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Stewart M (Victoria, Australia)

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The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Third time Lucky!, 22 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Sense of an Ending (Paperback)
This is the third Julian Barnes book I have read in recent months – the other two being ‘England, England’ and ‘Metroland’- and this is by far the best.

It may be a coincidence, but a couple of themes reappear in these three books: the behaviour and relationships of bright schoolboys, broken relationships and the nature of memory/reality and how we can come to terms with these.

Of all of these books, The Sense of an Ending seems the most well balanced, complete and plausible from a character point of view to me.

Tony Webster, the main character and a bright (but not the brightest) school boy in the past, looks back at the memories of his life and tries to make sense of them after a surprise inclusion in a will.

Maybe there are couple of coincidences and connections that may not feel 100% authentic, but they do not stretch believability to far.

This is a short book – about 150 pages – and it may only take a couple of hours to read, but I would recommend it far more confidently than the other two I have read.

For once, I book that seems to live up to its dust jacket quotes.

A Place in the Country
A Place in the Country
by W. G. Sebald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Non-fiction writing at its best., 6 Mar. 2015
This review is from: A Place in the Country (Paperback)
I first encountered Sebald’s wonderful rhythmic prose in The Rings of Saturn. This book is an account of six writers or artists who inspired him.

If anything, this book is more hypnotic and engaging than even the ‘The Rings of Saturn’. Here the prose (or, to be honest the translation of the original German prose) is so wonderfully complex, yet so readable, that it did not really matter that I had no prior experience of any the six artists.

There seems to be a theme of social disconnection in the six, but a disconnection that resulted in a longing for place. This could in some way help to explain Sebald’s own fascination with the sense of place that shines through in The Rings of Saturn.

If you wish to read a book that shows just how artful non-fiction can be, then I would recommend this book.

by Peter Carey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

3.0 out of 5 stars Rather forgettable, 23 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Amnesia (Hardcover)
If you decide that you are going to call a book Amnesia, it really does need to be better than forgettable, otherwise the reviews are already written.

Unfortunately, in many ways this book lives up to its title. The central story line is about a computer hacker and the impact of what the hack does. But most of the book itself is set before this event, and much of it reads like a social history of disgruntled Labour voters.

Now, this is clearly not a problem in any way – the book is about forgetting and (possibly) a loss of way/ direction. And anybody who knows much about the Australian Labour Party may see as being a bit of allegory. However, if you are not well versed in all things ALP these parts of the book become somewhat (sorry about this) forgettable.

The development of the stories central characters is slow and detailed, but at times I felt I had no real idea why I needed to know some of the detail I was being provided with. And when the book rushed to its conclusion I still felt that way.

Maybe I missed most of the cultural references – and hence the humour that the book is supposed to contain – but this book just did not happen for me.

To slow for most of the time, too fast in the last five pages and just a wee bit forgettable all in all.

This may not be the best way to start reading Peter Carey. Proceed with caution.

The Bush
The Bush
Price: £4.46

4.0 out of 5 stars Good - but I think it missed a trick, 11 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Bush (Kindle Edition)
The role that the bush – a general term for much of Australia’s rural areas – has played in the shaping of this modern nation is the both a source of pride and mythology for many Australians.

The bush – or more importantly the people who live in or come from it – is better, more Australia, more practical and generally more worthy than the latte sippers and book taught intellectuals that live in the cities. The bush is the real Australia.

The problem with this is that almost 90% of Australians don’t live in the bush.

This book looks at the Bush though both of these lenses, although the first, the mythic lens, predominates.

It’s a reasonable claim that much of the history of modern Australia can been better understood by learning how people used, abused and viewed the bush. This book gives a good, and although individual, overview of these changes.

But I still think the book missed an opportunity. And I think this is omission is flagged by the book’s sub-title ‘Travels in the Heart of Australia’. If we already know from the front cover that the bush is the heart of Australia, do we really expect to find that it is a heart of darkness?

The key omission seems to be a clear analysis of how the myth of the bush impacts on modern Australia. If the Bush produces ‘real’ Australians, where does that leave the rest of us, the 90% who live outside of it? Somehow less Australian I assume.

In the past Watson has written clear-eyed materials about both society and place. While this is a very enjoyable book, and I would recommend it highly, I do think it is a bit of an opportunity lost.

England, England
England, England
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Like watching England play cricket, 2 Feb. 2015
This review is from: England, England (Paperback)
This is a book that reminds me of many England cricket matches – it starts with real promise, slows down in the middle and ends up with you wondering what all the excitement at the start was about.

The first section in this shortish novel is the best part of the book – it deals with memory and authenticity; how do we remember? Do we really remember at all? Or are we just recalling the stories that are told about things that people think we should remember?

This section of the book links clearly to the central, and longest part, of the book. The Isle of White is converted into a ‘theme park’ version of England, where everything that people think of as England is available in one place.

This seems to be a reasonable extension of the idea of authenticity, but soon even this idea seems to be so overplayed as to be rather obvious. People are not what they seem, relationships are not what they seem, reputations are not what they seem.

In the end the central protagonist of the book returns to something, which may or may not be authentic – and then the book ends.

I really liked the first part of the book – and even the start of the section where the IOW is converted is interesting because of the way it plays with the idea of what people want to see, and what they want to experience.

But then the middle order collapse sets in, and the innings limps to a disappointing end.

I think the book is worth reading for the first part alone, but in the end I was pleased when it was all over. 3 stars.

American Sniper [Movie Tie-in Edition]: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History
American Sniper [Movie Tie-in Edition]: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History
by Chris Kyle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars Unpleasant., 26 Jan. 2015
This is book that I think demands to be viewed in two ways – firstly as a story about a person and secondly as a story about a person who we ‘asked’ to do things by his community.

In the first aspect it’s clear that the author is pretty unpleasant. His casual disregard for any human life that does not happen to be American is clear, as is his disregard for the person he claims to love.

The descriptions of his military training as a SEAL are par for the course in this kind of book – and in fact the author deliberately leaves out sections of the training, because he is sure his readers will already be familiar with these things.

However, once the author is deployed the story line becomes full of obvious racism and bigotry – the way in which he describes his ‘enemies’ does not show the attitudes of so called elite troops. I found these sections of the book hard to read.

The second aspect of the story, where the author is doing what he is trained to do, at the behest of a democracy (well sort of) are equally unsettling. His basic task is to kill and keep killing until the declared enemy have had enough and give up. (In many ways this seems to be an echo of the ‘kill ratio’ argument of the Vietnam War). If this is really what he was asked to do, do we really have the right to suggest that he should be a monk as well as a killer and to suffer agonies of guilt for doing what he has been asked to do?

I think it will become increasing hard to differentiate this book from the film it spawned – but they seem to be very difficult.

This is an ugly and difficult book. But I also think it is shockingly honest.

It is clearly a book that should be described as ‘informative’ rather than ‘entertaining’.

Nobody does well in this account of a modern war.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 26, 2015 10:22 PM GMT

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.95

4.0 out of 5 stars An imperfect hero., 28 Dec. 2014
I think this book is likely to suffer because of two things – firstly in won the Booker Prize, and secondly the main thrust of the narrative - the treatment of POWs by the Japanese during WWII – is fairly familiar.

Its prize wining status would suggest that the book is truly remarkable, and this is a hard preconception for a book to carry. The truth of the matter is that the book was considered the best of the 2014 entrants, and I think this is a much better way to view it.

The second consideration – that the subject is well worn – may be true, but it does not mean that the book has nothing new to say.

The book centres around one major character, his loves and losses and his struggle to understand his place in the world. If ever there was a flawed hero, Dorrigo Evans is one.

But on many levels this also seems a very realist view – we seem to give people who have achieved what we believe we could not, super-human powers. The truth, and their motivations, may be more prosaic.

I was struck that the book did seem to turn around a number of coincidences that seem so unlikely that I had a hard job believing them. Some occur early and dominate the book, and others cast a new light on things that happened in the past. But when they occur, I could not help but think ‘really?’ I have not read many ‘generational’ novels, and maybe such things are typical in them, but just did not find some of the plot twist convincing.

Having said this, I found that many sections of the book – especially the scenes in the POW camps - griping, if unrelentingly grim. Equally I found the sections where people struggle with the morality of their actions far more convincing than the plot twists.

So, this is a good four-star book.

Imperfect? – certainly (but what is not?).
Self consciously clever? – a little.
Worth reading? – absolutely
Recommended? - yes.

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet
Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet
by Mark Cocker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A year in fast-forward, 14 Dec. 2014
In many ways this is a fairly conventional account of the turning of the years around the village of Calxton in the Yare valley in Norfolk. While there are a few side trips to other places, the focus of the book is the titular village.

Like many other ‘year in the life of…..’ books the daily accounts are drawn from more than one year, so while they are presented in calendar order, they are not truly sequential – I only mention this because some books seem not to be honest about this format – but this one is.

The daily entries are generally short – most are just a single page (more or less) of the book – and most end with a sort of philosophical musing which seeks to place the short piece in the wider context of the world. This is both the strength and weakness of the book: each piece of writing is self-contained, but each also becomes rather too predictable in tone.

I think this may be due to the way in which they were originally published – weekly or at least a few days apart. Reading them one after another compresses a week or a month into minutes and the pace (and predictability) seem too much.

Equally, I think that that the rapidity with which you can move through the book makes some of the recurring themes recur a little to often as well – the link between the soil and the rest of the world, the shape and effect of a passing peregrine and the sound of geese all occur regularly in the book.

All this being said, I really enjoyed the book and the writing is very evocative. Its clear from this and the authors other books that he has a great eye for detail.

So, would I recommend the book? Absolutely!

But I do suggest that you read it over a longer period of time than a few days – read a couple of days each day, so that the year in the book unfolds at a more realistic pace and I am sure you will enjoy it.

by Tim Minchin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Storming Book, 1 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Storm (Paperback)
This is a really interesting little book. And two words here are important – ‘interesting’ and ‘little’.

The book is ‘interesting’ because of what it seeks to explore – belief and rationalism, which are hardly the normal stuff of comedy. And the book is ‘little’, not because it is insignificant, but because if you just read the poem that is the core of the book, you will complete the book in 10 – 15 minutes.

If you are already aware of Tim Minchen’s work, this book will contain few surprises, but much delight. This beat poem, with its strange rhythms and off key rhymes, is an account of the kind of ‘rant’ that many of us may have wished to unleash when exposed to hocus-pocus and pseudo-science – in this case it happens at a dinner party where we meet an Australian called Storm.

Believers in auroras, spirit healing, the therapeutic value of crystals and (possibly above all else) homeopathy will find little joy within these pages.

This is a book for lovers of science, logic and evidence.

It’s a storming book!

1066: History in an Hour
1066: History in an Hour
Price: £1.04

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Year it all Changed, 5 Nov. 2014
It would not be hard to mount a case claiming that 1066 was one of the most important years in English history. It may well be one of those turning points in history the effects of which we are still living.

Language changed, law changed, landscape changed.

And for the most part, only one aspect of this year is remembered – the Battle of Hastings. 1066 was a far more complex year than that, and this book is a good introduction to the intricacies of that period. The other battles, the family infightings and politics are all introduced, and I suspect that for many people these aspects of 1066 may be new.

Of course the book is not comprehensive - that is not its aim. But it does show how close history came to having a very different pathway.


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