct animals was very controversial at the time. However, the novel left me disappointed, which is a shame because the writing style is thoroughly readable. Nevertheless, the protagonists just don't seem to cut it as novel material and perhaps should have been left to the confines of the history book. On the other hand, it occupied me for a couple of weeks, which I suppose is something.

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                  27.04.2010 21:20
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                  Not your usual historical novel and not your usual spy novel!

                  My first impression on looking at the front cover was that the book was a pretty typical historical novel: overpowering Gothic font on a burnished parchment-effect background. I've had this book for a while and only turned to it when I had run out of all other reading material. But although this book wasn't exactly groundbreaking, there is definitely something that sets this book apart from any other historical novel.

                  Firstly, the main character is a certain John Shakespeare. Now I know what you're thinking - he's probably got nothing to do with the actual famous Shakespeare. Wrong! The book is set in Elizabethan England and John Shakespeare is the brother of William Shakespeare, who at the time had just moved down to London to be part of a crew of players. However at this moment in time, it is John who is more important to Britain. John is in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham, who is often remembered as the man who co-ordinated the intelligence services in the 16th century. In other words, John is a spy. When I realised that this was ultimately a spy novel, I suddenly got a lot more interested!

                  I'll briefly set the scene for you: it's 16th century London and religion is big on the agenda. With Catholicism having been recently outlawed, Catholics are being hunted down and hanged by Queen Elizabeth's government. Anyone wanting to practise the faith has to do so undercover to avoid the risk of detection. Protestantism is the only acceptable religion. In the wider world, Sir Francis Drake is out fighting the Spanish menace on the high seas whilst the Catholic King Philip of Spain plots to kill him. When Drake makes a brief stop in England, it is in everyone's interests to keep him alive, for the sake of the country. This task is delegated to Shakespeare, and is more difficult than it seems, with foreign Catholics potentially finding their way into Britain every day with the desire to assassinate Drake. At the same time, a lady of high-ranking has been found horrifically murdered, and it seems that it had something to do with Catholicism. Shakespeare has also undertaken to investigate this.

                  So there's quite a lot going on for Shakespeare, and there is a lot more that he has to contend with which I won't reveal! I felt the Clements' style was very readable and I found myself completely drawn into the book from the second or third chapter. John Shakespeare is a very likeable character as from the beginning we are shown his gentler, domestic side, and it becomes clear that his main motivation is not his love of adventure or a hatred of Catholics but rather a strong love for his Queen and country, a trait which I found endearing although simple. However, this naive faith is put severely to the test throughout the book which leads him to question the real nature of the laws of the land.

                  The chapters are nice and short at about 10 pages each. I read two or three chapters a nights and so it neither kept me awake too late nor bored me. Although the plot is pretty complex it's OK to leave the book for a few days and come back to it because you find you remember most of what has already happened. At 402 pages it's probably just about the right length; in fact I felt that there were some events which could have been dragged out a bit more.

                  With regard to content, this is very much a book for adults. There are a lot of sexual references and with prostitution being rife in London this is frequently mentioned; even Shakespeare has a brush with a brothel! However, rather than this being vulgar I found it gave you a good feel for what London must have been like for many people in Elizabethan England. It is clear that the novel has been very well researched from the quality of the language used, although it is easily understandable. It seems that every little detail has been researched as it lists 'The Englishman's Food' as one of the books that merited a special mention!

                  I may have painted this book to be something of a historical action book but there are also strong themes of romance and friendship which run through the novel, which I found I liked as much as the spying! However, I don't think there are a lot of emotional moments in the novel, even though some scenes had a lot of potential for this, so I think Clements could have perhaps explored this further to give more light and shade to the book.

                  I think that the major niggle that I had with this book was the idea of using Shakespeare as a name in the first place. John Shakespeare is an entirely fictional character; the playwright Shakespeare never had a brother called John. Therefore I found that it was a slightly gimmicky thing to do in order to make the book seem a bit quirky and different. Halfway through the book I was convinced that John must be a factual character until I googled Shakespeare and found he was Clements' own creation. I admit, I felt a little bit cheated, although I suppose that is testament to the author's skill in creating a character of such depth. I just felt that the plot was strong enough without having to bring in this cheap trick. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth, which suggested that Wilde was some sort of detective. Therefore I suppose I shouldn't judge Clements too harshly for suggesting that William Shakespeare's brother was a spy.

                  Overall I felt that the book was a really good read and that it definitely had potential to go further. In fact the first two chapters of the next book in the series were included in my paperback version, and I can tell you that I was definitely intrigued! Although there were moments when the author could have gone further, I was very much satisfied with it and I think this series could really be a hit with a lot of people!

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                    27.03.2010 22:40
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                    A grown-up fairy-tale that will totally absorb you.

                    The word which really embodies this book is 'intriguing'. The title is intriguing - what on earth have bees got to do with mist? Why would two such nouns ever be in the same sentence together? The fact that I was asking these questions just from glancing at the cover persuaded me that I needed some answers. But as I began to read, more and more questions began to swirl around me until I was irrevocably hooked and unable to put the book down. So I'll warn you now: the mysterious nature of this novel doesn't end with its title; secrets and lies pervade every nook and cranny of this incredible debut novel by Erick Setiawan.

                    The book is effectively a fairytale for grown-ups, and is therefore set in an old-fashioned fantasy town where magic exists but is not necessarily relied upon (so don't expect this to be a Harry-Potter-style wands-and-wizards story!). Instead, a lot of the magic just seems to happen, and often it is subjective. Therefore, often people will see things that nobody else can see, and it is sometimes difficult to figure out why this happens.

                    Our heroine, Meridia, is brought up in a house on top of a hill which is surrounded by mysterious mists. An ivory mist covers the steps to the front door, terrorising all visitors to the house by suspending them in mid-air, stealing their hats or simply chasing them away. A yellow mist came in the evening and waited outside her father's study until he slipped out, dressed to the nines. It would then follow him all the way to his destination. In the morning, a blue mist would travel the opposite way, bringing her father (Gabriel) back again, and then it would merge with the ivory mist. Where did Gabriel go at night? Or to whom?

                    Meridia has also had a recurring dream of a bright flash and a scream for as long as she can remember. Whenever she asks her mother (Ravenna) what it could mean, she is fobbed off by excuses - 'Some things are better left as dreams'. The relationship between her mother and father is also inexplicable - they live in the same house but Gabriel leaves at night. They don't speak to one another, but Ravenna cooks Gabriel dinner every evening. While she cooks, Ravenna mutters her deep hatred of Gabriel's probable lover into her pots and pans. She ties her hair up so tightly that it becomes an 'implacable knot', a constant in Meridia's life. And yet, Meridia knows for a fact that her parents used to be happy. Intrigued? You should be.

                    Meridia tries to investigate all of the unanswered questions in her life, but fails. A lonely only child, Meridia has no friends, never having been taught how to make friends. However, one day she is meets by chance a handsome young man by the name of Daniel who lived with his mother, father and two sisters. They quickly fall in love and are married within the year. Meridia might be forgiven for thinking that her troubles were at an end. She was wrong.

                    Daniel's mother, Eva, seemed like the most delightful, welcoming woman who ever lived on first acquaintance. But as soon as Meridia moved into the family home, she realised that she had not looked closely enough. It soon became clear that Eva was spreading falsehoods about Meridia to all members of the family, whispering and hinting here and there, making out that she was an extravagant and lustful charmer who had purposely bewitched Daniel for his money. She would use all of her wit to turn the family against her, equipped with her magical bees. Eva used her bees to sow lies and doubts into people's minds, boring them into their brains. Not everyone could see or hear the bees, but their buzzing kept Meridia awake at night. One day, she confronts Eva about her lies and the consequences are not pretty. It is a chance for Daniel to prove his love for Meridia, but will he stand up to the bees? To find out, you'll have to read the book!

                    It probably sounds like I've revealed quite a lot of the plot, but believe me that was only the tip of the iceberg! So many more incidents occur, some happy, but many that are shocking. Eva's evildoings eventually become absolutely horrific, and I often found myself getting truly angry with her completely sadistic campaign against Meridia. You'll be pleased to know that all of the questions posed in the book are answered as Meridia matures in her understanding. As a heroine, Meridia is likeable, although sometimes she can be just as ruthlessly determined as her antagonist. However, given her troubled background, I always found myself supporting her no matter what she did. Also, most of the novel is told from her perspective, and so I felt her knew her more intimately than the other characters.

                    In terms of content, you have to remember that this is very much a book for adults despite the fairy-tale setting. There are some sexual scenes, and some very crude sexual imagery used on Eva's part which might be inappropriate for younger teenagers and below. However the swearing is minimal, and for the most part the language is clean. Setiawan's writing style is very readable, and I always found it very difficult to put down no matter how late it was! Each chapter is quite short at around ten pages each, and so if you do choose to just read a chapter at a time then it doesn't take up too much time. With most books I like to be able to read a chapter a night but with this book I kept saying to myself "Just one more chapter!" until it was well past my bed time! At the end of each chapter there was often a sentence or a few lines which were foreboding or (yes, I'm going to use that word again) intriguing which acted as the 'hook' for me to continue reading.

                    However, my favourite thing about this book is the way that it works on so many different levels. You can look it on its surface-level fairy-tale plot with the evil mother-in-law hell-bent in wreaking destruction for the protagonist. You could go deeper and suggest that although Meridia hates Eva, she must have a grudging admiration for her determination as she begins to throw Eva's vile words back at her. You can look at the influence of Eva's bees on the people she inflicts them on; whether the doubts and lies are thoroughly invented by Eva or whether they are doubts and lies which have been sitting unacknowledged in their minds. I found myself wondering what each piece of magic symbolised in the real world, and whether this novel was in essence just a domestic drama with a twist. Even though you may physically put the book down, mentally I didn't put the book down for the two and a half weeks that it took me to read it because even when I wasn't reading I was wondering what the meaning of the book really was, what was going to happen in the next chapter, whether Ravenna's implacable knot represented this, that or the other, and so on. I even found myself dreaming about it!

                    It's a truly absorbing book, whilst being completely different from everything I'd ever read. The only book I can really liken it to is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke if you've ever read it, but really only because of the magical element combined with the time period. I really feel that this is something of a literary masterpiece and I'm sorely tempted to go back and analyse it all thoroughly (except I really don't have time to do that!); I feel sure that you could easily write an essay on it! Unsurprisingly, I'm giving this a confident five stars - it moved me emotionally whilst stimulating my intellectual side and the plot itself was so full of twists and turns it was like being in a maze! An incredible debut novel which is definitely worth a read.

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                      04.03.2010 21:34
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                      Don't be put off by the front cover!

                      This book had been lying on my bookshelf for a few months before I actually read it. It has a fairly uninspiring cover comprising mainly neutral and grey colours, and therefore I put it aside for a time when I had nothing to read. I didn't even read the blurb properly! Talk about judging a book by its cover! Anyway, it was only when I read a review about it that I remembered I even had the book, and so, inspired by its good ratings, I decided to give it a go. And in my opinion, it was a wise decision!

                      The Heretic's Daughter is a book set in America at the end of the 17th century, when English settlers had been occupying the 'New England' for over a hundred years. Back in Old England, the English Civil War had been and gone, and many Puritans who had fought for Cromwell had moved over to America in order to start a new life. One such man was Thomas Carrier, formerly a Welshman, now living in Andover, Massachusetts with his wife, three sons and two daughters. When smallpox hits the Carrier family, however, little Sarah and Hannah Carrier have to move to their Uncle Roger's house to lessen the risk of them catching the disease. Sarah is just nine and Hannah is a baby. While at Uncle Roger's house, Sarah strikes up a close friendship with her cousin, Margaret, who is of a similar age. They become inseparable, and Sarah almost worships her. Meanwhile, baby Hannah forms a close bond with her Aunt Mary.

                      Inevitably, though, the time must come when Sarah and Hannah must go back to their family, and four months later their father comes to fetch them. Sarah is distraught that she must go back, and blames the fact on her mother. Sarah and Martha Carrier had never had a close relationship; in fact at times it seemed that Sarah's mother seemed totally disinterested in her. Martha Carrier was known for being a gifted herbalist and an outspoken woman with strong beliefs.

                      Andover, the place where the Carriers lived, was very close to the village of Salem. Soon after Sarah comes back from her Uncle's house, tales come of delirious girls accusing villagers of witchcraft. It doesn't take long for the accusations to spread to Andover, and Martha's refusal to conform strictly to society's restraints means that the Carrier family becomes a target for accusations of witchcraft. And refusal to confess to witchery is usually followed by death by hanging.

                      The novel is narrated from Sarah's point of view. It begins with a letter from Sarah dated 1752, in which she looks back on the Salem Witch Trials and describes her experiences to her granddaughter. Apart from the letters, the book is mainly told from the point of view of a child. Children often believe the adult world to be full of mysterious secrets, and Kathleen Kent conveys this childish perspective with relative ease. It seems that Sarah, more than anything, craves love, which is why she forms such a close bond with her cousin Margaret. Her mother, however, appears to be very abrupt and curt with Sarah, and therefore Sarah feels angry and betrayed by her mother at times. Does Martha really have any love for her child, or is she, as many believe, a wicked witch? All is revealed as times get more challenging for the Carrier family.

                      The Salem Witch Trials have been covered many times by various authors, probably most famously by Arthur Miller in his play 'The Crucible'. For those who have read the Crucible, it was nice to see names like John Proctor and Abigail Williams crop up in passing during the narrative. However, I don't believe you would need any previous knowledge about the Salem Witch Trials to read this book with ease as everything is explained thoroughly. In fact, I liked the fact that this was a somewhat different take on the Trials, as the involvement of the Carrier family made the events seem so much more personal. Kathleen Kent is in fact a direct descent of Martha Carrier, and you can tell from the way the novel is written that a lot of care and attention has been put into it. I found it extremely interesting as a work of historical fiction as it described the lives of early settlers in America, something I had always been curious about but had yet to read anything on. From the sounds of it, life was very much based around agriculture, and in many respects it seems pretty much similar to England, apart from the terrifying attacks by Native American tribes now and again. The first half of the book mainly deals with the everyday life of Sarah and her family, while the second half mainly deals with the witchcraft trials, so it is very much a book of two halves. To be honest, I think I preferred the first half, probably because the second half was so depressing and in places monotonous. However, this is more to do with the subject matter rather than the author's style - it was clearly a very depressing and upsetting time.

                      The chapters are dated to show the month and year. I found I often forgot to look at these, meaning that sometimes I found myself wondering how old Sarah was or how much time had elapsed since the last chapter. Therefore my advice to you when reading this would be to pay attention to these dates! The chapters are extremely long, often comprising around 30 pages. However, the chapters are split up into smaller chunks of a few pages, so I tended to stop at these if I didn't have time to finish a whole chapter. The book is written in such a way as to make you keep reading more and more, an author's skill which has kept me up past my bedtime many a night!

                      However, there were some aspects to the novel that I was disappointed with, which mainly pertain to the plot, so obviously I can't really reveal them! Suffice to say that there are secrets in the book which I didn't feel were fully explained, and I expected a lot more from the ending; it ended with a whimper rather than a bang. But apart from these things I was very pleased with the book, and I would definitely recommend that you read it, as it is a very compelling story.

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                        18.02.2010 13:23
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                        I wouldn't buy it for myself.

                        I was given this lip balm as a Christmas present from a relative, and I have to say I do like it a lot! When applying it for the first time I felt a guilty twinge, as if I was cheating on my tried, tested and dearly-loved Vaseline, but as time has elapsed they have learnt to live with each other in relative harmonium!

                        The tin itself is slightly smaller in diameter than a pocket-size tin of Vaseline, but it has greater depth, so there's probably about the same amount of product in each. I thought the tin had a very classy design, with the rich, dark colours promising richness within the tin. However I would say it's not something you'd want to put in your jeans pocket because it would probably stick out a bit.

                        As for the lip balm itself, it's a pale peachy colour which shimmers in a pearlescent sort of way. To apply it, I use my little finger to get a small amount of balm from the pot and proceed to smooth it over my lower and upper lips. It has a rather sticky, almost gloopy consistency, especially when it is warm; however I would say it is not unpleasant. It also has a fruity aroma about it, not unlike apricot, but in my opinion it does smell more like artificial strawberry flavouring! It smells so fruity that sometimes I lick it off my lips, but this isn't really a good idea because, as with most lip balms, it doesn't taste as good as it smells, in fact it tastes a bit like soap! I have noticed that it makes my lips look slightly paler, but only very slightly. It also gives them a shimmery glow. However, if you have chapped lips (like me) then it only serves to soothe them for a short while, maybe up to three hours maximum, so you do end up applying it a lot throughout the day. It hasn't done anything to heal my lips either, but then I suppose it doesn't claim to be able to do so!

                        The relative who bought me this lip balm rather handily left the price label on the bottom of the tin; it costs £4.85 from the Body Shop. To me, this is too expensive for a lip balm, especially one that you have to apply such a lot in order to keep dry lips at bay. Other more popular lip balms on the market such as Vaseline and Carmex are not nearly so expensive, and in the case of Carmex it actually does heal your lips. Saying that, I have probably worn this lip balm every other day since Christmas and there is still more than three-quarters' of the balm left, and so perhaps I will still have some left by next Christmas!

                        Overall, this is a mixed review. I love the smell and the shimmeriness of the lip balm, and I like the way it makes my lips look. However, I don't think it is particularly good value for money, and my lips still get as dry and chapped as ever; therefore I don't think it would be a particularly good investment.

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                          14.02.2010 13:10
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                          A thoroughly enjoyable read.

                          I am something of a fan of historical novels in general, but many of the ones that I have read tend to be from the Georgian era or later. I was put off by most novels that focused on the medieval era or earlier mainly because they were chiefly concerned with battles and were very much male-orientated. It's not that I have a problem with men, it's just that it's difficult to relate to books that have so little female characters! This book, however, was a refreshing surprise, with a stimulating mixture of strong male and female characters to please both sexes.

                          The Scarlet Lion deals with the life of William Marshal (1146-1219), a senior knight in the royal household. It is the sequel to The Greatest Knight, which deals with the earlier stages of his life up until around 1194. I have not read The Greatest Knight, but the Scarlet Lion can easily be read as a stand-alone novel, and at no point during the narrative did I find myself lost or wondering why certain events were happening. This is a great testament to Chadwick's skill as an author. She has a fantastic ability to flesh out the facts and turn the aridness of historical dates and sources into a real and tangible world. The early medieval period is one that I knew virtually nothing of, but the novel easily transported me back to the 13th Century without using tedious explanations about unfamiliar customs or phrases. Indeed, although the whole time period was unfamiliar to me, I never felt like anything needed explaining. This is, I think, the novel's pre-eminent strength.

                          The phase in time we're talking about was by no means a calm one. With King Richard dead, his brother John takes the throne, after the other possible successor dies a mysterious death while under John's custody. 'Bad King John', as he is sometimes known, maintains a somewhat different rule of England to that of his brother, yet William Marshal swears an oath of loyalty to him in order to keep his family lands intact. However, William's relationship with the King breaks down, and William's two eldest sons are ordered to court to be hostages to ensure William's loyalty to the Crown. William's wife, Isabelle, is distraught at this command and the couple have an argument about it that threatens to destroy their marriage. Meanwhile, battles are raging up and down the country, and King Philip of France tries to make a move on English territory.

                          The above is really just a tiny fragment of the whole story which spans 22 years, and the Marshals have a real rollercoaster ride trying to keep their family together whilst trying not to anger King John too much; if that happened, they would be outcasts, and there would be no safe haven. Although the novel is predominantly about William, I believe his wife also plays a central role in the narrative. Although the whole story is told in the third person, much of the book comes from Isabelle's perspective, and through her we get to know the more human side of 'the greatest knight that ever lived'. The book begins and ends from her perspective, which gives the narrative an altogether more feminine balance to the raging fights in court and on the battlefield. I think this balance is what makes the book work and stand out from other historical novels. We see William giving his all on the battlefield and we see Isabelle in labour with her babies. We see William practising diplomacy between the Kings of England and France, and we see Isabelle trying to find husbands for her daughters.

                          And then, of course, when William and Isabelle come together this culminates in some passionate yet tasteful bedroom scenes. William and Isabelle's love for each other is without bounds, and it is plain to see that neither would be anything without the other. Both come across as unfailingly strong characters when they are together, but without each others' support they can do nothing. Although historical sources don't tell us as much about Isabelle as they do William (for obvious reasons), the fact that she is mentioned quite a few times suggests that she played a much larger role in William's decisions than many wives at the time did.

                          The book is around 570 pages long, but the chapters don't tend to be more than a few pages long, which makes it easy to pick up and put down whenever you want. I found that reading a couple of chapters before bed was fine for me; it's not a book that would keep you awake at night reading it, but at the same time it's not one you'd want to leave without reading for more than a week. The narrative style is pretty easy to follow, but I wouldn't say it's exactly light reading since there is hardly a moment of peace for William and Isabelle throughout the novel! However, the passion of William and Isabelle for each other was, for me, the thing that made me want to read on. Obviously, though, people have different tastes, and if you don't like novels set in the past then this probably isn't for you. There isn't a lot of humour in it either, save for some sexual innuendo from time to time, but there is a great deal of happiness, which I think more than makes up for it.

                          Overall, then, I have to say I was thoroughly impressed by The Scarlet Lion, and Elizabeth Chadwick is a more than capable author, transporting her audience back to a time that some may know nothing about, with veritable ease. For me it ticked all the boxes about what a historical novel should be, and it is also reassuring to know that just a lot of what is described in the book actually happened. And anything that isn't backed up by historical evidence... well, I'm sure it could have happened! A five-star book by a very talented author.

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                          • My Sister's Keeper (DVD) / DVD / 155 Readings / 144 Ratings
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                            31.01.2010 23:32
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                            Watch it at least once, and have a box of tissues to hand.

                            It's 00:17am. My face is streaked with blackened mascara tears, eyeliner smudged under my eyelid. That's right, I have just watched My Sister's Keeper.

                            I'm going to warn you right now, do not watch this film if you are in the mood for a comedy or light-hearted chick-flick. This is anything but. However, if you want to watch a deeply moving and inspiring film of a family torn apart and pulled together through the most difficult of circumstances, then read on.

                            Sarah and Brian Fitzgerald (played by Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) used to have a normal life. Brian was a fireman and Sarah was a successful lawyer. They had two children, Jesse and Kate (played by Evan Ellingson and Sofia Vassilieva). But one day, the world stopped as they discovered that Kate had leukaemia. She was just 2 years old.

                            Kate's cancer was how Anna Fitzgerald (played by Abigail Breslin) came into being. Kate needed a compatible donor match to help fight her cancer. The doctor recommended to Sarah and Brian the creation of a perfectly-matched test-tube baby. Anna.

                            Now 11 years old, it seems that Anna is sick of having to go through various operations in order to help her sister. Anna loves Kate dearly, but she draws the line at donating her kidney to Kate. And without that kidney, Kate will die.

                            This story is fundamentally a story about choice and freedom, and it prompts many questions. Should Anna get a say in whether she donates, or is she, as her dominating mother asserts, too young to make choices? Even more seriously, should Kate get a say over whether she wants to be saved by her sister? The conflict begins to tear the family apart, resulting in a Supreme Court case, Anna against her mother.

                            Is Anna being heartless, practical, or is there another motive? Sarah believes Anna is hiding something, but Anna refuses to talk. This is the issue which haunts the film.

                            Meanwhile, major events in Kate's life are relived through flashbacks as she lies in her hospital bed: her first operation, her first holiday, her first kiss. Throughout the film, Kate appears at times emotionally unstable, but it is clear that she has a vitality that apparently nothing can quench. Her mother too is a fighter. She appears fierce, pushy, over-protective and at times ridiculous, sacrificing her job, her lifestyle, her sanity and almost her marriage for Kate. To the rest of the family, Sarah seems sometimes to be the one tearing the family apart because of her extreme love for Kate, but Kate recognises that her mother will always be there for her. But Sarah refuses to accept that Kate may one day die, despite Supreme Court Judge Salvo's gentle statement that 'There is no shame in death'.

                            This is a heart-breaking film in more ways than one, and I am not ashamed to admit that I cried almost all the way through it. The thought of making the awful decisions that Anna, Kate and Sarah all had to make moved me to tears again and again. There were happy tears too, at the moments when the family was closest, and at the happiest flashbacks of Kate's life. Films like this, although obviously moving, make you feel so lucky to be alive.

                            For such an emotional movie, the performances had to be absolutely believable, and this was true for all of the main members of the cast. Jason Patric was wonderfully subtle and sensitive in his role as the father who just wants his family brought back together. Sofia Vassilieva's portrayal of Kate, the invalid who just wants freedom, was also fantastic, and brought a tear to my eye almost every time she said something poignant. She managed to convey a real sense of spirit and intelligence about matters of death and the afterlife, while her life has the same emotional ups and downs as any other teenager. The stand-out performances for me, though, came from Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin in their roles of Sarah and Anna, estranged mother and daughter. Diaz had a difficult part to play - a mother so consumed by love for one of her children that she lays aside everything else, and becomes a yelling monster or a woman to get what she needs for Kate. It is more common to see Cameron Diaz in comedy roles, and so I was pleasantly surprised by her conviction in this role. Abigail Breslin, though young, put in a thoroughly commendable and intelligent performance as Anna; it was refreshing to see such tremendous acting talent from one so young, especially when you compare it to, say, Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

                            The story is told for the most part chronologically, but tends to rely heavily on flashbacks, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I don't usually like excessive amounts of flashbacks but it worked very well for this film. It also skips between different peoples' perspectives, so that it is narrated at some point by every main character. I like this as it gave a fresh viewpoint every once in a while, so the story never became dull or miserable.

                            There is so much more I wish I could tell you, but I feel I have revealed enough. Suffice to say that the road is rocky for the Fitzgerald family, and you never really know how they come out of it until the very end.

                            The film is rated 12, very appropriately in my opinion as it does contain complex themes which younger children might find hard to grasp. The film isn't gory but it does have scenes involving blood and vomiting which you might (as I did!) want to look away from. I don't think this film is necessarily a girly film, but it is definitely a teary film, so you might want to watch this with someone you can cry with and hug afterwards.

                            I personally would be reluctant to watch this film again for a few months, just because it made me so upset, and most of the time I prefer to watch feel-good films. However, this is a film that you really need to see at least once, just because it is so emotional. I am awarding this film 4 stars purely because I don't think I could stand to watch it again for a while, but if I could give it 4 and a half stars I absolutely would. I have never become so emotionally absorbed in a film before, and I think it will be a long time before I see such an affecting film again. I am told that the book is even better than the film, so with that in mind, I am going to put it on my reading list.

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                            • E45 Cream / Skin Care / 116 Readings / 115 Ratings
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                              29.01.2010 12:47
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                              If you have dry skin, give it a go!

                              I tend to get dry skin during the winter months, when the air is colder and less kind to skin. It is during the chilly October-March period that I turn to the saviour of skin, E45 Cream!

                              Let's get down to the nitty gritty first: does the product actually work? Well, for me it certainly does! Every day for the past 4 months I have applied a small amount of cream to my forehead and cheeks, where dry skin is most prevalent, and there has been a marked difference! The flaky skin has been replaced by a soft smoothness that would usually only be present during the summer months. The cream is quickly absorbed into the skin, so you don't have to rub it in too much. Another good thing about it is that it doesn't make skin oily or greasy; it seems to find a perfect balance between moist and dry.

                              The packaging states that the cream has been 'Clinically proven to treat and soothe a wide range of dry skin conditions; including dry, itching, flaking, chapped skin, sunburn and detergent hands. It is also recommended for use in more serious dry skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, ichthyosis and certain cases of psoriasis'. I have no proof that all of this claim is correct since I don't have all of those conditions! However, I know that it definitely soothes dry skin, chapped skin and detergent hands as I have used it in all of these cases. I also had a friend who had eczema as a child, and the doctor recommended her to use the cream every day to soothe it, so I assume it works!

                              Now for everything else: I usually buy my E45 in a 50g tube which retails at about £1.80 in most supermarkets. I find that this lasts me up to 6 months, and although I don't tend to use it every day in warm weather, I still use it frequently, and so I would suggest this is excellent value for money! My tube is now almost empty but it seems to have been almost empty for 3 weeks now and yet I still manage to find enough to put on my face every day! I should really buy some more, haha.

                              The E45 brand is a well-known one, recognisable from the characteristic blue and peach logo which is on all of their products. The packaging itself is minimalistic, but the whiteness of it gives it a clean, clinical and therefore trustworthy look. You can buy the cream in a 50g tube, a 125g tub or a 500g tub, the 500g tub costing around £10. If a 50g tube lasted me 6 months, then a 500g tub would theoretically last me 5 years! However, I only apply the cream to my face, so it really depends how much you're going to use the product as to which size you will buy. I would recommend that if you haven't tried the product before that you buy a 50g tube, as it is relatively inexpensive and will last a long time if you decide you want to use it regularly.

                              The cream itself is white and has a mildly clinical smell about it. Once the cream has been rubbed in, the smell quickly wears off. The cream has a thick yet oily consistency, which is probably why you don't need to use too much of it.

                              Overall, I think this cream is fantastic for dry skin, especially during the winter months, and it is also recommended for more serious dry skin conditions such as eczema. It is surely a staple for your dressing table!

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                                25.01.2010 20:51
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                                The Barack Obama song is STILL in my head..........

                                I have just borrowed this album from a friend and, after listening to it twice through this very morning, I am extremely tempted to buy my own copy, especially at the bargain price of £6.98 from Amazon!

                                The tracklisting is as follows:
                                1. My Parody Album (parody of Bank Holiday Monday - Stereophonics)
                                2. Lorrydriver (parody of Womanizer - Britney Spears)
                                3. Meat Again (parody of Beat Again - JLS)
                                4. Liar (parody of Fire - Kasabian)
                                5. Funeral Song
                                6. The Boy does Plenty (parody of The Boy Does Nothing - Alesha Dixon)
                                7. Barack Obama (parody of LSF - Kasabian)
                                8. Waterproofs (parody of Bulletproof - La Roux)
                                9. Album Track (feat. Comedy Dave)
                                10. Dance Wiv Me (feat. Calvin Harris & Camilla Ice)
                                11. Nana Window
                                12. I Predict A Diet (parody of I Predict a Riot - Kaiser Chiefs)
                                13. Davina McCall (parody of Love It When You Call - The Feeling)
                                14. Jose (feat. Dominic Byrne) (parody of Rosé - The Feeling)
                                15. Dicky Tum (parody of Dumb - 411)
                                16. Dogs Don't Kill People (parody of Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do - Goldie Lookin Chain)
                                17. Addicted to Plaice (parody of Addicted to Bass - Puretone)
                                18. Big Bum (parody of Sex Bomb - Tom Jones)
                                19. Never Gonna Snow
                                20. Last Track on the Album

                                Wow, 20 songs for seven quid; not bad, eh? Well, no, it's not bad at all, in fact I would say this is great value for money. However, I would say that before you consider buying this, it is essential that you are a fan of the Chris Moyles Show on Radio 1 in order to understand a lot of the jokes. For example, 'Nana Window' was created on-air as a spur-of-the-moment joke about a member of the team's 90-year-old grandmother who had displayed England flag in her window. I think it would be difficult to find this funny if you hadn't heard the song, or at least heard about it, beforehand.

                                The range of parodies is fairly good. There are parodies which date back from 5 years ago or more, such as 'Addicted to Plaice' and 'Dogs Don't Kill People'. I was not a listener then, and so was not familiar with these songs, but I found them just a funny as the more recent parodies, such as 'Lorrydriver' and 'The Boy Does Plenty'. However, I was disappointed to find that 'Somerset Boy' (parody of American Boy by Estelle) was not included, but other than that I was absolutely satisfied with the track listing.

                                The parody album is not just a collection of parodies of specific songs. It satirises albums in general. For example, 'Album Track' is exactly what it seems to be - a bland, forgettable track with a bland, forgettable melody. This sounds terrible, but it is supposed to be ironic, because most albums contain at least one weak track which will clearly never be released. However, the lyrics are very witty, as Comedy Dave sings, 'If you only heard this song, you'd want your money back'.

                                Personally, my favourite non-parody song on the album is 'Funeral Song'; it made me laugh out loud! It satirises the genre of sad songs which are often requested at funerals such as 'Candle in the Wind' or 'Tears in Heaven'. It jokes that 'I never meant to profit/ From sadness or from death/ But it's bought me a new plasma TV'. On a deeper note, it does highlight the irony of musicians making money out of sad events over which they have no control.

                                All of the tracks were produced by Chris Moyles and Sandy Beech (at first I though this was a joke name but I googled him and it turns out he's real... oops!). In some places I think the tracks perhaps sound over-produced, especially on 'Meat Again'. However, I think this does add to the caricature-style nature of the album - the bad side of music and the music industry is emphasised. The cover art is also a parody - it copies Take That's 'The Circus' album art which features the band on a tightrope. On this CD cover, however, Chris has very obviously been photoshopped onto a tightrope, which I found quite funny.

                                Overall, I absolutely love this album, and I could listen to it over and over again, while still finding it funny! It is definitely one for the fans, though.

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                                • More +
                                  16.01.2010 14:08
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                                  Too expensive, not enough of it!

                                  As many of you with naturally curly hair will know, frizz can be an absolute nightmare, especially in the winter when it is cold and damp. I was drawn to the Frizz-Ease section in Boots one wintry afternoon, and found I was spoilt for choice on products that could control my frizz! I eventually went for this Curl Perfecter spray, which promised to 'Wake up sleepy spirals for captivating curls'. The containing bottle seemed quite large and stylish, and so I thought that this would compensate for the money I was paying for it (£4.79 in Boots).

                                  The product has a fairly mild, lightly-perfumed smell, which I liked because often hair products have a strong chemical smell. I used the product as directed, spraying the product 'liberally on roots to ends, distributing evenly' after I had washed and towel-dried my hair. After I had done this, however, I found I had used up quite a lot of the 200ml bottle already!

                                  The mistake I made is that I didn't realise how much of this product I would use on a daily basis. The bottle itself is also misleading; the lid makes up about a third of the size of the whole product, and when you take it off it is clear that the bottle is actually fairly small.

                                  I was fairly pleased with how the product worked in that it definitely calmed the frizz that was so frustrating me. However, I found it still looked fairly limp, and I know that if I had used mousse I would have got much more volume, and perhaps only a little more frizz. If you use a lot of the product then it gives you a hold which will last about 4-6 hours, but this then means that you run out of it quickly.

                                  The directions also state that for the best results you should use Frizz-Ease Curl Around Shampoo & Conditioner, and Frizz-Ease Hair Serum. I did not do this as I was perfectly happy with my shampoo and conditioner, but perhaps the product would have worked better for me if I did. On the other hand, it could have just been a marketing ploy.

                                  Overall, I quite liked the product but there is nowhere near enough of it to justify value for money. Yes, it made my curls seem smoother and silkier, but they also tended to just lie there looking limp. I now use a very good brand of mousse instead, and this works a lot better for me, and I think it makes much more economical sense!

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