FAULKS LEAVES US STRANDED, WITH A WEEK IN DECEMBER.

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A week in DecmbrIf you’re familiar with Ralph McTell then you’ll know in 1969 he took us by the hand and led us through the streets of London. After that, others such as Cliff Richard, Sinead O’Connor and Roger Whittaker, have also led us through the fabled streets of the English capital, while covering the song.

In 2006 Maeve Binchy took us under London’s fog bound streets in Victoria Line, Central Line. Re-titled London Transports for our unimaginative yankee cousins, who couldn’t get their heads around the simple title of a book set on the London train network. Americans obviously don’t read the blurb on the back of books! Then in 2010, the best selling author Sebastian Faulks, decided we needed to spend ‘A Week in December’ on the London underground.

This is the novel my book group was presented with for March, as the self explanatory title states this book has us spending the third week in December following the lives of seven characters (ahem), whose lives are all connected by the central line on the London underground.  There’s John Veals, a hedge fund manager trying to make a quick killing on the markets, while Vic line Cent Linedestroying the world economy in the process; Tadeusz “Spike” Borowski, an eastern european professional footballer finding his feet in the premiership; Gabriel Northwood, a young barrister trying to get over the memories of an old flame; Hassan Al Rashid, a student being radicalised by an Islamist faction; Roger Tranter, a book reviewer hoping to win a major literary prize. Also John Veal’s son Finbar, a drug and reality TV addicted school boy and finally the character that links them together, Jenni Fortune, a train driver on the central line getting over a suicide involving her train and who worries about her out of work brother.

Faulks may have been trying to copy the success of Binchy’s book. What he ended up doing was producing a rather messy attempt. How?  Well, Binchy’s book, like her previous compilation of short stories, ‘The Lilac Bus’, set on a rural bus route in Ireland, had each of the characters stories nicely rounded into a chapter each or as in the case of ‘Central Line, Victoria Line’, set around a particular stop on the tube line. Faulks has his stories clumsily chopped and intermingled all over the place  as the days progress so that just as you get into one story it jumps to another and you have to remember what’s happening.

The blurb on the back, said the book follows seven characters. Well each of these actually have four or five others who interact regularly and distract from the story and get large chunks of  chapters dedicated to them, a couple prime examples are Sophie Topping and her husband Lance, a recently elected local MP and rising political star. Their sole aim seems to be hosting a dinner party at the end of the week at which four of the characters will attend along with a gaggle of others, who just seem to exist as page fillers.

Then there’s the uneven allocation of space, with lots of space given over to certain characters and not enough to others. Veal’s story for example, takes up almost half the book and if Faulks had put his mind to it, he could have got a full novel out of this character. While Borowski the soccer play gets at most ten pages of story all the way through the book, his story, like that of Veal’s son Finbar, rather limps through the book with no real conclusion. The same goes for that of Hassan, the English born Muslim kid being radicalised. Here again, is another ideal opportunity to write a rather enthralling and taut full length thriller. But as the narrative leads  up to the bombing of a fictional London hospital, (Which is being targeted  for no apparent reason, other than it is full of white people), where a number of the other characters have  found themselves in the course of every day life, it whimpers out to nothing when Hassan gets second thoughts.

The nicest story of the whole book is that of the blossoming love affair between Jenni Fortune and Gabriel Northwood. Gabriel is representing Transport For London, the company who run the underground. In a case brought by the suicide victim’s family. we are led nicely through their relationship over the course of the seven days which, in anyone’s book is a whirlwind romance to say the least, then just as you get that funny warm feeling for the two characters and happy that they are finding true love… the book ends, leaving the reader hanging. What happens next? Do they live happily ever after? This again is a theme through the book, with most of the stories, they stop dead; with no epilogue as to what happens after midnight on the Saturday when the dinner party ends… We never know whether Veal’s deal goes through…

This is what keeps the reader turning the pages, the expectancy of what might happen. One classic technique used by Faulks is that of a mysterious cyclist dressed in black with no lights on their bike who speeds along the pavement forcing each of the characters to jump out of his or her way. But again, this individual appears to have no role in the book except to nearly run down all the characters.

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These characters are here to be lampooned and it came out at the discussion in the book group that the sole aim of this book was for Faulks to “have a go” at these types of people. He seemingly hates wealthy financial types who play risky games with our money to line their own nests; book critics (Oh well, I’ll be in the next book, represented as an online faceless blogger!) and  cyclists who speed around pavements with no lights on.

So all in all, you’re getting the picture that I was not impressed by A Week in December. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a Sebastian Faulks book. I read his 2008 James bond novel Devil May Care, commissioned by the Ian Fleming Foundation to commemorate the writer’s 100th birthday.  I was rather disappointed, after reading Fleming’s books and the follow-on series by John Gardner. Faulks’ attempt was a lack lustre affair with no memorable storyline and very little in the way of gadgets or excitement, which Fleming and Gardner had delivered on and which the film going public had grown up with over on the past 25 years.

Seb faulksSo I’m not surprised by how this Faulks book turned out. Take my advice-‘mind the gaps’ in the story-telling and miss this stop to avoid the over crowded platform or if you haven’t done so already, change here for Binchy’s Victoria Line, Central Line.

(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com 2013)

MILLER HITS THE RIGHT NOTE FIRST TIME WITH SONG OF ACHILLES, DESPITE A FEW WOBBLES NEAR THE END.

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Sng of AchillesThe Greeks have always been seen as leaders in the world, the inventors of things which are now so intrinsically a part of society. Whether it is the Olympics, mathematics, psychology, geometry, science, medicine, democracy, astronomy, language, coinage, Macedonian calendar, the list goes on. Even today as I write this piece, the Greeks and their Cypriot cousins are at the forefront of European fiscal instability.

Before all that though, there was one thing we have that they gave us, which every country has in its own unique way. But Greek Mythology is read and recognized across the globe. We’ve all heard of and maybe read all or parts of the Greek Iliad and Odyssey. If you haven’t, why haven’t you? Maybe you didn’t realize you were reading Greek history? Well, now here’s a great opportunity to get into it in an easy way. In 2011 Madeline Miller wrote her debut novel The Song of Achilles and in 2012 it went on to win the Orange Prize for Fiction beating a shortlist which included such household names as Irish author, Anne Enright and American author, Ann Pachett, who’d previously won the competition ten years earlier.

The book tells the story of Patroclus a shy prince who is exiled from his father’s kingdom after murdering the son of a courtier in apparent self defence. He strikes up a friendship with Achilles the heir to the throne  of the kingdom he has been sent to in disgrace. Achilles is the son of a mortal father, King Pelus and the sea goddess Thetis. Realising that unlike him, not every Greek prince is interested in fighting, he takes Patrolus under his wing, much to the disapproval of his mother. Achilles then is sent up into the hills to be tutored by the centaur Chiron and it is here that Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship develops. Then the Trojans kidnap Helen of Sparta and Achilles must go to war with his reluctant consort in tow. The war will test their relationship and fulfil a prophecy and their destiny.

This book is a fantastic read, a real page turner from start to finish. If I had to describe it in one sentence, it’s Brokeback Mountain in Greece. They basically go up a mountain as young boys and come down men and lovers. In ancient Greek this type of socially acceptable relationship was known as “pederasty“. Although if the thought of reading a book that describes in detail the pseudo erotic ways of the Greeks back then, maybe you should steer clear. However, we are well aware the way they did things back then. The body was honoured and toned – you oiled it up regularly and went wrestling or running with just a loin cloth on and bare feet. Sex was encouraged and like the Romans they indulged in orgies and didn’t really care whether you loved men, women or both.

Times were different back then, hence the term a “Greek Achilles & PatroclusTragedy“, death was always at the fore front of the stories, the taking of life whether it was justified or innocent was a norm and in this book there is nothing different. In an earlier book group discussion about Rendezvous with Rama I stated that for that type of genre it was unusual for no one to die. Well in this story the body count starts well before page fifty and climbs steadily after that, not just men and soldiers, but women and young girls are sacrificed.

As for the characters in this book, the only ones who really matter are Patroclus, Achilles and his mother Thetis, who comes across as your archetypal mother in-law always interfering in things that don’t involve her, but this is ancient Greece and the gods have to have a hand in everything. If this was a pantomime she’d be a cross between the Ugly Sister and the Wicked Witch of the West and all the way through the book, I felt like shouting, “She’s behind you!!!“. Her role only goes to support my view that if this was a modern story Achilles would come across as real mummies boy.

There are two things that go against the book, the first is what appears to be the glaring inaccuracy of Achilles’ death, everyone whose anyone knows that your “Achilles heel” is your weak point, a chink in your armour so to speak and the term derives from Achilles being killed by an Arrow to his heel which was his weak point. But according to Miller’s book, it was an arrow that pierced his armour, not his heel. Secondly the ending of this book is a bit of a let down, it’s rather Disney-esque. As the final pages are narrated by Patroclus in spirit form and describes how after his death Achilles wanted to be buried with Patroclus, but his son Pyrrhus refuses. Suddenly a page later Thetis moves from in front of the tomb where Achilles ashes are buried and there on the headstone is both their names where before it had just been Achilles.

Prompting discord … The Song of Achilles author Madeline Miller.

This book is a work of faction; Miller has a BA and MA in Latin and Ancient Greek so sense she knows what she’s talking about. This is an abridged version of Homers Iliad of sorts and more or less tells the story or a facet of those books. As to Whether Achilles and Patroclus where really lovers is an ongoing dispute among experts, what I can tell you is that these three hundred and fifty pages of Greek influence will not threaten your long-term bank balance.

(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com  2013)

ADIGA BUILDS ON THE SUCCESS OF WHITE TIGER, BUT SUFFERS FROM OVER CROWDING.

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lst man in towerYou’re probably not too familiar with the Sahitya Akademi or its numerous literary awards. It’s India’s national academy of letters, established in 1954, with the aim of promoting Indian literature and its twenty four languages, including English.  In the past couple of years original Indian literature and Indian based literature has been pushed onto the international stage with the adaptations of Vikas Swarups ‘Q&A’ by Danny Boyle into ‘Slumdog Millionaire and Deborah Moggach’s, ‘These Foolish Things’ into ‘The Best Little Marigold Hotel’. In 2008, India’s literary industry was given a welcome boost internationally when Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, ‘The White Tiger won the Booker Prize.

Adiga’s third novel,’ Last Man in Tower was published in 2011. Set in the thriving metropolis of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) it follows the residents of an aging tower block who are caught up in the development boom taking place in the city, when they are offered a lottery winning sum to sell their apartments to a local developer. But there’s a catch. Every member of the block or society must agree or the deal will fall through. They’ve all lived together in the same building for years and their lives have become interlinked. But when a number of them refuse to sell, led by Yogesh A. Murthy, a retired school teacher and widower known as “Masterji”, friendships start to break down and friends and neighbours stoop to new levels of depravity to find out whose agreed and who’s holding out. In the end it’s the whole block against Masterji. Will he finally give in and sign or will it take a little bit more persuasion?

The story itself it’s not a new one. Walt Disney’s, “Herbie Rides Again” gave the same theme a rather funny run in the 1974 film with Ken Berry and Stephanie Powers. Although in Last Man in Tower, Adiga’s excellent narrative of the hustle and bustle of every day life in the over populated city is fantastic and you can actually feel yourself immersed in the hot sweaty routine of Indian life.

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As for the main character Masterji, he initially comes across as a poor elderly gent being bullied out of the apartment he’s shared with his late wife and family for years. Then, as the story moves on you realise there’s no real reason for his not biting the developer Dahmen Shah’s hand off like his neighbours, except bloody-minded stubbornness. It’s easy to see Shah cast as the big greedy land grabbing baddie of the piece, but in the end he is a man of his word. If there’s an untrustworthy character it’s his “left hand man” Shanmugham.

Any book that requires two pages at the front of it to identify the avrind adigacharacters in the story is heading for trouble. Ok, so you get to realise rather quickly the main characters are Masterji and his neighbours the Pintos but then another twenty characters move in and out of the story on a regular basis, requiring you to stop and think: who is he, she, they? It does become a bit annoying after a while.

The book is a bit of a tome, with its four hundred pages, into which nine books are crammed in much the same way as the residents of the building it’s written about.  I liked the overall story; it reads easily enough despite the linguistic gymnastics caused by the names and is well worth a read.

(First Published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com 2013)

RAMA SHOWS ITS AGE IN A HARMLESS TALE OF A SIMPLE PITSTOP

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rendezvous-with-rama-book-coverThe first weeks of January are rather like embarking on a journey. According to Lao Tsu “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” and so this brings me to this month’s book club read, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke along with Isaac Asimov were the leading science fiction writers of there time; still today they are held in high regard for their ground breaking insights into the future development of space travel. Clarke alone wrote 62 books on the subject. He’s best known for his book 2001 a Space Odyssey and is also seen as the person responsible for the modern communication satellite.

Originally written in 1973 Rendezvous with Rama is set in future, 2131 to be precise. Space travel is quite advanced, so much so that we have colonized the Moon as well as Mars and have discovered life on other planets in the solar system, along with developing working relationships with them. When a radar station on Mars detects a large object entering our solar system a probe is sent to investigate; what it finds is a large cylindrical ship. Due to having exhausted the Greek and Roman mythologies for names of celestial bodies the astronomers name this visitor Rama after the Hindu god of courage. Commander Norton and the crew of the space ship Endeavour are sent to investigate, what they find inside is a world with cities, oceans and seasons, but no life. Where are the crew, where has it come from and where is it going? The answers to these questions will have repercussions for both mankind and the other inhabitants of the galaxy.

 

This is the first book in a quadrilogy, it was meant to be a one off but in 1989 Clarke wrote Rama II with Gentry Lee, then in 1991 and 1993 they wrote Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed. Lee subsequently wrote two further Rama books. The descriptive writing in Rendezvous with Rama is brilliant, you do struggle to get your minds eye around the size of a vessel which is somewhere in range of 50 – 60 miles long by 30 miles wide.  At the start you’re filled with anticipation at a possible first contact with visitors from another world and I was galloping through numerous scenarios as to what the crew of the Endeavour would find inside. The story of what they might find in this mysterious vessel is intriguing. But that’s where it ends because nothing happens, until the end when the ship continues on its merry way having done nothing more threatening then recharge it’s engines with solar energy from the sun….

The book is short at 246 pages and the chapters are never more then 2 – 8 pages long, theoretically it could be read in one or two sittings. But overall I found it showed its 40 years, in the storytelling and plotting, one of the crew is seemingly able to disarm a guided long range missile with a pair of wire cutters !!!! (I Think there’d be a bit more to it then that, even one hundred years in the future).

There’s no real drama, when they do encounter machines inside Rama they pose no real threat and take no real notice of the crew; readers of this generation would probably find it boring and tame, why? Well for one reason no one dies, someone dies in any film or TV programme of this genre now a days. Star Trek which had been up and running on television for seven years before Clarke wrote Rama, had some un-named member of the crew die in almost every episode.

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As for the characters, they are nondescript. We get to know very little about them bar some minor back story. Only Commander Norton has some sort of history and is an almost exact replica of Captain James T. Kirk, being portrayed as a sort of womanizer, with two wives and families one on Earth and the other on Mars (Not exactly out of the ordinary back in the seventies).

When Rama was originally written, we’d been to the moon, but further space exploration and whether there was life out there beyond the stars was still a fantasy. We’ve since had the explosion of science fiction on the big and small screen as well as in computer gaming and it’s this that has sated and fueled our hunger for space adventures and drama of which this book has none.

But before you pass on a Rendezvous with Rama. Remember it AAJV001052was intended as a stand alone, possibly to leave you wondering. But now it’s the first in a series and as you read the final pages, where the crew of Endeavour watch Rama round the sun and disappear off into space, you do ask yourself where is it going? This has made me and should hopefully make you want to read the other books. Because from what I’ve read online and heard from various sources they are more plot and character driven, as well as exciting and do hopefully answer these questions.

(First Published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com 2013)

NESBO TRYS TO HELP HARRY BURY THE PAST IN PHANTOM

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phantom-jo-nesboIt’s that time of year again when we try to lay the ghosts of the past year and prepare ourselves for the fresh bright new days of 2013. The dark, cold winter evenings are at their height and if it’s not snowing (it’s been two years since we had a white Christmas in Ireland), then its either raining or blowing a gale. The perfect reason to stay in by the radiator with a good book.  Another person trying to rid himself of the ghosts of his past and wishing he was back in a warm climate is ex police inspector Harry Hole (pronounced Hool). Norwegian Crime writer Jo Nesbo’s creation is now in his ninth book, Phantom. But at time of reviewing this, the tenth Harry Hole book has been translated into english.

Phantom finds harry back in his native Oslo far from his current life as a debt collector for a Hong Kong Businessman. He’s a changed man following his run in with the serial killer “The Snowman”, both mentally and physically. The events of the previous two books have ripped his life apart. He returns to a different Oslo that he worked the streets as a leading police detective; the city is now in the grip of a new drug.

Harry had no intention of returning, but when Oleg the son of his ex girlfriend Rakel is found guilty of murdering a Junkie. He feels he has no option but to try to re-open a seemingly straightforward case of murder. It’s easier said then done as the Oslo police, once his colleagues now don’t want a bumbling, on the wagon, ex cop walking all over their case. But harry is never one to take no for an answer and goes about attempting to solve the case in his usual unorthodox way, while trying to re kindle the relationship between himself and Rakel. On top of all this, his every movement his being watched and somebody wants him dead.

You have to hand it to Jo Nesbo his writing is vivid and the situations he gets harry into are tension filled but also slightly madcap. In one instance in the book he goes about plundering the grave of the victim in the dead of night with a straight laced lawyer for assistance. Which then turns into a pursuit across the city dressed in the same muddy, sweat and blood stained suit he’s been wearing for days, with a large cut on his neck which is stitched Rambo style with sewing thread and reinforced with gaffer tape, making him appear to the minds eye like a sort of cross between Frankenstein and John McClane. He’s also carrying the large scar from a previous encounter years ago on his cheek, talk about having that “lived-in” look. Not forgetting Harry is also supposed to be quite and blonde, that is until Tom Cruise gets his hands on the role.

Jo again delivers another great read, with harry back on familiar jo nesboground and leading us up and down the mysterious streets of Oslo. I’ve never been but after reading a number of these books I’d like to walk in Harry’s footsteps through the almost unpronounceable street names and areas of the city. If there’s one down side to the book it’s the whole chapters given over too one of the minor characters in the book talking to his dead father which stop-starts the whole story.

So if your looking to escape the festive hula-baloo, then take up a glass of one warming spirit and follow harry and his into the new year.

(First published  www.murphysview.blogspot.com  2012)

JORDAN DELIVERS A DOUBLE DOSE OF DUBLIN LIFE WITH MISTAKEN

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Mistaken cvrThey say everyone has a double in the world. Even if it’s from behind, we’ve often heard stories of people running up to total strangers, tapping them on the shoulder and greeting them like long lost friends. Only for the stranger to turn around and leave the greeter stumped and embarrassed when they realise they’re facing a total stranger. I’ve done it myself, with some very embarrassing consequences.  This is the premise for Irish Film director Neil Jordan’s fifth book “Mistaken”.

Kevin Thunder has a look-a-like, Gerald Spain; they live on different sides of Dublin city. Kevin lives on the Northside and Gerald on the Southside.  But Kevin is forever being mistaken for Gerald, he’s thrown out of amusement arcades, accused of shoplifting and meets girls Gerald has dated and who mistake him for the Southside charmer, eventually he deliberately starts interloping into Gerald’s life. Kevin’s life is that of an only child to a near permanently absent bookmaker father and a loving mother who goes swimming daily and takes in lodgers in a house next door to where Bram Stoker lived.

Gerald grows up in an affluent family on the Southside where he goes to one of the best schools in Ireland and goes on to be a famous writer. We then through the eyes of Kevin and his recanting to Emily, Gerald’s daughter retrace their strange lives and how their paths criss-crossed over the years for good and bad.

The book was recently presented to my local book group and it is a great read, this being echoed by the majority of the group. I found it a nice easy read with a great tour round almost every part of Dublin and a few foreign places. As you would expect from an accomplished film director and scriptwriter it is well written. I found it strangely erotic in his descriptions of the central characters shared romantic involvement, more so then Fifty Shades. Also it’s a very exciting concept, innocently walking into someone else’s life pretending to be them and successfully carrying it off without even trying, it’s like a voyeurs wet dream.

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Of the two main characters, Gerald is rather washed over, and so are his family, but there is a good explanation for this. The story jumps back and forth through time and geographically when told through one main character, if we’d had it told through both characters the reader would have probably got confused very quickly and given up on the book, this is something Jordan has learned from his film work and from the basic premise of all story telling, “KISS” – keep it simple stupid.

You do start to wonder how these two can look so a like and there were thoughts of something a kin to the “Time Travellers wife” by Audrey Niffenegger or the result of weird medical experiments, when all in all it’s actually a rather mundane reason for their shared resemblances. The minor downsides to this book are some very woefully editing, which was picked by other members of the book group, including the misspelling of the name of a very well known Italian restaurant in Dublin and the re-routing of a certain bus route in south Dublin.

There are a couple of characters who should maybe have been cut from the story in the drafting process, namely Daragh a friend of Kevin’s who suffers a breakdown after getting caught up in their sordid double life and the recurring ghost of Bram Stoker which does nothing to drive the story on.

Overall this is a great read from a master story-teller of the celluloid Neil jordanand print genres, so open this book and let your voyeuristic side out and lose yourself in the back waters and thoroughfares of  Dublin’s fair city.

(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com  2012)

THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER, LIKE HER FATHER. RUNS AWAY FROM CEZAIR THOMPSON AND LEAVES READERS HIGH AND DRY.

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Capt. PugwashPirates have for decades had a sort of pantomime feel to them especially in literature. Thanks to the likes of Long John Silver, Captain Pugwash, parrots and pieces of eight. But in reality they never lost their fearsome bloodlust,  they just started wearing t-shirts and cut-off jeans , dumped cutlasses for Uzi’s and AK 47’s  and made the  coast of Somalia a no go area, thanks to the reach of 24/7 news. While on the silver screen, the swashbuckler’s of old had lost their appeal until Disney and Captain Jack Sparrow, allowed them to remerge and capture a new audience. But before Johnny Depp, there were a few very successful pirate actors. The off screen life of one of them, Errol Flynn is the basis for Margaret Cezair Thompson’s book, ‘The Pirates Daughter’.

Cezair Thompson’s second book tells the story of a young Pirates dghtrJamaican girl called Ida Joseph, who is lives a simple life on the Caribbean island in 1946 when Hollywood film star Errol Flynn is run aground in his boat during a hurricane. He immediately falls in love with the island and with the help of Ida’s dad, Eli, a local entrepreneur cum ‘Delboy’.  He sets up home and starts bringing the cream of Hollywood to the island as well as his playboy antics. He soon charms the young teen and ends up getting her pregnant. But then he goes back to America to film and when he returns he’s married to another woman and goes about avoiding her. The book goes on to tell the story of how she strives to raise her daughter May and get on with their lives with the ghost like presence of Flynn in the background, even in death.

The writing in the book is very descriptive and immediately immerses you into the tropical, spice rich life of Jamaica. This was a sentiment expressed by the book group when it was presented recently. It comes across as a well researched piece of fiction, which it is but that’s a grey area as the life and loves of Errol were numerous and regularly got him in trouble.  But where the book falls down is that it is overrun with characters and on a number of occasions I found myself getting slightly waylaid while trying to figure out who was who.

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Something else myself and the other members of the group agreed on, was that this book was about a hundred pages too long. I personally think the book loses its sole purpose when the central character is killed off. Not Errol’s fault just Cezair Thompson’s mis-alignment of the story chronologically and her clumsy attempts to wing  some sort of a romantic story on the memory of Errol Flynn.

Cezair thompsonSo before you set sail in this book, beware it’s more a slow boat to china then a fanciful adventure based on the sordid rum soaked later life of a movie icon.

(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com 2012)