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Paul D "Paul" (Darwen, Lancashire)

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Life After Life
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.49

4.0 out of 5 stars A Life Well-Lived, 22 Aug 2013
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This review is from: Life After Life (Hardcover)
What if you had the chance to live your life again, and again and again, until you got it right? That is the premise of Kate Atkinson's latest novel, Life After Life. During a storm in 1910, a young girl is born dead. Then she is born again, and lives. As she goes through her life, she makes mistakes, as people do, but when someone goes badly wrong, and she pays with her life, we return with her to that fateful night in 1910 as she is born again, and again. Through the First World War, through an exciting adolescence during the nineteen-twenties and 'thirties and on into and through the Second World War, and beyond. Ursula, the little bear of the family, lives out not just a life, but lives, experiencing the world as it is and as it can be, each time learning a little more, each time dimly aware of possibilities, and memories, that aren't quite clear.

The unusual premise of this novel allows the writer to explore various moments in world history. In one version, Ursula becomes a welcome visitor to the Führer's mountain retreat. In another, she experiences the blitz in London at very close hand. She has marriages, affairs, friendships, always with the sense of other lives half-lived, half-remembered. As well as the focus on momentous world events, Atkinson has also created a very believable portrait of a well-to-do bourgeois family, some dependable, others, like black sheep Isobel, with more than just the odd skeleton in the closet. Atkinson has a gift for both narrative and character, and even the multitude of lives never get away from her.

Throughout this intriguing novel, the first by Ms Atkinson that I've read, the prose, clear but never dull, keeps us reading, always keen to know where Ursula's unusual modus vivendi will take her next. If the grammar could be improved - Ms Atkinson seems very keen on the comma splice - the narrative is always precise and enjoyable. A very enjoyable popular read.


The Teleportation Accident
The Teleportation Accident
Price: 5.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Funny Novel, 3 May 2013
In nineteen-thirties Berlin, a dark force is coming to power. And it's not the one you might expect. Egon Loesser is a theatre designer struggling to make a name for himself in the avant-garde of experimental theatre, with its Expressionists and New Expressionists, its temperamental stars and playwrights. Then he catches sight of Adele Hitler - no relation - and knows he has to make her his. This isn't quite as easy as it sounds, however, as Adele seems intent on bedding every man she can find, other than Loesser himself. Over the course of a decade and more, he pursues her from Berlin to Paris and eventually to Hollywood, where he comes under the influence of some of the unpredictable types who inhabit this land of dreams and make-believe. Through encounters with spies, serial killers, manipulative women and naive men and even ghosts, and while much of the rest of the world descends into unimaginable horror, Loesser has only one thing on his mind - himself and his overarching passion for Adele.

Throughout, Beauman maintains Loesser's endless naiveté, his lack of awareness of, or even curiosity about, anything beyond the merely personal. Like an innocent abroad, he accepts whatever happens, from the near-maiming of his leading man, to the ghost which apparantly shares his Hollywood abode, only ever bored by other people's tales of woe.

In style, Beauman's writing reminded me very much of P.G. Wodehouse, one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language, and a master of witty narrative. The character of Gorge, with his inability to distinguish between the representation of an object and the object itself, could easily be one of Wodehouse's coterie of dotty earls. Beauman's turn of phrase has the characteristic Wodehouse lightness of touch, albeit with rather more expletives. Even the setting, the golden-age of Hollywood with its temperamental stars, overbearing moguls, domineering wives and put-upon husbands, its calmly controlled, and controlling, butlers, is vintage Wodehouse. Beauman is gifted with a great sense of the phrase juste, such as when, in a Paris nightclub, Loesser is informed that Sartre is present: " `That Frenchman? I met him. He has a face like a four-year-old's drawing of its father.' " Or his estimation of love as "the foolish estimation of the minimal difference between one sexual object and another". His question to a friend who insists on telling an anecdote, " `Are we still in the prologue?' " could have come straight from one of Wodehouse's masterly farces. Even Loesser's attitude to high-brow literature recalls that of Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster when faced with whichever piece of improving literature the latest of his accidental fiancées has foisted on him in a misguided attempt to mould him: "the only novel he'd brought with him to America was Berlin Alexanderplatz, and although after three hundred and nine pages it really felt like it might be about to get going ..."

Beauman's début, "Boxer Beetle", was a witty and inventive murder story. This second novel is an even more inventive work with many laugh-out-loud moments. Granta has recently named Beauman one of its best new writers under forty. I have to agree, and look forward to more from the same source.


Death Comes for the Poets
Death Comes for the Poets
by Matthew Sweeney
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.47

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Pen Isn't Always Mightier, 26 April 2013
Someone is killing the poets of the British Isles in ways which mirror their work. The widow of one victim calls in Victor Priest, a specialist in art-related crime. As his investigation continues, he finds he needs to employ a partner to help with his endeavours. Meanwhile, the list of victims increases.

The two writers, Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams, are themselves poets, and very fine ones, too. Thus, it's easy to imagine that the characters in the novel, with their back-stabbing and infighting, could well be more than fiction. This is a well-written, witty story, but I found the identity of the culprit far too easy to work out before even half the story had unfolded. The plot was tight enough to induce me to continue reading, but I found very little interest in so doing.


Boxer, Beetle
Boxer, Beetle
by Ned Beauman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious and Dramatic First Novel, 24 April 2013
This review is from: Boxer, Beetle (Paperback)
A murder-mystery that moves from the 1930s to the present day, taking in East End Jews, boxing, beetles, a sinister Welsh hitman, an upper class family, Nazi memorabilia, and even a letter from the Fuhrer himself. Protagonist Kevin, sufferer of a rare medical condition who conducts most of his social life on-line, is compelled literally at gun-point to investigate what really happened to a thuggish East End Jewish boxer in the 1930s.

A bizarre mix of characters populate this hilarious and witty first novel, including Fascists, both dedicated and half-hearted, entomologists, ruthless property-developers and on-line memorabilia collectors. I can see that this won't be for everyone, but I found it hilarious and very well-written.


Doctor Who Androids of Tara
Doctor Who Androids of Tara
by David Fisher
Edition: Audio CD
Price: 11.23

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ruritanian Classic, 29 July 2012
In their search for the fourth segment of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana arrive on Tara, a pseudo-medieval planet with androids and electrical weapons. Prince Reynart is about to be crowned King of Tara, but only if he makes it to the ceremony. The wicked Count Grendel of Gracht is intent on seizing the throne for himself, and he has one major advantage: languishing in his dungeons is the Prince's beloved, the Princess Strella, an exact double of Romana.

"The Androids of Tara" was writer David Fisher's second script for the Key to Time season, following "The Stones of Blood", which is also available in a new audio novelisation. In the nineteen-seventies, when Target books were publishing novelisations of the stories, Fisher himself wasn't offered the opportunity of novelising his story, and it became one of the weaker efforts from the prolific Terrence Dicks. Now, following the success of "The Stones of Blood", Fisher has once again been given the opportunity of producing an entirely new version for the audio books range, and it's an opportunity he seizes with both hands, clearly relishing the chance to flesh-out the story. The world of Tara, a curious mix of the medieval and the technological, is presented in much more detail than was possible on screen, and Fisher makes the most of the opportunity to provide some background to the world. The differences in behaviour between `real' characters and their android duplicates are cleverly presented.

The story is essentially a rerun of the Ruritanian classic, "The Prisoner of Zenda", and here, as in the TV version, Fisher has fun playing with, and subverting, the expected tropes of the swashbuckling genre, particularly the charming, witty villain, Count Grendel, who, beneath his debonair exterior, is totally ruthless. The lesser characters aren't forgotten, though, and there is time to show the unrequited love of Grendel's technician, Madam Lamia. This is a particularly good story for the companion, Romana, who gets much more to do here than is usually the case. This is signposted right at the start when, upon arrival, the Doctor sends Romana to locate the segment of the Key to Time, while he takes the opportunity for some fishing. "The Androids of Tara" also marks the first real hint of "Star Wars" in the Doctor Who universe, its electrical swords recalling the flashier light sabres.

John Leeson, on TV the voice of K9, has an ideal voice for audio recordings, and breathes life into the story, carefully differentiating between the different characters. The music and sound-effects, while still over-literal and often unnecessary, aren't as intrusive as on some other releases. "The Androids of Tara" is a first-rate addition to the growing collection of Target audio readings.


A Prefect's Uncle
A Prefect's Uncle
by P.G. Wodehouse
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.31

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cheerful Column of Concentrated Cheek, 28 July 2012
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This review is from: A Prefect's Uncle (Hardcover)
The ostensible plot of this, Wodehouse's second novel, published in 1903, concerns Farnie, the uncle of the title, who is actually younger than his nephew, the prefect Gethryn, set in authority over him. Wodehouse uses this framework to hang a tapestry of public-school life of the sort he and countless others had experienced. It is a life of rugby and cricket, of Houses and Housemasters, of poetry prizes, of ragging and fagging and midnight feasts.

Like his first novel, The Pothunters, this is not so much a novel as a collection of scenes. Farnie marks the first embryonic appearance of the classic Wodehouse buzzer, a character who displays great ability as a fast-talker, not allowing himself to be cowed by those who believe themselves superior. Although not on a par with Wodehouse's best work, there are already indications of future genius: the wit, the elegant turn of phrase, the elegiac sense of a world at peace under a sun that will never set. It is a world which, like all of Wodehouse's fictional worlds, never really existed, but one which is always worth visiting.


Fighting Chess with Magnus Carlsen (Progress in Chess)
Fighting Chess with Magnus Carlsen (Progress in Chess)
by Adrian Mikhalchishin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 18.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Wonderboy Grows Up, 21 July 2012
Magnus Carlsen was born on 30 November 1990 and, in January 2010, at the age of just nineteen, he became the youngest world number one chess player in history. His early life and career were documented in "Wonderboy" by his former trainer, Simen Agdestein, in 2004. At that point, Magnus's future greatness was clear. A few years on, he is the world number one, with a rating of 2837, the second highest rating ever recorded and just a few points shy of Gary Kasparov's record, and has a string of impressive victories to his credit. He is a megastar in his native Norway, and the face of Burberry in their ad campaign.

Agdestein's book included photographs of Magnus and his family as well as plenty of detail about his home-life and playing schedule, making it clear that, far from exploiting the young prodigy in the family, his parents actually had to reign in his enthusiasm and limit the number of tournaments in which he played. It was clear that Magnus retained his essential qualities of humility and humour in the face of great success and fame, as his behaviour both on and off the board makes very clear. I concluded my review of Agdestein's book by saying that a marvellous career awaited the young wunderkind. Now, less than six years later, that career is in full flow, and this book, a much more serious, in-depth examination of his games, as befits one of the best chess-players in history, is an account of that record-breaking career so far. The book highlights the depth of Carlsen's natural understanding of chess, as well as demonstrating the amount of preparation that has to be carried out by a modern chess-player. Also highlighted is Carlsen's pragmatism at the board, and his ability, like Karpov, to exploit small advantages in simplified positions. Carlsen is one of the greatest players of the computer age, making effective use of chess engines to deepen and refine his natural understanding of the game. In addition, he has benefitted from close collaboration with the greatest player of all, Gary Kasparov.

The book contains sixty-four of Carlsen's best games, with annotations and diagrams. The production is well-up to Edition Olms's usual high standards, although it would have benefitted from better proof-reading, as a few misprints and omissions have crept in. This very minor caveat aside, however, this is a first-rate chess book offering an insight, not just into one of the best chess-players in history, but into the game of chess at it is played and understood in the modern era.


A Pelican at Blandings: (Blandings Castle)
A Pelican at Blandings: (Blandings Castle)
by P.G. Wodehouse
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Farewell to Blandings, 27 May 2012
Lord Emsworth's fearsome sister, Lady Constance, is once more in residence at Blandings Castle, Shropshire's foremost pile. The terrible Alaric, Duke of Dunstable, has invited himself to stay at the Castle once again, this time with his niece, Linda, who is in love with Johnny Halliday, one of Sir Galahad Threepwood's many god-sons. Linda is a ward of court and cannot marry without the Duke's consent. As so often in Wodehouse, there has been a row between the young lovers, and the sundered hearts need to be brought together once more. The Duke is still under the impression that Lord Emsworth is potty, and decides to call in the eminent brain specialist Sir Roderick Glossop to observe him. Sir Roderick not being available, who better to take the job than his junior partner? And what better way for Johnny to get into the Castle, to be near his beloved and repair their rift, than to pretend to be this non-existent specialist? Who else can Lord Emsworth call on to sort out the tangles but his ever-resourceful brother, last survivor of the celebrated Pelican club, the Hon Galahad Threepwood? With the usual mix of young lovers, fearsome sisters, and overbearing Dukes, as well as a roster of villains and imposters, all the ingredients are there for another classic farce in the great Wodehouse tradition.

The title of the review is not strictly accurate. Wodehouse returned to Blandings once more a few years later, but sadly that novel was left incomplete at his death, although it has been published under the title "Sunset at Blandings". This is the tenth Blandings novel, and was published in 1969, when Wodehouse was eight-eight, and not surprisingly, there are signs that the master's powers are on the wane. The writing is much sparser than previously, much of the plot thin and rushed. Yet there is still more than a trace of the old Wodehouse touch, still many of those moments of sheer delight in language of which Wodehouse was such a master. It is the perfect conclusion to a glorious saga, an autumnal final look at a paradise from which man has never been expelled. If this is not first-rate Wodehouse, it is certainly a joyous coda. There is an elegiac conclusion, with brothers, Lord Emsworth, and the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, quietly eating their dinner of good English fare, including a well-jammed roly-poly, while Voules, the chauffer, softly plays his harmonica. The novel's last words have the great Gally raising a glass and toasting his woolly-headed brother. "God bless you, Clarence," he says. God bless Gally, too. And God bless Wodehouse, who gave us so much joy.


Galahad at Blandings
Galahad at Blandings
by P.G. Wodehouse
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.12

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Galahad at Large, 25 May 2012
This review is from: Galahad at Blandings (Hardcover)
Now that Lord Emsworth's fearsome sister Connie is safely married to a millionaire and living in America, another even more domineering sister rules the Blandings roost: Lady Hermione Wedge, who looks like a cook - sometimes a cook pleased with her soufflé, sometimes a cook about to give notice, but always a cook. She has instructed her daughter, the cloth-headed Veronica, to break-off her engagement to another American millionaire, Tipton Plimsoll, in the mistaken belief that he has lost all his money in a stock-market crash. Hermione is also trying to manoeuvre Lord Emsworth into marrying another overbearing female, Dame Daphne Winkworth. As if this weren't enough to cope with, Lord Emsworth has yet another new secretary, Sandy Callender, who is loved by Sam Bagshot, although their relationship has hit a rough patch. Who better to unite the sundered lovers, and extricate Lord Emsworth from a fate worse than death with Dame Daphne, than Lord Emsworth's brother, The Hon. Galahad Threepwood. With Gally in charge, the stage is set for another of Wodehouse's classic farces involving pigs, domineering sisters, and imposters, all under the disapproving eye of Beach, the Butler.

This is the ninth novel in the Blandings series, published in 1965 when Wodehouse was already eighty-three. Despite his age, and although there are echoes of earlier books, and even entire phrases lifted verbatim, Wodehouse is still master of his craft, and the old magic is still very much in evidence. The plot is as complicated as anything he ever wrote, and it runs along nicely in its accustomed groove. Wodehouse was a master, not just of comic writing, but of the English language, and his prose style is one of the most beautiful in the whole of literature. The novel contains many of those verbal felicities Wodehouse devotees have come to love. This is another of those supreme farces set in Wodehouse's perfect idyll, Blandings Castle.


Service with a Smile: (Blandings Castle)
Service with a Smile: (Blandings Castle)
by P.G. Wodehouse
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.10

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Last of Uncle Fred, 25 May 2012
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We're back at Blandings and, as usual, things aren't going well for woolly-headed peer Lord Emsworth. He has Wellbeloved back as pig-man, but he also has a domineering secretary, Lavender Briggs, who needs five-hundred pounds to set up her own secretarial bureau, and isn't above arranging the kidnapping of Lord Emsworth's prize pig, Empress of Blandings, to get it. He also has to cope with the domineering Alaric, Duke of Dunstable, who has once again invited himself to Blandings, and who is still under the impression that his pig-obsessed host is dotty, and is still determined to get said pig away from him, especially now that he has a buyer willing to pay good money for it. Meanwhile, Myra Schoonmaker, daughter of a rich American businessman, has been removed to Blandings by Lord Emsworth's formidable sister, Lady Constance, to keep her away from the man she loves, penniless curate Cuthbert "Bill" Bailey. Lady Constance hopes Myra will fall in love with Dunstable's nephew Archie. As if all this weren't enough, Lord Emsworth has to cope with the Church Lads' Brigade, who are camped en mass on the Castle grounds. Lucky, then, that, while on an enforced visit to London for the opening of Parliament, Lord Emsworth should encounter his fellow Earl, the irrepressible Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, fifth Earl of Ickenham, who agrees to travel back to Blandings with Lord Emsworth to help sort out the tangle and spread sweetness and light the way only he can.

This is the eighth Blandings novel, and the last of four to feature that most delightful of Wodehouse creations, the Earl of Ickenham, better known as Uncle Fred. Although Wodehouse was eighty-one when he wrote this novel, there is no sign of his powers failing. This is a charming light novel which runs along beautifully in a well-worn groove, full of those verbal felicities for which Wodehouse is so loved. Few writers have been better than Wodehouse at plotting, and here as so often he draws a tangled skein of plots and weaves everything together with the firm hand of a master. Everything is for the best in the best of all worlds, the world of Blandings, a paradise from which there has been no fall. The only sad note is that this is the last time we will encounter Uncle Fred, but we can take heart, as he would himself, that in this final appearance he spreads much sweetness and light in his own inimitable fashion.


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