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Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England)
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The Penultimate Truth (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
The Penultimate Truth (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
by Philip K. Dick
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars "...low velocity cyanide dipped homeostatic dart...", 25 July 2014
After the outbreak of the Third World War, the main worry was the radiation sickness and the general population went underground. It was a long war and when we are introduced to the cast of characters it is still (ostensibly) taking place. Nicholas St James is the President of the Tom Mix ‘ant Tank’ and one of the most important and valuable members of Tom Mix is Maury Souza whose pancreas is only replaceable by an artiforg, an artificial pancreas. Desperate to save the old man Nicholas decides to go to the surface by digging a tunnel and he has raised money from the whole ant Tank to pay for the artiforg and hopes somehow to make his way through the dangers of the outside world and find the required organ.

But as chapter one has already shown us, the real situation of the earth is entirely different from what they have been shown in on-screen videos. Rather than a wasted dangerous radioactive world they see on their screens, the world is otherwise undisturbed. All the animals have been killed off (so what do they eat?). The Yance-Men have huge tracts of land and can make claims as they will. The terrible truth is that the vast majority of people have been sold the story of a war that doesn’t exist. The USSR and America have abandoned hostilities and are keeping the population underground where they have quotas to meet in the production of robot warriors called leadies.

The logic of this scenario is a little wonky of course. Since there is no war, what are leadies being created to do? I was some way into this story and involved with the struggles of the Yance-Men before this point struck me. By that time, of course, I felt I had to finish the novel, which is a farrago of in-fighting and struggles between very rich men. I felt it would have been more interesting to have the leadies being re-trashed over and over again. Why waste more expensive materials when you can just recycle them?

I did enjoy some of this, but the big plot hole of why they needed more and more leadies never got filled. I suppose you could read this as the triumph of the few over the many. Coming to an ant Tank near you any day. Propaganda as a way of life. The struggles of the ultra rich are a bit of a bore and I didn’t much care which of them ended up on top. I liked Nicholas St James, however who stuck to the point.


One by One in the Darkness
One by One in the Darkness
by Deirdre Madden
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.32

4.0 out of 5 stars Ambiguities of the Irish Life, 24 July 2014
This book takes place over the space of a week in the life of a family, Emily the mother, and three daughters, Helen, Cate and Sally. They live just outside Belfast on a small farm and Cate has come home from her London job to give her mother and sisters news that she knows will be unwelcome.

The book dips frequently into the past, the lyrical beauty of their surroundings and their happy childhood on the farm from which they wring a meagre living. Helen now lives in Belfast coming home every weekend. She is a lawyer, currently finding it hard to hide her contempt for the man she is pledged to defend in court. They are Catholics, and their father's brother Brian has been involved peripherally in the IRA. Their father, Charlie, was killed by Loyalists while at Brian's house. Brian was the intended victim. Cate has found it impossible to visit her Uncle's house since the killing.

The family background is delivered in episodes by one or the other of the sisters - there is one unpleasant and one loveable grandmother, along with the memories of their wonderful father. The younger brother, Peter, has some mental problems, but lives with his brother Brian and Lucy, Brian's wife, and their three children, and is cared for at home during his difficult episodes. The girls' schooling is well depicted - Helen the workhorse, Cate the princess, with her clothes and make-up, easily passing exams, and Sally, the youngest, who became a schoolteacher not exactly by choice. No one is untouched by the harrowing events of the Troubles. Yet it the book also shows the resilience of Ireland's Catholic community, even as they are face to face with the stark realities.

This book touches upon the ambiguities of Irish life, particularly as it relates to Irish women and their families, and the cruelties of the Troubles. It's a beautifully percipient book, gentle and sad, yet never maudlin, it gives a real insight into the way the Troubles have infected the lives of the people of Ireland. It is a short book, 181pp, yet within it is the heaviest burden. I found it hard to read some sections. It wraps itself around you, with truth and beauty, along with the harm done.


The Lifeboat
The Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars "That Henry was already engaged seemed only the mildest of impediments...", 23 July 2014
This review is from: The Lifeboat (Paperback)
As Europe is on the cusp of being ravaged by World War One, a young woman and her new husband, Grace and Henry Winter, are caught up in the sinking of the ship Empress Alexandra, on it’s way to the safety of the USA. Henry scrambles his wife into one of the first lifeboats to be launched and into the care of Hardie, an able seaman, who takes charge and organises the boat and distributes the food and water – though this is mainly hardtack biscuits.

And so begins the long stretches of time where they wait to be rescued. At first they stay near to the scene of the wreckage but eventually they put to the open water. There is an occasional glimpse of another lifeboat and although hunger is the worst of their troubles, they manage to catch fish occasionally. Disorientation sets in, however, when the food is all eaten and the water drunk. There is the occasional rainfall, which they manage to harness, but the worst of it is the formation of factions among the shipwrecked passengers and the break-out of covert hostilities.

These eventually erupt and Hardie is the focus of the dissatisfactions. The later parts of the novel deal with their eventual rescue by a fishing trawler. But what will happen when they are berthed in New York? Who will shoulder the blame for the sometimes savage acts carried out? This is not a “let’s eat the cabin boy” sort of novel and some of the passengers are extraordinarily brave. There is a suspicion that the lifeboat they sometimes glimpse in the distance is carrying some sort of bullion, and another mystery in the shape of a small box carried in secretively by Hardie, but we never find out what happens to the other boat and its passengers. Still, it’s a hell of a story and it is told very well. I don't mind the things we don't find out about the secrets of the passengers as sometimes it is rather that the paranoia that strikes under such extreme cricumstances changes the way people think, and that, to me, was something understandable.


Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel (Paperback) - Common
Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel (Paperback) - Common
by By (author) Gordon Burn
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars In parts of Yorkshire, Gloucester and the Midlands nearly two months' rain fell in a day, 22 July 2014
Born Yesterday is not a novel as such. It covers some of the events of the 90s and the earlier 2000s and dips back into the past – roughly the 70s, and 80s. This was the last book he wrote. I’ve read all his novels and loved them for their deeply intelligent and honest examinations of what life means in this world. This last book (though I’ve heard a rumour of another one, yet to be released), are often angry, committed to truth, as much as his irony allows, and deeply, explicitly political. There is little drawing back from his chosen subjects: his interest is forensic, but he does draw back from a deep engagement with politics in the raw. In this book he examines the abduction of Madeleine McCann, the Tony Blair years of power, the Kinnocks, the Glasgow terrorist incident, the Fred West crimes. Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, the embarrassments of the Brown Government. Thatcher’s reduction to a woman shuffling along with a handbag. it is not an indictment of these people, but a measured, rather solemn dismissal of some and the stiff excoriation of others.

I didn’t learn much that was new to me, but I lifted a sifted area of TV and News and saw beneath to the soil and shame of much of this period of shifting powers and some of Burns' coverage was ultra newslike, in the sense that it exposed a little more than the usual spin and cover. It felt closer to explanation, but rigorously honest, tense with the features he turned over with his mental pitchfork, a meditative air. It gave me an overwhelming sense of wasted power, of avoidance of blame as a game, of politics as a range of choices, inevitably devalued against the movement of capital, which stood serene.

Most chillingly, perhaps, were the weather storms that hit the cities. Here is his account of one small incident that happened in Hull to Michael Barnett who was 28 and worked at Kingston Koi in Astral Close: “(He had started trying to clear debris from a storm drain behind the shop when he leg became stuck. Undaunted by water on account of working surrounded by water and the silky, banner-like movements of the nishikigoi, in English champion grade carp. He had cleared the same drain in a previous flood just the week before. The cover had drifted away and been replaced by lengths of municipal railing bent into an improvised cage shape. It was this that his leg had got wedged in up to the thigh and he was held there neck deep in the fouled flood water as the emergency services struggled for four hours to lever or lift him free. Michael was held by his leg in the dirty water and was slowly dying of hypothermia.” The police eventually advised his father, who had been called to the scene to go home. As he watched television he heard ‘that the young man trapped in the drain had died.

There is much here that we already knew about, much that anyone with a TV or a radio would have come to hear about. Without the grace, the robust tenderness, the solid lexicon of Gordon Burn we hear the news as it comes blaring out at us, but we pay no attention unless we are enabled to feel at the same time. This book does that service to us and we surely need it.


Election
Election
by Tom Perrotta
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Tracey wants to win, 20 July 2014
This review is from: Election (Paperback)
Enjoyable, though not without it’s low points, this is the story of an American High School’s election for president of the school. The annoying Tracey Flick is certain she is going to win. She’s smart, popular – among a percentage of the school population that comes across as those without much initiative of their own. She also slept with one of her teachers, but the blame landed squarely on him and she worked hard to regain her popularity. The teacher was quietly sacked and it seems that Tracey got away with it without much approbation attaching to her.

This book was made into a very good film, though it’s slightly distracting that I have to say that the film is better than the book.

The format of this book is a series of events in shortish sections that move the plot along quite nicely, though I thought there was a tendency to skim the surface of certain plot lines. Although there is quite a lot going on, one tends to want even more explanation than we get. This makes me wonder if the original was a screenplay, and the book was something of an afterthought. I did enjoy these segments of American High School angst and anxiety. But the hero, if such he could be called, deserved more writing time. He and his wife are trying for a baby, but it’s leaving their sex life as a matter of rote and he conceives a passion for another woman, although that is quickly revealed to be a passing thing.

The sections all work to reveal a variety of passions and hormonal escapades as well as the course of the school presidential election. But our hero Mr M makes a fatal error in his role as overseer of the election. Bright, funny, sharp as a knife, this is an excellent read.


The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam
The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam
by Chris Ewan
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars The wide man and the thin man...., 19 July 2014
This begins rather well but falls off towards the end with the clunkiest denouement as everyone sits round in an abandoned diamond warehouse for all the world like they have strayed into an Agatha Christie novel of old. The “Good Thief” of the title is also a thriller writer and also one of those heroes who can be beaten about the head with a baseball bat and still manage to function enough to escape by the skin of his teeth. There are some slow patches, but it nicely gathers itself together to come up with the goods.

The "good thief" himself is not given much characterisation, and even though there is some violence it rather has the air of a ‘cosy’ mystery, not my preferred style at all. However, he does manage to give a good sense of the seedier regions of Amsterdam and the writing is very good. But that ending was a touch too ludicrous to be believed. Nevertheless, it is a stylish effort in the main and fairly enjoyable.


All Yours
All Yours
by Claudia Pineiro
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.37

2.0 out of 5 stars "There are various ways to die...", 17 July 2014
This review is from: All Yours (Paperback)
Short, succinct, and somewhat crudely delivered, though not really offensive, given its metier, this poses the question of what Ines gets up to when she discovers her husband is having an affair. She is, in the first instance, wrong about the other woman and there is a murder, more a manslaughter in fact, as poor Ernesto is pushed rather too far by a desperate woman. Ines meanwhile is doing everything she can to cover up the crime, and then she sees her husband with the woman he is really having an affair with and it all goes belly-up.

From trying to save her husband from his inadvertant crime, she turns to trying to make sure he is convicted. One is not given sufficient characterisation to care very much unfortunately, but it passed a couple of hours for 172 pages. Though if this really is, as claimed on the cover, Argentina’s Bestselling crime author, it’s probably better if they stick to football.


Love in Idleness
Love in Idleness
by Charlotte Mendelson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars "With her mother it's important to sound upbeat. Not to bleed into the water.", 17 July 2014
This review is from: Love in Idleness (Paperback)
Anna wants to live in London, not her home city Bath, and her Aunt the unreliable but fascinating Stella offers her a room in her flat. After a bad beginning which nicely demonstrates her innocence, but solid determination, she gets a job in a bookshop. She seems convinced that something good is going to happen. She is going to make friends with people, she’s going to find a boyfriend, someone special. It is all a long time coming.

There is some kind of mystery connected with another family (The Glass family) which looks very much as if Stella did something disgraceful (probably sleeping with someone called Nick, when his wife was dying of cancer). It is never made plain, but that was my verdict. Stella is a cross between the best friend you ever had and the most unreliable and flighty one. Her sexuality is compelling and she seems able to twist her sometime-boyfriend Richard round her finger. Anna’s mother and Stella, sisters though they may be, do not have much of a relationship, but it does sound, towards the end, that Anna is recovering from her hero-worship of Stella and beginning to see the other side of having someone like Stella in her life.

This is enjoyable, sparky, perhaps a bit too bright and shiny, but otherwise it’s a fascinating slice of life about life in London for an unattached, attractive young woman with hormonal longings and a slightly confused home life, which she probably does well to escape.


She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth
by Helen Castor
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.62

5.0 out of 5 stars "Isobella and Mortimer had begun not only a political partnership but a passionate affair...", 14 July 2014
My goodness I loved this book. Mainly because of the narrative. Forget old dusty tomes of history, Helen Castor brings a wonderful immediacy to the business of the past. She gives us just the right amount of detail, never making us feel she’s got an agenda, or giving too much credence to the strange rumours and disturbing myths that have grown up about some of the Queens. Yet she doesn’t flinch from giving us the goods. It’s a huge book with 448 pages, but it doesn’t feel too long or too idiosyncratic. This is a marvellous accomplishment and all credit to her as she takes us seamlessly along her trajectory, picking out detail as she goes. She begins with a boy dying, Edward VI, son of the Tudor King Henry VIII, then makes a beautifully circular sweep forwards through the stories of the often very young Kings and Queens, with the emphasis on the women.

She begins with Matilda, granddaughter of William The conqueror, who was married off first to Emperor Heinrich V, and later to Geoffroi of Anjou, and manages to make sense of the struggle for supremacy that took place between her and her cousin Stephen. Some of the chroniclers of her reign were implacably hostile towards her, but however they wrote about her, Castor’s good sense seems to see through their prejudices, which were often considerable.

She is particularly good on the manoeuvres of Eleanor of Aquitaine, perhaps the cleverest of the women in this book, and she had need of her skills as her husband near the end of her reign found it best to keep her out of things in a prison in all but name. The book progresses through the Queens, there are struggles and battles – and there are escapes, captures and stalemates, moments of danger and despair, as we reach Isabella and her extraordinary liaison with a soldier Roger Mortimer, an alliance that shocked Europe, with their scandalous love affair. It’s all here – the love of the King for Piers Gaveston, the shocking waste and avarice displayed, the murder of a king? Yes, I’m convinced of it.

The book ends with the story of Lady Jane Grey, an innocent among the wolves. I so enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the extraordinary fortunes of the Queens of England.


In a Strange Room
In a Strange Room
by Damon Galgut
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars "...he can't quite credit the rapid end to events...", 12 July 2014
This review is from: In a Strange Room (Paperback)
In essence this book covers three events in the narrator’s life, one is in Greece, another in an unnamed African country, the other in India, and all have a rarified atmosphere. In the first of these tales Damon tells of meeting a man dressed in black, an enigmatic and sophisticated man who uses creams on his skin and has beautiful black hair which he takes care of. There is a distinct air of voyeurism to their friendship. Reiner is a German and their relationship slowly sours as he feels as if he has taken on a subservient position. They part after a long period of walking across barren landscapes. At least one must assume they are not particularly beautiful since we get little in the way of description.

Their friendship ends when Damon perceives that the relationship between them has become uneven. Reiner primps and preens and combs his hair, assuming that Damon will gather up their tent, their utensils, while Reiner attends to his toilette without lifting a finger to help. There is something of an unspoken attraction between them, but if it is sexual, we do not hear of it.

In part two of the book, named The Lover, a great deal of time is spent trying to get from one place to another, with Damon gradually becoming aware that money is the key to getting the right stamp on your passport. Not a great deal else happens, apart from rocks being thrown at their train. The Lover is Jerome, a member of a group of complaisant travellers who offer friendship. If anything of a romantic nature happens here, it is not described.

In one very moving passage, however, Damon describes his feelings: “Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words, if you are only the dim evocation of a face under a fringe of hair, and the others too, Alice and Christian and Roderigo, if you are names without a nature it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it’s for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.”

The third section is titled The Guardian and takes place in India where his friend(?)/relative(?) Anna, arrives after a period of hospitalisation. It is soon obvious that she cannot keep to her scheduled medication. Almost at once she defies her routine by having a beer, and after that she finds a Frenchman, Jean, who becomes her ally in consumption. One day she simply takes all of her medication at once and the story becomes a harrowing one where she is treated at a large hospital initially, The complications include that in India, attempted suicide is a crime and the subterfuge they are forced to employ to keep her out of prison leads to her utter alienation from her friends.

A difficult book to get a handle on, but for the most part I found it eminently engrossing. The stories of Anna, of Jerome and Reiner speaks to me of deeply felt evocations, each in their own way, about love failing, love as felt, but not acted upon. The strange room might be the inside of ones own head a place where other people cannot reach.


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