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Aidan J. McQuade (Ireland)
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Quartered Safe Out Here
Quartered Safe Out Here
by George MacDonald Fraser
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An infantryman's view of the war in Burma, 15 May 2011
Towards the end of his life George McDonald Fraser wrote this memoir of his experiences as a very young man fighting in the last battles of the Burma campaign. He acknowledges the unreliablity of his memory - the result not of age but of being a young private (later a lance corporal) in the chaos of war. His memory of contacts with the enemy in battle is very clear, he writes, but he needed to refer to regimental histories in order to make sense of these memories in the broader narrative of the campaign - something to which he would never have been privy at the time.

The result is a remarkable book - funny, exciting and moving by turns as he recounts his life in Nine Section, a Scot in the midst of Cumbrians. He remained to the end of his life, he notes, a man of his times, a product of imperial Britain, unforgiving of the Japanese (the repeated use of the term "Jap" drives home this point) and unapologetic of these facts. His honesty about this and about how the war was fought is an important aspect of the book, fundamental to presenting a clear sighted but affectionate portrait of the sort of men who served. Paradoxically this also leads to points where he rails against aspects of the modern world - European Union, and a perceived "softness" on criminals for example - perhaps honest about what he felt but, unlike the rest of the book, little to do with considered experience.

These quibbles aside this is an exceptional book, beautifully written and a fine tribute to the men Fraser served with and the generation who defeated European fascism and Japanese militarism.


Skinwalkers
Skinwalkers
by Tony Hillerman
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, out of the ordinary thriller, 26 April 2011
This review is from: Skinwalkers (Paperback)
In the middle of the night someone tries unsuccessfully to kill Navajo police officer Jim Chee by putting three shotgun blasts through the wall of his trailer. Meanwhile Lt Joe Leaphorn is investigating three apparently unrelated homicides in different parts of the reservation. As Leaphorn's enquiries proceed he senses a link with the attack on Chee and so recruits his help to the investigation.

The contrasting personalities of traditional Jim Chee and more sceptical Joe Leaphorn are finely drawn - both deeply attractive characters, not perfect but complementary to each other in their professional skills and with imperfect but believable private lives as well. The detail and care of the characterisation enriches an absorbing plot and a beautifully plain style of writing.

Much of what I have written above could be said about many fine thrillers. But it is the rooting of this story in Navajo history and culture that makes it something truly out of the ordinary. This provides not just absorbing background to the plot but a context that is fundamental to understanding the motivations of the characters.

Having finished it, it is great to know there is more in this series, but sad to find out that Tony Hillerman died a few years ago - its like meeting a new friend only for them to disappear immediately.


The Anatomy of a Moment
The Anatomy of a Moment
by Javier Cercas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.85

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The last battle of the Spanish Civil War, 21 April 2011
Following his unconvincing meditation on American atrocities in the Vietnam war in "The speed of light" Javier Cercas returns to his own country's history for his latest work. "The anatomy of a moment" revisits the theme of the Spanish Civil War and its consequences that Cercas so brilliantly explored in "Soldiers of Salamis". However in his new book he eschews fiction, even the "post-modern" variety that he practices, which blurs the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Instead he employs a part philosophical, part journalistic meditation on the 1981 attempted coup to overthrow Spanish democracy.

"The anatomy of a moment" focuses on the three parliamentarians who refused to duck when the Civil Guard who invaded the Cortes opened fire. They were Gutteriez Mellado, a former Francoist general now deputy Prime Minister, Santiago Carillo, head of the Spanish Communist party, and Adolfo Suarez, the outgoing Prime Minister. Suarez is above all the hero of the book - in Cercas account a Francoist functionary and "provincial non-entity" who grew into the architect of democracy and a giant of Spanish history. The author returns again and again to the image of Suarez sitting alone on the prime minister's bench as the bullets fly around him, one of only three people prepared to risk their necks while those with more impecible democratic credentials cower behind their desks, as most of the rest of us would naturally and rationally have done in similar circumstances.

Parts of the book are difficult - the author talks to the reader as if they are already au fait with the history and politics of Spain. This leads, I thought, to a richer experience than books which spoonfeed the reader the historical background: in the end you feel you have earned the understanding you have achieved.

In places the book has the characteristics of a non-fiction thriller as the details of both the coup, led by senior elements in the army, and the countercoup, led by the King, are plotted. The book is also very moving, particularly regarding the travails of Suarez in later life, and a deeply affecting coda when the author reflects upon the life and politics of his own father.

The book is also deeply political, rejecting a current view prevalent in Spain that the rupture between Francoism and democracy was false and that Suarez ensured that those who had power under the dictatorship retained it under the constitutional monarchy. Cercas argues instead that the rupture was real and that Suarez was a "hero of the retreat" from dictatorship. That the author is prepared to set out such forthright opinions on this and other aspects of the coup add to the pleasure of the book: it is widely researched, deeply opinionated history, provocative, but not gratuitously controversialist. It demands the reader thinks while keeping them entertained.

A great book.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 24, 2012 8:41 AM GMT


Source Code  [DVD]
Source Code [DVD]
Dvd ~ Jake Gyllenhaal
Offered by DVDBayFBA
Price: £3.75

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Groundhog Day as a sci-fi thriller, 4 April 2011
This review is from: Source Code [DVD] (DVD)
A man (Jake Gylenhaal) wakens in a Chicago bound train sitting across from an attractive woman who appears to know him. She calls him "Sean" while he believes his name is "Colter". When he sees his face in the mirror it is not his own. After 8 minutes an explosion rips the train apart and Colter awakens again to find himself in a command capsule talking to a female airforce officer through a console. She tells him Sean has been killed in the explosion earlier in the day along with everyone else on the train. A programme called "source code" allows them to transport Colter into the last 8 minutes of Sean's mind. In that time Colter must identify who the bomber is to prevent an even worse atrocity occuring later in the day. So Colter must again and again return to this same eight minutes until his mission is complete.

All films require suspension of disbelief, this one more than most, messing with your mind, quantum physics, time and the idea of self all in one short snappy movie. However suspension of disbelief is repaid with an exhilarating and surprisingly moving thriller, with great performances from the four leads, including Jeffery Wright as a man induced to casual cruelty by his belief in the overwhelming moral importance of what he does, and Michelle Monaghan, who, with this, adds to her cv another unshowy, elegant and hugely attractive performance from relatively (and in this case necessarily) limited material.

There are many interesting and important philosophical and scientific questions raised in this film. But try not to think too much about the answers presented: behind them lie many gaping plot holes. Instead just go with the flow for one of the most entertaining and engaging thrillers in years.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 18, 2011 10:21 PM GMT


The Fighter [DVD]
The Fighter [DVD]
Dvd ~ Mark Wahlberg
Offered by DVDBayFBA
Price: £3.90

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Class from start to finish - shoulda been a contender!, 28 Mar 2011
This review is from: The Fighter [DVD] (DVD)
At face value the plot of this film seems almost clichéd - how a working class Massachusetts boxer, Micky Ward, overcame the odds to fight his way to a world title. A more novel twist arises from the fact that many of the problems that he had to overcome arose from his own family - an overbearing mother who insists on trying to manage him and a crack-addicted brother, Dick Ecklund, formerly a talented boxer with the potential to be a brilliant trainer wasted by his addition, which threatens to also ruin Ward's dreams.

The boxing scenes are impressively done conveying both the physicality and the strategy of the fights, building towards a deeply satisfying and moving climax as Ward's triumph is paralleled by, and to an extent catalyses, Ecklund's redemption.

The headlines and awards associated with this film went to Melissa Leo and Christian Bale - both deserved supporting actor Oscars - and Amy Adams' wonderful Academy Award nominated turn. However it is Mark Wahlberg's beautifully understated performance that is at the heart of this film. With it Wahlberg follows the footsteps of greats such as Robert Mitchum and Jeff Bridges into the "you'll-never-catch-me-acting" school of acting. It is this performance that holds the movie together and gives it its emotional resonance.


Unstoppable [DVD]
Unstoppable [DVD]
Dvd ~ Denzel Washington
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £4.96

37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars exactly what you expect, 28 Mar 2011
This review is from: Unstoppable [DVD] (DVD)
If you have seen the trailer for this film you know exactly what is going to happen in it: runaway train with highly explosive cargo heads towards built up area with only two gutsy railwaymen and their underappreciated female manager between it and disaster! Indeed, even if you haven't seen the trailer you could probably sketch the back story of every character in the film and how these stories are going to resolve just based on the 25 word summary I have just given.

That said, over the past 6 months I have found few more entertaining ways to spend a few hours in the cinema. Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson are typically charasmatic in roles that don't tax them excessively but which they deliver effortlessly, and the predictability of the movie strangely adds rather than detracts from the tension.

Perhaps not a classic, but crowd-pleasing enterainment, professionally done and almost guaranteed to leave you with a smile on your face.


Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery
Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery
by Terry Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.10

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unpeeling the layers of a cover up, 21 Mar 2011
The authors admit at the outset that they are not even sure if Chaucer was murdered. But they use the question to probe the political and cultural milieu of the late 14th century. In the process they convincingly destroy the myth of Henry Bollingbroke's popular and bloodless coup against Richard II and instead show it up for the illegal, sanguinary and repressive affair that it was. In this context the authors show that it is at least plausible that Chaucer, the court poet and political follower of Richard, did not die peacefully, particularly given the emnity that he earned from his lambasting IN ENGLISH of the corruption in the Church in Canterbury Tales. They also construct a compelling circumstantial case against the likely culprit.

Along the way the authors provide a useful introduction to the Canterbury Tales themselves and the importance of Chaucer as both a poet and a proponent of the English language.

One slightly irritating feature of the book is its peppering with Jones' jokes. No doubt someone thought that this would be expected by readers. However this is ill judged. The book can stand on its own as a piece of historical and literary research and it doesn't need the jokes to carry the reader forward: The argument does this on its own... And the jokes are not very good.

This quibble aside it is a fine book and a worth companion piece to Terry Jones' Chaucer's Knight.


Innocent
Innocent
by Scott Turow
Edition: Paperback

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 20 years on from Carolyn's murder, 1 Mar 2011
This review is from: Innocent (Paperback)
After 20 years its good to catch up again with some of the key characters of Presumed Innocent who have, since that book's publication, been hovering at the edges of Turow's novels - almost all based in the fictional metropolis of Kindle County - a stand-in, one presumes, for contemporary Chicago.

Rusty Sabich, the protagonist of Presumed Innocent, is now a senior judge. Tommy Molto, his former prosecutor, is in Rusty's old job, in charge of the County's Prosecuting Attorney's office. The plot of this book revolves around the mysterious death of Rusty's wife, Barbara, as Tommy is reluctantly drawn into investigating him again.

While the plot and mystery are compelling the true joy of the book arises from the exploration of the messy lives and loves of the characters. Turow uses the device of first person, present tense narrative for three of his principal protagonists. Hence we come to know them intimitately while they remain in crucial ways mysteries to each other and to Tommy. There is an echo in this book of vintage Graham Greene in the compassion and understanding with which Turow treats the characters and their mistakes. However, unlike much of Greene's work, in this book it is the Catholic character, Tommy, who's moral compass is steadiest in the midst of all, his prosecutorial zeal mellowed with love and age to a more humane commitment to justice and rule of law.

This book may lack the twists and surprises of Presumed Innocent, but it makes up for it in many other ways, not least the beauty of its writing, and is pretty much an unalloyed joy from start to finish.


The Promise [DVD]
The Promise [DVD]
Dvd ~ Claire Foy
Price: £7.21

42 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex, unsettling, brilliant drama, 28 Feb 2011
This review is from: The Promise [DVD] (DVD)
Just when I thought that Channel 4 had completely abandoned the high ideals of its founders in favour of lucrative trash like Big Brother, this comes along. A deeply moving, beautifully acted drama that tries with some success to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its complexity. This complexity is echoed in the narrative structure of the drama which in one strand follows the experiences of Len, an army sergeant in the British Forces in Palestine after the Second World War, and in a second strand follows his granddaughter Erin as she tries to make sense of present day Israel and Palestine during a summer visit. As always the seeds of the present lie in the past as Len witnesses the bloody birth of the state of Israel.

Ultimately "The Promise" is strident in its dissatisfaction with contemporary Israeli policy towards Palestinans which it portrays as implicitly racist. However it strives for completeness and honesty showing the slaughter from Palestinian suicide bombing, along with Israeli landgrabs, and, most disturbingly, the naked prejudice and extremism of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, something that is given de-facto official sanction by their protection by the Israeli armed forces.

Probably most unsettling to unthinking supporters of Israel is that the drama makes a direct attack on the myth of Israeli "purity of arms": the 1948 Irgun war crime of Der Yassin is depicted and the cruelty of the ethnic cleansing of that period is shown, foreshadowing today's ongoing land grabs and the repression now inflicted, on Hebron and Gaza amongst other places, in support of this policy. Some may feel the portrayal of a only a single British sergeant trying to stop the killing at Der Yassin is unfair as there are reports of Israeli Hagannah officers also trying unsuccessfully to intervene. However the drama is careful in representing this strand of Israeli politics with the depiction of Paul, an Israeli member of Combatants for Peace, and his father, a politically liberal general.

Overall the film conveys the tragedy that two beautiful peoples cannot yet find a way to share their beautiful land, resulting in the ugly manifestation of each using terrorism on the other in increasingly brutal cycles.


Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
by Ron Chernow
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Father of US government, grandfather of emancipation, 20 Feb 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Alexander Hamilton (Hardcover)
A truly outstanding, elegantly written, warts and all, biography of a facinating individual. It throws light not only on Hamilton's life and death at the hands of Aaron Burr, the US Vice President, but also on the Revolutionary war, the drafting of the US constitution, the establishment of US government and finance, and the beginnings of the fault lines that divide US politics to this day: On the one hand the Federalists with their strongly nationalist view of the US and the importance of federal government; on the other hand the Republicans with their promotion of "states rights" and nonsensical fantasies about small government and citizen farmers. Along the way we learn of the first sex scandal in US political history and the strange mores and tragic consequences of the late 18th century duelling culture.

The divisions at this period in US history were described in short-hand by the attitudes to the French Revolution. However it is interesting that while Hamilton and the Federalists were generally Anglophile and deeply distressed by the bloodshed and chaos of the French Revolution, they seem to have been little troubled by the exercise of British power, which between 1796 and 1798 massacred more people in Ireland than died in the entire three years of the French Terror - there is not a single mention of this sanguinary episode of European history in the book.

Towards the end of the book Chernow notes how many of the Republican "slave holding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villanized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth".

Countering this tendency in histography Chernow casts Jefferson as villian of the piece, even more so than the murderous Burr, for professing himself an abolitionist but, unlike Washington, never freeing his own slaves and advocating both an economy that was only sustainable through the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and a polity that facilitated and rewarded slavery.

In contrast it is clear from Chernow's work that, in addition to establishing US credit and effective government, a central part of Hamilton's political project was building in the US an economic system that could not only be sustained without slavery but could also contribute its eradication. While the elimination of slavery ultimately took a civil war Hamilton's work did provide the North the economic capacity to destroy the slave holding south 60 years after his death. For this, I would argue, that if Lincoln was the "father" of emancipation Hamilton could perhaps be regarded as its "grandfather".

Chernow makes the argument that, with Washington, Hamilton, for all his faults, was the greatest of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Chernow describes him as the "father of US government". On the basis of the evidence he presents it is a difficult argument to refute, and, in this time of Tea Party lunacy, his life and achievements are worth celebrating again.


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