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Martin Somerville (Bath, Somerset)

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Capital
Capital
by John Lanchester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but under-edited, 28 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Capital (Paperback)
Having just read "Whoops!" with great admiration, I settled down to "Capital" with a lot of anticipation, and for a couple of hundred pages I was not disappointed. The author spent much more time than usual in painting detailed pictures of his characters, and these were drawn with razor-sharp observation and a penetrating eye for subtleties of emotional response and for the well-judged simile. But my enthusiasm waned, and the book became a bit of a chore. It was not until the last hundred pages that some plot began to emerge - and it turned out to be the rather half-hearted story of the "We Want What You Have" postcards. A pretty good book, I thought: more robust editing would have cut the 570 pages by half, and ended up with an excellent one.


20th century French intelligence agency Big Secret: Seine River plumber(Chinese Edition)
20th century French intelligence agency Big Secret: Seine River plumber(Chinese Edition)
by GAO JIN HU
Edition: Paperback

1.0 out of 5 stars What is it about?, 26 Feb. 2015
I haven't read the book, but the product description is completely unintelligible.


The Sparrow
The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2.0 out of 5 stars hard work, 5 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Sparrow (Paperback)
I understand that this book has many followers, but I found it very hard work. It wasn’t the wildly implausible assumption that within twenty years from the writing of the book the Catholic Church might be able secretly (and able to afford) to send the first contact expedition to an alien planet. Nor was it the fact that it described a journey of eighteen light-years to visit a planet which turned out to have a breathable atmosphere, very human-like inhabitants and a capitalist economy. Nor was it the peculiarly unpleasant ending: no, I could set all that aside – it was the writing.
The introductory sequence is far too long – around 200 pages – and, to me, is written in an inconsistent and leaden style, as a result of which the characters fail to come to life. Many of them are rather cardboard figures, such as the Australian who is given to saying “Fair dinkum!”, or others who fail to adjust the register of their speech to their social circumstances at the time. Clichés such as “You don’t want to know” turn up bathetically in vivid situations which need better.
There are episodes where, to me at least, people’s reactions were exceedingly implausible, especially implausibly uncontrolled for their characters or background. Simple details in the plot are unconvincing, such as where the “rescue mission” sends the wounded protagonist back to Earth alone, or when they all disappear (did they not have the sense to keep some in orbit and to land others?). The fact that the first explorers find themselves on a remarkably earth-like planet could perhaps be explained away, but their method of testing food sources for edibility is unbelievably crude, and their lack of any concern about microbiology impacts (either on or from the local ecosystem) is incredible, as is the length of time they are on the planet before making contact with the inhabitants.
It is poorly edited. Unexplained abbreviations, and show-offy untranslated fragments of Hebrew, colloquial Spanish and Italian, abound. A boy says to a man in Italian “there is someone who wants to see you”, and the Anglophone man understands this, even though he knows so little Italian that he is unsure how to say “thank you” in reply. There is much repetition which does not add to impact, and detail which does not fill in a picture or add conviction. Implausibly, though there are many references to films and TV programmes from before the date of publication, there are none to new ones in the period between that and the action of the story. An English university education is described as if it followed the American model. A reference to the (unknown to Google) “Guarnari” should presumably be to the “Guaraní”. The medical doctor who does not know what the ionosphere is (so the author can explain), and the explorer’s shock that not everyone on the planet speaks the same language, are clumsy.
The treatment of religion is strange, and one wonder what it reflects in the author’s personal history. She is in some respects well-informed about the Jesuits, yet somehow she has picked up (but not seen through) the old Protestant smear that the Jesuits hold that the end justifies the means, and, though false, this plays a part in the plot. Even though Catholic Christianity is one of her main concerns, she has not even bothered to check the Latin of her several ungrammatical quotes.
And given the characters’ sophisticated education, their theological and philosophical judgements are often crude or astonishingly ill-informed. Why did I go on reading? There are some interesting thoughts from time to time, but in truth I have to confess that I skimmed faster and faster as I progressed.


Butterflies in November
Butterflies in November
by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2.0 out of 5 stars enthusiasm abandoned, 3 Jan. 2015
I started this novel full of enthusiasm, but this began to leak away and I eventually abandoned it at page 180. A novel without a plot needs other strong characteristics to hold it together, and this did not seem to offer them. I had particular problems with passages of obscurity which did not seem to succeed in revealing much as a result, such as the eyes on page 158 which later become a kitten, the description of the striptease on page 174 or the shotgun pellets on page 176. I suspect that part of the problem may be the translation, which has evident weaknesses at some points (such as a promiscuous use of the word "desert", which is difficult to handle in relation to a rain-sodden landscape). In the end I found it too incoherent to satisfy.


Memorial
Memorial
by Alice Oswald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars it captures the concrete energy of Homer’s Greek better than any translation I have come across, 21 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Memorial (Paperback)
I listened to “Memorial” as an audiobook read by the author, and was captivated at once. It has two key virtues. First, it captures the concrete energy of Homer’s Greek better than any translation I have come across. Second, it throws a massive emphasis on Homer’s similes The simile is a device rather under-used in English, where we prefer the amibiguities of metaphor, which causes us to approach Homer with a degree of bafflement: “What on earth are all these extended similes doing?”. But Oswald rejoices in the similes she picks up, elaborating them, and repeating them each time, and the impact is dramatic and greatly effective, giving us a new insight into the Homeric poems. She is also outstanding as a reader of the poem.
The British reviews of “Memorial” have been uniformly laudatory (often in identical terms as if based on a press release). The review by William Logan in the New York Times is to my mind more balanced. He points out that the work is not a translation in the generally understood sense: it is not just a very heavily edited version of the Iliad, but one which strategically is focused only one part of the poem, and tactically is elaborated and embroidered – even with modern references. While not being a translation, it is in my opinion a wonderful, indeed a coruscating piece of work.
I am therefore surprised that it contains what to me is a major syntactical flaw: the persistent use of “like” where the sense demands “as”. As similes are effectively what this poem is about, this flaw is everywhere in it, and buzzed at me irritatingly like a demented bee throughout. This flaw was also noted by Logan in his review, and I am surprised that Faber’s editors did not pick it up. If this were corrected, the work would be truly outstanding.


This Should Be Written in the Present Tense
This Should Be Written in the Present Tense
by Helle Helle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars It is also brilliantly translated by Martin Aitken into an English which works ..., 8 Dec. 2014
I found this short book mesmerising. Its spare style, with short sentences and simple vocabulary, achieves the ambition of mimicking the effect of the historic present without actually using it. The effect is enhanced by the technique of hardly ever describing the feelings of the narrator, leaving them almost entirely to be inferred by the descriptions. It is also brilliantly translated by Martin Aitken into an English which works seamlessly with the text. A masterpiece.


The Dervish House (Gollancz S.F.)
The Dervish House (Gollancz S.F.)
by Ian McDonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars needs better editing, 20 Oct. 2014
Initially, I was entranced by this novel. The style is instantly elegant and imaginative, and promises a close acquaintance with the city of Istanbul which my deep reading in Roman and Byzantine history made to seem very promising. The best descriptions of fashionable living in the future give off pleasurable echoes of Ian M Banks. But I have struggled to get through it. It is certainly a good book, but it does in my view have problems.
First, the structural conceit, of the stories of half a dozen people who live in the Dervish House of the title, is flawed by the wide differences between them: otherwise than in, say, The Yacoubian Building, the situations and characters described here are extraordinarily diverse and there is insufficient link between them in the course of their stories for the reader to feel that the unexpected and seemingly arbitrary shifts from one point of view to another are worth his or her effort. It is hard to develop a real sympathy for the characters, and if one puts the book down for more than a couple of days it becomes laborious to pick up the threads of the plot again.
Second, the style rapidly cloys. The action and description is held up by too much, often repetitive, detail. The consistent use of the historic present satiates after a while and feels mannered. The trick of leaving many Turkish words untranslated (some of them, apparently, coinages of the author’s) starts as giving a feel of authenticity, but is over-indulged and soon starts to feel affected, obstructive and pretentious. The register used is British, but there are also for no reason glaring Americanisms, from the misleading “pants” for trousers, to the baffling “dumpster”.
Fundamentally, at 472 pages the book is far, far too long and too self-indulgent: a good editor should have been used, and should have reduced the work by a half to a third.


Vodacom South Africa Pre-paid SIM Card
Vodacom South Africa Pre-paid SIM Card

1.0 out of 5 stars Unable to use, 15 Oct. 2014
It was not explained before purchase that no SIM card can be set up for South Africa without prior registration with the government under the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (RICA), that this cannot be done from abroad, that trying to do so as a foreign resident throws people into a spin (demanding various kinds of identity documents) and that the phone number cannot not be disclosed before registration. As a result we were unable to tell anyone of our phone numbers before leaving and it was too much of a problem to use the SIMs we had bought from Amazon, though we easily and cheaply bought others locally on arrival.


Touring Map Western Cape: Cape Peninsula; Winelands; Garden Route; PE: Cape Peninsula, Winelands, Garden Route to PE
Touring Map Western Cape: Cape Peninsula; Winelands; Garden Route; PE: Cape Peninsula, Winelands, Garden Route to PE
by John Hall
Edition: Map
Price: £7.65

2.0 out of 5 stars Generally poor, 15 Oct. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Coverage of vineyards is good. But I agree with the earlier comment that it lacks important details and is not easy to handle, and that the lack of a publication date impairs its authority.


Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
by Peter Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.00

4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another outstanding book by Brown (but Princeton could sharpen their act), 28 Feb. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Paradoxically one might call this volume a treasure house of late Roman social history, as well as a deeply instructive reflection on early church history. And many of Professor Brown’s conclusions, as in previous books, strike anyone at all familiar with the period with that satisfying feeling of recognition: “of course – yes, it must have been like that. I knew it, somewhere, all along, but my mind was too slow to see it: now, it is as clear as day.”.

One fault I found with this book. Classicists are people who revere detail, and as a British classicist I am constantly (though inadvertently) proof-reading the books I read. I was disappointed here to find myself constantly brought up short by catachreses such as “center”, “labor”, “honor”, “program”, “artifact” or “behavior”. Brown himself is Irish, but has perhaps been in America long enough to become assimilated to Noah Webster’s pointedly revolutionary spelling. Be that as it may, for the benefit of those of us who have not, it would have been more professional for Princeton University Press to have corrected its usage to English norms for distribution in Britain (after all, it does boast that it publishes in Oxford as well as its home city). May we hope that Professor Brown will prevail on them to do a more thorough job if it runs to another printing?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 9, 2014 4:10 PM BST


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