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S. Bailey "will work for books" (London)

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Making History
Making History
by Stephen Fry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If Stephen Fry were straight, I'd marry him, 9 Jan 2007
This review is from: Making History (Paperback)
I absolutely adore this book. Only Stephen Fry could take something quite so clichéd as counterfactual history and make it simultaneously thought-provoking and side-splitting.

Cambridge historian Michael Young has finished his thesis on Hitler's early life; sadly, it's not quite all his supervisor would have hoped, being largely a fictional narrative of what Michael imagines young Adolf's life might have been. Collisions first with his girlfriend's new invention, a male contraceptive pill, and then Leo Zuckerman, the son of an SS officer posing as the Jewish developer of a time machine, lead Michael to hatch an infernal plot to ensure that Hitler never existed.

Well, you knew it wouldn't be as simple as that. The world without Hitler turns out to have been much worse, and Michael discovers that he's gay in a world where his love most definitely does not dare to speak its name. Michael can put the world back like he found it, or he can stand by his man, but not, apparently, both.

No doubt there are some deep thoughts to be had here about the nature of history, causality and human free will, but you wouldn't notice because Fry's only real nod to academia is to satirise it. Instead, he concerns himself with the comedy and the pathos, producing something bizarrely compelling.

Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth
Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth
by Naguib Mahfouz
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heresy in ancient Egypt, truth in our own time, 9 Jan 2007
This is an intriguing book, purporting to set out to solve a millennia-old puzzle, but ending up as a beguiling case-study regarding truth and perception. The Akhenaten of the title was a deeply controversial Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, who rejected the traditional gods in favour of monothesitic worship of the Sun. A young man, Meriamun, in the years after Akhenaten's death, aims to discover the man behind this strangest of stories.

Some familiarity with Egyptian history might be useful as little background is given by the book, but it is not essential. I began this book with as much knowledge of Akhenaten as Meriamun himself had.

The heretic Pharaoh had moved the seat of government from its ancient location in Thebes, to his own new city, destroying the traditional power bases of religious, political and military leaders. He abandoned the lands at Egypt's borders to her enemies. The art which survives from his reign is unique and strange in Egypt's tradition, showing Akhenaten and his family as pot-bellied people with strangely pointed heads and androgynous features.

But most shockingly, he abandoned the worship of Egypt's traditional deities, placing all his faith in his One God, Aten, represented by the sun disc and its rays, but in reality, living in Akhenaten's heart. To those of us who have experienced Christianity, this is not so strange; to the Egyptians, it was utterly revolutionary. And coming from the Pharaoh, terrestrial representative of the gods, it was perverse.

There has been much speculation as to the causes of all this. Aten worship is the earliest known monotheistic religion; some scholars have sought to link it with the Biblical sojourn of Israel in Egypt. Certainly, in a land filled with gods, it was an incredible innovation. And the unique statues from this time, are they an expression of the unity of the male and female in the person of Pharaoh, or a portrait recording of some genetic deformity in the royal family?

Meriamun interviews a wide range of both followers and enemies of Akhenaten, including his chief priest, chief of police, personal physician, his parents- and sister-in-law, his sculptor, and finally, his imprisoned wife. Each tells their own version of the man: he was a sage, an imbecile, a great lover, a feeble half-wit... The story of his short reign is told again from each perspective; it could have been repetitive, but fact, it was hypnotically compelling.

Ultimately, where the truth lies is left to the reader to decide for themselves. Mafouz (and who better than an Egyptian writer, caught between a left wing government and active Islamic campaigners) ably makes the point that truth lives only in the eye of the beholder, whether that truth concerns the nature of man, or of God.

The Lake Of Dead Languages
The Lake Of Dead Languages
by Carol Goodman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and compelling, 9 Jan 2007
"Latin's a dead language,

As dead as dead can be.

It killed off all the Romans,

And now it's killing me."

The old rhyme seems to be coming true for Heart Lake School for Girls, and not for the first time.

Like every girl at Heart Lake, Jane Hudson had known the old legend of the three sisters, transformed into rocks in the lake, who lured the unsuspecting out to their death by drowning. In her senior year, her two roommates and the boy she secretly loves are drowned in the lake: suicide, or accident? The School blames their Latin teacher, the charismatic Helen Chambers; Jane thinks she knows the truth, which now lies at the bottom of the Lake.

After the birth of her daughter, and her separation from the father, Jane returns to Heart Lake to take up Helen's old post. When pages from her senior year journal, long thought lost, begin to appear amongst her students' assignments, and then one of her class is found having apparantly attempted suicide, it seems that events are repeating themselves, or at least, that someone wants to make it seem that way. Then her love's cousin, a man with his own strange link to Jane's past reappears. Is everything just adolescent hysteria, or is something more sinister happening?

I enjoyed this very much. Though there are obvious plot similarities with Donna Tartt's The Secret History, this is a much more emotional book, its insanity much closer to the surface. In particular, the change between schoolgirl Jane, weak, scared, insecure, and the more assured Jane who returns to Heart Lake is well done. The plotting is intricate if a little heavy-handed. I defy anyone not to see who the villain is by about half way through, though ultimately, this does not matter; the important transformation is Jane's discovery of the truth about her own past, and this is completely compelling.

Voyager Classics - Lord Foul's Bane
Voyager Classics - Lord Foul's Bane
by Stephen Donaldson
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Astonishingly, brilliant, 9 Jan 2007
Thomas Covenant is a writer, struggling to follow up the wild success of his first novel. Then he discovers he has leprosy. His doctors can offer him no explanation for how he might have caught the disease, or any hope of a cure. His wife, fearful for the life of their son, leaves him. Covenant begins a strange half-life, shunned by all of society, where a stranger will pay his phone bill rather than have him pass by in the street.

I read this portion of the book five times. It fascinated me. I wanted medical answers to Covenant's illness; his descent into isolated madness and the secretive way the world kept him apart were compelling. And then the story I wanted to read, stopped.

Covenant is thrown by means of a road accident, into another world, a world where his first encounters are with a lesser and a greater demon, and where the human inhabitants of The Land believe him to be the reincarnation of their legendary hero.

This is where I stopped, time and again, with the heart-sinking feeling that I was about to enter that stodgy world of sub-Tolkien high fantasy, and that I really couldn't be bothered. And then I made the mistake of arriving at an airport with only this book in my bag: no further prevarication was possible.

And to my astonishment, this really is rather a good book. It *is* terribly influenced by Tolkien, in the way that fantasy novels written in the 1970s were: getting the direct derivations out of everyone's system, to establish the genre as something worthwhile. But what raises this above the mass of its peers is Covenant, who is no hero at all.

Covenant arrives in The Land, bearing a message of doom for its inhabitants. They, spotting his white gold wedding ring, believe him to be Berek Halfhand, the legendary founder of The Land, returned to them in their hour of need. Covenant, on the other hand, refuses to believe what apparently going on around him, and chooses instead to believe that his entire experience since leaving his own world has been the fevered product of his own diseased mind. Though he attempts to complete his mission to save The Land, it's done with such repugnant moral ambivalence that one feels the innocent inhabitants hardly deserve such a saviour.

Any outline of Covenant's journey through The Land, and his concomitant return to humanity is going to read like a list of all the fantasy clichés of the last thirty years. And the fact that much of this was fresh when it was first written is not what saves it now: it's the uncompromising characterisation and the richness of Donaldson's writing that make me so very glad I did, eventually, read this.

Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla
Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla
by Felix Barker
Edition: Perfect Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful photography, 9 Jan 2007
The real raison d'être of this book is John Gay's beautiful photography. These pictures are doubly unique: some of the monuments shown here have crumbled through the actions of nature or vandals, and Mr Gay has had unprecedented access to the cemetery. Try snapping shots like these from the back of a one hour tour!

The photographs are accompanied by Felix Barker's short history of the cemetery, along with the stories of some of those buried here, and the intentions of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery for its future: taphophiles might be interested to read the Friends' justification for preservation by letting the undergrowth run wild over the entire site.

Ultimately, though, this is a picture book and should be bought as such. It seems a reissue is not going to happen, so snap up the second hand copies while you can.

Vigor Mortis: From Fear to Fashion - Discarding the Death Taboo
Vigor Mortis: From Fear to Fashion - Discarding the Death Taboo
by Kate Berridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great catalogue, but lacking insight, 9 Jan 2007
From the rise of the Victorian rituals celebrating death, through the burial of death beneath sex in the sixties, to the new fin de siècle "pornography of death", this is an intriguing and encyclopaedic look at the way the western world's view of death changed throughout the twentieth century.

The organisation of the book is thematic, rather than chronological. While this undoubtedly suits Berridge's informal style and frequently anecdotal evidence, I can't help feeling that at times, it allowed much interesting material and consideration to slip between the cracks. Foremost amongst this was the story of her father, a First World War hero, to which she alluded in various places throughout the book, but whose story was never quite told in full. Even in the 'No More Heroes Any More' section, concerning the changes wrought by the Great War in mourning dress and other customs, we lacked any real insight into the psychology of those who returned from the battlefields and wanted only to forget.

The other pivotal point in the century, which pushed us as a society back to recognising death's place amongst us was the death in 1997 of Diana Princess of Wales. This section was certainly longer; with Diana's death still featuring at least weekly in the British tabloid press, it could hardly have been otherwise. Berridge draws numerous interesting parallels between the events of 1997 and the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817: and while it is amusing for those of us who cringed at The Sun's headline "SPEAK TO US, MA'AM" to see that public comments were also in demand 170 years earlier, what is sadly lacking is any explanation of just why Diana's death hit this country and the world so hard.

I could go on. The death industry has been turned over to big business, but lately more people are demanding freedom of choice and 'alternative' rites. The internet, with coffins to be purchased online and 'memorial' sites to the dead, is changing the funerary landscape forever. Berridge exhaustively catalogues all of these things, but her book sadly seems to lack any thought for the reasons behind the changes of the last century. Sadly, it's an opportunity missed.

When We Die: The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death
When We Die: The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death
by Cedric A. Mims
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating view of the physical process of death, 9 Jan 2007
Death is the great taboo for our society, which is surprising, considering how fascinating so many people seem to find it. In his preface, Mims writes:

"we should take a more matter-of-fact view of death...we should accept it and talk about it more - as we have with the once taboo subject of sex."

His own work is wonderfully matter-of-fact, without any trace of the sensationalism that this topic seems to breed. Taking an encyclopaedic look at all aspects of death and dying, he considers death as a physical event at the cellular, individual and species levels, attitudes to and rituals of death in different cultures both historically and geographically, including mummification and cannibalism, and such intriguing questions as who owns a dead body and why humans might be sacrificed.

The book is organised into four sections, covering what causes death, the biological processes that occur after death, dealing with corpses, and the afterlife, each with thematic chapters, making it easy to dip into for those who can't quite cope with 350 pages of death all at one go.

Mims, as might perhaps be expected from a onetime Professor of Microbiology in a hospital, tends to concentrate more on the physical and social aspects of death; religious beliefs, for example, are largely dealt with via the rituals they inspire, and even the very short section on the afterlife is largely filled with long quotes from various poets surrounding a few synopses of the beliefs about death of the major religions. I felt very much that Mims himself believes that life ends with death (though he never explicitly says so) and is rather embarrassed by those who would disagree with him.

The more effective parts of the book are those dealing with the physical aspects of dying. Mims views this very much as a process over time, with perhaps no one instant when we cease to be living. His explanation of the process is fascinating, and in a strange way, comforting. Recommended reading for anyone who's going to die one day...

Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life
Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.46

154 of 175 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars If only she'd stick to writing about writing..., 14 Nov 2005
I bought this because I was writing a novel in a month with Nanowrimo, and so many people on the forums recommended it. People who write novels in a month ought to know an inspirational book when they see it, I thought. Wrong, wrong, wrong...

The subtitle, "Some Instructions on Writing and Life", ought to have been a warning. But I was overwhelmed by delight in the title itself: Lamott's young brother had, in a single evening, to complete a school project on birds which he should have been writing over the previous three months. "Just take it bird by bird, buddy," was the sensible advice offered by their father.

Lamott herself, however, takes a different line: "just do it my way, buddy". She (presumably; like so many people who write books about how to write novels, I've never even seen one of her novels in a book shop) writes character-driven novels. Therefore, so should we all: don't worry about plot, or settings or anything else, just let your characters do their thing. This is doubtless very good advice for those who also write character-driven fiction, but if you're like me, and begin with a plot and then wonder what sort of people would get into such a ridiculous situation, Ms Lamott is not going to help you much.

I could have dealt with the book and found some useful insights in it were it not for the second problem: "... and Life". Lamott believes in God. Very much. There is far too much stuff here about what God wants for each of us and what each of us wants from God, for this to work for me, or anyone else who doesn't not share or wish to share Lamott's faith. If I wanted a book about fluffy Christianity, I would not have bought a writing book.
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