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

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7 Books in 1: The Railway Children, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Story of the Amulet, The Story of the Treasure-Seekers, The Would-Be-Goods, and The Enchanted Castle
7 Books in 1: The Railway Children, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Story of the Amulet, The Story of the Treasure-Seekers, The Would-Be-Goods, and The Enchanted Castle
by Edith Nesbit
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.78

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars These wonderful books should be owned seperately, 28 April 2007
I absolutely adore the seven books in this collection, and that is why I am begging you not to purchase this item. The book is so physically heavy but floppy in its soft covers that my wrists ached from trying to read it. Within each over-large page, the text is split into two columns, making reading very uncomfortable too. The collection is a complete false economy. These classics deserve better treatment than this!

Night Shift
Night Shift
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars King at his very best, 28 April 2007
This review is from: Night Shift (Paperback)
In my ongoing love-hate relationship with Stephen King, the short stories seem to universally come out on the side of love. They're frequently much more experimental than the novels, featuring ideas that in a full-length work would just be too outlandish, but in a short story, burn very bright indeed.

This collection begins with Jerusalem's Lot, a prequel to "'Salem's Lot" the novel. The short story is possibly even better than the book, a pure gothic classic, which explains the beginnings of the evil in the Lot. Less good was Night Surf a rather feeble and extremely bleak addendum to The Stand. King obsessives need to own this for these two stories alone.

The best stories here are the ones which mix humour into their horror. The Boogeyman is the tale of a man whose three children have all been taken by the monster in the closet. The thing that made this story for me was that the protagonist was so very unpleasant, I quite felt for the poor boogeyman having to deal with him, but the ending is genuinely chilling; I read it out loud to my little brother, and he came out in goosebumps.

In The Mangler, the ingredients for an ancient spell to summon demons are accidentally mixed inside a laundry machine, which then develops murderous tendencies. Sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it also has a deep sense of the dark.

Not all the stories here are supernatural. Both The Ledge and Last Ring on the Ladder concern very different forms of purely human nastiness, as does Quitters Inc., a return to the perennial King favourite topic of giving up smoking.

The collection also includes the famous stories Children of the Corn and The Lawnmower Man, both of which are great but seem to lack a little of the sparkle found elsewhere in the book. Recommended for King fans and newbies alike.

The Inquisition
The Inquisition
by Michael Baigent
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.66

17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unscholarly, 28 April 2007
This review is from: The Inquisition (Paperback)
Baigent and Leigh are perhaps most famous for being two-thirds of the authors of the infamous The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a work not noted for its adherence to strict historical method, or indeed strict history. So I was intrigued to see how they would handle this more factual area. Depressingly, the answer turned out to be less with science than with tabloid sensationalism.

This book alleges to be a wide-ranging study of the activities of the Papal and Spanish Inquisitions from the time of their creation in the thirteenth century to their modern day incarnation. However, my doubts were raised before we'd even left the introduction, as I read:

"Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor has seared itself into our collective consciousness as the definite image and embodiment of the Inquisition." [p. xiv]

Frankly, the only Inquisitor burned into my mind is Michael Palin's soft cushion-brandishing one, and in any case, what has this to do with the historical issues they are supposed to be examining? This was not the last example of this, sadly: works of Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arthur Miller and André Gide being waved around in a quite inexplicable manner, as though they were primary sources!

When, finally, we do come to some history, this is sadly lacking. There might be nothing wrong with the facts cited by Baigent and Leigh, or with the conclusions they draw from them - but they've given no proof of that. Almost without exception, no sources are cited: when the odd direct quote does appear and has a footnote, this turns out to be a secondary source. One entire chapter ('Enemies of the Black Friars') appears to be not much more than a straight precis of Norman Cohn's excellent The Pursuit of the Millennium: one is left wondering if there is any original research here at all.

My other complaint about the first half of this book can be amply illustrated by one prudish sentence:

"And there were numberous additional refinements [to methods of torture], to obscene to be transcribed." [p. 73]

Play fair, guys. Half the reason we're reading the book is for the graphic descriptions of torture, so don't titillate.

So far, so mediocre. If they'd stopped halfway through, this would have been an acceptable, if short and unoriginal, introduction to the subject. Then suddenly it all goes horribly wrong.

The second half of the book is a confused mess of ecclesiastical and political history of the last three centuries, coupled with utterly pointless rants relating to the authors' previous work (the Dead Sea Scrolls and Freemasonary). They seem to take very personal objection to certain individuals within the Vatican hierarchy, and abandon any pretence of scholarship in favour of piling up every bit of negative speculation they can: they claim, for example, that the Church's attempts to control the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls to coincide with its own doctrines - what monotheist would do differently? - is a "conspiracy", not the feeble defensiveness it so plainly was.

I am no fan of the Roman Church myself, but surely it deserves better enemies than these.

The Plains of Passage (Earth's Children)
The Plains of Passage (Earth's Children)
by Jean M. Auel
Edition: Paperback

5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Now she's run out of ideas, 28 April 2007
This is the fourth book in Jean Auel's Earth's Children series. My mother always taught me that if I didn't have anything nice to say, I should say nothing. In which case, this would be a blank page: I have nothing good to say about this book at all.

Ayla and Jondalar set out from Lion Camp to return to his tribe. They travel across a landscape notable for having many cold rivers which the two humans, Wolf (who is a wolf) and their two horses cross with much trepidation but complete ease. They meet some people briefly but these are never allowed to intrude into our real purpose in this book which is to bask in the glory that is Ayla and Jondalar. There is sex. There is botany, zoology and geophysics which looks like they've been copied directly out of the textbooks. Repeat to fade. Good grief, this was boring.

The only thing that impressed me about this book is that I managed to finish it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 9, 2011 9:40 PM BST

The Valley of Horses (Earth's Children)
The Valley of Horses (Earth's Children)
by Jean M. Auel
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Romance paperback in Stone Age clothing, 28 April 2007
This is the second book in Auel's Earth's Children series, of which Clan of the Cave Bear was the first. Ayla, our Cro Magnon heroine, has now left the safety of the Neanderthal clan where she was brought up, and sets out to find the Others, to whom she was born.

The first stage of Ayla's epic solo journey brings her to the valley, shelter against the ravages of the Ice Age, which allows her to prepare for a winter living alone. The Woman Who Hunts, of course, does not live on plants alone, and her innovative hunting methods bring her meat, but also a horse-colt, the first to live alongside a human. Not content with domesticating the horse, Ayla does the same with the cat, invents many new medical procedures, hunting methods and the travois, as well as making her own spearheads and cooking pots.

Meanwhile, Jondalar of the Zelandonii and his brother Thonolan have also set out on a journey, to find the mouth of the Great Mother river. During their journey, they meet many other tribes who have a tendency to blur into one another; Thonolan falls in love, Jondalar utterly fails to do so, but makes exquisite love to the women he meets.

Eventually, the brothers encounter a ferocious cave lion, and, as they believe they are about to die, see a vision of a beautiful blonde woman, screaming at the lion to leave them alone...

Honestly, it would be so easy just to mock this book. Ayla single-handedly and in social isolation makes most of the significant innovations of the late Ice Age. Jondalar single-handedly invents the female orgasm. The problem is, that at times it's also a very good read, with a plot that strings the reader out, prolonging the agony of Ayla's isolation (we know she's going to meet up with Jondalar even if she doesn't) with some pacy and thrilling action sequences, and then with a good old-fashioned will-they, won't-they piece when the two do finally meet. It's not my taste, but I start to see why other people like it.

Underneath the romance, Auel does have some things to say about tolerance, about social difference and about the things that make us human. None of them are terribly profound things, true, but it is this element that finally keeps me from dismissing this as just another fat paperback.

Clan of the Cave Bear (Earths Children 1)
Clan of the Cave Bear (Earths Children 1)
by Jean M. Auel
Edition: Paperback

4 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not nearly as good as it should have been, 28 April 2007
The premise behind this book - setting a novel amongst the Neanderthals - seems so original and exciting. It's a shame, then, that the book itself fails to please on so many levels.

Five year old Ayla has been orphaned, and wanders lost and alone in the forest. Attacked by a cave lion, she is as good as dead until she is rescued by a Neanderthal clan, who, despite how strange she seems to them, take her in. There is more than physical difference between Ayla and the Clan; where she would rely on her quick wits and intellect to survive, the Clan has an elaborate system of prescribed behaviours and ceremonies for every occasion. Clan women are submissive and meek, where Ayla is anything but, defying convention in the very ways she looks and moves, never mind by deliberate acts like her determination to learn to hunt.

I hate to say this, but there were large parts of this book that I found almost unbearably annoying. It began with just the basic plot structure; no matter at what stage of Ayla's life we are, the basic cycle of acceptance-transgression-punishment-atonement goes on. After the second time, you start to see it coming. I felt disappointed that Auel, given the chance to create a whole society from scratch, had made something that was unsatisfactory. The constant, never-justified subjugation of the women became incredibly cloying, and their formal language expressing proper respect for the men - "This woman requests permission to speak" - and most of all the sign made by the men that a woman should 'assume the position' for sex just read like bad pornography.

Auel undoubtedly has done her research and knows an enormous amount about the period of which she writes. Where she's failed, is to translate that into compelling fiction. The breach between Ayla and her adopted family rapidly becomes just frustrating, almost farcical. The tragedies of the end are just predictable: I felt as though I was watching an old black and white movie of two men moving a sheet of glass, when you just know it's going to get smashed any second now... I wanted it to be over so that I could move on to the sequel, which I was sure would be better: sadly, now I've read the rest of the series, I know I only had more disappointment in store.

by Stephen Baxter
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly close to good, 28 April 2007
This review is from: Mammoth (Paperback)
I bought this book because it was cheap, expecting that it would be nonsense. I mean, Watership Down but about mammoths? The idea was preposterous. And then it turned out to be rather good.

The mammoths survived. Far in the north, on an island (presumably) off Siberia, their last clan remembers their long story, the ancient wisdom of their ancestors and the unceasing turning of the earth. Theirs is a peaceful existence, threatened only by the changing of the climate. For as the earth grows warmer, the parts of the island where they can live grow smaller. Only the leadership of Silverhair, who may be the greatest Matriarch for many generations, and her cunning consort Lop-ear, can save the Family. Until they meet with the Lost, hotbloods like themselves, who come from across the sea with only thoughts of death in their hearts.

This is an achievement. Baxter manages in a relatively short book (I read it in a morning, though I'm unsurprised to see it's part one of a trilogy...) to hint at an entire culture, giving tantalising glimpses of a mythology and a worldview which are plausible and most emphatically not human, as well as consistently narrating through the mammoths' point of view. If this has led to incomprehensible violence (and it does, in explicit detail), we ought probably to think about what species is perpetrating that violence.

The Victorian Celebration of Death
The Victorian Celebration of Death
by James Stevens Curl
Edition: Paperback

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant study of a fascinating subject, 28 April 2007
It is almost impossible to imagine how this book could have been improved upon; for anyone in any way interested in the attitude of the British to our dead, and in the development of British cemeteries, this has to be the definitive work.

By the early nineteenth century, disposing of the dead in Britain had come to crisis point. Increased urbanisation, ever-present disease and the limited amount of consecrated land had led to vastly overcrowded churchyards, burial grounds and private chapels, the dead left to rot at the surface or dug up again and burned to make room for the next paying customer.

Curl traces how the remedy for these horrors was found in a pastoralisation and celebration of death, from the gothic imaginings of seventeenth century poets like Robert Blair and Edward Young, inspired by the great necropoleis of Europe and India, and finally put into a practical form by pioneers like J C Loudon. He catalogues the spectacular cemeteries opened for the rich of the big cities, and the rather later and more meagre facilities made available for the disposal of the poor.

This is history written with a very human face. Unlike many of their contemporary, middle-class philanthropists, Curl whole-heartedly supports the right of the Victorian lower classes to emulate their social superiors and abrogate to themselves in death a dignity they never found in life. His attention to detail in unparalleled in any book on this subject I have read, as is his breadth of knowledge and obvious love for his subject.

This covers the development of the private cemeteries, the final push in the mid-nineteenth century for state intervention in burial practises, and the decline of cemeteries and increase in the number of those cremated. Two state funerals, those of the Duke of Wellington and of Queen Victoria herself, are followed in detail. Curl invokes an vast range of evidence to follow the change in attitude to death during this period, from something both hideous and expensive, to a necessity which could be made quite beautiful, and then to the beginnings of our own extreme antipathy to what must come to us all.

Back up Curl's work with a vast number of illustrations, many of them previously unpublished and from his own collection, and a compellingly vast bibilography, and we have a book that cannot be faulted.

London's Cemeteries
London's Cemeteries
by Darren Beach
Edition: Paperback

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dead good, 27 April 2007
This review is from: London's Cemeteries (Paperback)
This is a fascinating look at some of the most overlooked but fascinating places in London: its cemeteries. Darren Beach has the essential qualities of a great guide book writer: he adores his subject, and he has a wonderful memory for obscure facts: if you want to find the graves of Bobby Moore, Dodi Fayed, the highwayman Claude Duval, Cunard of the Line, Palgrave of the Golden Treasury or the woman who sang the opening line of The Smith's song The Queen is Dead, you've come to the right place!

Beach visits fifty of the capital's most memorable burial grounds, from Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, through the grand and gorgeous Victorian cemeteries like Highgate, Brompton and Kensal Green, to more modern sites such as Chingford Mount, last resting place of the Krays, and St. Pancras and Islington, the biggest cemetery in London and a place where you can quite literally get lost amongst the dead. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of both the rich and famous, and the obscure but intriguing, he provides a superb and comprehensive guide to historical sites, dead famous people and those who just have intriguing tombs. I've visited all the cemeteries he covers, but reading this book makes me just want to go and visit them all again.

The problem I do have with this book is its organisation. Cemeteries are divided into central, north, south, east, west and outer London, and are then listed alphabetically within these sections. There is a map at the front which shows the location of some of the cemeteries, but sadly there is no indication of the geographical boundaries of the sections - especially with so many cemeteries in north-west London, it's a confusion that could have been easily dealt with by expanding the contents over two pages so that the individual cemeteries could have been listed too.

I have some misgivings about the physical object too: the spine of my copy seems to be held together with lumps of glue, and tends to break rather than bend. I fear if it were carried about in a pocket for a while - as all guide books should be - it would just disintegrate.

But these are minor quibbles: I love this book, and am delighted to see that places I love are being shared with a new audience.

by Guy Gavriel Kay
Edition: Paperback

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is my favourite book ever, bar none, 14 April 2007
This review is from: Tigana (Paperback)
Yes, this really is better than Lord of the Rings, better than the Ice and Fire series, better than anything else I've ever read.

The story takes place on the peninsula of the Palm, which is loosely based on mediaeval Italy. My knowledge of Italian history is little enough that I wouldn't like to comment on exactly how this has informed Kay's work, but the factual background here seems less intrusive than for A Song for Arbonne or Sailing to Sarantium; this is a fantasy world informed by history, rather than the other way round.

The peninsula was invaded by two wizards, Alberico and Brandin, who have captured four of the nine provinces each. As the last to fall to Brandin, the province of Tigana, did so, the wizard's son was killed in battle. As revenge for killing the son he loved above all else, Brandin obliterates all memory of Tigana, so that no one born outside the province can even hear its name.

Alessan, the only surviving son of the last Prince of Tigana, has sworn to avenge this, and claim back the name of his land. But to kill Brandin is not enough; as he recognises, only the the other's power holds both Brandin and Alberico in check. To be truly free, he must make the wizards destroy each other.

And I could summarise the entire book, and still not come close to why this story is so beautiful. I could talk about the use of fairy tale and legend: how Alessan, the youngest of three sons, is almost bound to be the one who completes his quest; of the twisting of an obscure line of Old Norse poetry into a great battle of good against evil; of Donar, the crippled blacksmith, and of the legend of the Golden Bough replayed: and how its foundation in scholarship makes Kay's writing so much richer. And it would still not be enough.

For me, the realisation of exactly how good this book is came from Brandin. The evil that he did is the very reason for the book's existence. Yet how much would you have to love your son to obliterate an entire people and their memory in his name? How much, to renounce your own hereditary kingdom and remain, watching the Tiganese die off, year by year, in the place where your love had died? How much, to know that in the end, only your own memory would hold the truth of what you had done, and why you had done it? How much evil can we do, over and over, in the name of love?

The point is, of course, that this world, its tragedy, triumph and high farce, is built around humanity. Kay does not need to create evil races, or on-going wars (JRRT, so help me, I am thinking of your orcs and the elves against the dwarves!) to make his magic. I think of Sandre, the exiled Duke, forced to choose between binding himself to his own magic and thus saving the life of his son but almost certainly being killed, or allowing his son to die and continuing to fight for his Dukedom's freedom. And Dianora, going to Brandin's court to kill him, but falling in love, asked to bind him and herself to his vision of what the Palm might become. And Rhun, the poor, broken Fool, given, at the end, a moment of honour. Gods help me, I'm crying as I write this.

And also the poetry of Kay's writing. "Tigana, may my memory of you be like a blade in my soul". And "You are the harbour of my soul's journeying". But also Catriona's ascerbity, the terrible words between Alessan and his mother, and Rovigio's good-natured insulting of his daughters, with the love he bears them never needing to be stated because it's so obvious anyway. Not one word too many, nor one too few.

And finally, the ending. Many people who like this book hate the end, in general accusing it of being too sudden. I will grant that the pace of the book increases manyfold towards the end, but this is natural. The Tiganese, Brandin and Alberico are in one place, having a battle; this is not the time to introduce a sub-plot! I grant, also, that while we do know the fates of around half the major characters, those of the rest are deliberately ambiguous. I can see that the extra ambiguity (or is it a clue?) of the very last line might be annoying, but it also leaves the reader free to imagine. This is an ending made by a storyteller, not an historian, because people go on, even when the stories that have brought them together are ended. Enough ends are tied to end the story, but without creating a great sealed knot.

It is simply the richness of the weaving that makes this so good, and no review can reproduce that. Please, if you only buy one book this lifetime, get this one.

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