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Brian Whitby (Luzern, Switzerland)

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The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal, 1969-95, and the Search for Peace
The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal, 1969-95, and the Search for Peace
by Tim Pat Coogan
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Laughably one-sided, 7 Jun. 2014
The blurb on the fron cover promised an unbiased, fair account of the troubles - which is what I wanted when I bought the book.

Well, Mr. Coogan, if you want to write an unbiased account, you shouldn't spend a whole chapter raging at the perfidious British denying that their soldiers may sometimes shoot to kill, and then, as 'balance' add a paragraph with a grudging admission that the IRA killed quite a few people as well. You can't write at length about the Outrage of the British government trying to surpress the Panarama journalists and completely fail to mention that the IRA did far, far, worse to any journalist who crossed them. It would obvously surprise Mr. Coogan to learn that, if you're fighting a war, you don't always tell everybody everything about you battle plans. Or that if you spend your time shooting, bombing and otherwise trying to kill people, you shouldn't be surprised if they occasionally shoot back

Furthermore, how can you even keep a straight face when you write that the reason the conflict dragged on as long as it did was the intransient attitude of . . . the British. There was only one side that could have ended the conflict immediately and that was the IRA. We know that because, when the IRA ceasefire was announced in the mid 90's that's exactly what happened; the killing, on both sides, stopped immediately.

I bought this book hoping for an insight into the conflict and, in a sense, that's what I got. The main reason the conflict dragged on so long is that the island of Ireland contains people like Mr. Coogan; unable to admit, or perhaps even understand, that their side can do anything wrong, or that the other side might have a point..
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 6, 2014 5:51 PM BST


The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is England, 25 May 2014
This review is from: The Casual Vacancy (Hardcover)
I bought this book knowing absolutely nothing about it, other than that it had been written by the author of the popular Harry Potter books. What I read shocked. moved and impressed me in equal measure, but most importantly kept me turning the pages, desparate to find out more about the denizens of Pagford.

Firstly, and most importantly, THIS IS A BOOK FOR ADULTS, mainly because of the absolutely filthy language that many of the characters use. I understand why Rowling did this, but it's also a shame because no-one gets the way teenagers think the way she does. I'm sure troubled teenagers all over Britain (and is there any other kind?) would benefit from reading the book, but the constant barrage of F-bombs and C-bullets JKR unleashes means that many of them might not get the chance - at least, if their parents have anything to do with it.

Secondly, the first hundred pages of this book are heavy going, purely because of the number of characters Rowling has to introduce. On several occasions I had to stop and re-read earlier sections, just to make sure I knew who was married to whom, who was whose daughter-in-law, and so on. JKR keeps you going through this sticky first section of the book with her darkly comic assides and turns of phrase. Imagine Jane Austen watching Big Brother.

And so we come to the main body of the book, and to its greatest selling point. JK Rowling is simply a brilliantly gifted storyteller. So if you're literary-minded and wishing to pick fault you can point to the odd clumsy phrase and over-used metaphor, but you'd be missing the point. Everything she has every written, from the first Harry Potter book onwards, has a tank-like ability to make you keep turning the pages, wanting to know more. If you think this is easy to do, try writing a book yourself - I can assure you that JK Rowlings mastery of story-telling is a very rare, and precious, gift. You can imagine yourself having a conversation with, or administering a good kicking to, all the characters in the book - indeed you actually find yourself yearning for the opportunity to do so. How often can you say that about a book?

Two hundred years from now, I can imagine people reading this book, the same way we read 'Vanity Fair' or 'Oliver Twist' today. What will these future readers say? First of all "Thank God things are much better today', and secondly "You know what - this is a REALLY good book."


Admiral Hornblower: Flying Colours, The Commodore, Lord Hornblower, Hornblower in the West Indies
Admiral Hornblower: Flying Colours, The Commodore, Lord Hornblower, Hornblower in the West Indies
by C. S. Forester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A fitting end to a great series, 19 Jan. 2014
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These four books describe the latter career of the near-legendary Hornblower. The first three ('Flying colours', 'The Commodore' and 'Lord Hornblower') are very different from the half dozen that precede them; mainly because our naval hero spends most of his time on dry land! At a stroke, therefore, CS Forester robs us of one of the great assets of this series of books - the details of naval life, the mysterious nautical jargon ("I fear the wind's about to wear another point, Mr Bush. I'd be obliged if you'd put a second reef in the tops'ls...") which few modern readers understand, but all love to read.

Another reason to fear Hornblower being stuck on dry land is that it gives him the opportunity to meet women: invariably his world collapses and he begins to devote his undoubted energy into either commiting adultery or feeling guilty about it afterwards... These passages are well written and will strike a chord with anyone who has ever been in a relationship and begun to suspect that the grass might be greener on the other side of the fence (which means most adults, I would suspect) but is this sort of thing the reason why we read Hornblower? It's my opinion that 'Lord Hornblower' is the weakest book of the series and the only one that is, for long periods, actually a bit boring.

The dark heart of this omnibus edition is 'The Commodore', perhaps the most interesting Hornblower book of them all. It ends with our hero, who had marked the start of the war by dancing for joy through the streets of Portsmouth, literally sick of war; he seems to realise for the first time that the orders he gives result in the horrible deaths of young men, of whom he has grown fond. The book also contains a facinating insight into the life of the Russian czar in his palaces; at first Hornblower (and the reader) is dazzled by its opulence and luxury - slowly he realises that none of the food served is ever properly hot and that everyone, servants and nobility alike, is infested with lice.

What saves this ominbus, however, is the final book, describing our hero's adventures in the West Indies in the early 1820s. Like a fine dessert at the end of a good meal, it refreshes the palate. Hornblower is back at sea, in charge of a crew of genuine volunteers; racing across the Caribbean on exciting missions to prevent wars, free slaves and arrest pirates. After all the mud, the blood and the guilt, we've finally got our hero back. And who knows, perhaps we'll even get an answer to the greatest Hornblower question of all; what was he really doing in the hold of the Renown when Captain Sawyer fell down that open hatch?


Captain Hornblower R.N.: Hornblower and the 'Atropos', The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line
Captain Hornblower R.N.: Hornblower and the 'Atropos', The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line
by C. S. Forester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.79

5.0 out of 5 stars "I'll flog the first man who doesn't like this book", 14 Dec. 2013
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I loved the Hornblower books as a teenager. Nearly 40 years later, I noticed the omnibus editions for sale on Amazon and decided to reacquaint myself with Forester's near-legendary naval hero.

Re-reading the books as an adult gave me just as much pleasure as they had all those years ago. I was almost punching the air with delight as Hornblower effected his brilliant escape from Marmorice Bay. I desperately wished I could have been there to share the glory as the Lydia was towed into action, hornpipes being danced on her main deck, at the end of her gruelling fight with the Natividad. I wanted to beg Hornblower not to steer the Sutherland, badly battered but still seaworthy and with her crew largely unharmed, towards those two French ships-of-the-line.

However, as an adult I found there was much more to these books than I had first noticed. The sections dealing with Hornblower's relationship with the two women in his life are both true to life and heart-breaking. It's fascinating to read how Hornblower sees himself; we all know he's a hero and the best damned officer in the Service, he thinks he's a charlatan just one small slip-up away from being court martialled and disgraced. I now have a (minor) managerial job and realise just how good these books are on leadership and motivation - better than most management textbooks.

I have just one quibble about the omnibus edition - the cover illustration. Hornblower was only 29 when he took command of the Atropos and 34 when patrolling the coast of Catalonia in the Sutherland (although Forester got himself a little confused on the subject of his hero's age...) and would have looked nothing like the stern elderly man pictured. More importantly, he would NEVER wear his cocked hat in that lubberly Frenchified manner...

It's a cliché to say that this book is for 'boys of all ages'. Of course boys and men will love the action and adventure in these books, but as I hope I've indicated in this review, there's so much more. A masterpiece of excitement and utter readability.


A New Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations
A New Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations
by Clive Ponting
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Humans are rubbish, 14 April 2012
To say Clive Ponting is the sort of man who says a glass is half-empty is an understatement. Cheerful Clive would also point out that the rim is crawling with germs and that if you were to drop the glass, you would get a razor-sharp weapon that could slice you to pieces. Who but the most determined pessimist would finish an account of the eradication of smallpox, one of mankind's few genuine success stories, with the remark that the absence of the disease means that we are now losing whatever natural immunity we once had. Should the disease ever return we would be absolutely helpless, and billions would suffer agonising death, blindness or other disabilities. Well thanks for that thought, Clive.

I bought this book expecting a well-written piece of popular science, a la Bill Bryson. What I got was an extremely dry trudge through centuries of misery. You want interesting turns of phrases, engaging facts, a few anecdotes and pen-portraits of leading personalities? Sorry, not in this book.

Mr Ponting's chief point seems to be that humans are rubbish, and that it would be better if we had never existed. He paints a strangely rosy picture of the hunter-gatherer phase of human development. (Apparently everyone then lived in harmony with nature, was happy and well-fed. Imagine no possessions, maan.) However, even with only stone-age weapons and tools, mankind managed to wipe out most of Earth's large land-dwelling animals. Then came the invention of agriculture, which was an inmitigated disaster. As was everything that has happened since.

I cannot contest Mr Ponting's conclusions. Mankind surely faces huge challenges, and climatic change (which I agree is probably caused by human activities) is one of the most serious - along with, in my opinion, access to drinking-quality water. But every problem has a solution and it is Mr. Ponting's absolute refusal to discuss any sort of solution that made me finally lose patience with this book. Maybe he truly sees no way out, but in that case why bother to write a book? Why not just kill yourself? More likely, in my opinion, is that he didn't want to allow the slightest ray of light to fall upon this dark, depressed, self-hating and above all hopeless view of human history.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 6, 2014 1:23 AM GMT


Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War
by Robert Kinloch Massie
Edition: Paperback

20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A glorious waste, 31 May 2005
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A huge but amazingly readable account of the political manoeuvrings between Great Britain and Germany in the years leading up to WW1.
There is much to recommend this book. It is brilliantly written and sustains the reader's attention through every one of its 900 or so pages. The portraits of the various characters are masterful and unforgettable, as are the writer's descriptions of the various set-pieces within his story. To take just one example, the portrayal of the Battle of Trafalgar, in the book's preface, is so superbly written as to almost qualify as poetry.
However, having finished the book I was left with a number of grave doubts as to whether, apart from its entertainment value, reading it had been worthwhile.
Most seriously, the final two chapters make it clear that war between Britain and Germany would almost certainly have occurred even had the Germans never built a single ship! This invalidates the author's main point; that the German Naval building programme (and the British response) was a major cause of the disaster that engulfed Europe in 1914.
Secondly, the author's decision to treat the whole period purely in terms of the personalities and machinations of the leading statesmen is inexplicable. What were the effects of this massive Naval expenditure on the British and more particularly the German economies? Did the German decision to create such a large Navy waste resources that could have been spent making their land forces even stronger? (Given the narrow margin between victory and defeat in the land campaign of 1914, an extra 50,000 soldiers on the ground in France might have enabled the Germans to capture Paris, push the BEF back across the Chennel and win the war before Christmas.) I've heard it said that the huge military expenditure in Germany pre 1914 created such economic problems that a short, sharp war actually appeared to be a reasonable financial instrument - what does Mr. Massie think of this theory?
It is clear, as the British pointed out at the time, that the German Navy was designed for one task only - to fight the Royal Navy in the North Sea. Did the German people and press even think about this? And what did they think in general about Britain? Again, we are not told.
Finally, could Mr. Massie learn the difference between 'England' and 'Britain'? I can imagine Scottish, Welsh and Irish readers throwing away this book in disgust...
However, I don't want to finish this review of this fascinating book on too sour a note. It portrays graphically to the general reader what happens when a new Great Power, backed by a large and intensely patriotic population and a formidable manufacturing base, rises to challenge the established World Order. For this reason alone it should be essential reading in both Washington and Peking.


Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Cholera
by Gabriel García Márquez
Edition: Paperback

30 of 53 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Interminable drivel, 27 Aug. 2001
One definition of an author is 'someone who spends 80,000 words telling a story for which a normal person would only need 80'. In this case, Marquez is certainly one of the greatest authors there is.
I wanted to like this book, but was unable to form any sort of relationship with any of the characters. Apart from maybe love-sick Florentino, who I wanted to punch repeatedly in the face. Allied to this there are long periods in the book when NOTHING WHATSOEVER HAPPENS. Perhaps this was the author's way of representing the stultifyingly boring nature of life in turn-of-the-century Columbia. Or maybe it's just that this is a stultifyingly boring book.
In addition to the boredom, the reader of this book has to contend with page after page of romantic macho posturing. This becomes particularly unpleasant in the section in which the author implies, apparently without any qualms, that a 14-year old girl being bedded by a 60-year old man is perfectly normal, and something that every healthy girl secretly wants.
I don't know about Mr. Marquez, but having struggled to the end of this book, I feel that it is I that deserve a Nobel prize.


The Dreaming
The Dreaming
Price: £32.85

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Play it LOUD, 27 Dec. 1999
This review is from: The Dreaming (Audio CD)
...note the message Kate left on the original album sleeve - and now at the back of the CD booklet: "This record was made to be played loud". It is definitely NOT background music - treat it as such and most of the tracks sound, quite honestly, a bit of a disjointed mess. But if you crank up the volume it all gets very weird, and very wonderful. Who cares if no-one 'got it' in 1982? They were probably all busy listening to Duran Duran at the time...


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