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P. G. Harris

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Europe In Autumn
Europe In Autumn
Price: £3.08

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Le Carre rewritten by Mieville, 6 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Europe In Autumn (Kindle Edition)
First things first, Europe in Autumn is tremendous fun. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in a Polish Restaurant in a Europe which has fragments into hundreds of tiny states, which co-exist in a tense peaceful hostility. Rudi is recruited into a shadowy intelligence organisation which seems to be working to encourage free movement across the myriad network of new borders which slice Europe into a dizzying mosaic.

It's some time since I came across a book where I had so little feel for what I was reading. It starts off as a sort of Le Carre style spy story, full of trade craft, clandestine drops and confused identities. Indeed, author Dave Hutchinson explicitly references Smiley's creator. Suddenly, about halfway through it morphs into the world of the earlier and more action-oriented British spy thriller. Step forward James Bond, and a world of guns, gadgets and over the top chase and fight scenes. In the final section, it just goes (in a thoroughly entertaining fashion) completely bonkers, as it moves from being a future history to showing more overt science fiction chops. Science fiction, or maybe fantasy, although I use the latter term in its more modern sense and the New Weird, rather than meaning swords and sorcery.

While the complete fragmentation of Europe may stretch the bounds of credibility a little (but that's nothing compared to where we end up), on the whole Hutchinson writes with sufficient conviction and gusto to carry the story. On the way he brings in some great ideas,not least of which is the Line, a railway running from Portugal to Siberia, which has declared UDI.

As well as telling a good story, Europe in Autumn is interestingly structured. It's a bit like being given a airfix kit without instructions, or even having a picture of the finished model. The first half feels like a set of unfinished short stories, a collection of seemingly unconnected vignettes from the life of a spy in a near future world. As the book goes on, Hutchison leans over the readers shoulder and gradually cements all of the pieces into a coherent whole.

In terms of other authors, Hutchison brings to mind a pinch of Ken Macleod's politics, a few grains of Adam Roberts fragmentary Europe from New Model Army, with an underlying base of China Mieville. There is even,a slight hint (although it is something of an insult to a book this good, this intelligent, to make the connection) of Peter F Hamilton.

In summary, this could be approached as spy thriller, future history, SF fantasy, or Cold War allegory, but above all, as I started by saying, enormously enjoyable.

Brunton Power Knife Multi USB Charger
Brunton Power Knife Multi USB Charger
Offered by Leisure Lakes Bikes
Price: £22.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Convenient and also inconvenient, 4 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is basically a USB power lead with three outputs, micro USB, earlier iPhone (up to 4) and later iPhone (5 and up). As such it also works with iPad. You need to supply your own plug/transformer. The USB's USP is its size. It folds down into being the size of a standard pen knife as deployed by the Swiss Armed forces. There is therefore no long wire to loop up. The downside is that it is not convenient with every socket. The rubberised leads/blades are short and not terribly flexible. For example I tried using mine on a Virgin train and had to have my phone sitting on my leg, the lead wouldn't stretch round onto the table. However, as someone who hates fighting with the spaghetti of multiple leads, I'm prepared to live with that.

Purina ONE Adult Wet Chicken & Beef Mini Fillets in Gravy, 8 x 85 g (Pack of 5)
Purina ONE Adult Wet Chicken & Beef Mini Fillets in Gravy, 8 x 85 g (Pack of 5)
Price: £19.45

4.0 out of 5 stars The cats like it at the moment, 4 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Well, the only consumers who matter seem to love this. Both of my cats wolf it down, although there is occassionally the problem of the gravy being licked off and the tasty meaty chunks being left behind. Of course, in a week's time they'll turn their noses up at it and pretend to bury it, but that's cats for you. I'd prefer if it came in recyclable tins rather than pouches. I'd also prefer if the marketing didn't refer to 'she'. Why do marketing wonks seem to think that all dogs are male and all cats female?

A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary
A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary
by Hans Fallada
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly Fascinating, 2 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I knew Hans Fallada's work only from having read Alone in Berlin, his novel of low level German resistance to the Nazis. A Stranger in my Own Country is his memoirs covering the period from shortly after the Nazis ascent to power to his period of incarceration in a psychiatric hospital in 1944.

This is an absolute fascinating read, on a historical level, on a literary level, on a personal level and on a political level. It is a work in which humour, tenderness and terror are never far apart. That is beautifully illustrated in one fairly early section when he goes for a walk in the park with his young son with "Teddy" swung between them, only for Fallada to be arrested by SA thugs for criticising the Nazi regime. On the way to gaol he narrowly escapes being murdered by his captors, but then, when in a police cell he is allowed to play cards with two other prisoners. The two guards who independently allow him to do this are desperate for him not to reveal their leniency to the other.

Despite being an autobiography, a Stranger in my Own Country strongly echoes works of fiction. In a direct link to Brecht and Arturo Ui, Fallada compares Hitler and his government to Chicago mobsters. As he struggles with the malign totalitarian bureaucracy, the other writer brought to mind is unsurprisingly Kafka. Fallada is living in one of the societies which gave birth to Kafka's works. Even though he is writing a non-fiction, his own non-fiction, the author is still very much a story-teller; his account of a farm-boy who rises to control a major publishing house takes on the feel of a classic Germanic fairy tale or morality story. On a more modern, non-fiction note note, this also brought to mind "Burying the Typewriter", an account of living under Communism in Roumania. In his rebellion which could appear irresponsible in a family man, Fallada is reminiscent of the father in the later work.

Fallada is a very honest narrator, never failing to recognise his own failings and stupidities. What gives him additional interest is his context. In a long section in the latter part of the book he catalogues the bickerings and petty jealousies of village life. These would all be very run of the mill, except for the fact that they become sinister and menacing when the self important mayor is a Party member in the Third Reich. More problematic is when Fallada talks about Jewish acquaintances and indulges in some pretty crude racial stereotyping. On the other hand he describes himself as a philosemite. While some of his views are uncomfortable to the modern ear, I don't think he is guilty of the classic racist "some of my best friends are Jews". It feels more like someone who starts off genuinely without prejudice gradually becomes tainted by living for so long in a poisonous society.

Just as I had little awareness of German Resistance until reading Alone in Berlin, here I learned about the concept of "inward emigration" and the viewpoints of those hostile to the Nazis but who remained in Germany. This is closely linked with a strong sense of patriotism. Early on Fallada blames Britain and France for the rise of Hitler, and in a later, astonishing, episode, a leading publisher who has fled the country, returns to fight once the war breaks out. The question the author raises is where true heroism lies, with those who fled the country and criticised the regime from afar, or those who stayed and were forced into compromises with the fascists in order to stay alive, just as Fallada himself wrote the screenplay, albeit heavily edited by others, for propaganda films.

While one is left wanting more, this is a short book for the period it covers with long stretches of time skated over, it is what a brave man was able to write in secret while incarcerated. The only real wrong note is in the translation which is occasionally self-consciously modern. To have a member of the educated literary elite referring to friends as "mate" doesn't ring true.

Overall this is a stunning book. It is a self aware portrait of the everyday life under a brutally evil regime. That Fallada himself comes across as flawed only adds to the fascination. It is also a highly readable I said earlier, he is, at heart , a talented storyteller.

One final point, it is depressing,less than a century after this was written, to live in a Europe where populist xenophobes are once more influencing the political agenda.

The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Confused, 14 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Miniaturist (Paperback)
Petronella Oortman is an 18 year old rural gentle woman thrown into poverty on the death of her profligate father. To escape, she is hurriedly married off to middle-aged businessman, Johannes Brandt. On arriving in their Amsterdam house, she finds her husband absent and is, instead, greeted by the dysfunctional household of mysterious sister, Marin, surly maid Cornelia, and proud footman Otto.

The early part of the book has a distinctly gothic feel to it with whispered conversations behind closed doors at the end of darkened corridors. In fact, there is a very specific touchstone with distant husband Johannes, Petronella taking on the part of the second Mrs De Winter, and the black clad and seemingly malevolent Marin fitting perfectly into the shoes of Mrs Danvers.

The air of menace is heightened when (Petro)Nella takes delivery of a (still unconsummated) wedding present from her husband, a miniature reproduction of their home. As she furnishes it, she starts to receive unsolicited items and dolls which seem to reflect, transform alongside and even predict the real life events around her.

Then, about half way through, the plot twists, and from then on turns into pure melodrama, as it staggers from one big physically or emotionally violent set piece to another, with seemingly every chapter bringing a new revelation and change in course for the poor tortured narrative. Indeed, the plot got to the point where I was looking, in every situation, for how events would take an "unexpected" turn.

The Minituarist feels like a work where the author is just trying too hard. She doesn't seem quite sure of what she wants her book to be, and so throws as much at it as she can. Is it a pastiche of a gothic novel, a historical allegory commenting on the modern world, a supernatural mystery, an account of sexual and racial discrimination in Renaissance Europe, an historical thriller? One area in which Jessie Burton's efforts do rather grate is in her self consciously trying to write A LITERARY NOVEL. Inappropriate and heavy handed similes and metaphors form ungainly protuberances from her otherwise reasonably smooth running prose.

The allegorical element comes from the increasingly common device of setting novels in European history at the time of religious persecution and intolerance. Here, an Amsterdam where a rampantly mercantile society is kept in moral check by hard faced preachers, and brutal religious police, is a clear mirror of anything from Bible Belt America to the horrific excesses of ISIS.

Aside from the over-enthusiasm, which may be a symptom of this being a first novel, the Miniaturist suffers, for me, from two main failings. Firstly, I simply didn't believe the people, or more specifically the way in which their natures seem to change over very short time periods. The entire book takes place over three months, during which time Petronella transforms herself from timid, virginal ingenue, to hard nosed business woman, wifely tower of strength, and powerful head of a shattered household.

The other major problem area is that Burton doesn't really succeed in tying together her two main themes. There is the story of the Brandts, their household and business associates, and there is the Miniaturist whose works run parallel to the main story. That, however, is it. The two tales run alongside each other, with no linkage, or explanation. We never understand the why, or the how of the carver's work,and in the end it is entirely incidental, having no real influence upon events. Maybe, and in fact the author lets fall a massively unsubtle hint that this is the case, the titular character is the most clanking metaphor of all, representing Nella's inner turmoil.

In the end, I didn't dislike this book. For all of its many faults its heart is broadly in the right place, and it is probably most successful as a historical thriller. It is well paced, and I rattled through the second half in the course of a single, if rather long, train journey.

In terms of other works, the influence of Du Maurier is clear, but other works brought to mind are (owing to the Dutch commercial setting) the Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and, stemming from the near pastiche of some of the writing, the execrable Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

As a final thought,aside from ditching the doll's house and writing a straight historical thriller,albeit one with sometimes anachronistic modern attitudes, perhaps the book could have been improved by Burton having more courage and conviction, and having introduced the supernatural element, putting it centre stage and really going for it. At one point, fairly near the end,the story seemed to be on the brink of stepping over the line to become a fantasy of overlapping timelines and multiple universes but then, having dropped the hint, pulled back.

To sum up, I just found the confusion, lack of credibility and coherence rather unsatisfying.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 21, 2015 2:47 PM GMT

Revlon ColorBurst Lacquer Balm Stain - Demure
Revlon ColorBurst Lacquer Balm Stain - Demure
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 6 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
My wife says."I use a plain, clear lip balm every day, just to keep my lips soft and feeling comfortable. I'm not a great make up wearer at all, and haven't the time or inclination to bother to put on even a lick of mascara or a sweep of blusher in the morning. Life's too short. As long as my face is clean and moisturised, I'm good to go. This product, then, is ideal for someone like me. It combines all the benefits of a lip balm with a subtle hint of colour that makes you feel like you've made just that little bit more effort. It's easy to apply, being a cute, chubby, little crayon-type of thing, and feels nice on the lips, without being too obvious or in the least strident. It's make up for those of us us who can't be bothered to wear make up, and lip balm for committed lip balm wearers. Perfect!"

by Marilynne Robinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Gentle ramble through a mid-western life, 6 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Gilead (Paperback)
If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs psychometric assessment you will probably know that one of the personality types it suggests is referred to as ENFP. This is can broadly be described as characterising a warm, open, empathetic but unstructured person, summed up in the phrase, "now I really must focus on one thing at a .... ooh look, a butterfly". Gilead was, for me, an ENFP book.

Aging, dying, preacher John Ames, tells the story of his life to his young son, by his young wife. His voice is a very gentle, endearing one as he burbles and rambles his episodic way through a hundred years of American history, effectively running from the American civil war forwards.

That is one of the ways in which this book can approached, as a portrait of rural American life in the latter party of the nineteenth century, running into the earlier part of the twentieth. By choosing that period, author Marilynne Robinson creates an unusual, at least for this reader, perspective on the continuity of history. I often think, I suspect in common with many people, of the First and Second World wars as being as part of one era, with the domestic American conflict belonging to an earlier time. Here it takes its place as the first mechanised, industrial war, with Amos's grandfather being a combatant, but also living to be horrified by the global conflagration.

In addition to being an account of American life, it is also a book about America, or more specifically the mid west. This is a book of the prairies, of storms which can rip the roof off a church, and of flat, wide open landscapes where "mountains would seem an impertinence". Linking life and landscape there is the constant all-American theme of baseball played under big skies.

It is a book which has a holistic view of theology, very much seeing God in the everyday world. In one beautiful and poignant moment from his childhood his father feeds him a biscuit dusted with the ash of a burned church. It is a act which John describes as Holy Communion. I was very strongly reminded of the deeply spiritual methodist minister who conducted our wedding, who has said something along the lines of expecting, when approaching the pearly gates, to be asked "so, did you enjoy my creation?"

I am no theologian, nor even religious, but this book strikes me as propounding a highly liberal, inclusive theology. John Ames is no fire breathing, Bible Belt God-botherer. He is a gentle, intelligent, thoughtful, forgiving man.

One fantastic illustration of the empathy of the world view is a sentence I have to reproduce in full it is so fabulous. "These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult, and well meant and deserving of some little notice". That, to me, is a sentence which could work from so many different perspectives. Is it a plea for tolerance? Is it an acceptance of mediocrity, or does it align with a sporting leader I once heard speak who claimed his success was based not on the stars performing as expected, but on the lesser members of the team upping their game?

If there were to be a single theme to the book, I would say that it is one of reconciliation, in particular of John's reconciliation with the difficult characters with whom he comes into contact. In the first half that is primarily his father and grandfather, both themselves preachers. The grandfather is particularly trying, a sort of charitable kleptomaniac, stealing from friends and family to give to the poor. That theme of petty criminality carries through, in less benevolent form, into the second half in the person of John's wayward godson who returns to threaten his domestic bliss. In dealing with this prodigal son (Rembrandt's famous painting could make a fitting cover for this book) John himself has to "give credit for the effort [his godson] is making to be better than he actually is".

Overall Gilead could be (and has been) criticised for being slow moving, light on narrative,and for leaving too many loose ends (what is the secret history of John's wife). However, if one considers it on its own terms, it is not trying to be a fast paced thriller. It is a gentle evocation of an American life which starts as a loving letter from father to son, and ends with the writer finding himself at peace with his life, his fate,and those around him.

All rather delightful.

Aussie Shower Gel Body Wash Mega Watt 250 ml - Pack of 6
Aussie Shower Gel Body Wash Mega Watt 250 ml - Pack of 6
Offered by Your247Chemist
Price: £12.62

4.0 out of 5 stars Perfectly acceptable detergent, 6 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Yes, I like this stuff. It lathers up nicely. It also has a pleasant enough smell, without making one smell like a tart's window box, which means it is suitable as a unisex product. I like the reasonable level of viscosity (aka gloopiness), which means that it flollollops into the hand rather than running through the fingers.

I guess in time the cod-Aussie branding will become a little tedious, but at this stage I did smile at the Blackadder-derivative "smoother than a smooth thing". That will wear eventually, but that never stooped the marketing low lives from flogging the dead horse of FCUK, (it's a bit rude , snuk snuk) way beyond the point of being amusing(about 30 secs).

Still, I digress, this is a thoroughly acceptable form of detergent

Finish All in One Max Original Dishwasher Tablets (Pack of 74)
Finish All in One Max Original Dishwasher Tablets (Pack of 74)

4.0 out of 5 stars Perfectly good dishwasher tablets, 6 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
These are perfectly good dishwashers tablets. I can't say I can see a massive difference to any other reputable brand, but they are absolutely fine and do the job for which they are intended

Dettol Antibacterial Laundry Cleanser Powder 990 g (Pack of 3)
Dettol Antibacterial Laundry Cleanser Powder 990 g (Pack of 3)
Price: £20.97

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Say goodbye to smelly sports kit misery, 9 Feb. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I acquired this product for a single clear reason. I spend as much of my free time as I can in the hills. While there I wear wicking base layers (aka flaming expensive t shirts) which carry perspiration away from the skin so that it can evaporate. Leaving a residue behind. If it rains, I wear a breathable hard shell (extortionately priced anorak). To believe that such a garment lets all of the perspiration out is to believe it is borne away by a flock of airborne micro-pigs. What it does is to enhance a microclimate which increases the amount of perspiration. The upshot of this is that my fancy t-shirt (and possibly insulating mid layer)(fleece) is mildly aromatic. It niffs a little. It smells like it's been slept on by an incontinent badger. A 30 degree wash is no more use than a sledge to a Saudi.

However, leave my kit to soak in a solution of this stuff for five minutes before washing and hey presto, pong gone, scent of fresh air, domestic harmony.

I should imagine it will be good for any sports kit.

My wife has just read this and suggested I should just have written "I'm a bloke, I can get a bit smelly. This gets rid of the smell"

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