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VCBF (Val) "Val" (UK)

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All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See
Price: £4.29

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Radio, Someone still loves you, 27 May 2014
The starting point for this novel is the near destruction of Saint Malo in the process of liberating it in 1944. Then it follows the stories of the two major characters and how they come to be there, returning to 1944 at intervals.
There are many direct and indirect links and parallels between the two characters; we learn how they are linked and about the other characters who are tied to them by threads of love, friendship and radio waves.
There are many themes in the book. One of them is that several of the many have to leave their homes or have their lives disrupted by foreign occupation: Frau Elena leaves Alsace, Marie-Laure and her father leave Paris, the citizens of Saint Malo live under German occupation and are then have to evacuate when the Allies invade, Werner's father may have died during the occupation of the Ruhr (the timing is unclear), Marie-Laure's father is taken prisoner and moved to a labour camp, Jetta and the other orphan girls are relocated to work in a factory and then subject to Russian occupation. The characters in this book are not ordinary, but it shows how this aspect of war affects ordinary people.
Many of the characters have obsessions, with radios, sea shells, locks, birds, music, etc. and the book shows childhood or childish curiosity and interests very well. It is not often a happy story, but these interests can bring moments of pleasure at times.
The end of the book tells what happens to various characters afterwards and closes the connections. This is not the most powerful part of the book, and much of it is very powerful, but it is a suitable ending.


SOFT-E SMART COLLAR size 3
SOFT-E SMART COLLAR size 3
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The dog looks like Peter Gabriel performing "Supper's Ready", 30 Aug. 2013
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This review is from: SOFT-E SMART COLLAR size 3 (Misc.)
I bought a size 3 soft collar for a medium sized terrier who was over-grooming. He doesn't like it much, but he can eat and sleep wearing it and can no longer bite his tail, so it does the job it was bought for. It can fold back and he could get at his front paws if he decided to bite those instead. I don't think this design would work on the more flexible and determined cat.


Wolf Totem
Wolf Totem
by Jiang Rong
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Strange horse, strange book, 23 Jan. 2013
This review is from: Wolf Totem (Paperback)
The Mongol herdsmen of the Olonbulag grassland revere wolves and their dogs are their best friends. The best way to kill wolf cubs and excess puppies is to throw them up in the air, then they hit the frozen ground with a thud and a mixture of blood and milk pours out of their noses.
The author recounts several such 'fascinating insights' into the herdsmen's way of life; both the banal and the bloodthirsty are recounted with the same dispassionate detail. I blame the stilted prose and idiosyncratic vocabulary on the translator, but the content must be the author's.
(Does Goldblatt not know the word 'stallion'?
The topography makes no sense if every ridge of higher ground is translated as 'mountain'.)

The narrator and three of his student friends volunteer to spend time living and working with the herdsmen, who treat them as a mixture of apprentice and guest. Since the setting is 1970's communist China, this must have been part of the cultural re-education to turn intellectuals (seen as decadent) into productive workers. I had always assumed that this would be harsh, a form of punishment, but it does actually seem to be about education and productivity. This was a fascinating insight.
Chen Zhen, who has read "Call of the Wild" (and "White Fang"?) in translation does something very stupid. It does not go well.

The book is not just a re-educated intellectual's memoir: there is a theme of wolves = human hunters, sheep = farmers, wolves will kill the sheep unless they learn to be more warlike. The nomads or human wolves have always defeated the more populous, agrarian, settled civilisations. This theme is repeated like the chorus of a song every few pages. It is possible that in Chinese this book reads like a song with refrain and chorus; in English translation it does not.
When the author is talking of warlike, death-dealing nomads, he does not mean only Ghengis Khan and his Mongol hordes, he includes the Turks, Huns and Anglo-Saxons, then adds the Romans for their 'wolf heritage'. In my opinion Jiang Rong takes the analogy too far when he has the wolf pack attack the horse herd in revenge for humans stealing their store of frozen gazelle. The wolves are not feeling vengeful, cruel, warlike or any other human emotion; they are hungry.

This is not a conservationist message about living in harmony with nature. The herders do not do that, but they do use traditional methods of exploiting the environment for the benefit of humans which are sustainable. They see gazelles, marmots, rabbits and ground squirrels as destroyers of the grassland rather than its natural fauna, because they reduce the grazing for their animals. They see wolves as the powerful and respected enemy with whom they are at war. They would not normally attempt to eradicate any of those species, just kill some of them.

The life expectancy in China before the revolution was low (I have seen 22.4, 23, 24, 26 and 31 quoted) so the population was fairly static. Improvements in infant survival rates and health care generally caused this to increase, so that by the 1970s it was in the high sixties. Early attempts at rural industrialisation rather than agricultural improvement had contributed to one of the worst famines in recent Chinese history in 1958-1961, so afterwards the drive is to increase food production. This is the historical context in which the book is set. Things do not go well here either.


Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
Price: £4.74

21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Characters in fiction, 23 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
Some of Ian McEwan's female characters have been enigmatic rather than complex and fully realised. I was starting to wonder if he felt he didn't understand women or feel confident in creating female protagonists. Then he writes a book from the point of view of Serena Frome.

Serena's passion is reading, but she is very good at mathematics at school, so is persuaded by her mother to study the subject at university and to have a successful career, rather than be 'a better educated housewife'. Serena is a nice, middle class, grammar school educated girl with a very mild spirit of rebellion. She feels uncomfortable standing up to male authority figures, but is enough of a feminist not to be subservient to men simply for being male. She has a realistic number of relationships with men, all of whom are older or more intelligent or better informed: men who have earned her respect and thus the right to deference. She does not agree with the lack of career opportunities for women, but she accepts it as a fact. She knows she is pretty, but is not obsessed with her looks. I believe in his Serena. All her actions and decisions are consistent with who she is, when the story is set and the situations she finds herself in.

Serena is Ian McEwan's creation, as are the other characters in this novel. Within the novel are other created characters: Serena, Jeremy, Tony and Max all play a role which they have created for themselves, MI5 create cover stories (legends, according to John le Carre) for their agents, Tom is a writer and creates fictional characters, who may contain parts of himself. Tom may contain elements of Ian McEwan. There are multiple layers of truth, deception and invention. The ending is perfect.

On top of all that, Ian McEwan gives a lucid explanation of the the 'three box paradox', which would be worth an extra half star in its own right.


The Age of Miracles
The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £4.95

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bras, boys and Scotty's dictum, 22 July 2012
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This review is from: The Age of Miracles (Hardcover)
I found it difficult to know what to think about this book, as it is by turns compelling and frustrating. It is a story of pre-teen angst set in a chaotic world where the commonly understood laws of physics no longer apply, where the world is changing in unpredictable ways. The rotation of the earth is slowing, leading to longer days and nights and a greater daily temperature range. There are other changes which are probably caused by 'the slowing': to ocean currents and the earth's magnetic field, could be caused by it: personality changes, changes in animal behaviour and plants dying, just happen at the same time: altered gravity, changes to freezing and boiling points, increased tidal range, cars crashing with more force, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, or are counter to the effects of a slower rotation: centrifugal force increases, astrological signs change, a 90 minute change in sunrise time gives an eclipse in the early afternoon.
Julia, the narrator, is eleven at the time of these events and she does not understand what is happening to her world. Well, she wouldn't, poor girl. She has other preoccupations, plus her school science lessons contain no science. We are shown a science lesson in which the pupils sit in a classroom, place a cocktail stick in a bit of plasticene and calibrate it to some figures given them by the teacher. This is called 'making a sundial'. It isn't, it is messing about with a cocktail stick and a bit of plasticene. The class miss out on an opportunity to observe the changes to their world, to 'do' science. The teacher then asks for questions and is asked if the slowing could be caused by pollution and answers that nobody knows what is causing it. He does not explain what pollution is and what changes it does cause, to the biosphere. Eventually even Mr Jensen's 'we don't know and aren't going to try to find out' attitude is considered radical and he is replaced by the science-denying Miss Mosely.
Julia is a lonely, passive child and it is to the author's credit that we are at all interested in her, her family, her friends and her worries. The only problem with the narration is that it is not the story as told by eleven year-old Julia, but by twenty-three year old Julia, looking back. Would her eleven-year old self's preoccupations still loom so large as they appear to? (The first boyfriend would still be important; the first bra would not.)
The book considers some important questions about denying the real world or embracing it and dealing with it. This is shown by the people on clock-time or real-time and the persecution of the latter by the former. It could also apply to climate change deniers versus those who want to do something about it, or creationists versus biologists, geologists, geneticists, plant breeders etc. It is not very optimistic: all the real-time colonies eventually fail, a lot of technological advances are lost (we had them, not we have them, in the final chapter). If everyone stops believing in the fundamental laws of the universe, do they stop working?

(For anyone who hasn't seen the original "Startrek", Scotty's dictum is usually expressed as "Ye canna change the laws of physics, Cap'n".)
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 8, 2012 7:44 AM BST


Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, enigmatic, chilling and unforgettable., 15 July 2012
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This review is from: Never Let Me Go (Paperback)
** spoiler alert ** I mention plot elements in this review which you may not wish to know about in advance of reading the book.

I have now read this beautifully written and haunting book twice, but I'm still not sure what to make of it. The characters shy away from asking awkward questions about their lives and so does the author in this story. I wouldn't want a book to try to give all the answers to fundamental questions of life, but this one doesn't actually formulate the questions. It does raise questions, but everything is peripheral and hinted at rather than explicit, so which questions the reader asks are the ones they already have concerns about.
He puts a group of people into a nightmare scenario and leaves them to make sense of their lives. They do not find reasons, but do find acceptance within themselves. They know from very young that their purpose in life is to die for others, although they only gradually come to a full realisation of this. They have hopes of a possible escape through first artistic achievement and later falling in love and being in a stable couple. Neither of these offer a way out, so they are left with finding consolations to make their short lives more bearable. The best consolations turn out to be friendship and memories, and for Kathy the fulfillment of caring for others.

What questions or issues might this book also raise:
The nature of humanity. Are human clones human? If they are, are some humans more valuable than others? Does this hint at discrimination against any group of humans?

The fragility of life. Mortality is at the forefront of the characters minds in the central and latter part of the novel. (They are mostly in denial in the earliest part.) If you know your life will be short, would this book help you come to terms with that? What would you do to prolong your own life, if it might be at the expense of another's?

The use and abuse of science. This book is not science fiction and any science in it is at best vague. (Which body parts are they donating? To whom? Who are the originals? How many are there, so are the clones batches or individuals?) The scientific issue is still there in the background.

Ethical farming. If an animal (or human clone) is being raised simply to be killed for meat (or spare body parts) does it matter if it has a good quality of life? This question is more explicitly asked than some of the others, although I may think that because it is one I already consider. Hailsham is an experiment in giving these clones a pleasant environment to grow up in. Most clones grow up in much worse places (hinted at by mentions of electrified fences, and a minor character who shudders at his memories). The experiment is abandoned, but the raising of clones for spare body parts is not.

I still do not think I understand this book. I find its ambivalence on the issues in the background frustrating at times. It is, however, an amazing book, I would give it four and a half stars if I could.


The Unit
The Unit
Price: £5.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Luxury retirement living in a friendly atmosphere., 15 July 2012
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This review is from: The Unit (Kindle Edition)
In an alternative society child-bearing and wage earning are valued as productive, art and creativity are not. An individual citizen is free to live their life how they wish, but society does not value its members equally. Childless, unmarried, low income, low status individuals are expected to check into "The Unit" and make themselves available for medical research and organ donation when they reach retirement age, for the benefit of the more productive, valued members of society.
The environment is a pleasant one, there are restaurants, sports facilities, 'shops' (everything is free), gardens, helpful staff, and the chance to make friends, create art and live the way they wish without society looking down on them as lesser members of it. This pleasant lifestyle will not last long however, as eventually their organs will be required for donation. The donors are shown the productive member of society and their family who will benefit from the donation, so that they can finally feel useful.
Ninni Holmqvist expects us to see "The Unit" as a believable scenario and works hard at making us do so. The changes in society are gradual and Dorrit sees her fate as the result of her earlier way of life. It almost works. She stresses that this society is a democracy and that a referendum was held before the policy was adopted, but does not give sufficient justification for the majority to vote for it. The problem is not whether this could happen in a democracy, she handles that well, but whether it would. Not very many people expect to need a replacement organ and not even all those who do would be callous enough to vote for someone to be killed so that they can get it. Society does not value its members equally and those members who are undervalued might feel useless, but not accept that their only 'value' is as a walking organ bank.
If you can accept the premise then this is a very good book, with interesting characters and a chilling and deeply disturbing atmosphere. The story, from beginning to end, is sad but logical and consistent - once you accept the premise. If I could give half marks this would get 4.5 stars.


The Miracle Inspector
The Miracle Inspector
by Helen Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is what you get for believing the Daily ****., 14 July 2012
This review is from: The Miracle Inspector (Paperback)
I shouldn't mention the name of my least favourite paranoia-inducing newspaper; insert your own.
Helen Smith has taken some of the fears and obsessions of today's society, then twisted and exaggerated them to create a dystopian vision of the future.
Fear of terrorists has closed the borders and grounded the planes, not just keeping the terrorists and tourists out, but shutting in the citizens and any hapless foreigners caught in the net.
Fear of paedophiles has closed the schools and most of the churches.
Fear of rapists has confined women to their homes, apart from visits to 'relatives' during the hours of daylight while dressed in a burqa (or something very similar).
Paranoia is irrational or exaggerated fear, out of proportion to the true level of threat. This is what we have in "The Miracle Inspector". Added to that is a government and bureaucracy which are, to various extents, pointless, inefficient and random, while also chillingly repressive. Few people survive beyond fifty: most have been arrested as potential terrorists, paedophiles or rapists. Next door to the Head of Security (who is more interested in spying on his wife in the shower than state security) is a government department for monitoring cat ownership. Then there is Lucas, the Miracle Inspector, who spends his days looking at pictures of the Virgin Mary in home-baked goods. He hasn't found a miracle yet. The society is a mixture of sharia law as practised in Saudi Arabia, religious superstition from somewhere with a lot of faith and not a lot of education like rural Bolivia, surveillance and disappearances from any totalitarian state you care to name and satirical silliness from Bulgakov, Kafka or Zemyatin, plus a bit of the 1950s as depicted in washing powder advertisements. That is how I saw it. Helen Smith describes it obliquely, with glimpses of parts of the picture, never the whole at once.
Does it work as a portrait of a fractured future Britain?
It does for me.

The main characters in the story are Lucas, the Miracle Inspector, and his wife Angela. They are fairly sure they still love each other, but they do not understand each other or communicate. They decide that everything will be perfect if they can just get away from London and go to Cornwall or Wales or Australia, places they know nothing about. You just know that it is not going to work. They need a miracle, and we have already discovered they are in short supply.
Lucas does something very risky. He goes to meet Joanna Jones, the wife of the Head of Security, who he has seen naked on Jones's computer. When Jones calls at his house and meets Angela he is enraged. This incident contains the least gratuitous use of a very rude word I have seen in fiction.
Another character in the story is Jesmond, a drunken poet and friend of Lucas's parents when they were alive. Jesmond doesn't do much these days, apart from drink a lot and occasionally turn up and scrounge a free meal from Angela, but he is the focus of resistance and young dissidents gather at illegal assemblies to hear him read his old poems. Is any association with Jesmond dangerous for Angela and Lucas? Jesmond leaves a journal and some letters with Angela. What is Jesmond's story?
Lucas goes to investigate a possible miracle. Maureen has a disabled child called Christina who, Maureen says, can cure people and save lives. Instead of dismissing the claim as usual, Lucas takes Angela to meet Maureen and Christina. Christina does become a live saver in a way.


Call Me by Your Name
Call Me by Your Name
by Andre Aciman
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for readers who still 'count' their pause lengths., 18 Dec. 2010
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This review is from: Call Me by Your Name (Paperback)
If that title on a Five-star review intrigued you, please read on.
If not, please don't,
...because I am going to talk about punctuation.

Several reviewers have already told you the story, which can be summarised as a young man's first love set in Italy.
This is a romance. You do not want to know whether the couple stay together, or part and are perhaps reunited in the future.
You do not need to know the sex of the other half of the couple.
(If you do want or need to know either, then:
someone will tell you in a different review and I ask you to go and read it.)

This is a literary novel.
The story is slow paced:
Chapter 1: Elio decides he fancies someone.
Chapter 2: They kiss, and then don't mention it...
There are four chapters in total, so you get the idea.
It is beautifully and poeticly written, as several reviewers have said, but it is difficult to explain how or why it is beautiful or poetic, as it is not the vocabulary. There is nothing wrong with the vocabulary, but you do not get the idea that he spent time choosing exactly the 'right word' to use.

I will attempt to illustrate with a two-sentence example:

"It had happened during a lunch when my father had invited a journalist who had dabbled in philosophy in his youth and wanted to show that, though he had never written about Heraclinitus, he could still spar on any matter under the sun.
He and Oliver didn't hit it off."

Compare that to:
"It had happened during a lunch, when my father had invited a journalist, who had dabbled in philosophy in his youth, and wanted to show that (though he had never written about Heraclinitus), he could still spar on any matter under the sun.
He and Oliver didn't hit it off."

You may not agree with the placing of the commas, but I suspect that you would add some to the first example, if you were to punctuate Aciman's prose. He does not. His is the original version.
I could say that he uses less, but even more effective, punctuation than Damon Galgut, but that does not give you an idea of how he uses punctuation. He does not use his commas and full stops to clarify the meaning of his sentences. He uses them to show you how fast to read the prose.
Long phrases within a sentence flow lyrically across the page like someone in the grip of a romantic passion. Then short sentences jump, cricket-like, panting and halting. It is as if the words could no-longer breathe.

I can't do it effectively, but I hope you see what I mean by trying. He does it Very effectively.
If you have no idea what I mean, then I am sorry, but I did ask you, politely, to go and read a different review.

The 'counting' of punctuation was a way of getting the pause lengths correct when reading aloud.
If you have no idea what I mean(one,two) then I am sorry(one,two) but I did ask you(one,two) politely(one,two) to go and read a different review(one,two,three,four) If you ignored me(one,two) you have only yourself to blame(one,two,three) go (one,two) choose a suitable word(one,two) and off.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 16, 2011 7:11 PM GMT


The Girl on the Swing
The Girl on the Swing
by Ali Cooper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.49

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There is a lot happening in Julia's life, 21 Oct. 2010
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This review is from: The Girl on the Swing (Paperback)
... too much for one woman's lifetime, so it just as well she has lived before.

Ali Cooper interweaves all the different strands of her story with Julia's thoughts and the whole makes a rich tapestry.
Her son is dead, her husband is distant and unsupportive, her best friend thinks she is cracking-up, she is caught in a class-divide. Add to that a pending prosecution for medical negligence, a convicted murderer who may also have killed Julia in a previous life and a big secret kept from her by her parents and it is no wonder that Julia feels she is losing control of her current life. Those are a few of the many threads. The book could easily have become messy, as though the cat got in the embroidery basket, rather than a tapestry. It is to the author's credit that is doesn't.

It is not all 'one woman against the world'. Julia has some good friends as well, even some she didn't expect.

Why not five stars then?
I found the pace of the book a little rushed. Julia sometimes strolls or ambles, but the book hardly ever does. If she had slowed down a little more, say in the descriptive passages set in the Peak District, it would have been an even better book than it is. This would also have moved the book firmly into the realm of literary fiction.

I like literary fiction. A lot of people prefer page-turners, so would prefer the book as it is. I am probably in a minority, but this is my review and my opinion.

It is worth pointing out, since this is self-published, that the execution and presentation of the book are in no way second-rate.


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