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Will Arnold (UK)

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Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
Price: £6.99

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Blame Game, 20 May 2014
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Max Hastings's account of The Great War mixes strong narrative and analysis, a big picture view and telling detail, a blow-by-blow account and the wider context of the war. The effect is a compelling read and a clear picture of some of the complexities surrounding the period: the causes of the war, its conduct and its significance.
And this war is complex: long-term and short-term causes, the role of individuals and the role of institutions, the differences between having clearly defined objectives (eg annexing territory) and a willingness to push events along to see where they might go (eg Germany giving the Austro-Hungarians a blank cheque to deal with Serbia) provide a kaleidoscope of angles from which to approach the conflict.
Hastings provides a strong synthesis of accounts and overview. While he apportions blame - largely pointing the finger at Germany - he is also keen to show where different nations were at fault in different ways for their aggression or their failure to understand the consequences of their action (or in some cases inaction). Yet, while he is firm, if sometimes trenchant, in his opinions he is careful to show the basis on which he has reached his decisions.
There are a few weaknesses. While Hastings is strong on the opportunities the different players had to take a different course in the lead-up to war, he pays less attention to the longer-term causes. He captures the way Britain was caught between its focus on its empire and its desire to see a balance of power in Europe. However, at a time when Britain, France and Russia had all extended their influence in the world, I wonder if he is perhaps too quick to put Germany's actions down simply to militarism.
Catastrophe is based on a wide reading of different authorities and Hastings provides an excellent, sometimes gripping summing-up of the evidence and then direction to the jury.


The Hive
The Hive
Price: £4.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mothers disunion, 5 Aug. 2013
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This review is from: The Hive (Kindle Edition)
Primary school is a fairly emotional experience, not least for the parents. The intensity of your children's experiences - all the more vivid for being new - draw you in. You go to school every morning and afternoon; you get to meet a whole range of different parents going through similar times; soon you know a lot about their children's lives, their lives, their spouses' foibles (putting it mildly) and strangely few of their good points. It's a bizarre throwing together of people into a closed environment from which there is little escape.

Gill Hornby's The Hive captures the teeming variety of people and the relentless building of relationships that come from people's children's friends, the people that walk to school at the same time, the standing together in the playground day after day. The support, exasperation, oddity of other people, fun and antipathy are all there. While there is a central character - the one who starts miserable and goes on the biggest journey - Hornby has chosen to use several different perspectives to tell her story. While it can be tricky to make each character's perspective fully-fledged, the approach creates a pleasing kaleidoscope of perspectives and sometimes more depth with the reader understanding more about the leading characters than their friends do.

Depth of course is an issue in a book like this. The story is about types and inevitably takes a satirical view (the sort of satire that comes from the repetition of seeing or hearing someone day after day, week after week, term after term). This slides occasionally into caricature. I kept expecting the mother who has come to the school from a private school to have a moment or two of introspection, but she was denied this (I did however enjoy her self-delusion over her 'gifted' child). It's slightly ironic that the worker bees in the hive have the most interesting and rounded characters, while the queen Bee (Bea, naturally) has only one mode of working. But the portraits are mostly great fun, but also capable of some emotional heft too, as with the mother that is desperate to join in because, we gradually learn, she really does care about all the children.

Portraits are a lot less fun if you haven't met the original. If you haven't, you will be left a serviceable chick-lit plot, replete with people getting their come-uppances, a bit of redemption, true love of course, and unlimited cups of herbal tea.


The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike Book 1)
The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike Book 1)
Price: £4.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strike One - Home Run, 5 Aug. 2013
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He's big, an ex-military policeman... but there any similarities with Jack Reacher end. Cormoran Strike, recently thrown onto his uppers, is refreshingly self-aware, conscious of his shortcomings and often diffident about displaying his strengths. His motivations in mounting his investigation - financial, curiosity, a growing connection with the victim - are deftly, often subtly, handled; at the same time, his consciousness of what he's doing and his feelings produce a level of irony that provides depth and wry humour.

We also see the story through the eyes of his temp, Robin, new to London, engaged to an accountant, and bubbling with enthusiasm. Cormoran and Robin start their relationship operating from an office around Tottenham Court Road, in an area fittingly being rebuilt. The office, its surroundings and the areas in which they investigate are realised with an impressive sense of place. The plot is also rich in possibilities that stem from timing, place, faulty recollection and of course downright lies.

The story stutters in places. There are times when the pace struggles slightly under the weight of the different lines; at times, as Strike moves from witness to witness to witness, the story can drag a little: a few more reveals in the first half would have been welcome. While the central characters are given light and shade, some of the minor characters are unrelentingly one-dimensional: the money-grabbing sisters might have had one or two mitigating features; the super-model who seems to be airhead does surprise but it's with her news that she has a deferred place at Cambridge.

But these are quibbles. The book is swept along by the central characters and the core mystery, both strong enough to suggest an exciting series - and strong enough to suggest the author may prove to have had her Potter phase. (How many authors have been truly successful in different genres?)

It is difficult to read the book without being conscious of the author's views on privacy and the effects of fame. This theme is explored with a sure touch and involves many of the characters in the book - not least Strike himself and that helps forge another link of empathy between him and the victim: and in turn that helps provide a heartbeat to the story.


The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
by Bettany Hughes
Edition: Hardcover

36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Socrates as doughnut, 20 Mar. 2011
At the beginning of her book Bettany Hughes tells us that Socrates is a doughnut subject, with a hole in the middle. But she argues, 'painters will tell you the truest way to represent a shape is to deal with the space around it'.
The Hemlock Cup presents a picture of fifth century Athens as a city teeming with energy, ideas, wealth and ambition. At its best the book presents a detailed, heavily researched (the use of the latest archaeological evidence is particularly strong) account of Athens in its so-called Golden Age. It is rich with descriptions of voting systems and paraphernalia, symposia, theatre-going, wars, smells and noise. No sense is left undescribed, and if you like lots of adjectives, you'll love The Hemlock Cup. Others though might find it difficult to focus on the book through the deep haze of purple prose. This is television on the page, where thousands of words are used to paint a picture. At the same time, the book is tricked out with 'would have', 'it is easy to imagine', 'it is easy to imagine' and other ways Hughes invites the reader to use their imagination. It makes at least for a vibrant read.
The book is subtitled, 'Socrates, Athens and the search for the good life'. However, oddly for the subject, Socrates's philosophy is only sketched in (people should search for the good life; the unexamined life is not worth living). Instead, Socrates's life is used as a convenient thread through the book from which to hang descriptions of different parts of Athens ('As Socrates grew up, tributes [money from allies] steadily accrued'; 'On each morning of battle, Socrates would have heard... ').
In case the reader is wondering, Hughes is not, she tells us, a philosopher, but a historian. But as with her use of phrases such as 'it is easy to imagine', this is a history where vivid drama is more important than clear and careful weighing of the evidence.
The surviving texts are overwhelmingly pro-Socrates and Hughes falls too easily into following their line. Anytus, one of the prosecutors, for example, returns to Athens after the overthrow of a violent oligarchy. She disparages Anytus, saying he has come back with a chip the size of Crete on his shoulder. Given that the oligarchy has (as Hughes describes in great detail) been executing, confiscating and exiling it is unsurprising that he might be feeling a little chippy. It is also worth noting he is also a man of some importance in Athens at the time of Socrates's trial being part of the core group of 70 democrats that regrouped in exile and formed the base to strike back at the oligarchs.
Hughes skates over any political dimension to the case brought against Socrates, principally citing the recorded charges, whereas a reading of the evidence points to at least some political motivation in the prosecution of Socrates. Hughes attempts to dismiss Socrates's involvement in the rise of the oligarchy by arguing that he cannot be blamed for associating inter alios with individuals who went on to disappoint in later life. This is not the most rigorous examination of the depth and nature of the involvement.
And Hughes asserts for example the democrats went to Eleusis to kill the remaining oligarchs in 401/00. She doesn't consider the evidence the oligarchs were threatening moves against the democrats in Athens. This and a lack of consideration of the amnesty the democrats seem to have followed after the restoration contribute to a sense of a lack of balance.
The Hemlock Cup is a colourful, sometimes thrilling account of Athens, working well on social detail. But for an alternative analysis of the events leading up to Socrates's condemnation try Stone's Trial of Socrates. For Socrates's philosophy, try Irwin, Vlastos or Burnyeat.
Hughes finishes by telling us Socrates was a wonderful man; high praise for someone who started the book as the hole in the middle of a doughnut.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 30, 2012 12:10 PM GMT


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (Millennium Trilogy Book 3)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (Millennium Trilogy Book 3)
by Stieg Larsson
Edition: Paperback

7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A letdown, 31 Aug. 2010
The third of the trilogy, while still using a very fast pace and page-turning techniques, is badly flawed. Everything the baddies are planing and doing is shown with the result the book is shorn of suspense and the main goodies are either seen leaping from one flash of intuition to another - or they simply get everything by hacking into a computer (hardly Sherlock Holmes stuff). The first part of the book builds the Section into something to take seriously; the rest shows it to be clownish and amateurish. Against the baddies are arrayed: a magazine, hackers that could apparently bring a country down (if they felt like it), police, security agents, the Swedish PM, the ex-Swedish PM, a first-class security company: real drama or struggle is virtually non-existent. The court case has a defense lawyer scoring points off a baddy before bringing out a sledgehammer piece of evidence the reader knows is coming. And does anyone believe that Mikael has really fallen in love by the end? The couple enjoy a bit of banter and a lot of sex, but not much else.
It all feels like an overwritten plan that didn't get the editing it should. Such a shame after the first in the series.
Read Nora Ephron's The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut for an antidote.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 15, 2012 4:23 PM BST


Long Lost
Long Lost
by Harlan Coben
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not worth the wait, 9 Jun. 2010
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This review is from: Long Lost (Paperback)
As someone who was riveted by all the other Myron Bolitar stories, this was a distinct letdown. Every so often TV takes a success out of its normal setting, usually for a Christmas special. It rarely works.
Instead of the usual close-to-home, surburban, tightly defined plot, Long Lost ends up as a mixture of usual Bolitar, international thriller and a denouement that was almost science-fiction (if you were dismayed to see Close Encounters spliced into the Indiana Jones IV film, you'll feel uneasy about Long Lost).
Maybe the gap between Bolitar books was for a reason.


Midnight Fugue
Midnight Fugue
by Reginald Hill
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Oh, yes!, 15 Jan. 2010
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This review is from: Midnight Fugue (Hardcover)
As I read this, I became conscious of three powerful emotions. The plot is delicious and intriguing; I kept finding I was fifty pages further ahead than I thought; I really didn't want it to end.


Without Fail: (Jack Reacher 6)
Without Fail: (Jack Reacher 6)
by Lee Child
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 28 May 2008
Reading this book is an odd experience. You keep turning the pages, but you're not always quite sure why. The whodunnit (or who'sthreateningtodoit) is powerful enough and threats come up often enough to keep you hooked. But the problem is that the story slides sideways a lot of the time and the way clues are followed is clumsy.


The Visitor: (Jack Reacher 4)
The Visitor: (Jack Reacher 4)
by Lee Child
Edition: Paperback

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but, 10 May 2008
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Pacy, lots of action, keeps you turning the pages, but...
The answer is obvious about half-way through and the misdirections are a little clumsy.
The murderer's method takes a lot of suspended disbelief; it reminded me of a Wilkie Collins device.
There are too many instances where Reacher knows but the reader doesn't. It stops you feeling as though you are on the same journey as him. (He also starts coming across as a little smug.)
Lee Child is something of a master, but this is not his masterpiece.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 6, 2015 1:14 PM GMT


A Cure for All Diseases
A Cure for All Diseases
by Reginald Hill
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Quintessential Hill, 1 April 2008
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The style of the emails in the first part of the story takes a few pages to get used to (but then, and in a way ironically given the huge nod to Sanditon, it can take a while to tune into a lot 19th century novels). But the value comes in introducing a wide range of characters, building a sense of menace beneath the surface and bringing another person's perspective on the familiar characters.
This develops into the story being told from a wide variety of perspectives. This makes for more nuances to the relationships, humour and an ability to send the plot in different directions.
The plot is satisfyingly complex and the pace superbly managed.
It is all very successful and engrossing.
(I stopped short of five stars because of a little too much sentimentality at times.)


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