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Rough Diamond (London, UK)

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Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul (Deluxe Edition)
Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul (Deluxe Edition)
Offered by FLASH
Price: £12.73

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kevin Rowland: still on song, 13 Jun. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Dexys' new disc, even though it's 'just' a covers album, is very much in the same vein, musically and emotionally, as Tonight I’m Going to Soar. A song like 'You Don't Know What It's Like', dripping with pugnacious self-pity, would fit perfectly on the previous record, with the band and Kevin's vocals both packing a real punch. Even the more traditional Irish numbers are given a distinctive Dexys twist. The way Kevin sings I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen, you really do fear for Kathleen’s safety. Best of all is the runout on Both Sides Now, where we hear Kevin ruminatively muttering to himself, “I don’t know love, I don’t know love, I don’t know love at all”. Marvellous.

Recommended as an enjoyable companion piece to Tonight I'm Going To Soar. Anyone who rates that disc as highly as I do (i.e. one of the finest releases of the current decade) will find much to savour on Let The Record Show. Not quite the full five stars though: one or two of the tracks do veer dangerously close to what you might hear on karaoke night in an Irish pub and, tragically, the sleeve art doesn't feature any pictures of Kevin Rowland modelling ladies' underwear.

Charles Tyrwhitt Slim fit blue and white dobby shirt - Size: L - Color: BLUE
Charles Tyrwhitt Slim fit blue and white dobby shirt - Size: L - Color: BLUE

4.0 out of 5 stars Something for the weekend?, 8 Jun. 2016
Nice design, and lovely fabric (good quality oxford cotton), but a word of warnng on the 'slim' fit: I'm a middle-aged man with a middle-aged man's physique, and the fit is pretty loose and baggy on me. I was hoping for something a little more fitted and office-friendly, but what I've ended up with is a loose-fitting and relaxed weekend shirt. I have to say that, for the price, I think TM Lewin offer sharper shirts for workwear, but I still won't be sending this one back as it's a great casual shirt.

The Power of the Dog (Vintage Classics)
The Power of the Dog (Vintage Classics)
by Thomas Savage
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, 25 May 2016
This deft and economical novel achieves tremedous depth and insight with an absolute minimum of fuss and effort. In a relatively small handful of well-told episodes, it convincingly conjures up a satisyingly complex family dynamc. The enigmatic Phil and his taciturn younger brother George are wealthy ranchers on the tough, unyielding plains to the east of the Rockies in the mid-1920s. Phil's longstanding emotional dominance of George is threatened by George's unexpected marriage to Rose, a pretty young widow with a look of Mary Pickford about her. Phil sees Rose's fey and alienated son Peter as a way of driving a wedge between her and George, but perhaps Peter is made of stronger stuff than Phil has given him credit for..

Savage explores this interplay of relationships with enormous subtlety and wit, but perhaps the real star of the book isn't the characters so much as the landscape which they inhabit. The descriptive writing is strikingly vivid, convincingly evoking the sights, sounds and smells of Montana and Utah's cattle country through the changing seasons. And likewise through the changing times: the narrative looks back to Phil and George's early days on the ranch at the turn of the century, and contrasts these with the coming of the jazz age, the motor car, and the first flickers of urbanisation and civic society in the former frontier towns. But this is far from a cliche'd 'lament for the Old West'. Instead, the harsh and uncompromising setting serves primarily as a metaphor for the interior life of the characters - not least Phil, whose struggle with his suppressed inner demons, which Savage never quite spells out, provides a further thread of narrative tension.

All in all, this is a memorable and richly enjoyable read, which devotees of Cormac McCarthy, Charles Neider and Annie Proulx would almost certainly enjoy. Another 'Stoner'? Yes, insofar as this is another buried gem of American mid-century fiction that's well worth (re)discovering - but The Power of the Dog is a fish of an entirely different feather: a richer, more humane and less nihilistic read than John Williams' bleak masterpiece.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2016 9:16 AM BST

Fallen Angels
Fallen Angels
Offered by Amore DVD
Price: £7.97

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shadows in the Day, 20 May 2016
This review is from: Fallen Angels (Audio CD)
Old blue eyes is back - again! And that's good news. Anyone who has had the good fortune to hear Bob live in concert recently will know just how much this old, old material has energised his performances. This second volume of American classics is clearly part of an ongoing labour of love, and on a first listen it's perhaps an even more engaging record than last year's charming but rather one-paced and crepusclar Shadows in The Night. There's a much more balanced mix of material here, with a few shafts of bright daylight to contrast with the after-hours gloom of its predecessor, and some of the sunny, upbeat numbers like Polka Dots and Moonbeams, That Old Black Magic and Skylark are handled with real style and grace. There's a wry self-mocking humour in Dylan's weary croak though Young at Heart, and there's at least one genuine masterpiece as well in the delightful Melancholy Mood, a brilliant piece of songwriting with ricocheting internal rhymes every bit as good as those on Bob's own Mozambique, and which Bob negotiates with utter aplomb.

It is of course wholly bizarre that Bob Dylan is devoting such love and energy to burnishing these hoary old chestnuts. For now, Dylan's laser-sharp writerly creativity seems to be taking an extended afternoon nap out on the verandah, but there is an artistic point to these recordings nevertheless: Bob seems to me to be very consciously locating his own output within the broader context of the immense heritage of classic 20th century American songwriting. Is this growing footnote to Bob's canon now his ongoing retirement project, or is it (like the two folk solo records from the early '90s) a regathering of resources that will in time bear fruit in one final phase of original songwriting? While we wait to find out, this lovingly-produced and wholly amiable record will have to be good enough for now.

And (by the way) what a handsome album cover! One of the best-dressed Dylan albums ever? Columbia Records has clearly embraced the concept of Bob as a 'heritage artist', and the grain and texture of the enigmatic cover photo fits the feel of the material perfectly.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 23, 2016 4:30 PM BST

The Course of Love
The Course of Love
by Alain De Botton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Off Course, 20 May 2016
This review is from: The Course of Love (Hardcover)
This is not a novel. It is, at best, an extended case study, through which the author explores a few of his pet theories, such as (i) we're all a bit mad, really (ii) the idea of romantic love doesn't help: it's just an ideology, and one that only makes us even crazier (iii) John Bowlby's work on attachment theory explains all this pretty well (iv) if we want to check this out for ourselves, a bit of couples therapy might be a good place to start, or (v) alternatively, we could all take a leaf out of the ancient Greeks' book, especially the Stoics.

It's not a novel because De Botton's exploration of these ideas ignores the novelist's most basic injunction: show, don't tell. De Botton tells, at length; crowding his own characters out of the narrative with his own all-knowing authorial voice, reducing them to the status of specimens on a Petrie dish, which he holds aloft professorially for our further enlightenment. Worse, once De Botton tires of telling, he commentates, in the form of the trite, italicised homilies that punctuate the text with dismaying frequency, just in case those of us snoozing at the back are missing the point of his lecture. In fact, perhaps The Course of Love is actually the name of a study option at De Botton's School of Life, and this is its core textbook. It wouldn’t surprise me.

Maybe this odd, didactic approach to novel-writing has spared the book from being even worse than it already is. De Botton simply cannot write dialogue. On the rare occasions that his characters manage to get a word in edgewise, we find to our dismay that they talk exactly like Alain De Botton, in a calm, measured, prolix and slightly patronising monotone, even when they are supposed to be really angry.

Without real characters, without a real plot, and with nothing that could be described as narrative impetus, what we're left with are the kindly and well-intentioned musings of a gentle, humane and thoughtful man. Sadly, for the reader, the experience is rather like being stuck in a lift for hours on end with a particularly po-faced and sanctimonious vicar.

However, amidst the fug of well-meaning editorial condescension that suffocates this as a novel, there is some genuinely insightful thinking here about the long-term dynamics of married relationships. Anyone who’s married, and especially those of us who’ve been married for a while, will spark with recognition on reading some of De Botton’s more penetrating apercus, and his injunctions towards greater kindness and understanding are well-expressed and genuinely thought-provoking. It’s as a long-winded piece of marriage guidance counselling that this book scrapes itself a second star but, as a novel, I’m sorry to say I think it’s an unmitigated failure.

And The Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability
And The Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability
by Yanis Varoufakis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars European comedy, Greek tragedy, 4 May 2016
This brilliant and sweeping analysis of the European debt crisis, and its deep historical roots, makes most macroeconomics look as flimsy as short-term weather forecasting.

Varoufakis convincingly argues that two seminal events have, together, doomed European monetary policy to perpetual failure: the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 and the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the 1950s. Bretton Woods had, until 1971, functioned in effect as a globalisation of America’s New Deal economics. The USA's balance of payments surplus was 'politically recycled' to Europe by guaranteeing a gold-backed dollar peg for Europe currencies - thus providing a basis for Europe's post-war redevelopment and, by extension, a willing market for America's exports. The 1971 'Nixon Shock', in which the USA unilaterally abandoned the gold standard, left a gaping hole in European monetary policy, which Europe's central bankers have been trying to plug ever since, by using the Deutschemark & Bundesbank as a surrogate for the Dollar and the Fed.

These attempts, argues Varoufakis, have failed serially: first in the form of the 'snake' of the 1970s, then in the ERM of the 1990s, and currently in the highly dysfunctional Euro. The base cause he identifies for these failures (apart from, of course, the unmitigated evil of Germany’s bankers, for whom he harbours an undimmed hatred) is the impossibility of de-politicising an area of policy that's intrinsically and unavoidably political: namely, monetary policy. In other words, monetary union without political union is clearly a nonsense - and it’s a bitter irony that the tensions caused by the monetary union are now making political union appear ever more unachievable. But the EU's institutions are, by their nature, technocratic, bureaucratic, and therefore anti-democratic, and this lack of democratic legitimacy makes them inherently unable to wield the necessary sovereignty to make coherent and valid political decisions about Europe-wide monetary policy. In other words, a democratic deficit, coded into the EU's DNA, is dooming not only its monetary policy to failure, but also its ongoing quest for closer political union. The taproot of this democratic deficit dates all the way back to the ECSC of the 1950s, which was conceived as a price and tariff fixing cartel for European heavy industry - a brief in which democratic representation and accountability played no part, and whose ghost, argues Varoufakis, still haunts the corridors of Brussels to this day.

When elephants fight, the grass below is trampled. Varoufakis is utterly scathing in his condemnation of austerity: morally, politically and economically. While the EU and its bankers flounder around trying the shore up the crumbing architecture of their faulty central institutions, those paying the price for their leaders’ failures are the poorest and weakest members of European society – and, of course, the Greeks, for whom there is a generous amount of special pleading here by Varoufakis. But the central point of his thesis still holds true: that the principal victims of austerity are the poor, and the principal beneficiaries are the rich.

If I’ve made this all sound as dry and technical as the contents of a Brussels bureaucrat’s briefcase, don’t be deterred. Varoufakis tells his tale with the pace and clarity of a political thriller, and he is grippingly interesting on the internecine machinations that have shaped the current mess in which Europe finds itself. He himself briefly had a ringside seat for some of these in 2015, but this book touches only lightly on his time as Greece’s Finance Minister. Instead, the emphasis here is very much on the Big Picture, and here he succeeds brilliantly into bringing into sharp focus the fundamental problems that are currently facing Europe. One of the most insightful books on macroeconomics I’ve ever read, and warmly recommended for anyone who wants to take a long hard look at Europe before they cast their Referendum vote.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 25, 2016 11:12 AM BST

Inspired Property Quidditch Harry Funny Potter Burgundy Hoodie size S
Inspired Property Quidditch Harry Funny Potter Burgundy Hoodie size S
Offered by ETHIC-STAR Limited
Price: £11.90

5.0 out of 5 stars It's magic, 21 April 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
What a great garment: very good quality, and a lovely fit on my 12 year old. Excellent value for the price. Thoroughly recommended

In Search of Lost Time: Swann's Way (Graphic Novel)
In Search of Lost Time: Swann's Way (Graphic Novel)
by Marcel Proust
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.58

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Proust in his first book wrote about, wrote about..", 15 April 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Like the Bolton Choral Society's attempt to summarise Proust's In Search of Lost Time as a five-part madrigal, you'd think Stephane Heuet's attempt to recast Proust's epic novel as a cartoon strip could only result, at best, in a heroic failure. In fact, in its own terms, I think it's a triumphant success.

What's missing, of course, is the slow-burning, spellbinding seductiveness of Proust's meandering, meditative prose style - although Heuet's adaptatation does in places quote from the original at some length. What's completely new as a reading experience, equally obviously, is the visual impact of the very beautiful and ingenious illustrations, which will give even the seasoned Proustian hours of pleasure, and which bring the more visual elements of Proust's text vividly to life. Heuet is not afraid to play with the format of his layout, and some of the book's real triumphs are when he allows his illustrations to burst out of the standard grid and into 'widescreen' mode, as it were. More than once I quietly gasped with pleasure on turning the page to discover breathtakingly good and impactful pictures of (for example) Swann and Odette in Swann's library, Combray in spring from the banks of the Vivonne, or the magic lantern shows Marcel enjoyed in his early childhood.

What's also a novelty is the sheer pace at which the reader can romp through the plotline, which is never really an option with Proust's original. Even though, by necessity, 95% of the detail is glossed over, Heuet's adaptation nevertheless succeeds rather well in conveying the full sweep of Swann's grand amour with Odette, for example, in under an hour of reading time - no mean achievement. So it's almost like having a microwave version of Proust: no substitute for the slow-cooked haute cuisine of the original, but still a very tasty ready-meal when you fancy a Proustian snack. And, best of all, it's a book that will almost certainly whet your appetite for a bite of the real thing.

The book itself has been lovingly printed on durable, high-quality paper, and is a real objet de vertu that would make a lovely gift for the hardcore Proustian as well as the newly Proust-curious. Warmly recommended.

The Long View: Picador Classic
The Long View: Picador Classic
by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Digging Deep, 3 April 2016
The Long View is a view backwards in time. We first meet Antonia Fleming in 1950, trapped in the desiccated husk of a loveless marriage with the impeccably arrogant Conrad, and fearful of what the future might hold for her now her grown-up children are preparing to spread their wings and fly the nest. How, we might ask, did a couple as incompatible and antagonistic as Conrad and Antonia end up spending the past 23 years of their lives together? The novel unpicks this conundrum by excavating down through successive layers of their marriage like an archaeological dig: we meet then in wartime London in 1942, then on a catastrophic holiday in 1937, as newlyweds in 1927, and finally in the book's closing section we meet Antonia as a girlish 19-year-old, at the very beginning of her sentimental education, and on the cusp of her first encounter with Conrad.

It's a structure that demands close attention from the reader. As one small example, the cruelty of a casual remark Conrad makes in 1942 about Marseilles only hits home about a hundred pages later, once we come to understand what actually happened there in 1937. The experience of understanding the significance of certain events only in retrospect is at times a frustrating one for the reader, but this frustration is shared by the characters themselves, whose deceits, and self-deceits, are central themes of the book, and Jane Howard is an acute and witty diagnostician of the warped dynamics of Antonia and Conrad's marriage. In the 1950 opening section, we also observe how deeply their children, both now on the brink of marriage, have been influenced by their home environment in the way in which they now relate to their chosen life-partners. One of the slow-burning pleasures of the novel's reverse time frame is the unfolding horror of realising just how deeply Antonia and Conrad are themselves products of dysfunctional upbringings and how, by reflecting this in their relationship with their own children, the children are now falling into the same traps that Antonia and Conrad themselves once did. As Larkin would have it, it deepens like a coastal shelf.. The reverse structure gives a whole new dimension of dramatic irony to the narrative, and the urge to start the book again as soon as the 1926 section has finished, if only to savour the full desperate poignancy of Antonia's advice to her daughter in 1950, is almost irresistable.

In less skilful hands, The Long View could have been so existentially bleak as to have been unbearable. Luckily, Howard is such a delicate, witty and subtle writer that the novel fizzes along with the wry grace of a mid-20th century Jane Austen. It's a great and memorable read, by a writer who deserves to be remembered as one of the 20th century's best. The Picador Classics edition does her proud: this is a well-printed and stoutly-bound edition which will comfortably withstand the multiple re-readings it merits. Warmly recommended.

The Free
The Free
by Willy Vlautin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard Times for these times, 14 Mar. 2016
This review is from: The Free (Paperback)
The Free is a blast of bleakness that's as clear, as bright and as bracing as the Oregon air. In his spare, clipped, just-the-facts style, Willy Vlautin creates an unforgettable trio of wounded, down-at-heel characters who have all had a heartbreakingly raw deal out of life. Their common thread is a care home for disabled war veterans in America's Northwest. Freddie, the home's night porter, is second-jobbing there while slowly drowning in debt as he tries to pay for his estranged daughter's medical care; Leroy, who spends almost all the book on life support, we come to know only through his vivid, morphine-induced fantasies of escape from his intolerable life; and Pauline, Leroy's nurse, who is frazzled and exhausted by her job and by caring for her senile father, and who is tempted into lowering her guard by a runaway teenage junkie who arouses her long-suppressed maternal instincts.

Anyone who knows Vlautin from his work with Richmond Fontaine, or indeed from his previous three novels, will know better than to hope for a happy ending. This is a kitchen-sink drama into which Vlautin throws a brimming kitchen-sinkful of misery and despair. But the real pleasure here is in the rich layering of incidental detail that not only creates a convincing patina of verisimilitude, but which more importantly make us genuinely care about the desperate, downtrodden characters. Even though all three of the book's leads are horribly beaten down by the many unfairnesses of their lives, time and again, often in the smallest, most throwaway moments, we see their undefeated humanity still shining through. This makes The Free ultimately an uplifting read, despite the bleakness of its pessimism about where the USA is heading,

Not quite the full five stars, but close. The utter unadorned flatness of Vlautin's prose will appeal to haters of metaphor, simile and imagery of any description, but readers that enjoy 'writerly' writing will find themselves on a complete starvation diet here. To my taste, the staccato, reporterly, repetitive style became grating and tiring after a while. Maybe that was the point - to mirror the uncompromising harshness of the characters' lives with an uncompromisingly harsh prose style. If so, point taken - but nevertheless, for a short book, this was an exhausting read that was made no easier by Vlautin's monotone narrative voice.

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