Friday 28 August 2009

Where The Dead Lay - David Levien

Girls have chick-lit and chickflicks, but what do guys have ? The only equivalent term I can think of starts with a d and rhymes with chicklit but I think that would probably get me censored and blacklisted so I'll just have to say, much as I hate broad generalisations, this is one for the guys. And I'm a girl, so this is probably not going to be my favourite book of the year.

The book jacket sets the scene - the atmosphere is dark and brooding, a man stands alone, gun at his side, with the strapline "How far will one man go to avenge a friend's murder ?" And that, in a nutshell, is it. You can imagine there will be violence and menace, a no-holds-barred investigation and tough interrogations, screeching car chases and life and death drama. And it has got all of that in bucketloads. It's fast-paced and exciting from beginning to end.

But it lacks depth and detail. There are no physical descriptions or psychological analyses of any of the characters and to be honest, none of the characters are particularly nice. In fact, apart from the lead character, Frank Behr, who redeems himself in the closing chapters by finding a conscience and revealing a little of his past, all of the characters are downright evil ! So the reader feels distanced and doesn't really care what happens to any of them. By laying out all of the clues for the reader, giving him knowledge and joining the dots that Behr cannot do until much later, the author maintains this distance and ensures that we watch Behr's drama unfold as a spectator, for entertainment, rather than identifying with him and sharing his mindspace.

Right from the beginning, I had almost the impression I was reading a film script. The focus was on the action, not the people or places, and some of the scenes would be fantastic on screen. The closing chapters seemed much too hasty and convenient to me, with all the loose ends tied up in breath-taking showdowns within a few pages, but this same unlikely crescendo would be outstanding for wrapping up a film. It therefore came as no surprise to see that the author, David Levien, is one of Hollywood's top screenwriters.

I enjoyed it, but didn't love it. For me, it's one of those instances where the film would be better than the book. Imagine Tarantino writing a novel and you'll know exactly what to expect !

star rating : 3,5/5

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Bantam Press (2 Jul 2009)
ISBN-10: 0593059344
ISBN-13: 978-0593059340

The Drowning Girl by Margaret Leroy

I think Grace, the over-stretched single mum whose whole world revolves around her beloved but badly behaved daughter Sylvie, will strike a chord with mums the world over. But as the behaviour becomes more and more bizarre and extreme, Grace has to accept that this is more than the normal temper tantrums all children have. Is it autism ? Could there be mental health issues in her family ? Is it a reaction to the absence of a father ? Is she a bad mother ? As Grace is pushed away by all those around her, losing her friends, her much-needed place at nursery, her job, she frantically looks around for someone - anyone - who can help her. A random newspaper article in a dentist's waiting room will lead her to a strange psychologist who believes that certain children's behaviour can be linked to them reliving events in a past life. Grace is desperate enough to push aside her scepticism and serious reservations and will do whatever it takes to uncover the secrets that are tormenting her daughter and making their lives so unbearable.

The plot is very original and surprising, although I was disappointed that the title acts almost as a spoiler, suggesting in part what is to come. The US version of the book carries the title Yes, My Darling Daughter, which is more enigmatic. Despite the paranormal element, the book remains totally believable, largely due to Grace's own scepticism and difficulty in believing what is happening. This is a great lightweight read, full of drama, suspense and poignancy and the story will haunt you long beyond the final page.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Mira Books (15 May 2009)
ISBN-10: 0778302709
ISBN-13: 978-0778302704

star rating : 4.5/5

Summertime : Food and Drink for Sun-Filled Days

I came to this book with preconceived ideas of what I'd find inside - salads, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, sandwiches and cold meals, light healthy recipes. The kind of food you'd eat if you were on a diet ! Well yes, that's all there but there is so much more. And even the expected salad recipes all have an unexpected twist with some surprising ingredients and flavours to tickle your tastebuds.

The cover invites you in but lulls you into a false sense of security - we have strawberries, fresh fruit, smoothies, so no surprises there. The contents page carries on this pretence of predictability - snacks, salads, sweet things, drinks. Yawn ! But then the first recipe comes in and blows your socks off ! Tomato, chili and coriander oysters. Not something I fancy cooking or eating but it's certainly different and unexpected. Next up - mini polenta muffins with prawns and dill mayonnaise. Hmmm that sounds ok, and it's all stuff I've got in the cupboards. Page after page, there are original, surprising recipes that all seem very simple and use, for the most part, pretty standard storecupboard ingredients.

The food is geared towards summer picnics and recipes to save you slaving over a hot stove on a hot summer's day but lots of the recipes (crabcakes, chicken skewers, thai noodle salad, I could go on ...) could be made into a hearty meal at any time of year. The beautiful photographs full of vibrant colours really complement the recipes and make you want to try them out. After a first flick through, I have loads of little bits of paper sticking out marking recipes I definitely want to try !

And then, already won over by the snacks and salads recipes, I come to the desserts section. OK summer desserts, fresh fruit salad in many shapes and forms, I expect. Wrong again !! Mango ice cream log, passionfruit swirl cheesecake gateau, licorice all-sort ice cream, chunky monkey chocolate peanut butter sundae ... hang on, did I really say diet-food in the first paragraph ?! The most innovative dessert recipe has to be basil gelato. Again, not sure it's one I want to try but you certainly can't say it's boring and predictable !

This has to be the most surprising recipe book I've looked at in a long time. Top marks for originality and yum-factor !

star rating : 5/5

Paperback: 360 pages
Publisher: Murdoch Books (20 April 2009)
ISBN-10: 1741960371
ISBN-13: 978-1741960372

Thursday 27 August 2009

Read and Share Toddler Bible

I wanted a book that would appeal to my two children, aged 8 and 4, and give them the basics of the most child-friendly stories of the bible. I wouldn't describe myself as a religious person to any degree but even from a cultural point of view, I think it's nice for kids to have some knowledge of the most well-known bible stories and I have fond memories of listening to the tales of Noah's Ark, the Nativity, the Good Samaritan and Adam and Eve at school. In France, all references to any religion whatsoever are totally outlawed so children never learn anything about the bible stories at school. This book fills the gap nicely.

The stories are presented in a really child-friendly way, almost like fairy tales. There are the references you need to look up the full story in the bible, but the religious/moral message is not overly emphasised. The pictures are simple and colourful and the charcaters really appeal to young readers. Each story is incredibly short, on average about 4-6 pages with about 20 words to a page (whoever managed to condense the stories that much must have had lots of practise on twitter !!), and this is ideal for short bedtime stories or for a young reader to manage to read alone. The accompanying DVD presents each story in a 3-minute segment which is great for kids with a short attention span.

My 8-year-old loved reading the stories aloud to her little sister, and understood everything perfectly when I asked her to explain the stories to me. My 4-year-old loved "reading" the book along with the DVD and finding the pictures on screen that matched the pictures in the book. They both devoured all 40 of the stories in the the book and 14 on the DVD in one sitting. It's a great introduction to the classic bible stories for young children and a way to spend some lovely family time together, a few minutes at a time.

Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (July 7, 2009)
ISBN-10: 140031464X
ISBN-13: 978-1400314645

star rating : 4/5

Tuesday 25 August 2009

The Brain-Dead Megaphone - George Saunders

Hmmm this is going to be a tricky little book to review because I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it ! It is a collection of unrelated essays that leaps from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again, creating a constantly changing mish-mash of literary styles and voices that leave the reader in a whirlwind of confusion. There are fascinating descriptions of foreign lands, full of nuggets of surprising information, that are reminiscent of Bill Bryson's travel writing and transport the reader off for some serious armchair-travelling. Then we move from a fairly high-brow intellectual discussion of the literary merits of Mark Twain's novels, to a humoristic, totally deadpan, ridiculous narrative, full of stereotype, stupidity and misinformation, in the voice of a completely uninformed "white-trash" American who is absolutely clueless about the geography of the British Isles. The problem is, there is no indication of what we are reading - is this fact or fiction ? is he being serious or sarcastic ? - so nothing can be taken at face value and everything, even the seemingly factual, must be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

But that is exactly what the author wants. In the preface, he criticises the fact that in this day and age, "information" is available at the click of a button but that this "information" may be totally wrong. Everybody just listens to the man (or website or TV channel) with the loudest voice, even if the person talking is just a braindead individual with a megaphone drowning out the more reliable sources of information. By forcing the reader to question everything, he kicks back against the modern world of "lazy media, false promises and political doublespeak", evoked on the back of the book, and makes the individual think for himself.

The result is refreshing or irritating, depending on your point of view. As Saunders jumped from one narrative voice to another totally different one, I felt that I was listening to someone who was so good at taking on multiple identities that he would either make a fantastic stand-up comedian or else he should start counselling for a serious case of schizophrenia ! You'll have to read it and make up your own mind whether it's madness or total genius, as that is after all what the book is all about. Just don't take it all at face value, whatever you do !

star rating : 4/5

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (16 Mar 2009)
ISBN-10: 0747596417
ISBN-13: 978-0747596417

Thursday 20 August 2009

Don't go wappy, get a Boppy ! Brilliant nursing/support pillow

Being a Mum is a fantastic experience but however good you are at multitasking, there are times - especially if you've got elder brothers and sisters to deal with as well as baby - when you really feel like pulling your hair out because you need an extra pair of hands or seven. The Boppy pillow won't suddenly turn you into Shiva but it does make certain tasks a lot easier and free up your hands for when you need to be doing other things.

At first glance, its principal use is as a breastfeeding support pillow. All the books and websites tell you that breastfeeding is a totally natural and instinctive thing to do but, even if you've done it before, it's not always easy getting the right position and, as your midwife will tell you over and over again, if you don't get the position right, you'll end up with very sore boobs and serious regrets ! Even if you do get the right position, you'll still end up with aching arms when baby starts getting heavier so the pillow comes in really handy for propping him up. And it also frees up your arm for reaching for a nearby glass of water, magazine, nose that needs blowing, remote control, etc !

That's the major selling point for most breastfeeding support pillows. But the Boppy pillow goes a lot further. It can also be used right from day one as a cosy nest for baby to lie in. Baby feels secure and enclosed, reminding him of how he felt in the womb, and he is more likely to settle than in a big lonely bed. This is also perfect for babies who have trouble with regurgitating as the head is slightly raised. You can achieve the same position by resting baby on your legs with your knees up if you're lying in bed but you'll end up with pins and needles before he settles, believe me !

From the age of 6 months, when baby can support his head, you can also put him in the nest on his tummy to give him an idea of the crawling position. And as if that wasn't enough, from age 9 months, it can be also used as a support pillow to help baby learn to sit up - which is a surefire way of preventing those first wobbly attempts that end up going sideways with a bumped head and a guilty conscience for mum as you struggle to get a photo of the first time !

I think this would also be perfect for those sleepless nights before the birth, when you can't find a comfortable position to sleep in because of your huge tummy. It could be used to support the bump and curl under between your knees to help circulation and avoid cramps. So it's a 5-in-1, talk about great value !

The pillow can be bought "naked", or with a funky removable cover in a choice of cute patterns and fabrics. The cushion and cover are fully machine-washable and can also be tumble dried (hallelujah !!) and, according to the manufacturers, they retain their original shape no matter how much you squish them about. Despite being a mum for the third time, I'm seriously wondering how I managed without one !!

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Sworn To Silence by Linda Castillo

It must be incredibly frustrating for an author to come up with a cracking idea for a storyline, sweat blood and tears getting it all down on paper, only to realise that somebody else has had almost exactly the same idea at the same time. Having just read and thoroughly enjoyed The Crucifix Killer by Chris Carter (see my review here), I had more than a slight sense of déjà vu when I started reading this novel. All of the major elements of the plot are identical - a series of horrific murders are uncovered which all bear the signature of a serial killer who wreaked havoc over a decade ago; the killer's signature is a set of ritualistic symbols carved into his victims' bodies; the lead investigating officer is sure that it can't be the same murderer as before because he was responsible for his death at the end of the investigation - but what if they'd got the wrong person ?

Despite expecting the story to follow more or less the same path as The Crucifix Killer, I was absolutely hooked and on the edge of my seat within a few pages. Yes, there are similarities but there also huge differences, most importantly the lead character, Chief of Police Kate Burkholder, and the setting in a largely Amish community.

Kate Burkholder is a character full of conflicts and contrasts - she is a woman in a traditionally male role, working in a macho professional environment as Chief of Police. She was brought up Amish before turning her back on this community as a teenager. She is both the cat and mouse in this pursuit, simultaneously chasing and being chased by the killer. Her job is to protect people and track down criminals but she also has first hand experience of being a killer/rapist's prey, not to mention a killer herself. This all goes to create a very complex, multi-layered character and a hugely flawed but very likeable central character.

The insight into the Amish community is fascinating and Castillo's characters - even the minor ones, like the police receptionist hooked on TV crime shows - all have depth and complexity. The story is unpredictable, even if I must admit to working out the killer's identity slightly before the end, and the pace is unrelenting.

It's been a while since a book has kept me up into the small hours of the morning and made me forgo a few evenings of television but this one certainly did. If you only manage to read one book this year, you could do a lot worse than choosing this one.

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Macmillan (5 Jun 2009)

ISBN-10: 0230736408
ISBN-13: 978-0230736405

star rating : 5/5 (shame I can't go higher !)

Sunday 16 August 2009

Angel With Two Faces - Nicola Upson

Cornwall, with its long-standing reputation as a land of wild coastal landscapes at the mercy of the elements, mysterious legends and white witches and "piskeys" creating mayhem on moonlit nights, is the perfect setting for this tale of dark secrets and murder. Inspector Archie Penrose returns home to his family estate hoping for a peaceful, uneventful break but before long, there are more suspicious deaths than you can shake a stick at - and as he struggles to unravel the mystery, just about everyone grabs the wrong of the aforementioned stick as deep dark family secrets and deceptions come to light.

Fiction is at the very heart of the story. The magnificent but dangerously exposed Minack open-air theatre provides a stunning backdrop to one of the crimes. Josephine Tey (which is the name of a real-life Golden Age crime writer), Archie's novelist friend who has been invited along to the supposed peace and quiet of the estate so that she can make a start on her new book, is dragged into the enquiry and soon finds out that in this community, where everybody knows everybody else's business, they only know the more or less-fictionalised version that each individual has decided to present to the world. As one earth-shattering confidence and revelation leads to another, it becomes apparent that nothing is quite as it seems and each person has their own interpretation of the facts. Are these deaths murders ? accidents ? suicides ? When the truth is finally established, everybody needs to come to terms with past actions and their consequences, with often poignant results.

Part criminal investigation, part exploration of a close-knit Cornish community, the novel is by often poignant and tragic. It will keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing right until the final page. For the first half of the book, I had great difficulty situating the story in a specific period. While references to workhouses, old pennies and people losing friends, loved ones and youthful innocence in the Great War set it firmly in the past, the female characters seemed feisty and independent enough to be at ease in a totally modern setting. The author eventually lets slip that it is 1935.

I was surprised to see that this is the second instalment in a series of books featuring Josephine Tey, but I enjoyed it no less for not having read the first part. I will definitely go back now to fill in some background and eagerly await the sequels.

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Faber and Faber (2 Jul 2009)

ISBN-10: 0571237959
ISBN-13: 978-0571237951

star rating : 5/5

Saturday 8 August 2009

Funky Junk Jewellery

They say diamonds are a girl's best friend but that's so boring ! I'd much rather stand out from the crowd and have something a bit more original and individual that really reflects my personality. And Lindsay at Funky Junk has come up with a whole range of designs that really appeal to me. (The fact that they also really appeal to my 8- and 4-year-old daughters probably speaks volumes about my personality too !! ) Coming from someone who doesn't usually like jewellery, that's saying something !

Just browsing through her online store, I fell in love with almost everything I saw ! The fun and funky pendants shaped like shoes, glasses, roller skates, even mini Eiffel towers ! The brooches (forget the images of stuffy Victorian jewellery your granny would wear that the word evokes, these are so funky it hurts !!). The charm braceletes are just so incredibly cute ! OK OK, enough gushing but go and have a look for yourselves and you'll see what I mean.

The website sums up their ethos : "FunkyJunk is obsessed with:
Vintage clothes, Retro patterns, Sparkly things, Shiny stuff, Japanese-inspired prints and characters, printed fabrics, kitsch, cuteness, patterns and textures, russian dolls, pearls, buttons, bows, ribbon, keys, locks, skulls, cupcakes and ROBOTS!!" "IDEAS... If you're browsing the site looking for inspiration, why not try some of our popular search terms in the Product Search box on the site... bling, cameo, vintage, candy, butterfly, anchor, bow, brooch, ribbon, charms, disco, button, cute, disco, fairytale..."

I was more than a little bit excited to be picked recently as a Funky Junk tester and I've just received a gorgeous necklace from them. A photograph will not do it justice, and neither will my words but I'll do my best ! Think flowers, trees and butterflies straight out of the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and you'll be getting somewhere close. Think swirly colourful lollipop trees (or "cabbages on sticks", as my primary school teacher used to call them) straight out of your children's first drawings. Add a gorgeous midnight blue background and a hefty dose of glitter and you'll have a vague idea.

My 8-year-old says she loves it because "it's got glitter absolutely everywhere so the back looks like all the stars in the sky at night. And the colours are really bright and shiny and happy." And that just about sums it up - Funky Junk is the place to go for shiny happy people the world over !

Friday 7 August 2009

The Crucifix Killer - Chris Carter

It's got to be a cop's worst nightmare. Just when he was finally starting to put behind him the long, harrowing investigation into a vicious serial killer that almost led him to breaking point two years before, Detective Robert Hunter is plunged once again into the nightmarish game of cat and mouse with a sadistic murderer that could cost him his sanity, his life or quite probably both. The original horrific killing spree of seemingly random victims, all linked by the trademark double-crucifix symbol carved onto the victims' bodies, finally ended when a man was caught, sentenced and executed. Despite the collective sigh of relief in the media and the community, Detective Hunter always secretly thought they had got the wrong man. Now, a new series of sadistic, horrifically theatrical murders are being discovered and, once the trademark double crucifix marking is uncovered, he knows he's up against the gruesome psycopath nicknamed The Crucifix Killer once again, this time with a brand new rookie partner in tow.

The book is sometimes vaguely reminiscent of the film "Seven", seemingly playing on the seven deadly sins theme. We have the overly vain woman who spends a fortune on miracle face creams skinned alive, and I'll let you guess which body part is chosen as a trophy for the married man who secretly attends "extreme sex" parties with his gay lovers ! But there are many red herrings and false trails so you won't work out who the real killer is until the very end.
I have a few very slight niggles. Firstly, some of the characters are a bit one-sided - you'll be hard-pressed to find a female character who isn't simply a prostitute or a wife figure, and the racial stereotypes seem a bit overdone too (do black people really call each other "Nigga" outside of films ?). I was also a bit disappointed that crucial information was withheld until the end, when Hunter finally pieces it all together - this meant that for the reader, it was impossible to pick up the clues along the way and "beat the detective".
Overall, it was still a great read. The murders are wonderful in their gruesomeness and theatricality and the killer is chillingly manipulative. This is the first in a series of novels depicting Detective Robert Hunter and I'll definitely be reading the sequel to see what happens to him next.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (6 Aug 2009)
Hardcover: 432 pages

ISBN-10: 1847376223
ISBN-13: 978-1847376220

star rating : 4.5/5

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Koo-di Pack-It Pushchair Storage and Travel Bag

The Koo-di Pack-It Pushchair Storage and Travel Bag is basically a sturdy black plastic bag, similar to a stronger version of the suit protectors that your suits come home in from the dry cleaners, that can be folded in on itself and zipped up into a handy compact pouch. I use the word compact because it is much smaller than it would be if just folded up but it would still take up quite a lot of space in the average changing bag. Measuring 120 x 35 x 45cm, it is big enough to fit pretty much any pushchair on the market, even the larger "old style" ones. It can be easily closed one-handed with a drawstring, which is very handy. It is also machine-washable but unfortunately cannot be tumble-dried.

The design is well thought-out. The only problem is, I can think of very few (three, in fact !) circumstances in which it would be of use. Namely for transporting a pushchair as luggage on an aeroplane (it even has a luggage tag sewn in), for storing and keeping clean a pushchair long-term in between babies and for protecting the back of your car when bringing home a pushchair that is covered in mud. On a day-to-day basis, it would be more of a hindrance than a help, struggling to get the pushchair in and out of the bag while juggling baby, changing bag and possibly elder siblings ! So, unless you take lots of aeroplanes with a small child, need to pack away a pushchair for a few years or enjoy partaking in cross-country orienteering with a pushchair, you probably won't get a great deal of use out of it !

star rating : 2/5

Saturday 1 August 2009

BIO-FEM Instant Moisturising Balm (to prevent sore nipples)

In the final stages of pregnancy, having already decided that I'd definitely be breastfeeding again, I thought it would be a good idea to start looking at the various creams available to help me out if I ended up with cracked or sore nipples, something that is unfortunately often unavoidable in the very early days. I was lucky enough to win a tube of Bio-Fem Moisturising Balm so I decided to give it a go.

At first, I was unimpressed - when I squeezed a little out of the tube on to my finger, a huge trickle of oil dripped all over the place. After a period of trial and error, I found that the best way to avoid this was to squash the product the wrong way back up into the tube, then thoroughly squish it for a few minutes before squeezing it out. This way, the oil mixed in with the cream and made no mess.

The first time I used the cream was in the final month of pregnancy. I expected it to act as a moisturiser and was surprised (and vaguely worried at first !) when the entire top layer of the dry skin around my nipples flaked off ! I was left with totally soft, rehydrated skin. I had planned on using the balm regularly right up until the birth (and beyond) but didn't actually need to reapply any at all for the final weeks, one application was enough to thoroughly rehydrate my skin.

After the birth, once breastfeeding kicked in, I kept it by my bedside at all times just in case. I'm always highly dubious of the claim "instant relief" on anything - usually the promised effects aren't instantaneous or if they are, the results don't last for long - but I have to admit that in this case, the balm did do what it said on the box. Relief was instantaneous and long-lasting. Bliss !

The balm is not tested on animals, lanolin-free, derived from natural plant extracts and contains no hidden nasties like preservatives or other chemicals. It is totally harmless, even if swallowed, so you don't have to wipe it off before breastfeeding and it certainly doesn't bother my son in the slightest when he is feeding. It does take a while to be absorbed into the skin though, so I would recommend using breast pads to protect your clothing straight after use ... although if you feed straight afterwards, it will have the added benefit of giving your baby lovely hydrated skin on his cheeks (just make sure you use both breasts or you'll see the difference, he'll have one red flaky cheek and one hydrated cheek !!)

This is an absolute lifesaver for new breastfeeding mums and should be added to the standard list of things to pack for the hospital !

star rating : 5/5 (I'd give it more if I could !!)

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