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J. E. Needham (Wales)
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Agents of Reason
Agents of Reason
Price: 3.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended, 15 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Agents of Reason (Kindle Edition)
Having the political leaning that I do, I looked forward to this fictional-but-truth-based portrait of 18th century radical thinker Jeremiah Joyce. And it didn’t disappoint. Historian John Issitt had already written a non-fictional, academic account of this relatively obscure (compared with Thomas Paine, anyway) thorn in the side of the political establishment, not least Prime Minister William Pitt. Here he repeats the process but in the form of a highly readable novel.

He might have been tempted in this to take a few liberties with the truth for the sake of dramatic effect; to embroider it somewhat at any rate. But (as far as I’m aware) he doesn’t do so. It’s told ‘straight,’ and that gave me more than enough reading pleasure.

The characters are credibly painted and the narrative tension well controlled to build steadily as Joyce and his fellow radicals criticise Pitt’s government ever more openly (although they stop short of calling for open revolution a la the French, with their recent bloody upheaval). Nonetheless, these are brave men who risk their lives at a time when criticism could sometimes be conveniently construed as treason, which was punishable by death or, if you were lucky, transportation to an uncertain future in Botany Bay. So, inevitably, as the book reaches its climax, the Establishment does indeed oppressively clamp down . . .

If you enjoy historical fiction that here delves into a less well known area of the late 18th century that prefigured Chartism and the Left, do read this excellent book. I highly recommend it.


The Book That THEY Do Not Want You To Read: Part 1
The Book That THEY Do Not Want You To Read: Part 1
Price: 0.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Not your average, 26 July 2014
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Yes, I agree with the first reviewer of (concise version) THEY: it does remind you somewhat of the anarchic, wry wit of Douglas Adams. And that’s quite a recommendation. Although the author certainly doesn’t lazily ape another hugely successful writer’s style. This is Andy Richie writing and no one else. He has a highly individual voice that’s entirely his own.

I also agree that his characterisation is excellent – even Tukaal (is that a slightly rude play on words, like Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub, one wonders?) the alien. That’s because, rather than rush breathlessly along in frenetic mile-a-minute plot (it’s actually fairly sedate), the author allows plenty of dialogue, not to mention philosophical musings from protagonist Jethro, for the characters to develop.

And this certainly isn’t your average sci-fi fare, wherein you’re asked to totally suspend disbelief; it’s much smarter than that. In fact, it’s grounded very much on Planet Earth, in prosaic locations in the north of England, a little after the style of Wallace and Gromit, with many insights into the shortcomings of Homo Sapiens.

Introducing himself, named as Andy Richie, into the proceedings as a sort of ‘editor,’ was clever too, I thought, giving two layers of first-person narration.

But most importantly, the author met the first requirement of any storytelling; he piqued my interest. I always craved to know what happened next. So yes; I too will just have to read parts 2 and 3 now.

Congratulations Mr Richie; you done exceedingly good. And I’ll forgive you the typos, intentional or otherwise!


Two Hearts: An Adoptee's Journey Through Grief to Gratitude
Two Hearts: An Adoptee's Journey Through Grief to Gratitude
Price: 2.42

5.0 out of 5 stars Will move you to tears, 14 July 2014
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This is certainly the most moving book I’ve read this year. Those of us fortunate enough to have been born into conventional nuclear families, those in which biological parents keep and cherish their offspring, can really only guess at how it must feel to grow up in an adoptive one knowing that, even if your surrogate parents are genuinely loving, they aren’t really your natural mum and dad; not your proper ones.

In this beautifully written autobiography, Linda Hoye poignantly describes her feelings of not entirely belonging (she was told that she was adopted as a child), of apartness, of low self-image. After all, she reasons heartbreakingly, she must have lacked something; been in some way unlovable for her real parents, or possibly single parent, to have simply given her away, unwanted.

Poor, poor girl. Reading her often wistful but never self-pitying account, I felt enormous sympathy and empathy. This is often an uncomfortable read, as Linda tells of making a huge mistake in choice of life partner, one which results in an unhappy, abusive marriage, because she’s so desperate for acceptance on almost any terms.

Her account of her search for her biological parents and extended family after the death of her adoptive mum and dad is often harrowing too, with many disappointments, but by contrast there are touching descriptions of unalloyed joy too, such as when her first grandchild is born and her happiness that the child will grow up in a happy and loving family, rooted in her true tribe.

Technically this is an excellent book too, and exceptionally well-written. I liked the way the author wrote in the first person (obviously!) and present tense. That conferred immediacy and intimacy and I felt myself to be present, a privileged guest in her mind, party to her thoughts and feelings. The narrative was strong and highly readable so that it felt to me almost like a fiction novel.

The book begins on an emotional high, thus drawing you in, and Linda saves the fitting of the final pieces of the jigsaw of her origins until the last, so it finishes satisfyingly climactically.

This book will certainly be one of my top five reads this year, if not the top two or three. Or even number one. I think it should be required reading for everyone, particularly students, as a lesson in compassion and empathy. ‘Inspirational’ is a much overused cliché, but for this book it entirely fits.

Thank you so much Ms Hoye. It’s a lovely, lovely book.


Symphony of War
Symphony of War
Price: 1.26

5.0 out of 5 stars Small but beautifully formed, 2 July 2014
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This review is from: Symphony of War (Kindle Edition)
Speaking as someone who spent many years renovating and living in old houses, this excellent debut novella from Debra Watkins really resonated with me.

Clearly very well researched, it is full of fascinating period detail like, for example, the discovery of the old ‘dolly tub’ whose use (for laundering in pre-washing machine days) is explained by mum Sylvie to incredulous daughter Caroline. Details like that add charm and colour to this very readable book.

Yes, old houses do have atmospheres, and Debra builds on that to great effect in her descriptions both of the cottage and the hotel, her mother’s workplace.

Symphony of War (an enticing title in itself) is well paced, beginning in slow-burn mode but gradually building, becoming ever creepier, to a searing, emotional yet satisfying climax.

I can well imagine that the good townsfolk of Beccles in Suffolk, where this is set, particularly the older generation, would love this; it would be a lovely nostalgia-trip for them. It evokes that quintessential English county town beautifully and the characters are likeable and entirely plausible too.

I think another reviewer’s comparison with the work of Susan Hill is right on the money. I also agree that this small but beautifully formed little gem could have been longer.

But that gripe aside, very well done indeed Ms Watkins!


The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (Part 1)
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (Part 1)
Price: 2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Gritty, compelling read, 25 Jun 2014
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Gritty, compelling stuff

I agree with a lot of what Amazon reviewer JDemsey says: being an old softy I would normally have regarded this as not my sort of book either. Not, you understand, because I usually consume Mills and Boon, far from it, but this is at the other end of the spectrum and is extremely gritty, edgy stuff. But it’s compelling.

Yes, at times, when Danny is for the umpteenth time angrily rejecting his mum’s clumsy attempts to reach out to him, you feel you want to give him a good shake – or at least a little grown-up’s lecture about seeing the other’s point of view. But at other times, when he’s suffering abuse, you want to cry for him. Either way you can’t be indifferent, and in this alone the author scores a full five stars from me. Involvement, and empathy most of the time, with the disturbed young protagonist is compulsory.

And he’s a well-drawn and utterly believable character. It’s a cliché but in this case it’s true: Ms Atkins’ characters are certainly not one-dimensional or constructed of cardboard. They’re proper, complex, grey as opposed to black-or-white creations. I even found myself feeling a smidgeon (but only a smidgeon) of sympathy for the control-freak stepfather as he reacts in the only way he knows how to Danny’s implacable hostility.

This book will certainly make you think and confront some uncomfortable notions. So kudos to the author for that. And technically it’s excellent, notwithstanding her sometimes relaxed attitude to the use of the possessive apostrophe.

Very well done indeed; it’s a great read!


Vignettes: Poems by Nompie
Vignettes: Poems by Nompie
Price: 3.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspirational, 3 Jun 2014
This is an eclectic collection of twenty-one poems by Michael Hawke, who (like this reviewer) came to writing in later life. Well, that’s all to the good. Michael’s words are expressive of great depth of life experience. He hopes his poems engender empathy from the reader. Well I can tell you, Michael, they certainly do!

His canvas is broad – but then you don’t get much broader than life itself. He moves effortlessly from one subject to the next employing a diverse range of writing styles as appropriate, compassionately visiting the whole gamut of human experience: birth, youth, love, war, death, stargazing, the beauty of nature, the beauty of words, reminiscence in old age, art, religion, surfing the ocean, pets, creatures of the sea.

Here are some of my favourites:

# Sweetly lyrical, The joy of Youth reads like a love song.
# I don’t know whether Mum is autobiographical, but it’s achingly poignant.
# The short, terse style of Not Your Time suits the grim subject matter of this poem very well.
# There’s a lovely evocation of tranquillity looking skywards in Starry Night.
# Ode to a Sparrow has a suitably chirrupy rhythm and is a humorous morality tale.
# The gentle eroticism of Love is gorgeous.
# The impeccable observation in The Wife is wickedly un-PC!
# Words is very resonant for a writer.
# Give Me a Break is sharply insightful.
# Old Max and About My Cat will stir empathy in pet lovers.
# Whalesong has a gargantuan subject for such a four-line, tiny gem.

I’ve picked out twelve poems with difficulty in choosing, but to be honest it could equally well have been the other nine. I really enjoyed them all. I think Michael’s concise and economical style is superb. It isn’t flowery and cuts straight to the chase. And yet he can really turn a phrase, such as ‘Whales puff and bob along the shore.’

Bravo, Mr Hawke. More please!


An Amber Scent
An Amber Scent
Price: 2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Scintillating, 2 Jun 2014
This review is from: An Amber Scent (Kindle Edition)
It may be aimed at the young (and mainly female) adult market, but Stella Windsor’s splendid book appealed equally to this 70-year-old, decidedly un-cool old geezer. She certainly knows how to do empathy – I felt totally involved with her vividly drawn characters: Amber and Nick, both of whom are shy, unconfident but totally believable characters; and delightful, precocious Natalie. I wanted to hug them all.

The wit in her story is scintillating; I chuckled throughout at the realistic dialogue, apart of course from the unflinchingly painted dark passages. The voice of protagonist Amber – a bit feisty but a bit vulnerable too, is spot-on. Many teenagers and their parents will nod and smile knowingly, or in remembrance as the case may be.

In places it was laugh-out-loud. The knickers-swapping scenes were hilarious, and in counterpoint, the penultimate one when Amber and Nick get together after the concert is pitch-perfect, cleverly avoids the obvious outcome and is, to me anyway, beautiful and deeply touching.

This book deserves kudos. Congratulations, Ms Windsor, on an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable book. I’ve also read and can highly recommend ‘The Belvedere Field,’ the author’s debut novel, by the way.


Birth of an Assassin
Birth of an Assassin
Price: 1.81

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deliciously Noir, 19 May 2014
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This author's debut novel is a fast-paced thriller that carries you along at breakneck pace as you impatiently wait to find out what happens next. I really liked the unusual setting in the Cold-War USSR. Think James Bond and then darken it several shades! The protagonist, a professional and sometimes ruthless soldier when the occasion demands, is likeable though (and not conventionally big, beefy and macho, which is refreshing) whereas most of the villains, who are engaged in large scale corruption and dastardly, murderous deeds, are painted very black indeed.

But having said that, Rik Stone shows a gentle side too when he describes the love affair, expressed mostly as separation and longing, between hero Jez and beautiful heroine Anna.

I don’t know whether the author has first-hand knowledge of Russia, but he writes with great credibility. It’s either that or he’s an assiduous researcher.

If you enjoy a thrill-a-minute ride that nevertheless has depth and intelligence, you will, I’ll bet a bagful of roubles, like this. Kudos for an excellent book, Mr Stone!


Die in Paris: The true story of France's most notorious serial killer
Die in Paris: The true story of France's most notorious serial killer
Price: 2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting read, 2 May 2014
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Dr Marcel Petiot seems to be to the French what Jack the Ripper was to Victorian England. Both held the populace of their respective countries in a web of irresistible, if gruesome fascination. I confess though that I hadn’t heard of Dr Petiot.

Therefore, hats off to Marilyn Tomlins for a clearly thoroughly researched piece of journalism, although it has the readability of fiction. Knowing that it’s founded in truth makes this book all the more riveting though. As another reviewer has commented, murder (much less mass murder – in fact, in that respect I preferred the author’s splendid ‘Bella’) isn’t my cup of English tea either. But it was a gripping read, even though you knew the outcome. Both books evoke France in another era beautifully.

I liked the way Ms Tomlins avoided judgementalism, which would have been an obvious pitfall when writing about a psychopath. Her description of Petiot’s troubled, traumatic childhood is actually quite sympathetic, although she doesn’t of course condone his horrendous crimes, perpetrated against people fleeing from an even greater one. Her journalistic credentials show; she paints the unvarnished truth with admirable objectivity.

She largely spares us the Hows of his foul crimes. But then little was known of the means Petiot used, and the author avoids descent into crude speculative horror. Equally we are mostly spared the Whys (after all, how can anyone really second-guess the motives of Petiot at this distance in time) and Ms Tomlins sensibly avoids too much pseudo-psychology; too much conjecture. She leaves that to you.

If crime writing is your genre, do read this excellent book. It won’t disappoint. I really enjoyed it.


ReCycled
ReCycled
Price: 0.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this book!, 11 April 2014
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This review is from: ReCycled (Kindle Edition)
Damn! That's the trouble with being the twenty-fourth reviewer of this wonderful book: all the best adjectives have gone. Oh well; I'll just have to think of some more:

Unputdownable:
I began reading ReCycling (excellent play on words, by the way) in short bursts, alternating it with another book. This is not to be recommended. This book should have your undivided attention, without multitasking. I was greatly relieved when the other book was finished so that I could concentrate on this one, and I then finished it in two sittings.

So very interesting:
A fascinating, sometimes harrowing insight into the world of organ transplantation told from the perspective of someone who's been there, experienced it, lives daily with its ramifications and can really tell it like it is.

Non-nerdy:
You really (trust me) don't need to be a cycling fanatic to enjoy ReCycling. Enthusiasm for biking isn't a prerequisite for enjoyment or empathy. Honestly. I now know more, having hitherto been completely sports-illiterate, about the cunning tactics of the various forms of biking (previously I'd thought you just set off from the start line and pedalled like hell), than I could ever have imagined. This is now the only sport that I can have a halfway-knowledgeable conversation with others about.

Heart-wrenching:
Like blood donation, organ transplantation is not a subject that occupies the consciousness of most of us on a regular basis, because organ failure touches (thankfully) comparatively few. Richard Smith's entirely non-self-pitying recounting of his near death but chance of a second lease on life thanks to the imaginative, far-seeing altruism of a donor and emotional generosity of that donor's family is deeply, deeply affecting. As are his descriptions of the fellow-transplantees his interest in cycling has led him to meet.

Rib-tickling:
But when he's not delivering his very serious message, Mr Smith has you chortling with laughter. He certainly did me, frequently. This boy (as Eric Morcambe might have said) is a born comic writer. I have to confess shamefacedly though that I did very badly in his frequent tests. I think this is the first book I've read that's been part literature and part exam paper.

Inspiring:
Boy; wasn't it just! R S certainly wasn't prepared to let a life-changing event like total organ failure and life ever afterwards on immunosuppressant drugs to keep him alive cramp his sports-enjoying style. Like also-admirable Paralympic athletes, he's achieved far more in terms of not letting the bugger grind him down and striving for personal optimal success than most of us couch potatoes will ever do. And written a brilliant (corny but appropriate adjective) book about his remarkable achievements and the crying need for organ donation too.

Make you laugh/make you cry is a familiar technique used by TV charity appeal shows and this book does that superbly. The final three killer paragraphs (I won't spoil) had me with eyes wet and throat tight, but that's fine. Manipulate my emotions all you want. Feel free.

I can pretty confidently predict that ReCycled will win the prestigious John Needham Personal Fave Book Of 2014 Award. Read it, and join the donor register! Seriously.

Bravo for a very fine book, Richard Smith, and good luck with your awareness-raising campaign.


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