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Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England)
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Journey to the Ants
Journey to the Ants
by Bert Holldobler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.65

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Warfare amongst the Ants, 20 Aug. 2015
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This review is from: Journey to the Ants (Paperback)
“In the Brazilian Rain Forest the dry weight of all the ants is approximately four times that of all the land vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) combined” Few among the species of animals are less visible, less attractive as species, and less worthy of our interest. Or so I had always believed. Then I read this book and I was captivated. It is simply amazing.

Did you know, for instance, that insects can see colour. Honey bees can see a polarised light to estimate the position of the sun and take a compass reading, even when the sun is hidden behind clouds. In 1972 Myrmecologists Burt Holdobbler and E O Wilson began their twenty-year collaboration, and this book is the result. “All of ant behaviour is mediated by half a million or so nerve cells packed into an organ no larger than a letter on this page.”

“Ant Queens, hidden in the fastness of well-built nests and protected by zealous daughters, enjoy exceptionally long lives. One mother queen of an Australian carpenter ant kept in a laboratory nest flourished for 23 years before she died, apparently of old age.” African driver-ant queens, possibly the world champions, may produce 300 million worker daughters, thereby exceeding the human population of the United States. But consider the poor males of the species. Every single one of them dies within hours or days of their birth. They may leave hundreds and thousands of offspring, most born months or years after he has died. After receiving the ejaculate from the male the queen stores it in an oval bag near the tip of her abdomen. This is the spermatheca where the individual sperm are physiologically inactivated and they may remain so in suspended animation for years. When the queen lets them back out into her reproductive tract, either one at a time or in small groups, they become agile again and she is ready to fertilize some of her eggs. During the last few days of August or in early September “for an hour or two the air is filled with the winged ants, meeting and copulating while still aloft. Many end up splattered on windshields. Birds dragonflies, robber flies and other airborne predators also scythe through the airborne ranks. Some individuals stray far out over lakes, doomed to alight on water and drown. As twilight approaches the orgy ends and the last of the survivors flutter to the ground. The queens scrape off their wings and search for a place to dig their earthen nest. Few will get far on this final journey.”

If these few paragraphs have excited your interest, believe me, you are in for a real treat. The story of Holdobbler and Wilson’s life in myrmecology is absolutely marvellous. Read it and you will be filled with the joy of this fascinating story – I promise you, it is truly riveting, written with style, enthusiasm and – well, I thought it was brilliant.


Kings, Queens, Bones & Bastards: Who's Who in the English Monarchy from Egbert to Elizabeth II
Kings, Queens, Bones & Bastards: Who's Who in the English Monarchy from Egbert to Elizabeth II
by David Hilliam
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

4.0 out of 5 stars "Edward VII... it would be quite wrong to belittle him as his mother did...", 19 Aug. 2015
This is a useful book provided you are looking for the conventional history of Kings and Queens. I doubt very much that the seasoned reader will find anything that they haven’t found before. It’s a good, brief, history but it doesn’t produce much that surprises. Having said that, perhaps it is for people who aren’t particularly looking for surprises and it would be wrong to say that it is merely a workmanlike offering.

It does offer the short version in each case: I did like the businesslike aphorisms that described each king and queen with pithy dismissal; E.g: Edward II – “Appallingly tactless, self-centred, homosexual and incompetent, it has been said that Edward II was his father’s greatest failure.” “Henry VI – Henry VI was temperamentally not suited to be king. He was scholarly, intensely religious, kind and generous – he would much rather have been a monk.”

The paragraphs beneath each entry are much more descriptive and cover the major aspects of each person’s reign, largely with accuracy, but declining to go further than one might expect.

I prefer Mike Ashley’s book “British Kings and Queens,” however, which has a few rather good drawings and goes into the lives more thoroughly. Nonetheless, full marks for reducing the subjects of life’s works to the bare minimum without leaving much of interest out of the picture, although Ashley does get the colours of the roses mixed up. It’s white for York, Red for Lancaster (see page 194). The Scottish houses are covered more thoroughly in Ashley’s book too. Good work done by both.


The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.00

4.0 out of 5 stars "On the train the tears come and I don't care if people are watching me.", 18 Aug. 2015
This review is from: The Girl on the Train (Hardcover)
Rachel is an unreliable narrator, a secret drunkard who takes the same train into the city, even though she has been sacked from her job. She’s a sad person, not initially sympathetic, but at the same time we have some fellow-feeling for a woman who has little going for her. She can’t leave her last relationship alone and constantly angles for sympathy from her ex-husband Tom.

Tom has residual feeling for Rachel, but now he has a baby daughter and a new wife, Anna and Rachel’s misery causes her to act irrationally, phoning Tom, begging for his attention. On her train every morning she passes the row of houses where she used to live with Tom and she also notices a seemingly perfect couple whom she christens Jason and Jessie. This couple are actually Megan and Scott who will figure in the story to a large degree.

The plot is disfigured, in my opinion, by some shifting of timing, as the current fashion seemingly dictates – why oh why? I mostly ignored that common trope and read on with gritted teeth. It is a gripping story, after all with a hugely violent ending. On the whole I enjoyed it given my initial reservations. None of the characters act with much charity towards each other, but as we reach the end-point, the villain of the piece is revealed in all his vile dissimulations. A good book with some distinctly alarming moments.


Misfortune
Misfortune
by Wesley Stace
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars "We were being imprisoned, the princes in the tower.", 17 Aug. 2015
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This review is from: Misfortune (Paperback)
This is the story of Love Hall and its strangest inhabitant Rose Old. Rose doesn’t come into this world with much of a beginning. Her father is a shrinker from notice and her mother is more interested in her library, but Rose is loved. Despite the fact that ‘she’ is, in fact, a he. The reason for this is complicated, almost labyrinthine, involving an earlier daughter, but love surrounds her early years. Her father’s death is the signal for a change.

526pp in length, the story ventures as far as Turkey at one point as Rose is ousted from her position in the aristocracy, but all that is to be turned on it’s head before we are finished. There are some confoundedly long and excruciatingly wordy passages in this book. But it all comes right in the end. I wouldn’t, on reflection, have started this book had I known how it would keep me enslaved for more than five days, but I was entranced by it’s mixture of grand guignol and dashing style. There is a cast of outrageous relatives, and a cast of the strong and the true, and they do battle in a dastardly manner. It’s the most entertaining farce I’ve come across for some time. But be warned, it is stretched on the rack sometimes most tortuously.


The Penguin Book of American Short Stories
The Penguin Book of American Short Stories
by James Cochrane
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The country of the rich, as unreal as fairyland (F Scott Fitzgerald, from The Rich Boy)., 15 Aug. 2015
One of the best stories in the book is by Herman Melville. It’s a story about a clerk who will neither work nor quit his employer’s premises. The employer does his best to get rid of his unproductive employee, Bartleby, (who sleeps under a table and eats mainly bits of cheese) but he is met with dull incomprehension. At every request that he behave as the other employees and do some work, he is met with the words, “I would prefer not to.” Eventually however, he is removed by force. Odd, strange, I didn’t know what to make of this tale, but it has a certain weirdness that demands you think about Bartleby and what precisely has got into him.

My favourite story is one by Willa Cather called "Neighbour Rosickey". It’s a story about a family whose neighbour is told by his doctor that he may be subject to heart problems. He’s advised to give up the more strenuous activities of farm life. Luckily he has five sons and they all rally round. He becomes concerned that his daughter-in-law Polly may be missing her city life. They become closer because of this concern and his understanding of her differences from his family. Then one day he collapses in the fields and she gets him home safely. There is no question of impropriety between them, but they do strike up an innocent bond. I really loved this story, though it does have an sad ending. There was a beautiful warmth and charm about this gentle and heart-breaking tale.

In contrast, Jack London’s story, To Build a Fire, is a story of a man and his dog, caught in a treacherous snowstorm, his attempts to build a fire thwarted by the weather is inch perfect in it’s pitiless trajectory. Only his dog makes it back to camp.

Ring Lardner’s story "Who Dealt?" is wonderful. It captures the voice of a woman who is crassly unsettling, not to say slightly deranged. The story is told completely in her voice as she plays bridge (very badly) with friends. No one else speaks at all throughout this story and one understands that most of what she says is horribly embarrassing for her poor husband. Brilliantly rendered, horrifyingly self-satisfied, one cringes with every second sentence.

One by John Updike: Wife Wooing was the only one I didn’t enjoy. I have found almost all of his work practically unreadable. The man has no heart. He writes bound up by his own narcissism in this story at least.

The stories range from works written in 1783 to the Updike, written in 1932. As a selection I would have liked more written by women, but to compensate, there are stories here from Katherine Anne Porter, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Henry James, and Stephen Crane. A marvellous collection.


The Water Horse
The Water Horse
by Julia Gregson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars "All good surgeons need a touch of the murderer in them.", 13 Aug. 2015
This review is from: The Water Horse (Paperback)
Deio and Catrin begin as children in the Welsh countryside and their story ends in the dying moments of the Crimean War. Julia Gregson’s novel tells the story of both Catrin and Deio with great verve and sympathy for the young people caught up in this war.

Among the insights of the story of this particular war, the idea that the Charge of the Light Brigade was caused by the errors and family quarrels of the Generals proves to be untrue. In fact The Charge was reluctantly allowed by them to prevent a mutiny amongst the troops who were angry at being continually held back. The army’s commander in chief gave this explanation to the House of Lords at the time, but it was later forgotten in the enthusiasm for Tennyson’s poem. It was the Light Brigade themselves who decided to charge the Russian cavalry.

Catrin runs away from her family and disguises herself as a boy – a member of the drovers who supplied London with meat on the hoof. She and Deio have been friends, but the interference of a clergyman has severed their friendship. At an early part of the novel Catrin’s mother dies in childbirth, and this horrific event, which Catrin witnesses is partly responsible for her longing to become a doctor. Of course, she can’t do this as a woman, but she can be a nurse and this is what she opts for.

The terrible conditions in which the army had to fight are not stinted. Catrin and Deio will meet again in Scutari, Deio with a near fatal wound, Catrin forced into a relationship she hates with one of the Doctors.

Florence Nightingale has a role in this story, to not much effect. It’s a heady, romantic tale and has a satisfactory ending. Not bad, but nothing special. I’d have liked more historical detail.


The Nearest Thing To Life
The Nearest Thing To Life
by James Wood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.", 12 Aug. 2015
In the best of these essays Wood references a famous essay by Thomas De Quincey called "Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth." “De Quincey tries to explain to his own satisfaction why he is so affected by the scene in Act 2 of Macbeth, when, after the murder of the King, a knocking on the gate is heard. The porter arrives, tells us about the ups and downs of heavy drinking (it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance) and slowly opens the door. De Quincey recognises that something strange occurs at this moment, some peculiar shift, but can’t work out why. The problem, he decides, is that he was trying to use his ‘understanding’ – and yet, he reminds us, the understanding is not helpful but actually obstructs analysis: ‘The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind and the most to be distrusted:: and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else.’ Asked to draw a street, he suggests, most people will allow understanding to overrule their eyes and will draw a horizontal line because that’s what they think they should do, and will thus fail to produce the desired pictorial effect.

De Quincey continues that his ‘understanding’ could furnish him with no reason why the knocking at the gate should have any special effect. In fact ‘my understanding' said positively that it could not produce any effect. But I knew better.

‘Soon enough, further knowledge comes along in the form of the Ratcliff Highway murders, which took place in London’s East End, in December 1811. After the first of these murders, an incident similar to the Shakespearean motif apparently occurred: a knocking was heard at the door, soon after ‘the work of extermination was complete.’ Shakespeare thus proposed an invention that became a reality.’ He takes his time revealing the solution. When we see someone faint, says De Quincey, the most affecting moment is when the person comes round and this announces the recommencement of suspended life

Now apply this to Macbeth. De Quincey concludes that in order for us to appreciate the play we have to feel sympathy for the murderer; we enter into his feelings and are made to understand them. The knocking is what De Quincey calls ‘the pulse of life beginning to beat again’: ‘and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them…’

This is a fascinating book of essays, all of them instructive with a variety of excellent subjects.


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
by Claire North
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I need to know your point of origin.", 11 Aug. 2015
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Kate Atkinson did this first, of course, but Claire North has extended the principle with this extraordinary novel which builds on Atkinson’s story of multiple lives and makes of it a revenge novel. Harry August and Vincent Rankis alias quite a few other incarnations, are Kalchakra. Initially members of the Cronus Club. They can be killed or die naturally, but they are born again with the knowledge of all of their past lives intact. They come into full knowledge of their past at around four years old. Being born with a vastly knowledgeable past of faultless memory they know everything they have been taught in past lives and they know how to keep themselves safe. All it needs to disturb the world’s equilibrium, such as it is, is a rogue member (Vincent Rankis), who is determined to advance scientific discovery before the relevant time of it’s actual era of the past. No less than the theory of everything, if you can believe it. Yes – everything that exists.

Later things begin to turn very sinister and their friendship is subjected to a serious and violent break-up. Rankis is in the ascendancy at first, but as they play their dangerous game of hide and seek, Harry August executes a terrible revenge that will separate the two for ever.

The fantasy element to this novel will be a step too far for some and the rebirths are more complex than in Kate Atkinson’s book, Life After Life. Claire North’s book was published after Kate Atkinson’s. But ideas sometimes come to two or three writers at once, almost as if it is the idea that has stepped forward to take over. It’s for the individual reader to say who has most pleased them. For me it’s no question – Kate Atkinson is the winner, which is not to say I didn’t like Claire’s version which goes perhaps a little deeper into the scientific side of things.


Gospel Prism
Gospel Prism
by Gerald Weaver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The three great scourges of prison:: violence, dissipation and boredom, 9 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Gospel Prism (Paperback)
This is a book set in a prison. It’s style is digressive, and exponential along it’s own extraordinary curve of development. It begins with a Preface that suggests that it is written by someone – Christian, whose life is kind of a series of tests, challenges, set by a female Christ figure from whom he asks guidance as his life proceeds. It is a kind of Paradise Lost for the condemned man, the prisoner, although we never really know what he is guilty of, if anything.

At times we learn a lot about prison life but the book seems to promise spiritual unravelling – a spiritual path that Christian must take, but this multi-layered, and sometimes difficult book has deep rewards. The book is hugely ambitious, expecting the reader to recognise some of the books tasted and referenced – Paradise Lost? Don Quixote, Hamlet? The Odyssey?, Jane Austen was somewhere in there, too. Along with the flavours of The Godfather – it really is the most outrageous concatenation I’ve ever experienced. At times I found it heavy-going, but something kept me reading. Now I feel I need to read it again. There is so much going on and so many references one half-catches, flips back to, trying to make sense of the flittering half-trapped ideas and sensations in my poor brain. I both loved and hated it at times.

A prism is a transparent glass or plastic object, often with formed in the shape of a triangle, which separates light that passes through it into the colours of the rainbow. So yes, another dimension – he uses the prism to illuminate his literary adventures. Darkness and light – plenty of darkness at least. Deliciously so. I will definitely give this infuriatingly magical and demanding book another read. I read it headlong, over the length of two days and now I feel I read too fast for proper digestion. Next time I’ll take notes.


The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars I say pannini you say pannino, 8 Aug. 2015
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Maxwell Sim may be the least prepossessing hero of a book you will ever meet. His marriage has failed and his wife and daughter have removed themselves from the family home. He is on his way to visit his father in Australia when he meets Poppy, who lets him into the secret that she works as an Adultery Facilitator. She records the background of various habitats to be played by those who wish to suggest that they are in one place, when actually they are in another. I know – it can’t quite be credited that someone might make a living from the cruel deceits of adulterers, but there we are.

There are several wonderful things in this novel, including the story of Donald Crowhurst whose very sad story most literature lovers will have have heard, and aspects of his story chime in with the events of the novel. Max’s failures are in miniature, Crowhurst’s. He’s been hired to sell toothbrushes. There are some doldrums for Maxwell, but some high points too. The novel dwells a little too long on the dreary thoughts of Maxwell Sim, but cling on if you can.

It does pick up a bit when we get him in his Prius Car, on the way to the Shetlands as part of a competitive drive-along, with a £500 bonus for who can make the most sales. But Maxwell has other things on his mind. He makes a disastrous visit along the way to an ex-girlfriend and ends up somewhere in the Trussochs, naked and frostbitten in the back of his car.

It is only when he remembers the hundreds of postcards he’s been sent by a friend of the family that he discovers his own true nature.
This book is, at times, almost terminally depressing, but ends on a jokey kind of high note that quite cheered me up.


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