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Mike Collins

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Epitaph for a Spy (Penguin Modern Classics)
Epitaph for a Spy (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Eric Ambler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No Spies On Me, 14 Jan. 2016
EA knocked out five superb thrillers just before the war and this is one of my favourites. Its trademark hapless hero, Joseph Vadassy, is traduced by the French police and intelligence services into 'investigating' incriminating photos of sea defences that have mysteriously appeared on a roll of film on what he thinks is his camera. The fun resides in JV's ham-fisted unpicking of the dodgy characters staying with him at a sleepy hotel on a quiet stretch of the Riviera, trying to find the real spy before he's for the high jump. EA's descriptions of this Mediterranean idyll shimmer and dazzle like the coastal landscape, and he conjures the spiced air and summer heat perfectly, a satisfying backdrop to a cast straight out of an Agatha Christie yarn. The ending is breathless and exciting, the epitaph for this particular spy a damning one that roots at least some of the story in tawdry reality. There's also a scene of a couple taking a selfie - the first in English fiction? Ambler's five 1930s' thrillers are all winners; buy right here, right now.


Uncommon Danger (Penguin Modern Classics)
Uncommon Danger (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Eric Ambler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Danger To Himself, 7 Jan. 2016
Journalists are reputed to have interesting lives but our hero Kenton (his Christian name is mentioned only once; see if you can spot it) takes the biscuit as a hitherto unexceptional political reporter's CV suddenly includes finding a murdered man (stabbed by a Spanish assassin) in an hotel bedroom; taking on a diabolical Continental villain and his psychopathic English henchman, who more than once have the chance to shut him up; being locked into a factory's airtight vulcanising chamber with a Soviet agent who becomes a sort of a pal; and participating in a frantic car chase - the driver a Russian uber-babe - for the German border which culminates in a climactic shoot-out and an act of scarcely plausible clemency. Isn't this all a bit much? Of course it is, but EA presses the narrative accelerator at the right moments, shifting gears with commendable ease, and even gives us one of his trademark soliloquies from a cameo character - the outburst of commercial traveller Mr Hodgkin on the iniquities of your average Continental in the 1930s. So what's all this hokum really about? It's about this: "The Big Business Man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules." How true that is and, for all the rollicking entertainment here, EA never lets us forget the utterly serious nature of his underlying message. You also get a superb essay on EA, his life and times, from editor Thomas Jones. Don't delay, discover Ambler today.


The Great Winglebury Duel (Penguin Little Black Classics)
The Great Winglebury Duel (Penguin Little Black Classics)
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £0.80

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Duel Carriageway, 27 Dec. 2015
I read the two short stories here at the same time as trying to plough through Peter Carey's overlong and tedious True History of the Kelly Gang and needless to say there is a thousand times more in these few pages than in the Australian's endlessly clunking exposition. The title tale is a concisely plotted comedy of misidentity, the second a look at the English on a day out on the Thames - The Steam Excursion - a comic Heart of Darkness. Absurdity survives the passing of generations intact judging by the all too recognisable shenanigans described here and, as the river gets choppier in a breaking storm, the humour broadens, with CD's withering gaze sparing no one as social order disintegrates. So how good is the writing? Mr Percy Noakes 'inhabits chambers with an extensive view of the gardens, and their usual adjuncts - flaunting nursery maids, and town-made children, with paranthetical legs.' That'll do me. Brilliant.


Cause for Alarm (Penguin Modern Classics)
Cause for Alarm (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Eric Ambler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Raise The Alarm, 27 Dec. 2015
Eric Ambler has given me a great deal of enjoyment over the years and this superb yarn set in Fascist Italy will enthral you too. Nicky Marlow is a redundant engineer who goes to Milan to run the office of an English firm there, hoping to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart. But his predecessor met a sticky end and our hero soon realises he's up to his eyes in murky business, the 'painted' General Vagas just one of the sinister characters ranged against him. The book features suspenseful walks along fog-shrouded streets, double-dealing and chicanery, astute political analysis of the pre-war situation in Europe, and a flight from danger that is one of the most exciting I've ever read, with a mind-boggling encounter along the way. This sequence includes a cafe stop where the hero drinks a "tolerable Barbera" (Italian red wine), that brilliant "tolerable" telling us all we need to know about Nicky's middle-class background, though Ambler has him write letters to his girlfriend (who "refrains manfully" from asking questions at one point) that are far too literary and insightful for the character. Still, Henry James and German novelist Theodor Fontane often made this mistake and CFA is none the worse for it. Get yourself a bottle of tolerable Barbera and spend an evening or two with this excellent novel. Cheers.


True History of the Kelly Gang
True History of the Kelly Gang
by Peter Carey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Ned Off Into The Sunset, 27 Dec. 2015
I came to this book - and the author - with plenty of high-level recommendations ringing in my ears (Robert McCrum in The Guardian for one - he made it No 100 in his best 100 novels of all time) and left it about halfway through, thoroughly beaten, with yet another tedious section of indistinguishable characters and place names proving too much to countenance. Peter Carey isn't a product of the English class system but his background as the son of a motor dealership-owning couple I guess was pretty comfortable, hence his ludicrous romanticising of a nasty outback thug. People like Carey never get it really, rarely having grown up with it (as Don DeLillo certainly did in a tough NY Italian neighbourhood), and Ned here sometimes sounds like a poet-philosopher, sometimes a sentimental old philanthropist out collecting for widows. And, hey, you know what readers, that Kelly boy just loves his horses too, treating them with tender respect, as all outlaws do, of course. I won't go on (as Carey unfortunately does) but will merely ask how on earth this won the Booker.


Julius Caesar: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
Julius Caesar: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Come To Praise It, 4 Dec. 2015
This is a superb edition of one of WS' best plays and well worth buying. Millions of words have been expended on the works of this extraordinary playwright, about whose life we know practically nothing, so all the modern reader/theatregoer can usefully do is assess the value of editions and productions as and when they come along - and this one's a belter. Hats off to Arthur Humphreys who has made the perilous ascent (to use his own conceit) and attained the peak, along with doughty sherpas who get their share of the credit, with distinction, penning a formidably erudite and insightful introduction. I said I wouldn't mention the play but it's perfect and I can hardly conjure the image of a Midlands lad sitting at a table in London with quill in hand writing something as profound, urgent and beautiful as this work. But he did, thank our lucky stars.


Oblomov (Penguin Classics)
Oblomov (Penguin Classics)
by Ivan Goncharov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Inspired Indolence, 4 Dec. 2015
Laziness doesn't seem to be the most inspiring theme for a great novel but Goncharov gives us a cracker here. Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is introduced to us while lying in his bed, wearing what must be the most emblematic dressing gown in literature, turning over in his mind not very much at all. A procession of visitors arrive, all trying to get him up to visit friends, but he's having none of it, preferring to fester in his pit in the company of his insalubrious servant Zakhar, a thieving, drunken, idle braggart who somehow engages the reader's sympathy. And thus begins a superb novel, the main action of which centres on O's relationship with Olga, a sensuous woman much in love with our often comatose hero. This section is too long really, as is a chapter detailing Olga's later life (no spoilers) and you wish the master of novelistic concision Ivan Turgenev had dived in to excise twenty-five thousand words or so. But I'm not deducting a star for that and in these deeply troubled times who could find fault with a man "who managed to strike a good bargain with life, having obtained from it a guarantee of undisturbed peace"? Plus you get a guest appearance from the author himself at the very end and you can't ask for much more than that. Anyway, my Oblomovitis has come back and I'm going for a lie down... We'll sort everything out tomorrow.


A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics)
A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics)
by Fernando Pessoa
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Quite Big Enough, 27 Nov. 2015
The Book of Disquiet shows clearly the talent FP had for writing in a poetic strain, so it should come as no surprise he turned his hands - the pieces collected here are attributed to his heteronyms (literary alter egos) - to verse. The same facility with words (though I can't read Portuguese), the gift for fusing language and ideas, and the acute perception of nature and his own emotions (though not others') are all there in spades. Unfortunately, the soft intellectual backbone evident in the Book undermines these qualities in the poetry too and what we often end up here with becomes fey and inconsequential - "I broke with the sun and stars. I let the world go./ I went far and deep with the knapsack of things I know." There's nothing wrong with any of that but compared to Wallace Stevens, whose themes and metaphysics FP parallels, it's flabby and content with "the mere surface of things". And I wonder why that is? Clues are found in Richard Zenith's stunning introduction, one of the best essays on a poet and poetry I have ever read. He concludes FP never really grew up (Wallace Stevens undertook a difficult marriage and fathered a daughter) and I would go along with that. Lacking the insights relationships can bring to sensibilities, FP never quite jumped the divide between excellence and greatness. That he failed to do so deprived us of a major European talent but, for all that, there is still plenty to enjoy and ponder in this marvellous volume.


Jake's Thing (Vintage Classics)
Jake's Thing (Vintage Classics)
by Kingsley Amis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Jake, Mine's A Double, 15 Nov. 2015
Art imitates life, as we all know, and this hoary old comic novel, cloaked in the dust of 1970s mores and attitudes, certainly does that inasmuch as it is a pretty straight account of events endured by the author at the time his marriage ended in alcohol and acrimony. Comedy often ages badly and the stuff here about sex therapy and the gadgets used to facilitate it is pretty woeful, its various practitioners and patients a sad parade of clumsily drawn and lifeless pen portraits. So why the three stars? Because, as I have noted in other reviews of KA, I think beneath the surface of this famously difficult man was a decent bloke trying to get out and some of that bloke can be seen in Jake. OK, he's an Oxford don (the Amis's are notoriously clueless about the world of real work - one character here works for a chutney manufacturer, probably another "joke") and childless (no one has kids in this book), but the passages describing Jake's life at the university are fluent, warm and convincing, as are the bits where he settles down to watch TV for the night. And Jake's solution to the problem of his life, even as a serial philanderer, was voiced by poet Andrew Marvell centuries earlier - "Two paradises 'twere in one/To live in paradise alone..." As long as you have a supply of porn magazines and someone to do the cooking and cleaning, of course.


The Castle (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Castle (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Franz Kafka
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Castle Conundrum, 6 Nov. 2015
What is the big mystery about The Castle? It is a book about day-to-day life as most of us live it – the petty squabbling; soured relationships; quotidian betrayals; personal disappointments; the need for jobs, warmth and security; meaningless 'status', often betokened by clothing, giving people over-exalted ideas about themselves; life in pubs, at work and in the home; people lounging in bed all hours because of sickness or laziness. Critics belabour the point of the Castle's mysterious authority, its ranks of petty bureaucrats and so on, but what's new? Have you ever had to deal with a civil service department in the UK? Indeed, I wonder how many people in a typical English street could tell you exactly how new laws are framed and enacted in this country. Five per cent? That sounds optimistic to me, probably more like one in five-hundred. Life is a mystery to most that they do not understand and don't even want to understand. Welcome, then, to the world of The Castle - our world.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 22, 2016 4:38 PM GMT


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