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Reviews Written by
Stewart M (Victoria, Australia)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   

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H is for Hawk
H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The emotion of Nature, 11 May 2015
This review is from: H is for Hawk (Paperback)
Although the central character of this book is a bird - a Goshawk - , this wonderful book focuses on emotion rather than biology.

This simple fact may be enough for some people to decide if they are going to read this book or not. This is a book that places the emotional reaction of the author to the death of her father, the English countryside and the trials and tribulations of a trying to train a hawk above pure biological knowledge.

If you want fact and figures, weights and measures then this is not the book for you. However, if you want a wonderfully written, authentic feeling account of coming to terms with loss and finding the strength to do so through a connection with nature, then this is the book for you.

The intertwined strands of place, passion and more than a little frustration are what hold this book together. And sitting in the background like a memory is the book The Goshawk by TH White, a volume that apparently falls in the category of `flawed masterpiece'.

Some people have said that this book may be a little `over indulgent' because of the way in which the author links her emotional life to the life of both a bird and the countryside it which she trains and hunts with it. I think this misses the point that nature has a power beyond just a dispassionate experience.

We make our own meanings from nature, and in this book you can follow the authors journey towards her own meaning.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Wild Wood
Wild Wood
by Jan Needle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars A view from the Wood., 20 April 2015
This review is from: Wild Wood (Paperback)
This book is a cracking re-telling of the classic, The Wind in the Willows.

If Wind In the Willows is a view from the river, then this book is a view from the wood. The strength of this version comes from the simple believability of the humanised characters and the voice of Baxter then main narrator.

Some of the tricks of the original remain – such has the (unacknowledged) change in size of the animals depending on need. In the original Toad becomes a washer-women and deals with ‘gypsies’ and similar things happen in the new version.

What is really wonderful about this book is the way that both the original characters and plot lines remain intact and only motivation and purpose change. We don’t have to un-learn anything from the original for the new version to make sense.

And this I think leads to the only issue I have with the book – I really do think you need at least a working knowledge of the plot of Wind in Willows to see how wonderful this book itself is. Which, I suppose leads to the recommendation, that you should read both of them!

Highly Recommended.

The Great War: Ten Contested Questions
The Great War: Ten Contested Questions
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars This is a timely book., 9 April 2015
Given the upcoming (and misnamed) ‘celebrations’ about the First World War, a book at looks at some of the received truth about this conflict and asks ‘is this what really happened’ is a worthwhile addition to the huge number of books which will be published on this subject in the next few years.

However, the title of the book is a little misleading in some ways – for not all of the questions in the book are ‘contested’. Some, such as how did the military cope with the treatment of huge numbers of wounded that the battles caused, and why did the British War Poets rise to such prominence at the expense of other forms of literature, are questions that are not asked very often (if at all) in the popular debate on the history of this war.

But of course, there still are the contested questions of history – why did the war start in the first place? Why did it not stop sooner? Were the Generals really as incompetent as we have been told? How much difference did the arrival of the Americans make to the outcome of the war? In some ways these are the familiar debates of history.

Some of the question are less familiar – were conscientious objectors traitors? What role did religion play in the war? and where are the voices of the soldiers from ‘the colonies’ (other than Australia/NZ and Canada).

This is not a long book – but it is a very worthwhile read.

Given the kind of certainty that seems to be come when politicians start telling tales of history, I think this is a thought provoking and, possibly, important antidote.

Highly recommended.

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

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.

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