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Monday, 30 December 2013

In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan.

My version published by Picador

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥

This is a collection of seven short stories by Ian McEwan from 1978. The main theme that runs through the book is sex. The sexually activity is within the spectrum of kinky and depraved. However, it could also be looked upon as pornographic but without the titillation. What I mean by that is that most of the sex is suggested but not always described in great detail. But, it could be construed as pornographic simply due to whom and what is described as having the sex. There is sex between a man and a mannequin; between a woman and an ape and the wet dreams of a man that involve a pre-pubescent girl.
I tried so hard to not use the following adjectives to describe the book; ‘dark’ and ‘disturbing’ as I am sure they have been used many times to describe this set of short stories. However, it is almost impossible not to use the afore-mentioned adjectives as they perfectly describe two major aspects of the book.
I believe the book reflects Great Britain during 1977 and 1978. The country was beset with strikes, IRA bombings, political unrest, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ was just around the corner, the gaining popularity of the Conservative party, (The Thatcher era was only a year away), and women’s palpable fear of the Yorkshire Ripper. There is one story in the book of a dystopian future set in Great Britain. But attitudes to sex in the seventies were a bigger threat.
The seventies are seen by many historians as the decade that saw an explosion of promiscuity, abortion and pornography. The pill became widely used in the seventies and so it appeared as if everyone was having sex with anyone. Sex became recreational rather than perfunctory. But of course this sexual promiscuity had a dark (there is that word again) element; abortion, women scared to say no due to peer pressure or not wanting to appear repressed, increased illegitimacy and women losing their sense of autonomy. Many novels of the seventies depicted sexual violence such as ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess.
In Ian McEwan’s book of short stories the stories depict most of the male characters as unable to differentiate between lust and love. The male appendage for most of the male characters does most of the thinking leaving the brain in neutral like so many idling cars: the engine is running but the car is not moving.
In Between the Sheets is a perversely envisioned account of sex and in the male of the species. The stories articulate the era of the seventies and also resonate in the 21st century with the growth of the internet and continuing sexualisation of women and in particular young girls.

Number of Pages - 127

Profanity - None

Sex Scenes - Yes (Graphic)

Friday, 13 December 2013

Wake by Anna Hope

Published by Random House

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥

The plot is set during five days in November 1920, from 7th to the 11th, Armistice day. One storyline is the circumstances that led to the creation and interment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. The account is fictional but is based on actual events. The second strand to the novel is the story of three women, Ada Hart, Evelyn Montfort and Hettie Burns. All three women have been affected by the Great War either having lost someone or had a loved one return home but are mentally or physically ‘broken’.
‘Wake’ is a very competent, well written book that lovingly portrays five days in the lives of the three women and the family and friends around them. The main protagonists are well developed fully rounded characters and one gets a sense that the author has lived and breathed their lives for some time. The dialogue is character driven, each word and sentence is crafted in such a way as help one understand who the character is beyond their actions.
However, one cannot say the same for many of the secondary characters; Ada’s husband, Hettie’s friend Di and Rowan Hind. (Rowan Hind relates a harrowing tale of his time in the trenches in the fields of France and the author creates the scene so well that one can almost feel the mud underfoot. But, his character is underwritten and under utilised).
These and some other characters are one dimensional and one gets the impression that the author had spent so much time developing the main protagonists that she didn’t give enough time to flesh out the minor characters.
The main problem with the book is that it falls to often  into a well of clichés and stereotypes and as such that it comes across like so many Romance novels.  You have Evelyn who lost her first love and has withdrawn from life and love. You have Hettie the not so attractive best friend to a beautiful girl who has found a rich man. Then you have Ada who has lost her son and has also withdrawn from life. The denouement to Ada’s story is ridiculously saccharine and contrived. The words of advice she is given that change her life reads like the clichéd homilies vomited by those loathsome American life coaches one sees on TV.
One gets the impression the author wrote this only for the female reading population. Why would she have all the main characters female? There are no memorable male characters and each of these is damaged mentally or physically. What would have raised it above the norm would have been having one of three main characters male, a father who had lost his son. I am sure there must have been widowed fathers who had sons fighting in the war.
The author’s telling of the events that led to the creation of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is sublime and there were times where I was distracted by my desire for the story to return to this strand of the novel to the detriment of the rest of the storyline.
 One has to remember this is Anna Hope’s first novel and can certainly be described as a valiant attempt. But much of it is written monochromatically it lacks any subtle nuances or depth or underlying themes and because of this it is doubtful one would return to the book to re-read it.

First Line - Three soldiers emerge from their barracks in Arras, northern France.

Memorable Line - They are very small bundles. these cannot be bodies. Theses are just scraps of things, they look like little more than rags.

No' of Pages - 336
Profanity - None
Sex Scenes - Yes but not graphic

This is an advanced copy obtained through Netgalley. 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Q & A with Denise Mina

A few weeks ago I wrote to all five judges of the 2014 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. I sent 10 questions in the hope that they could find the time in their busy lives, (even busier now with having to read 150 books for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction), to answer a few of my questions. Today, I received an email from Denise Mina, crime writer and playwright, who has given up some of her time to answer ALL my ten questions. I cannot thank her enough. I am very touched she took the time to do this. Thank you Denise.
The Q & A is posted on my other blog at

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire

Published by Penguin Classics

Book Review Rating  ♥♥♥

Candide is a third person narrative that can be seen as a piece of travel writing, a fable or a parable. What it most certainly is, is a satirical piece of writing that though written over 250 years ago it still has relevance today. To be more precise it is indirect satire which allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. It also allows Voltaire to disavow the words written. This is made clear by Voltaire not putting his name to the novel until some eight years later even though most readers were fully aware who had written it.
The themes of the Candide are large, the hypocrisy of religion, the corrupting power of money and the folly of optimism.  Candide explores them all in detail within what should really be considered a novella.
The edition I read is part of the Penguin Classics series, translated and edited by Theo Cuffe and has an introduction by Michael Wood, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. As with all the Penguin Classics series that I have read this is a superb edition. This edition includes a chronology, a map, notes on the text and names plus various appendices. Unless you have a good working knowledge of the 18th century then the notes are a must. With Candide being a satire than one needs to know the history of the period the book is set to understand what is being satirized.
In the midst of the novella is a love story; the love of Candide for Cunégonde, the Baron’s daughter. When the Baron discovers Candide’s love for his daughter he is driven out of the castle. While trying to make his own way in the world he meets his tutor from his days at the castle, Pangloss. Pangloss informs him that Cunégonde is dead as are everyone else at the castle after it was attacked. From there Candide and the various companions he meets on his travels encounter an egregious series of events; an earthquake, the Inquisition, murder, rape, a shipwreck and many others.
 Candide fights to maintain his optimism and Pangloss tries to maintain his belief that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Throughout the novella Voltaire is ridiculing the cosmic complacency and optimism that is expressed by philosophers of the day.
The book is an intellectual, philosophical and religious journey through the period of the Enlightenment in what became known as the ‘long’ eighteenth century.

The novella moves a hectic pace which can leave one feeling breathless. The chapters are short and strangely each chapter has a heading which conveys the events that will occur in the chapter so ruining much of the novella’s suspense. The novel’s hectic pace was remarked on by the playwright Lillian Hellman who wrote the libretto for the operetta of the book for the stage; “the greatest piece of slap-dash ever written at the greatest speed.”

First Line - "Once upon a time in Westphalia, in the castle of Monsieur the Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh, there lived a young boy on whom nature had bestowed the gentlest of dispositions."

Memorable Line - '"Do you think, said Candide, 'that men have always massacred one another, as they do today? That they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates and brigands, as well as weaklings, shirkers, cowards, backbiters, gluttons, drunkards, misers and social climbers, in addition to being bloodthirsty, slanderous, fanatical, debauched, hypocritical and downright stupid?"'

No' of pages - 155
Sex scenes - there is some semi-graphic details involving rape
Profanity - none
Genre - satirical novella

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Mortality by Christopher Hitchins.

Published by Atlantic Books

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥♥

In a scene from my all time favourite film, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Woody starts to recount those things that make life worth living. I have played this game with friends many times over the years. My list of things that make life worth living is; (family and friends are a given), Woody Allen of course, the film Manhattan, Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway, Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of StJohn on the Cross’, Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, Morecambe and Wise, Peacock Butterflies, David Hockney’s ‘A BiggerSplash’, Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, The Edinburgh Book Festival, David Sylvian, Philip Glass etc. Over the years there have been a few additions. Christopher Hitchens became one of those additions.
I have been putting off the reading of Mortality for sometime knowing full well the subject matter contained within its pages; not only the last words of a superlative orator and writer but details of his horrendous illness, oesophageal cancer. My cowardice probably also stems from the knowledge that I am less than ten years away from the age that Christopher Hitchens died, 62.
As to be expected the writing is not self-piteous, there is no element of self-aggrandizement in any of its 106 pages. Mr Hitchens style of writing makes one want to go around pulping every pencil, drain every pen and smash ones keyboard knowing that you will probably never write as well as he did. However, I am sure Christopher Hitchens would want you to buy new pencils, refill those pens and repair that keyboard and attempt to equal or better his writing.
In ‘Mortality’, as to be expected, religion rears its ugly head in the form of monotheists letting Mr Hitchens know that he deserves to die, that God has struck him down in vengeance. Christopher Hitchens in his usual pithy and direct manner surmised that God was rather mundane and routine in his vengeance to give him oesophageal cancer which was highly likely to occur anyway due to his heavy smoking.
My honorific review can never fully convey the extent of how wonderful the book is without falling into the quicksand of cliché. So, I will simply end this review with a direct and succinct command: READ THIS BOOK!

First Line - "I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death."

Memorable Line - "It's normally agreed that the question 'How are you?' doesn't put on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, 'A bit early to say.'

Number of pages - 106
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None 
genre - Autobiography

Friday, 15 November 2013

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

Published by Penguin Classics

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥

This book is, by all accounts, Aphra Behn’s most famous work. She wrote erotic poetry and plays but this ‘novel’ is why her name lives on in the 21st century. I placed the word novel in inverted commas as academics and scholars still argue to this day as to whether it can be described as a novel. More importantly was it the first novel in English?
                Many of the afore-mentioned scholars and academics will argue that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was the first novel and the English writer is often referred to as the ‘father of the novel’. However, it could, and has been, argued that Oroonoko was written in a novelistic form but personally I believe it comes under the heading of ‘novella’. The sound of hairs being split can be heard all around the country.
                The story is fundamentally about the African prince Oroonoko (a mis-spelling of the river Orinoco) and his wife Imoinda. Both are captured separately by the British and brought to Surinam as slaves. Oroonoko could be cruelly interpreted as a simple romance story with its theme of boy meets girl, love at first sight, boy loses girl and then boy finds girl. However, for today’s audience the story has become secondary to the themes of colonialism, racism and the innovative writing style of Aphra Behn.
                Aphra Behn is credited not only with developing the pioneering female narrative but for addressing the inequality between men and women in the seventeenth century. Black people are not the only slaves in the book, women are also shackled by the mores of the day. Oroonoko is seen as one the literature’s first abolitionist expositions. It’s portrayal of racism and slavery is credited with aiding the cause for the abolitionists.
                The racism and depiction of slavery make Oroonoko an uncomfortable read. However, coupled with the horrific descriptions of the deaths of Imoinda and Oroonoko the book becomes not only an uncomfortable read but disturbing one. However, when you re-read Oroonoko you realise how theatrical, fantastic and unrealistic many of the scenes in the book are: his killing of the tigers, his encounter with the electric eel and in particular Oroonoko’s death which has him being slowly hacked to death while he passively continues to smoke only, “at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped, and he gave up the ghost.”
                Aphra Behn’s theatrical past is writ large throughout the book and ironically it is mostly due to Thomas Southerne’s stage adaption of Oroonoko after Behn’s death that the story became celebrated and has continued to be re-read, reinterpreted and used as a rallying point by anti colonialists, abolitionists and feminists throughout the last 400 years.
                But, of course, one must put the book into context. It was written by a woman at a time when women were subjugated to man’s laws and rules. The seventeenth century was a time when women were seen as no better than the servants who worked in their household. What is more remarkable about Aphra Behn was that she was able to make a living from her writing. However, it should be remembered that many women in Britain had writings published during the seventeenth century but those names are now only remembered by academics and those studying English Literature (as I am); Lady Mary Chudleigh, Lady Jane Cavendish and Katherine Philips to name but a few.  
                Is this book read by anyone outside of the academic world? No, is the short answer. Sadly, its relevance is only to those who are using it for study purposes be that at school, university or as part of a thesis or book. I believe if it stopped being used a study tool at seats of learning then the book would cease to be published. Hopefully, that day never comes.
                Let me leave you with words from the greatest woman writer that ever lived, Virginia Woolf,

“All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds... Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.”

Number of Pages - 99 (this includes Chronology, Introduction and notes)
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Literature

                Below is an reading from Aphra Behn’s book, Oroonoko.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Crowned Heads by Thomas Tryon

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥

I would consider myself a knowledgeable film fan but I have to admit to not being aware of Thomas Tryon's career as an actor or for that matter as a writer.
Crowned Heads is a book of four (there are five but the final story is a kind of footnote to the first story, Fedora) novellas all linked by Hollywood. Each story appears to be loosely based on a Hollywood star though in researching this matter I could only find information pertaining to two of the stories. One of the stories appears to based on the actor Clifton Webb and another on the silent actor Roman Navarro.
My personal favourite of the stories is Fedora, the story of an ageing actress. This particular story was turned into a film directed by the wonderful Billy Wilder, (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment).
The stories are well told and all have a sense of the seedy, noirish underbelly of Tinseltown. One comes away from reading the book feeling rather dirty, sordid and in need of the light of the day. This is not a criticism. These feelings are due to the wonderful style of writing that Thomas Tyron has executed in the book. When one is reading the novellas one mentally envisions the films of Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Edward Dmytryk.
This is not the kind of books I normally read but I am happy to write that I was very pleasantly surprised by The Crowned Heads. The book achieves what most authors may hope for; that readers seek out their back catalogue.

Number of Pages - 401
Sex Scenes - Yes
Profanity - None
Genre - Drama

This review was based on an advanced copy via

Adventures with the Wife in Space: Living With Doctor Who by Neil Perryman

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥♥

Neil Perryman persuades his wife to watch every episode of Doctor Who. From the earliest episode with William Hartnell playing the original Doctor Who up to and including the final episode of Sylvester McCoy’s incarnation as the Doctor in 1989 when the show was quietly cancelled by the BBC.
Mr Perryman records his wife’s opinion on each episode and having created a blog, (, relates his wife’s reaction to the world.
Though I am a Doctor Who fan, though certainly not an obsessive, I didn’t believe I was going to enjoy this book as much as I did. This pessimism was due mostly to my having read previous books based on blogs and being astounded by their blandness.
However, Mr Perryman has written a very funny, literally laugh out loud, book that deserves to be read by more than just Doctor Who fans. Anyone who is a fan of shows like Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galatica, Star Wars, Firefly etc will be very aware of the author’s situation at being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t share their obsession. No matter what tricks or ploys one tries. No matter how many times you explain the merits of the Star Trek TNG episode, ‘Remember Me’ or the allegorical nature of the excellent Battlestar Galactica series your partner refuses to take part in your life’s obsession. But, the author succeeds where so many have failed and over a period of two and half years he and his wife sit down every night to bond over an episode of Doctor Who.
Unlike so many other books based on blogs Mr Perryman hasn’t simply transferred the blog verbatim onto the printed page. He writes about his earliest memories of Doctor Who and the effect this had on the rest of his life. His wife, Sue, also writes a very funny chapter on her first encounter with the author and the subsequent events that led to them to getting married.

This book is a thoroughly entertaining read which made this reader wish that he had been aware of the blog while Sue and Neil were watching the Doctor Who episodes. However, this book more than makes up for that disappointment and I look forward to their next series watching escapade; as long as it’s not Crossroads.

Number of Pages - 304
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Autobiography

This review was based on an advanced copy via

The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold by Ian Hamilton

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥

“The present book is an attempt to animate certain key moments, or turning points, in Arnold’s passage from the poetic life to the prose of his later years.”

The above is a very honest statement quoted from the book’s preface. Ian Hamilton is not trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes by suggesting that his book is the complete and definitive life of Matthew Arnold.
This stamp of honesty is ingrained throughout the book, within his style of writing, his objectiveness and his refraining from turning the biography into a hagiography.
Ian Hamilton has created a remarkable piece of work. It is made even more remarkable as it appears Arnold did not leave behind a bounty of diaries, letters etc from which a biography could be constructed.  
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson, Arnold has all but been forgotten, his poetry no longer fashionable, consigned to be a poet only enjoyed by scholars.
While Arnold’s poetry never had the emotional charge of Wordsworth or the introspective humanity of Tennyson, it did have a grace and a force of nature. While the poetry of his contemporaries had all the beauty and style of a supermodel, Arnold’s poetry was the beauty of the soul, the person within not the external superficial beauty that one could tire of looking at.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Dover Beach

Ian Hamilton does a great service to the memory of Matthew Arnold with his insightful, intelligent and penetrating analysis of Arnold’s verse. Hamilton shows us the development of Arnold’s poetry and as such puts that work in context biographically and historically.
If there is one thing that a biography of a poet’s life should try to attain is to have the reader want to read or reread the poetry of the biographer’s subject.
Arnold turned his back on the world of poetry to concentrate on prose during the last twenty or so years of this life. The nineteenth century and beyond was a poorer place because of this decision.

“He thrust his gift in prison till it died”  W.H. Auden.

Number of Pages - 256
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Biography

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland.

Book Review Score (out of five)    ♥♥♥♥♥

While I make my way through the next book in the list of The Women's Prize for Fiction here is a review of a book I received from NetGalley in advance of publication.

John Sutherland, author of A Little History of Literature, takes us by the hand and leads us safely through the deep, heavily wooded forest that is the written word.  As the author states in his introduction to the book, “…literature is not a little thing. There is hugely more of it than any of us will read in a lifetime.” Thankfully the author utilises a path constructed of wonderful books that make the journey a very pleasant affair.
During the author’s journey we encounter the likes of Homer, Chaucer, the Metaphysical Poets, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, the Romantic Poets, Kipling, Woolf and many others. John Sutherland finds the time to stop and tell us stories about 'Theatre in the Street', 'Who ‘owns’ literature', 'The King James Bible' and 'Literature and the Censor'. It may be ‘a little history’ but the book is 284 pages long.
As with any book that crams a long history of any subject, and particularly literature, into relatively few pages there will be many people debating as to who should have been included within the author’s pages. Personally, I believe the omission of the poet Stevie Smith when discussing the the ‘voice of pain’ as an oversight. Ted Hughes believed that at the bottom of the inner most spirit of poetry is a ‘voice of pain’. Included in this discussion is the poets John Berryman, Anne Sexton. Both of these poets committed suicide and in their poetry they ‘signalled the act’. Stevie Smith is also a member of the suicide club that is very peculiar to poets. Personally, I believe her poetry is head and shoulders above that of John Berrymans and at least on a par with that of Anne Sexton.
I could take umbrage with Mr Sutherland over his decision not to mention or acknowledge the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.E. Cummings. However, it would be small minded and churlish to dislike a book of this kind for not mentioning some of my favourite writers. John Sutherland’s, if I can borrow a film metaphor, cutting room floor will be covered in the blood of writers who had to be chopped from the book due to lack of space and time.
John Sutherland has written this book in his own inimitable style; witty, erudite and unpatronizing. Like so many of John Sutherland’s other books, ‘Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives’ and ‘Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers’ to name but a few, he manages to write in an informative, adroit, compelling manner that never becomes tedious or pedagogic in style.

 I will leave the last word to the author: “This little history is not a manual but advice along the lines of, you may find this valuable, because many others have, but at the end of the day you must decide for yourself.”

Number of Pages - 294
Sex Scenes - None.
Profanity - None
Genre - Non-Fiction.

This review was based on an advanced copy via

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Motherlode by Carolyne Van Der Meer

Book Review Rating  ♥♥

The author’s reasons for writing the book are understandable and admirable. At the centre of the book is a great idea waiting to be written. But this is not that book. I’m afraid to say that the writing of the book is poorly executed.
I hate to write anything bad about a laudable attempt to write a book on the subject of her families’ experiences during the German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War. However, I always believe in writing an honest review.
I will start with the poetry. It is of a freeform style that is both turgid and generic. It adds nothing to the book’s worth. In fact it is a distraction from the stories told within the book.
The stories are rather leaden, clichéd and are in need of a good editor. The book is grammatically and artistically poor as is the book’s style of writing. The use of language, analogies and phraseology is at times puzzling and unwieldy.
When the author writes of her mother’s memories of the war she states that, “these are terrifying memories…she (the author’s mother) has blocked them out. However, within the same paragraph the author describes the above as “like the sting of pulling off a well stuck band Aid”.
Later when the writer is talking to her mother on the phone she writes, “And I hear a smile come down the line”. How does one ‘hear’ a smile? Don’t get me started on the author’s misuse of conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence that are scattered through the book.
The author also strangely misuses phrases that result in a sentence making no sense, “It’s like you’re in a vacuum, the time –space continuum interrupted, a chunk that’s forever out of reach. The time-space continuum is a mathematical model. It is the joining of three dimensional space with one dimensional time.
The author then mentions on the next page when talking of “travelling is lonely. Like you’ve lost the connection with what you know and love” that “There’s no frame of reference”. But of course there is a frame of reference. I’m sure the author has travelled before or been lonely before or felt lost before etc. All these would be within her ‘frame of reference’.
Apart from the misuse and inaccurate use of the above terms (and there are many more) the main problem is that they act as a distraction. The incongruous phrases also devalue the aesthetic quality of the story.
Sadly, there are many problems with the book and these also include inaccurate information. Firstly, the author states that her mother as a little girl talks to an ordinary German Soldier dressed in black. Lower ranked army German soldiers dressed in a greenish-grey uniform. The author also has her Dutch antecedents referring to the Germans as ‘Jerries’. This was a slang term for the Germans used by the British. The people of the Netherlands would have referred to the Germans as either ‘Mofs’ or Poeps’.
I was also surprised by the lack of planning the author made when visiting the Netherlands as research for her book. She writes as if she simply wandered around aimlessly with no planned itinerary. For example, she writes, “(I) stumble upon the Netherlands Institute for War.” Surely as a journalist visiting the country she is planning to write about should have a planned itinerary rather than just ‘stumbling’ around.

There is a seed of an interesting story buried within the book but has been halted from growing into a fully formed mature idea by poor, stiff, awkward writing.

Number of Pages - 110
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Biographical 

This review was based on an advanced copy via

Saturday, 5 October 2013

In the Memorial Room by Janet Frame

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥

This is the posthumous publication of a book written forty years ago in 1973. Janet Frame did not allow publication of this roman a clef novel as she was worried that the people of the city Menton in France, where the book is set, may have recognized themselves and taken offence.
Like Janet Frame, the novel’s protagonist Harry Gill, is awarded a fellowship. The fellowship, Janet’s and Harrys, allows them to live and work for six months in the city of Menton on the Cote d’Azur. While Janet received the KatherineMansfield fellowship, Harry is awarded the fictitious Margaret Rose Hurndell fellowship.
In this epistolary novel Harry Gill is a self loathing, self-pitying psychosomatic novelist. He has written two historical novels which have been fairly well received but Harry now wants to write something completely different in an attempt to be taken more seriously. He is attempting to write a picaresque novel which is in complete contrast to how he perceives himself;

“dull personality, almost humdrum, a plodder from day to day”

In the Memorial Room has no conventional plot line. Much of the novel is a stream of consciousness and as such could be seen by many as a difficult read. But this is not a negative criticism. Why should all novels be as dumb, asinine and empty as the Fifty Shades series of books? Janet Frame’s novel will stay in the memory long after Fifty Shades has receded to that dark space at the back of the memory’s filing cabinet.
Her novel is a beautiful, rich, dark essay on the human psyche. It opens the curtain of our minds to shed light on the human fear of being invisible, of no longer being noticed or having our opinions matter. Being forgotten by a society that takes no interest in a person once they have hit old age. 
Writers too become invisible. A writer is only visible when being read. When people stop reading a writer’s work then the author becomes invisible, they cease to exist.
Many of Menton’s inhabitants that Harry Gill encounters are elderly and on finding themselves invisible have utilised the death and memory of the writer Margaret Rose Hurndell to make themselves visible again. This is especially true of the Margaret Rose Hurndell fellowship’s principal donors Connie Watercress and Grace Armstrong who having been denied fame in their own career now bask in the reflected light and glory of Rose Hurndell’s fame.
Harry believes that his sight is degenerating to the point where he will be completely blind within five years. Harry begins to suffer debilitating headaches and so visits Dr Rumor in the city of Menton. Dr Rumor disagrees with Harry’s doctor on his diagnosis of his oncoming blindness. Dr Rumor explains that Harry “is trying to make (himself) invisible, on the childlike theory that if you can’t see, then you can’t be seen.”
The title of the book refers to the room in Menton where Harry is expected to write in. The memorial room lies beneath departed Ms Hurndell’s residence Isola Bella. It is a stone tomb like room which has no toilet or running water and little light or warmth,

“I thought, had Rose Hurndell been buried here and not in London.”

This brings us to The Memorial Room’s other main theme, one of being buried alive: buried in the shrouds of old age, illness or retirement. As these three events occur, many people dig their own graves by allowing these events to define who they are and wallowing in the preconceived injustice of it all. Using that feeling of injustice as a spade people tend to dig deeper and deeper into a permanent black hole.
Like so many of Frame’s novels, In the Memorial Room has an autobiographical undertow. Both Harry Gill and Janet Frame craved both fame and anonymity. Both wanted to communicate with the world but not in any conventional way.  Both feel alone in the world and but have people looking to seek their company.
                This novel will halt any chance of Janet Frame becoming invisible and hopefully will result in her being an angel at all our reading tables.   

Number of Pages - 212
Sex Scenes - None 
Profanity - None
Genre - Drama/Autobiographical

          This is a review of an an advanced copy supplied by the publishers through

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The King's Grave: The Discovery of Richard III's Lost Burial Place and the Clues It Holds by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones.

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥

The finding of Richard III’s skeleton in a Leicester car park made news around the world. The story of the find created a huge amount of column inches in the British newspapers for many months. This is not surprising as Richard III is not only a fascinating historical figure made famous by Shakespeare, but he was also the last King of England to die in battle, the last of King of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty.
This book is a book of two halves. The chapters alternate between the hunt for Richard’s burial site in Leicester (written by Philippa Langley) and Richard’s life from his birth at Forthinghay Castle to his death at Bosworth Field, (written by Michael Jones).
Philippa Langley is a member of the Richard III Society and a screenwriter while Michael Jones, a friend of Ms Langley, is a historian and author. Together they have created a captivating book that though its style will not please many historians, I believe that armchair historians and those with a fascination for all things Richard III will thoroughly enjoy the book.
The book is written in a fluid, straight forward no nonsense style. Ms Langley’s screen-writing credentials shine through in the book’s writing style although this may unintentionally divide its readers. Ms Langley’s writing is at times florid. She tries to instil a sense of filmic drama with the occasional ‘cliff-hanger’ scene thrown in. On her way to Leicester on the first day of the archaeological dig she misses her connection to Sheffield. Will she still get there in time for the midday meetings? On the same journey she has received no texts or calls about the dig even though information had been sent to the media outlets the day before,

“No calls or texts from the media…Perhaps in the 527 years since Richard’s death…the world has turned too many times and there’s no interest in the search for his grave.”

As we read on, the pseudo drama and tension builds until finally, of course, her phone begins to ring. Rightly or wrongly there are times where one does wonder if these events happened as written or as can occur in screenplays based on a true story, dramatic license is used.
There are also times when the screenwriter has to go off on her own to walk the streets of Leicester or to sit alone in a café or by a fountain pondering the ramifications of finding Richard’s grave. When reading of these moments you can almost hear the likes of the Lighthouse Family or a George Michael ballad playing over these ‘poignant’ moments.
I can forgive Ms Langley’s use of this particular style of writing as I believe it does help to make the story of the dig more accessible. It will also make the subject less daunting and dry to those who would not normally read a book based on a historical figure or even one about archaeology. Making history and archaeology more accessible can never be a bad thing.
What I find harder to forgive is the intrusion of Ms Langley’s ego into the whole affair. I lost count of the number of times Philippa Langley’s ‘intuition’, at where Richard was buried, is mentioned throughout the book.  She continually reminds the reader that she had a psychic or instinctual feeling when she walked over the car park area some three years before the dig and knew from that moment that she had found Richard’s burial site. What put any doubts she had to rest was the large letter ‘R’ marked on the ground. (The ‘R’ referred to a reserved parking place). When the bones are found she turns to Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist of the University of Leicester Archaeologist Services (ULAS),  and says “You do know where the bones have been found”.
She also writes,

“I tell myself I have to go with what feels right what my instinct is telling me. That has been the story of this project from the start and I’m not going to stop now”.

Though Philippa Langley certainly does acknowledge and credit the help she obtained from such people as Dr John Ashdown-Hill (historian who tracked Mr Ibsen ten years previously and without whose research there would have been no search for the Plantagenet King), and Annette Carson a writer and member of the Richard III Society, it does feel at times that they are simply bit players in the leading lady’s script.
However, if one can put all that aside and I did, the book is a superb read with never a dull moment and if hunger had not interrupted my reading I would never have put the book down.

Philippa Langley and Michael Jones book is a resounding success and it would not surprise this reviewer if this book manages to coax the younger generation to get interested in the history of Great Britain. And one can’t say fairer than that.

Number of Pages - 320
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Historical

This is a review of an an advanced copy supplied by the publishers through

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchins

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥♥

This is a memoir first published in 2010. My copy is the 2011 edition that includes a forward by Hitchens having earlier that same year been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. He died in December 2011. 
Christopher Hitchens was an author, journalist, essayist, pamphleteer and superb orator. His debating skills, honed at Oxford, were sharp, insightful and could leave his opponent feeling like they had undergone ten rounds with Cassius Clay.
To my utter shame I didn’t start taking an interest in Christopher Hitchens and his writings until around 2005. My introduction to Hitchens was through my love of the works of George Orwell. I stumbled upon Christopher Hitchens biographical essay ‘Orwell’s Victory ’, (known as ‘Why Orwell Matters’ in the USA), in a second hand bookshop. Not only was ‘Orwell’s Victory’ a superb piece of literature and a cracking read but it had the effect of wanting to know more about Mr. Hitchens.
Hitch 22 details his relationship with his parents, loving, beautiful but distant mother and uncommunicative, stoic but heroic father. Names are dropped within the book like so many autumn leaves; Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Richard Dawkins, Martin Amis etc etc. But, this is not an attempt by Christopher Hitchens to show off or communicate to the outside world about his highly influential friends. Each name is ‘dropped’ to illustrate a point or to help frame a chapter and give it context.
There have been many superlatives used to describe Christopher Hitchens, erudite, witty, passionate and rhetorically astute. It is not only hard to think of new ones but it is difficult to disagree with any of them.
Hitch 22 is 422 pages of the English language in perfect harmony. His writing style is the language equivalent of the Taj Mahal or the Potala Palace in Tibet: beautifully constructed with no superfluous building materials.

Number of Pages - 442
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Autobiographical

Below is a wonderful compilation of what have become known as Hitch Slaps. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Salman Rushdie at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Last month my daughter Charlotte and I attended a talk by Salman Rushdie at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Salman Rushdie, of course, is the author of The Satanic Verses, the book that resulted in a fatwa being issued on him by the then leader of Iran the Ayatollah Khomeini. My favourite book written by Salman Rushdie is Midnight's Children which deservedly won the Booker of Bookers.
I just received an email form the Edinburgh Book Festival organizers that Salman Rushdie's event is now on the Book Festival website:
Take the time to listen to this and you will not be disappointed. Salman Rushdie is urbane, erudite and funny. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥♥

Longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Colm Toibon’s novel relates the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and the days afterwards through the eyes of his mother, Mary. While in hiding after the killing of her son she also tells of her view on events in the life of her son; the Wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus amongst others.
At approximately 30,000 words and only 104 pages long, what The Testament of Mary lacks in size it makes up for in the sheer power of its vision and imagination. 
The book conveys the anger, frustration and loss that a mother feels after having lost a child. Not only that but witnessing the death of her son in such a barbaric and ritualistic way. This loss sees Mary only referring to her son as ‘him’ or ‘our son’ or ‘my son’ as she cannot bring herself to call him by the names that are used by His followers; followers who now watch over Mary and seek to protect the legacy of her son.
If you are a non-religious person like me don’t let the novel’s subject matter blind you to what is a truly stunning book. This is a novel that works on so many aesthetically designed levels that to simply categorize it as a religious novel is to miss all the other heavenly beauty that sweeps across this thought provoking novel.
Having not yet read the rest of the Man Booker longlist I won’t speculate as to whether it will take the prize but for the moment it should at least make the short list.

Number of Pages - 114
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Fiction/Historical