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Matt Westwood (Reading, UK)

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The Brutal Art
The Brutal Art
by Jesse Kellerman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing and well-written scenes of institutionalise abuse, 18 Jan. 2014
This review is from: The Brutal Art (Paperback)
I gave this a 4 because, although the plot goes nowhere and the climax is non-existent, the writing itself is highly skilled. The author knows what he is talking about -- either through diligent research or through having actually been there in such situations. This made the book well worth reading.

Where it falls over is in two places: first, as I've said above, the plot itself had the opportunity of going somewhere, but the denouement was so mundane you wonder whether the author *deliberately* wanted to disappoint, as some post-modern ironic statement of some kind, thereby making the book into a joke, a self-referentially absurdist piece of modern performance art or something equally pretentious, good grief, did I really just *write* that? Dear dear ...

The second place it falls over is that the author starts by writing this in a first-person fourth-wall-breaking style where he describes himself as a wannabe hard-boiled PI of the time-honoured Marlowe breed (and as such, this works well), but then a lot of the book is taken from a third-person omniscient-narrator perspective (including the dying thoughts of an elderly woman) completely incompatible with that of the narrator, who appears to be the *only* one who doesn't know anything at all about what goes on in his own family. And I'm sorry, but this jars badly.

Having said that, the scenes of selfish autocrats doing bad things to helpless underlings are poignant and angrifying, and as such one wonders whether they are cathartic in nature. If so, that would definitely portray the Kellerman clan in a completely new light.

The Letters
The Letters
by Satya Robyn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Needed an editor (and a final proofreading), 29 Dec. 2013
This review is from: The Letters (Paperback)
I had trouble with this because it wasn't serial enough for my liking: an initial lovers' bustup, and then from there on in the episodes did not make any chronological sense. Interspersed with pages and pages of backstory, which I suppose was there in order to flesh out the protagonist, but instead may just have been an act of catharsis, was a domestic tale of spiteful village jealousies, all seen through the eyes of the unlikeable and somewhat poisonous narrator, whom I could not believe. And interspersed with *that* are these mysterious letters from some 50 or so years before (all dated meticulously to 1959) whose origins are not investigated. (If it had been me, I would at least have examined the postmark to see where they had come from.)

There are spelloes, malapropisms and grammatical mistakes (the ubiquitous "her" instead of "she" in a compound subject at one point), and even typesetting errors. Granted it's a small press (dare I say: an amateur press?) and this sort of thing happens -- but it does detract.

The punchline, when it happens, is a bit of an anticlimax, but then it does make sort of sense. I just wish I could have begun to like any of the characters in it. Maybe this is what Satya is trying to say: everybody is flawed, nobody is likeable, this is the sort of rubbish you have to share the world with, look, give a break to the people around you, they probably think as little of you as you do of them.

Be a bit more tolerant, yeah? And that goes for you too, Westwood.

The Most Beautiful Thing
The Most Beautiful Thing
by Satya Robyn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful read, 28 Dec. 2013
First a disclaimer: I've known Satya for some considerable time, so this review will probably not be objective.

Satya's skills are in getting the reader to want to know what happened next, and in getting inside the heads of people. The latter probably comes from her experiences in her professional career, the former is an innate talent.

Part 2 does not work as well for me as part 1, which is a delight. It's flawed, like crystals are flawed: I was slightly irritated that not only was the protagonist at age 29 annoyingly wet, but there were plot twists which came across as implausible and therefore forced. (For example: if he finds his birth certificate at age 29, when he's already been hopping back and forward between Reading and Amsterdam for quite some time, then where on earth did he get his passport from?) And it goes on for too long: he has his breakdown, and then has another one, then a fit of depression, and then when you think he's got better, he goes into another tailspin. And so it goes, with him surrounded by a crowd of sympathetic, caring people around, and I found myself uncharitably thinking: oh you big baby, get a backbone!

A disturbing aspect of the story is that his professional relationships seemed unnaturally cold. Surely there must have been *someone* at work with whom he would be able to make emotional contact with? -- but then I remember people I've worked with in the past who just Didn't Fit In. I worry now about my own interpersonal relationships with them. And such is Satya's power of insight that she can write a sentence that expresses a truth that hits you *there* between the eyes and you say: that's me, that is.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 1, 2014 11:26 AM GMT

The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day: 4
The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day: 4
by Terry Pratchett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.14

16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not a novel, not a book on science, but an atheist manifesto, 19 May 2013
I gave it 4 rather than the 3 I was going to give it, because the reason I thought it was so-so was because there was little there I hadn't read on Freethinker website.

Lots of ranting about the stupidity and intolerance of religion, along with an overview of the currently-under-discussion reasons for why supposedly-rational people believe such claptrap and poppycock.

Another blow-by-blow account of Why We Are Here, leavened with what stupid religiots think the answer is.

An interesting digression at the end into why the fine structure constants aren't that fine after all, which (for me) was worth the value of the book itself.

And interleaved like strips of tasty salami between many tedious slices of slimming-bread, we find a Pratchett Discworld novella, detailing how a librarian (appropriately Pratchettianly rationalistic, sensible and unflappable) arrives in Discworld through L-space to witness Vetinaru presiding over a court case as to whether Roundworld should be in the custodianship of Unseen University or the Omnians.

Every book by Pratchett seems like an ever-dwindling sequence of poignant goodbyes, and this is a rather sweet little coda in a world we Discworld fans know and love better than our own.

Fizzlebert Stump and the Bearded Boy
Fizzlebert Stump and the Bearded Boy
by A.F. Harrold
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can't give it a 5 I'm afraid, but entertaining all the same ..., 20 April 2013
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You naughty man, Mr. Harrold, you've been reading too much Pratchett.

The writing is first-class, as ever, and the digressions as Harroldic as you have come to expect. It also works brilliantly in audio format.

However, two literary devices (an exploration into the point at which a story can be said to start, and the uniqueness and personal nature of a clown's nose) will be familiar to anyone who has read their way through the Discworld books. Sorry, but it had to be said. Having said it, I'll shut up about it.

Unlike the first in this series, where everything that happens takes place in the realms of the mundane and all-too-possible, this one strays into the arena of the fantastic. It's all too tempting, when trying to find a way to provide a climax, to rely upon a completely impossible (and ultimately unexplained) occurrence to resolve the plot and allow for a happily-ever-after, which is why only 4 rather than 5 stars.

While I didn't see the final denouement coming, the plot rolls along in a pretty straightforward direction: new acts on the scene, acts of sabotage, the hero working out who's responsible, adults not believing him, etc. etc., but I won't say more for danger of spoiling it.

Having a clown for a mother is one of the most interesting thing about Fizz. She needs more metaphorical airplay. Come to think of it, so do all the rest of the members of the troupe - we meet most of them as no more than thumbnail sketches. The hope is that in future volumes they will become a little more fleshed out.

If you've got kids, you can do a lot worse than buying them this - and its predecessor - and don't wait for a birthday or special occasion.

I'll end this review with an example of AF's writing, which delights me:
"I won't tell you what [Fizz's good idea] is, because that wouldn't be good storytelling... But right now, I'm going to have a cup of tea and a biscuit. The kind with chocolate on the top (biscuit, not tea, that is). Or if I can't find one of those, then maybe a pink wafer, or possibly a ginger nut, but almost certainly not a cat biscuit, unless I make a terrible mistake in my use of the biscuit barrel. But I've got quite a lot of biscuit barrel experience under my belt and very, very rarely make such mistakes, so don't worry about me. (Unless the next chapter begins with a 'Meow', in which case please send for the vet.)"

The author's partiality to biscuits is a matter of public knowledge.

Price: £3.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Though not particularly extraordinary, Ruth speaks to all, 20 April 2013
This review is from: Thaw (Kindle Edition)
She's not particularly special, just an ordinary London office-worker, with friends, colleagues, fashionable tastes, her own place to live, and a life she can't see the point of.

As she counts down through the final days of her existence before she decides to go and end it, she explores some fairly deep places in her mind (a spiritual person would say "soul" but I'm not so I won't). And you can guarantee that, while some of her diary entries will come across to you as trite, trivial and pointless (come on, it's a girlie's diary, after all), something here will smack you between the eyes. Whatever it is depends on what there is inside yourself.

More an exploration of one's internal philosophies than a novel, this book succeeds at what The Golden Notebook (to pick just one example of what, in the wrong hands, can be a pretty tedious genre) fails at.

Four stars not five because not only am I a boy but I'm also a male chauvinist with regressive tendencies and therefore unqualified to comment on anything remotely connected with femininity, or so I have been told.

by Iain Banks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant read, but nothing new, 1 Jan. 2013
This review is from: Stonemouth (Hardcover)
Caught part way between Dead Air and The Steep Approach to Garbadale, this has nothing of the qualities of either, unfortunately.

The family scandal turns out to be mundane. The climax is commonplace. The characters have all been met before. The sex and the drugs have lost their glamour.

And yet ... and yet ... if you like reading the Banks prose, this is a pleasant way to while away a few hours between xmas and new year. And I confess to having laughed longer and louder than at any Pratchett - the anecdote about the walk home from the pub by the graveyard is worth the time spent reading the whole of it.

Ultimately, though, reading a non-SF Banks novel is like watching a routine by a pair of slapstick artists. You *know* there's going to be a pratfall (usually involving a nut-percussion job: make sure your shorts are comfy before you start), you *know* the cast list at the end is going to be smaller than that at the beginning - and you *know* that the hero is going to get laid.

The Long Earth
The Long Earth
by Stephen Baxter
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It's like a grown adult playing on the swings, 12 Sept. 2012
This review is from: The Long Earth (Hardcover)
Sorry folks, it's just not very good.

It's not very original in idea (parallel worlds), not very interesting in execution (if even the protagonist is bored spending all his time floating around in an airship arguing with a computer how do you think the rest of us are going to feel?), has some screamingly artificial cliffhangers (you feel like yelling, "Step, you silly chump, step!" when he's in serious danger of his life from an attack from the bad guys) and is so derivative of everything that has been written in SF in the last 40 years you kind of feel it's a collaboration between Asimov, Heinlein and Simak on their off-days.

I'll elaborate. Take one dose of The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov, add a sizable slab of, oh I dunno what by Heinlein, his silly book about the scout troop marooned in an alternative universe hiding from the stobor, I reckon, and seal it up with the discarded ideas from Cliff Simak's Way Station and maybe you'll get the idea.

See, one of the major problems it's got is that it thinks it wants to be a children's book (so no naughty bits, except for the obligatory mention of toiletary matters here and there) but it's got an adult body and wears grown-up clothes and all that, and the readers think it ought to be talking like an adult - or at the very least a sulky gobby teenager. No, it talks like an earnest, well-educated ten-year-old with That Syndrome.

It was probably Pratchett who came up with the idea of the potato, and the character of the nuns (especially the biker who was into Steinman) but everything else in this sub-Nietzchean survivalist propaganda masquerading as liberal politics might as well have been cut out of cardboard.

One wonders what Peter F. Hamilton would have done with it (he would have fleshed out the stories of the colonists a little more, one feels) or Iain M. Banks (oh hang on, he already has done: he wrote the rather more edge-of-seat Transition).

Usually I can't put a Pratchett down, but this one I listless read a chapter or two at a time, then decide I want to do some interesting mathematics or physics problems instead. I was almost in tears of boredom.

Station To Station
Station To Station
Price: £5.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best ever from the genius, 18 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Station To Station (Audio CD)
No denying that Bowie is one of the more important creative forces of the 20th century, and this is, in my opinion, his greatest work.

It's subtle, in the way Aladdin Sane, with its lush freakotronics, and Diamond Dogs, with its inyerface glam-rock is not. It is also varied.

It starts with an engrossing piece of musique concrete and the laid back yet intense rhythm and ostinato of the title track. The following Golden Years was a single, and, following on as it did from the soul outing of Young Americans, one could be excused for thinking it is more of the same - but again, it's subtler than that, and worries at the nerves more than any conventional soul number would. The first side (as it was on the vinyl) ended with the pleasant pop sounds of Word on a Wing.

It's the second side that is the real masterwork. TVC15 was again a single, and if anything was a precursor of the next phase in Bowie's career. An intense piano-driven beat moves it along at an inexorable rate as the singer attempts to crawl inside the TV set in chase of his girlfriend - predating Videodrome by 7 years.

The bleak starkness of Stay is in sharp contrast to anything else except maybe Fame. A funky guitar riff in an empty, echoing space is practically all that holds this song together, as the singer begs, in his confused and incoherent mindstate, for his companion to, well, just stay. And in that spirit of bleakness, when it ends you feel that sense of emptiness and nihilism ... emptying your mind and your soul to prepare you to receive his greatest ever work: Wild Is The Wind.

There are no words to describe this piece of music. Where Stay is death, Wild Is The Wind is the afterlife.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 11, 2012 10:22 PM BST

Shine Again
Shine Again

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They don't make them like this very often, 4 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Shine Again (Audio CD)
Take a bunch of siblings (the Fletchers: Kate, Jon and Colin) who have been brought up in the folk tradition and who eat, sleep and breathe interesting music on unusual instruments. Add one of the foremost fiddle players on the scene (Nancy Kerr: check out her own pedigree), and get local hero, character and all round sound-as-a-pound good guy Tony Lyons on drums, put them together in a studio, on a stage, having a jam together down at Broken Brow, whatever ... and what do you get?

Quite an unusual album of contemporary folk/rock songs, written from the heart, about things local and distant, mundane and fantastical, and oh so very listenable. Their stage act between 1997 and 1999 (and possibly later, I drifted away from the scene, unfortunately) mirrored the album closely, and live indeed they were sparkling.

Nancy Kerr, as I said, played the fiddle; Jon and Colin played stringed instruments, while Kate blew anything she could get her lips round. And she sang, and (I believe) also wrote most of the songs, from the mundane "Soldier on", about getting up to go to work in a battle against depression, to the mediaeval tale of love and protection "Driven by the wind". And there's a gorgeous instrumental dance number "Tasman's Hunt".

Excellent album. I have still not tired of it.

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