Category Archives: Review

Nutshell

Nutshellby Ian McEwan

Trudy is separated from her husband, John, and is living in the matrimonial home with his brother Claude, carrying John’s baby, as they plot to murder said husband, John.

It would be a love triangle, but with the narrator of this particular tale being the unborn baby, it gets a little complicated – more of a love rectangle!

Nutshell is an original concept, although the plot itself is extremely simple. In fact, the story is little more than an outline. It is the narration by the un-named unborn child that pushes the book within a whisker of 200 pages.

There is plenty of humour and just a touch of suspense. Will they or won’t they go through with the planned homicide of Trudy’s estranged husband? Can a pair of drunks really manage the perfect murder? Will the unborn narrator be born at Her Majesty’s Pleasure? Will he ever know his father? 

I found the whole thing a little strange and I’m still undecided about whether I enjoyed it or not. It is at times very funny and is an easy read. The plot does not challenge in any way and there are very few characters to keep a track of. But for me there was far too much waffle and not enough substance. 

The Tent, the Bucket and Me

by Emma Kennedy

The Tent, The Bucket and MeSubtitled “My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Campaign in the 70s”, Emma Kennedy’s memoir of her family holidays in the 1970s is as hilarious as it is nostalgic.

The 70s were a decade of social and economic change. It was the decade that gave us disco, punk, strikes and Margaret Thatcher. It also opened up the world with package holidays becoming more affordable. But for the Kennedy’s holidays were under canvass and thoughts of flights to the sun drenched Spanish beaches were definitely off the agenda. 

Using her own memories and those of her parents, Emma Kennedy’s stories of disaster and embarrassment are a kind of moral tale. There but for the grace of God…

As you move from one holiday to the next, from floods and gales on the Welsh coast to food poisoning and man-eating toilets in France, the reader is left under no illusion about the tricks that the malevolent holiday gods have played on this poor unfortunate family. Basically, if it can go wrong, it will, and most probably has!

The Tent, the Bucket Me is a very appropriate title for this hilarious, slapstick account of a family who really should have stayed at home. As a comedian, Emma knows what it takes to take her audience with her. I think most of us can find at least one parallel with our own holiday experiences in this book. Whilst not all of us can claim to have fallen into a French toilet or watched as a caravan is blown over a cliff, we can all relate to the feelings of doom and despair as we watch a family take once disastrous turn or another. From broken down vehicles tro ghosts in the attic, the Tent, the Bucket and Me, is a tour-de-force of wit and farce. Reading it whilst away just made me appreciate my own holiday even more.

Whilst I can’t claim to be too familiar with her act or TV appearances, this book has proven Emma Kennedy to have the observational skills and genuine wit that make this one of the funniest books I have read for a while. The TV adaptation does not do it justice. 

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, this book also offers a reminder of a world of change and ambition, where anything was possible. Who will ever forget the impact of the original Star Wars movie, or the girls breaking out into floods of tears over Donny Osmond’s marriage? Ah, the memories…

A Far Cry from Kensington

A Far Cry from Kensingtonby Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark is probably best known for her novel The Prime Of Miss Jean Brody. It was made into a TV series, and is considered in some circles to be a modern classic. I must admit that when I purchased this particular book I hadn’t made the connection.

A Far Cry From Kensington displays great wit and charm. It is a relatively short (190 pages) and uncomplicated story about life in the world of 1950s publishing. By uncomplicated I mean it has an easy flow with no sudden swerves or change of direction. As far as the characters are concerned, it is far from uncomplicated.

The book has a friendly and at times informal style as its narrator, Mrs Hawkins, looks back at a year in which her life changed dramatically. It is 1954 and London is still scarred by war.With rationing only just coming to an end, Mrs Hawkins, a 28-year-old war widow, is living frugally but conformably in a furnished room in a quiet corner of Kensington. The tenants each have their own eccentricities but there is an air of companionship between them that makes it sound homelier that might otherwise be the case when a group of strangers find themselves living under one roof.

Mrs Hawkins has respectable job working for a publisher, but all is not well and there is an uncertainty in the air about the company’s future. Then, on her way into work one morning she has an unexpected meeting with one Hector Bartlett that will change everything. In fact, this meeting costs her two jobs and makes the obnoxious would-be writer a thorn in Mrs Hawkins’ side for many years to come.

The book has some wonderful characters and the vagueness of some of Mrs Hawkins’ memories is actually quite refreshing. I have never been a fan of first-person narratives, due mainly, I think, to the certain knowledge that I could never recall past events with such clarity. It is a light-hearted look at life during a period of profound change. Britain was on the cusp of a revolution in music, social attitudes and economic prosperity, but the characters and situations portrayed in this story are comfortingly old-fashioned. 

I found the style of the narrative refreshingly honest and just loved the character of Mrs Hawkins. A good, unchallenging holiday read. 

A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire #3.2)

A Storm of Swordsby George R R Martin

And the fun and laughter just goes on!

Or it would of there was any. One thing you can say about the epic Songs of Fire and Ice series is that they are neither funny or fun. If you have already read the preceding books, you will already know what to expect, if you haven’t then don’t bother trying to pick up the story at this stage. 

The squabble over the Iron Throne of Westeros continues unabated. And as the death toll continues to rise amongst the story’s leading characters, their relationships and allegiances becomes more complex and fragile.

Young Robb Stark seems unassailable as he leads his army of northmen inexorably south towards Kings Landing. But all is not as it should be back home, with Robb’s enemies hatching plans of their own. 

Beyond the Wall another war is brewing, but this time against an enemy that seemingly cannot be stopped. Jon Snow faces enemies on both sides of the Wall as he returns to Castle Black.

In the east, Daenerys Stormborn continues her campaign against the slave traders even as she prepares her return to Westeros to reclaim her father’s throne.

This is one of the most intense and complex series of books I have read in a long time. The carnage amongst the leading players in this deadly game is particularly unnerving as you never know who is going to fall next. This volume has a few surprises for those who have not already seen the TV series, with regicide seemingly becoming something of a pastime in Westeros. 

The Songs of Fire and Ice has become a modern classic, even though the last book(s) have yet to be published. The immense scope of the story itself is staggering and this book is just as intense and driven as the previous volumes. The characters around whom then story is told continue to be as bold and well-structured as the tale they tell. It is common for mid series books to falter a little as the plot hits a kind of lull before the climactic ending, but in this case, there are no signs of slowing down the pace or compromising the integrity of the characters.

Sex in the Title

Sex in the TitleA Comedy about Dating, Sex, and Romance in NYC (Back When Phones Weren’t So Smart)

by Zack Love

I suppose there is a kind of art to coming up with book titles. They should covey the essence of the story; they should be snappy, memorable and, above all else, they have to grab the attention of the potential reader. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be drawn to a book called “Sex In The Title”, even if it’s just for the sake of curiosity? But does it tell you anything about the book it is trying to sell? In a way yes, it does. That is not to say it is either erotic or pornographic. It is a romantic comedy, and a very funny one at that. What the title does tell you is that this is not a run of the mill rom-com. 

Set at the turn of the new millennium, Sex In The Title follows the loves, losses and dating disasters of five young men, newly arrived in New York and seeking fortune and love. It is a time when the internet is still trying to find its feet and mobile phones were, well, just phones. For these intrepid wannabe executives, the dating game is not always one they seem destined to win.

The characters and their stories are both engaging and believable. Each has their own hang ups about sex and romance. For some, the attempt to follow the stereotypical macho path society has set out before them is not leading them where they want to be. For others, their own past and family commitments make dating in New York city fraught with dangers. On their own, each struggles to find and maintain any kind of lasting relationship. But, when a freak (and I do mean freak!) incident brings them all together, that all begins to change.

The support they find in each other’s experiences and strengths lead them all on a path of self-discovery that ultimately helps them discover now only who they are, but what they truly want from their lives.

For me the book is pretty much a first. I have read plenty of romantic comedies, but I have come across very few that are written from the male point of view. That alone makes this a book worth trying, but add Zack Love’s honesty, wit and engaging style, Sex In The Title is a unique insight into the male view of the world. His characters are engaging and tragic and the story itself compelling and at times, laugh out loud funny. There is a gentle humour that makes even the most extreme character traits endearing. I loved the way these diverse and rather mixed up individuals come together to support each other in their pursuit of love. 

There are moments of introspection sitting alongside slap-stick comedy. The plot does on occasions veer towards the absurd, but I think it is a very accurate reflection of the period, and a painfully accurate look at the anxieties of twenty-something males trying to make their way in a world that is more competitive than they would like. 

A very enjoyable read from a writer from whom I have come to expect nothing less.

Impact (Outer Earth #3)

Impactby Rob Boffard

The final part of Rob Boffard’s “Outer Earth” trilogy packs just as munch punch as the previous two books. Impact picks up the story immediately after Zero-G’s cliff-hanger ending, with our hero, Riley Hale and he companions drifting away from the Outer Earth space station.

The bulk of the action in the final instalment takes place on a cold and almost barren Earth. Raveg by a nuclear holocaust, the whole planet is swathed in an eternal winter; except for one area centred on Anchorage, where things have started to change.

The pace of Impact is relentless, and the body count just as high as in the previous two books. But now Riley is no longer trying to save the station – that is beyond saving now – this time she is after revenge. There is definitely going to be reckoning, and she knows who is going to come out on top. She also needs to decide who she wants to be with.

Back on Outer Earth things are going from bad to worse. The damage inflicted by the fire fight at the end of the second book has forced the remaining residents into the lonely intact section of the station, but time is running out and there are not enough escape pods for everyone. Who lives and who dies is to be decided by lottery. 

The race to escape the station and Riley’s personal race for revenge and answers can only be won by the kind of daredevil escapades that have become the hallmark of this series. If you like your thrillers full of action then this is definitely a must. A great read that kept me hooked from the very beginning to the climactic end.

Zero-G (Outer Earth #2)

Zero-Gby Rob Boffard 

This is the second part of Rob Boffard’s debut Outer Earth trilogy. In the first book (Tracer) we were introduced to the Outer Earth space station and the storey’s central character, Riley Hale, the tough, independent and resourceful Tracer. 

Whilst I was convinced by the first book of Rob Boffard’s skills as a storyteller, I was a little concerned that the pace and intensity might be slowed down a little. I needn’t have worried. Picking up the story six months after the events if Tracer, Zero-G starts on a high with a hostage situation that tests Riley to the limit, and it doesn’t let up until the cliff-hanger ending 450 pages later.

Riley is now a “stomper” – part of the stations security force and her team get embroiled in a conspiracy that ponce again threatens the future of then whole station, where personal animosities become a danger to everyone.

Riley once again finds herself having to make impossibly tough decisions, but her resourcefulness may be the only hope the residents of humanity’s last outpost have to survive.
Outer Earth is not just any orbiting space station. It is the home of the last of humanity after a cataclysmic nuclear war made Earth itself uninhabitable and wiped out all life on Earth. Or did it?

But it is not just the relentless pace that keeps the reader gripped. Rob Boffard’s characters are both larger than life but also comfortingly vulnerable. Each is faced with conflicting loyalties, their decisions impacting on the lives of those closest to them. As Riley Hale is the driving force behind the plot twists and turns, she is not the only one who’s actions ricochet through the station’s population. Greed for power, desperation over resources and blind revenge all play their part on bringing Outer Earth to the very edge of destruction.

I was as gripped by the story as I was by the first. The dual narrative works well and I love the mix of thriller and science fiction. 

The Accidental

The Accidentalby Ali Smith

I picked up this book after reading several reviews of Ali Smith’s work and was really looking forward to what I believed would be a captivating and amusing read. After all, it is an award-winning book from a multi-award-winning novelist.

From previous experience, I should have realised that award winning doesn’t always relate to an enjoyable read. From the very beginning I felt that I was not going to get on with this particular book. Whilst I am used to novels that switch focus between characters, even changing narrative style each time, but in “The Accidental” I found myself quickly losing empathy and interest in their individual stories.

The Smarts are the kind of dysfunctional family that would normally be found in a sitcom. And if this book were a comedy, I might have had more understanding and feeling for the story. And whilst there are undoubtedly moments of mild humour, for me it just doesn’t work. The only character that I felt any empathy for was young Astrid for whom the stranger, Amber, becomes a kind of mentor.

Amber’s unexpected arrival at the holiday cottage, and the way the family handle her arrival, I found difficult to swallow. Her influence stretches credulity and the more I read, the more cheated I felt. But not just by the story. I found the narrative to be difficult to follow at times, with much of it adding little, if anything, to the story itself. 

For me this was a very disappointing book. I would say I am surprised it is an award winner, but it isn’t the first time I have been let down by critically acclaimed work. We all see different things in a novel – there is a saying that “no two people ever read the same book” and I am certainly not seeing what others do in this work. 

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project #2)

Northanger Abbeyby Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey is the second in the series of books reimagining some of the works of Jane Austen. Of Austen’s books, Northanger Abbey is probably the least well known, but it has always held a certain fascination for me. Although it follows the traditional girl meets boy, they fall in love, are separate by circumstances before finally coming together for the obligatory happy ending, Northanger Abbey has a darker and more intriguing theme. And it is that element of the story that seems to have attracted McDermid to the Austen Project.

At first it might seem rather strange to have a respected crime writer tackling a piece of romantic fiction. But Northanger Abbey’s sinister undercurrent provides the perfect vehicle for McDermid’s style.

Bringing these books into the 21st century does require some imaginative thinking, but to me what is most intriguing is just how little needs to change. In this interpretation, only the location has changed, moving the bulk of the action from the original Bath to modern day Edinburgh, where the Fringe provides the necessary gatherings and public events. Consequently, Northanger Abbey is now in the Scottish Lowlands which seems rather more fitting than the original.

The story remains virtually unchanged, as do the characters, with just the occasional tweak to bring their stories up to date. Catheryn Morland is the same innocent young woman, sometimes struggling to tell the difference between reality and the plots of the books she reads and begins to invent her own theories about the family and events that inhabit Northanger Abbey.

As you would expect from a writer with McDermid’s reputation, Northanger Abbey is well written and full of pace and drama and not a little wit and tension. As a fan of Miss Austen’s work, I have approached each of these reimaginings with just a little trepidation. These books have become part of our literary heritage, but their language and settings are not to everyone’s taste.

What this series does is make Austen’s original stories more accessible to a wider audience. For me, the originals can never be improved on. The language, settings and manners of the time are as much a part of the book as the story itself. However, I very much enjoyed this retelling of one of my favourite Austen stories and would happy recommend it to fans and novices alike.

Reading this book has also reminded me of the works of one of our most respected modern authors. I will definitely make an effort to pick up a book or two in the near future. 

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bonesby Alice Sebold

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was murdered on a cold December afternoon in 1973. Outwardly, here was nothing special about Susie other then she attracted the attention of the local loner who also happened to be a serial killer.

Now, from her place in heaven, Susie watches as her family and friends come to terms with her loss and face a future without her. From this vantage point she becomes aware of the threads that bind those who loved her and just how much damage can be done when those bonds are broken. The police are literally clueless in the search for her body and her killer. Only her father realises the truth but is unable to convince anyone else of what he has seen and felt.

Lovely Bones is the story of family falling apart from within, trying to come to terms with the devastating loss of a child. Told from the perspective of the teenage victim it remains strangely naive and optimistic despite the breakdown of all that is normal.

Through the eyes of Susie Salmon, Alice Sebold investigates the ways in which extreme tragedy can impact on all of us. Fr some, the need to understand what has happened forges closer bonds, for others the introspection drives a wedge between them and those around them.

Although I sometimes found the portrayal of heaven to be a little over indulgent, it is a vital element to Susie’s story. It just wouldn’t have worked without it. And to have told the story from any other perspective other than Susie’s would have left it too dark and introspective.

There are times when I find it difficult to put my feelings about a book into words. IT either comes across as formulaic and insincere or rambling. Lovely Bones is an example of this. The tragedy at the heart of the story is one that few will have to face, but many will fear. How would any of us cope with the loss of a child or sibling? What effect will this loss have on even the closest of families? As a parent, I found Lovely Bones to be both heart-warming and deeply disturbing. At times it was difficult to read, but I was comforted and lead on by the voice of young Susie.

In all, Lovely Bones is a beautifully told story of the ultimate loss. But at the heart of the book there is a feeling that we can overcome tragedy, there is always another path. An excellent and compelling read.