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review 2018-12-08 09:01
A great courtroom drama/psychological thriller that will keep you thinking
Anatomy of a Scandal: The brilliant, must-read novel of 2018 - Sarah Vaughan

Thanks to NetGalley and to Simon & Schuster UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I got a copy of this book a while back, but I must confess it got buried under tonnes of other books at a time when there were many things on my mind. I kept seeing the book here and there but wasn’t even sure I had a copy any longer. Eventually, as it always happens at the end of the year, I saw a list with recommended reads for the year that ends, with this novel featured prominently, and it was the push I needed to start reading it. I apologise for the delay because it was well worth a read.

The book opens up the 2nd of December 2016, is set in the UK, and is mostly narrated chronologically by a collection of characters. Kate, a QC (the prosecution lawyer in other countries) working in London tells of her experience in court, prosecuting sexual crimes, in the first person. The rest of the characters’ perspectives we get are narrated on the third person, and include those of Ali, a friend Kate met while she was a college student; Sophie, the wife of a junior conservative minister, James, and now stay at home Mum; James himself, the only male account, an upper-class man who always knew his future was golden, and Holly, whose narration starts in 1992, in Oxford. She is a fish out of the water, a young girl from the North, from a modest family, who has managed to get into an Oxford College to study English with a grant, and she suffers a cultural shock at first, although later things seem to look up until… (No spoilers here). It takes a while for all the strands of the story to fit together, although we soon realise there are some coincidences, and some of the people whose narrations appeared disconnected at first, had crossed paths years back.

The author, who as a political journalist has more insight than most people into what goes on in political office and in the government, provides a detailed and totally immersing account of the life of privilege of those who seem destined for “better things” from the very start, and creates very credible and nuanced characters. Vaughan is skilled at describing the atmosphere of the government corridors and of the Old Bailey, and as skilled at shining a light on the characters and their motivations. We have those who feel entitled to everything; characters who keep lying to themselves because they feel they got what they wanted and should now be happy with it, even if it has turned out to be far less ideal than they had always thought; the survivors who reinvented themselves and paid the price of never being completely at ease in their skins, and we have big areas of grey. (I think this book would be ideal for a book club, as there is much to discuss and plenty of controversial topics to keep the conversation going). What is a relationship and what is not? What is love and what is only lust? And central to the whole book, a big question, what is consent? Is it a matter of opinion? Although the definition of the crime seems very clear, when it comes to what people think or “know” in their heads at the time, is anything but.

Although the book is told from different perspectives, it is not confusing to read. Each chapter is headed by the name of the character and the date, and we soon get to know who is who, because their narration and their personalities are very different. That does not mean there aren’t plenty of surprises in the book, and although some we might suspect or expect, the story is well paced, the revelations are drip-fed and make the tension increase, and with the exception of one of the characters (hopefully!), it is not difficult to empathise and share in the thoughts and the moral and ethical doubts of most of the characters. We might think we know better and we would do the right thing but determining what the right thing is can be tough in some cases. And we all compromise sometimes, although there are limits.

I have read some reviews complaining about the amount of detail in the book and they also say that it is slow and nothing much happens. The book is beautifully observed, and the way it explains the ins-and-outs of the trial feels realistic. Perhaps the problem is that we are used to books and movies where everything takes place at lightning speed, and there isn’t a moment to contemplate or observe what is truly happening, beyond the action. This is a thinking book, and there are not big action pieces; that much is true. I have mentioned there are surprises. Secrets are revealed as well, but they surface through digging into people’s memories, or getting them to recognise the truth, not with a gun or a punch. The way we connect with the characters and the layers upon layers of stories and emotions make for a gripping reading experience but not a light one. I have sometimes read books or watched movies that have such a frenzied pace that I always come out at the other end with the feeling that I’ve missed something, some gap or hole in the plot that I would be able to discover if only I were given some time to breathe and think, but that is not the case here. Even the turns of events you might not have expected are fully grounded and make perfect sense, both action-wise and according to the personality of the protagonists. No big flights of fancy here.

This is a book for those who love psychological thrillers, and courtroom dramas that go beyond the standard formula. Although it is a book with strong roots in England, the British Criminal Justice System and the country’s politics, it is so well-written that it will make readers from everywhere think and will inevitably bring to mind cases and well-known characters at a national and international level. Now that I live in Spain, I could not help but keep thinking about the infamous case of “La manada”, where definitions of sexual crimes have become a hot political potato, for very good reason. The debate that the #MeToo has generated should be kept alive, and anything that contributes to that is useful, and if it is a great book, all the better.

I know it is silly, but I was happy to discover that I had finished reading the book on exactly the same date when the book comes to an end, 7th of December 2018. I take that as a sign and look forward to reading many more books by the author.

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review 2018-11-05 05:50
Still a classic, but showing its age
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) - James M. McPherson

I first read James McPherson's classic history of the Civil War era when I was in high school. At the time I had a pretty callow understanding of history; because of this, while I took a lot from McPherson's book, many of his arguments and details went largely unappreciated. In the years that followed his book remained on my shelf as a valued resource that I drew from, even as I moved on to more focused studies about the period. Recently, however, a friend's request brought me back to the book for my first cover-to-cover reading of it in decades. This proved an extremely interesting experience, for several reasons.

 

Foremost among them was the opportunity to learn the things I had missed the first time around. I credit this to my maturity, as I have a far greater range of interests than my 17-year-old self ever did. This helped give me a deeper appreciation for McPherson's book, as I saw the balance and nuance he displayed on the numerous topics he addressed.  I also found myself admiring even more so the fluidity of McPherson's presentation of the era and his ability to range from topic to topic in a way that never weakened my engagement with the text.

 

Yet for all of the book's strengths and my increased admiration for them, I also saw flaws that I missed the first time through. Foremost among them is McPherson's scope, for as brilliantly as he covers the lead up to the Civil War and the war itself, this remains his predominant focus. Other subjects relevant to the era, such as cultural developments, are ignored so long as they are irrelevant to his focus on the war and the events leading up to it, making his book less comprehensive than some of the others in the series. Another is the increasingly dated nature of the text. Unlike Robert Middlekauf with his volume on the Revolutionary era, McPherson has stated before that he has little interest in updating his work. Though his decision is understandable in some respects, the absence of the considerable amount of Civil War historiography that has been published over the past three decades erodes its value and will continue to do so as time went along.

 

Because of this, I finished McPherson's book with an appreciation both renewed and more tempered than before. While it remains the single best book on its subject, it is one that is showing its age. I expect that I will turn to it again in the years to come, but when I do it will be an awareness that it no longer can serve as the solitary go-to source for understanding this pivotal era of American history.

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review 2018-09-30 05:52
Catch
I Think I Love You - Lauren Layne

This is book #5, on the Oxford series.  This book can be read as a standalone novel.  To avoid spoilers, and enjoy this amazing series, I recommend reading this in order.

 

Brit and Hunter are best friends.  They work together, and he is her boss, technically.  They make a great team.  So he is the ideal man to ask why everyone friend zones her instead of wants to date her seriously.

 

Hunter has recently noticed Brit as a woman and more than a friend.  Her asking him to teach her seduction is apparently working too well.  Now he has to figure out how to help his best friend without hurting her and their friendship on the way.

 

This was a great end to an incredible series!  I love this author, and all her works.  Always worth reading.  This book was a great fast pace, with some serious humor and side order of heat.  I absolutely adored reading about this couple falling in love.  I give this a 4/5 Kitty's Paws UP!

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review 2018-09-23 05:55
Lyra's Oxford
Lyra's Oxford - Philip Pullman,John Lawrence

When I'm not reading HDM, sometimes I'll wonder if these little companion books are necessary. And then I reread HDM, find myself desperate for more of Lyra and her world and decide, yes, they absolutely are. Now give us the green book already, Philip Pullman.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-04 17:20
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne
The Extraordinary Journeys: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Oxford World's Classics) - Jules Verne

TITLE: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

 

AUTHOR: Jules Verne

 

TRANSLATOR: William Butcher

 

EDITION: Oxford World's Classics

 

DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2009 (reissue)

 

FORMAT: Paperback

 

ISBN-13: 9780199539277

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Description:

"French naturalist Dr Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster, only to discover instead the Nautilus, a remarkable submarine built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Together Nemo and Aronnax explore the underwater marvels, undergo a transcendent experience amongst the ruins of Atlantis, and plant a black flag at the South Pole. But Nemo's mission is one of revenge—and his methods coldly efficient.

This new and unabridged translation by the father of Verne studies brilliantly conveys the novel's varying tones and range. This edition also presents important manuscript discoveries, together with previously unpublished information on Verne's artistic and scientific reference.
"

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Review:

 

When a giant sea creatures starts sinking ships, Dr Aronnax (a marine biologist), his unflappable manservant Conceil, and hot tempered harpooner Ned Land, are invited to join the hunting parting in an attempt to catch it.  Well, things don't go as planned and they end up as the unwilling (sort of) guests of Captain Nemo. Thus commences the fascinating, fast paced, exciting, and at at times, terrifying adventures under the seas (with the occassional land expedition interrupted by cannibals) inside the Nautilus (which is in itself absolutely fascinating).  I love that Verne included such things as an underwater passage between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, Atlantis, pearl fishing, shark hunting, a journey to the South Pole, giant squid and a host of other wierd and wonderful experiences. The relationship between Captain Nemo and Dr Aronnax is particularly fascinating, as is the development of the relationships between the unwilling guests.  Conceil is at times amusing, even though he doesn't intend to be.  Dr Aronnax is a marine biologist so every organism he comes across gets mentioned and classified, along with an encyclopedia worth of facts.  This might annoy some readers, but they can just be skimmed over those bits, though they will miss out on the ocean panarama described.  

 

This is another Jules Verne novel that got butchered and abridged in translation.  This new unabridged translation by William Butcher aims to be faithful to the original French novel and makes use of both manuscripts Verne produced while working on this novel.  I found this translation to be well done, with the narrative flowing smoothly.  The book includes relevant notes, which are of great help when Verne refers to scholars, ships captains, local politics and other goodies.  This edition also has in interesting introduction which discusses certain aspects of the book, what Verne intended with this novel from letters to his publisher, the bits his publisher insisted he change (he was worried about offending the Russians), amongst others.  The extra information adds additional depth to the story and I'm pleased it was included.

 

 

 

 

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