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P. G. Harris

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Price: £4.37

5.0 out of 5 stars The Fountain of Salmacis, 5 Feb. 2016
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This review is from: Middlesex (Kindle Edition)
Middlesex is a great big rambling family saga. Its central theme, on which author Eugenides plays a number of variations, is that of people who find themselves caught between different cultures. That is not to say it is a story of the exclusion of outsiders, it is a more positive tale of people creating their own cultural space between societal norms. In sympathy with this and like the later Marriage Plot, the novel is structured around a central pivot, a family party at which the unborn central character Calliope Stephanides is sexed by her grandmother. Balanced around this fulcrum are the story of Cal's parents and grandparents, and on the other side, of Cal's own development.

Two generations before Cal's birth, Lefty and Desdemona are ethnic Greeks ejected from their village by the invading forces of Kemal Ataturk. They flee to America where they find themselves not quite acceptable to WASP society but very much part of the white world from the African American viewpoint. The title of the book refers, on a factual level, to the family home bought by Cal's parents on the margins of desirable middle class suburbs. It is however, fundamentally about Cal herself, who unbeknownst to anyone until her mid teens, is a genetic hermaphrodite, raised as a girl, but crossing between the poles to live in later life as the man dictated by his Y chromosome. Disclosing Cal's nature is not a spoiler, as it is revealed in the very early pages of the novel.

She only comes to centre stage, carving out her own space on the gender spectrum,in the second half. The first half is much more about the immigrant, and specifically Greek immigrant, experience in America, finding a space on the ethnic spectrum, and gradually becoming more American with each generation.

Middlesex is a long book, something which has recently attracted criticism. However it is a book which carries its length well. It extends over more than eighty years, taking in the aftermath of the First World War, the Pacific conflict in World War 2, race riots in Detroit, the counter cultural sixties, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and mixes in incest, teenage sexual awakening, and family jealousies. This is a book which is long in the way that Dickens is long. Its intricate plotting rewards the little bit of effort needed to stay with it.

There is also some lovely writing in here. Three images, amongst many stick with me. A passage where the rhythm and structure of the prose echo the beat of a production line. The picture of a little girl riding her bike behind a tank on a mission to save her father from the middle of a race riot. The lanky teenage Cal all limbs and hair, looking like a member of the Ramones.

While this is a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent and engaging read, it does hit a few duff notes. Early on, the identity of a preacher for the Nation of Islam lacks credibility. Much later in the book, that lack of believability is also apparent in a philanthropic pornographer, although to be fair, his role in the story is probably more figurative than real. He seems to exist to throw a spotlight on a self aggrandising doctor whose treatment of Cal is as exploitative as that of the sex industry. Thirdly there is a strange final thread involving a kidnapping and ransom which seems oddly melodramatic and out of keeping with the rest of the novel.

That said, the finale of the book is highly satisfying. This is no post modern work with the reader left to make his or her own choices in an inconclusive conclusion. After a good old fashioned family saga, albeit with a massively unconventional family, Eugenides gives us a proper happy ending, leaving the reader with a fantastic final image.

This is an excellent, entertaining, ambitious and ultimately successful work.

The Dark Forest (The Three-Body Trilogy)
The Dark Forest (The Three-Body Trilogy)
Price: £5.03

4.0 out of 5 stars On an upward curve, 30 Jan. 2016
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Contains spoilers for The Three Body Problem

The alien Trisolaran fleet is on its way to earth, with a four hundred year journey ahead of it. Human scientific progress has been halted by sophons, protons turned into powerful 11 dimensional computers. The sophons also allow the Trisolarans to observe everything happening on earth. In response, earth pushes technological development to the edge, gearing up to fight a future interstellar war. Their strategies will be driven by wallfacers, four individuals who keep their plans to themselves, beyond the reach of their adversaries. Three Wallfacers appear to be traditional strategists, but the fourth, the mysterious Luo Ji, is an astronomer who has been thrust unwillingly into the role, but who is the Wallfacer the Trisolarans most fear.

This is a much better book than the opening work of the trilogy, primarily because the Trisolarans and their unbelievable evolution are largely absent.

The Dark Forest is at heart a novel of societies under existential threat. As such it could be viewed as a work of soc-fi, sociology fiction, or at least a book in which ideas of game theory are played out. It is also a book which, like many others, seeks to compare the merits of logical, linear, rational thought, with emotional, right-brain creativity.

While preferable to its predecessor, this is far from perfect. It suffers from the common problem of books about humanity interacting with a vastly more advanced alien society. I frequently found myself asking "if they're so clever, why don't they just ....?". Furthermore, author Cixin Liu frequently relies on the whole of humanity acting in the same, stupid way. His future society is too homogenous to be truly credible.

The two strongest comparators are Isaac Asimov, and the "psycho-history" at the heart of the Foundation series, and Greg Bear and the idea of universal predators explored in the Forge of God and Anvil of stars.

So, this series is on an upward curve, I look forward to a rip roaring conclusion.

The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard physics, soft biology, 30 Dec. 2015
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This review is from: The Three-Body Problem (Paperback)
A Chinese scientist is killed by red guards during the cultural revolution. His daughter, Ye, who is witness to his death eventually finds sanctuary in a mysterious radio station.

Forty years later, in a more liberalised China, science is in crisis as leading researchers are dying or committing suicide in mysterious circumstances, while their experiments start yielding bizarre and inconsistent results.

A nano-technician, Wang, is recruited by the security services to investigate a society of leading scientists who seem associated with the strange occurrences. Wang soon meets Ye, now a grandmother, and is drawn into a computer game which portrays life on a alien planet where the climate is subject to frequent and catastrophic variations.

That is the set up for a novel which is part police procedural, part eco-thriller, part alien-threat sci-fi.

Where the Three Body Problem is at its most successful is in the first half as a work of hard science fiction, or more accurately hard physics fiction. Indeed for some readers the depth of physics and mathematics may be a little difficult to digest. In the second half, the physics goes a bit bonkers.

The book is a lot weaker in its biology and psychology. I'm afraid the alien civilisation didn't ring at all true. I couldn't believe that it would evolve in the unstable and hostile conditions portrayed, and then, the members of the mature society interacted in the stilted and wooden manner of actors in rubber suits portraying aliens in a 50s B-movie.

There is much that is original in this book, but if I were to make comparisons, I would say that it has a similar feel to those works which wrap a science fiction shell around a fantasy core. Iain M Banks's Matter, or Verner Vinge's Fire in the Deep come to mind. Alternatively as a novel of contact in a realistically Einsteinian universe, I was also reminded of David Brin's Existence.

The Accidental Tourist
The Accidental Tourist
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars The Muriel Project, 30 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Accidental Tourist (Paperback)
Macon Leary is a writer of travel guides for the use of the reluctant traveller. They are not for those who wish to expand their horizons through seeing the world. They are for business travellers who wish to bring their own horizons with them and interact as little as possible with the strange and the unknown. From his Baltimore base, New York and San Francisco count amongst the alien and threatening to Macon.

This small c conservatism is reflected in Macon's home life where everything is strictly ordered and run to routine to the point of obsession.

A year before the book starts Macon's only son Ethan was senselessly murdered and it opens with his wife announcing she wants a divorce. This results in Macon starting to fall to pieces in his own remorselessly efficient way, eventually being saved by his equally obsessive sister and brothers. He moves in with them, but it there is nothing redemptive, as Macon's life begins to ossify in family ritual. The narrowing of Macon's horizons is balanced by Ethan's dog, Edward, who becomes increasingly unruly and violent. At this point, enter dog trainer Muriel, who is everything Macon isn't, spontaneous, disorganised, and emotionally garrulous. In short, she is a manifestation of the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG).

Basically the Accidental Tourist is a rom-com, and therein lie my two main difficulties with it. I could see no reason why either of the two women, wife Sarah or Muriel, would be the least bit interested in Macon who is a thoroughly unattractive man, not least in the way he picks up and drops women with little or no thought. That perhaps comes down to author Anne Tyler using an inherently sexist archetype, the MPDG. The story is about Macon, with Muriel allowed no inner life and existing only to drag him out of his emotional constraints. On the "com" side, there are some smile-worthy moments - I enjoyed the intricate games played by the Leary siblings, incomprehensible to outsiders, but overall the comedy is that of the grotesque and of embarrassment. Both of these are uncomfortably apparent when Macon meets Muriel's family, and vice versa.

I found the book a lot more successful when Tyler plays things straight. The times when Macon feels the loss of his son are genuinely affecting. There is also, in particular, one moment where Macon is overcome by feelings of loneliness and isolation while in a restaurant at the top of a New York skyscraper, where I really felt for him.

The recurring theme of the book is the need for balance between heart and mind, between order and spontaneity, or, to take it back to Greek mythology, between Apollo and Dionysus. The contrast between Macon and Muriel is flipped on its head in their relationships with the dog, Edward. He is lax and unstructured, whereas she is a strict disciplinarian. The obsessive order and conservatism which the Leary children bring to their lives to give them stability are apparently a reaction to abandonment by their bohemian mother. While Muriel is bringing Macon out of himself, so he is bringing calming stability to the world of her son, Alexander, a neurotically allergic child.

In terms of other books, there is an obvious similarity to the more recent Rosie Project, with the MPDG bringing disorder to the life of the obsessively structured man. There is also something of a feel of Annie Proulx, portraying the minutiae of life for a spiritual outsider in American society

Overall, this book is OK. To be fair, it's probably on the good side of OK. It's moderately amusing, with some emotionally affecting moments, and is certainly easy to read. Its ideal position would probably be as an undemanding holiday read.

Joseph Joseph Intelligent Waste Totem Bin - Stone, 50 L
Joseph Joseph Intelligent Waste Totem Bin - Stone, 50 L
Price: £175.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Good product,but more space for recycling would be preferable, 26 Dec. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Prior to acquiring this bin, in the kitchen we had a small general waste bin, a food waste/composting bin and a basket for recycling. All three functions are now brought together in this really nicely designed, space efficient, product. The main body of the bin serves for general waste. There is a food waste compartment white hangs from the rim of this main compartment, and a roll out drawer at the bottom serves for the recycling.

Overall I have three problems.
A) the metal cover of the catch which opens the main compartment came off in the first week. It was easily glued back on, but the build quality really out to be better on a bin at this price.
B) I would prefer, in these days of recycling more and throwing away less to see the main compartment and recycling drawer more equally sized.
C) As with so many products, these days, the replaceable items, in this case the bin bags, are pretty pricey. However, that is solvable as normal common or garden bin bags work perfectly well.

The odour eliminating filter seems to work well.

So, overall, despite the gripes, it is a good product, recommended, if you want to spend this much on a bin!

YAMAHA F370DW Acoustic Guitar - Natural
YAMAHA F370DW Acoustic Guitar - Natural
Price: £127.94

4.0 out of 5 stars Ideal entry level guitar, 26 Dec. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am not a guitarist, I acquired this guitar in order to start learning (which I've commenced using a Tune a day book). I can't therefore give a massively knowledgeable review, but from my point of view it appears to be a very nice product. It appears to be reasonably priced, suitable for beginners (although to be perfectly clear I'm reviewing a product provided free of charge) and my wife, who has more of a musical ear than I tells me it is retaining its tuning pretty well. It is also a handsome looking beast.

So I guess it is probably an ideal entry level guitar.

Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon
by Toni Morrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.02

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Flight of the Phoenix, 28 Nov. 2015
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This review is from: Song of Solomon (Paperback)
The Song of Solomon really is the most extraordinary novel. I read it, then,after starting to write a review, realised how much I had missed, went right back to the start and read it right through again. It is a novel which weaves in so many themes and is so rich in imagery, it feels as if it should physically burst its covers. Even now, after reading it twice I feel as if I have only a superficial understanding, constrained my lack of knowledge of the bible and of Greek mythology.

To do the book a disservice, and to boil it down to the simplest essence, it is the story of the quest of one man to discover the history of his grandparents and great grandparents. This is, however, no linear quest, the story is told episodically, with author the author wandering through a plethora of different themes - of the human condition, the African American experience, gender politics, revenge vs forgiveness, etc etc. Just to step one level away from the quest for knowledge, Song of Solomon is more fundamentally about a search for identity.

Milkman (real name Macon) Dead is the son of an affluent slum landlord, also called Macon Dead. His is a thoroughly dysfunctional family. His parents fight a continuous psychological war. His sisters Magdalena (called Lena) and First Corinthians have been expensively educated to the point where they can't find a role in a class and race riven society. In seeking to escape this, Macon strikes up friendships with Guitar, firmly from the "other side of the tracks" and with his father's estranged sister Pilate. Unlike her brother, she is joyously unrespectable, living a sensuous life with no materialistic motivations.

Macon lives a pretty feckless existence, one in which the seven deadly sins appear close to being a blueprint for his life, but it is one of these, greed, and a hunt for mythical gold which sets him off on his life changing journey.

Probably the strongest theme and image of the book is that of flight, but it is a highly ambiguous metaphor. Right from the start to the end there is the question of whether It is a symbol of power and escape or of self delusion and suicide. What is more, it is also at the centre of the book's gender politics, as male characters, Milkman included, carelessly abandon women in their flights to freedom. While I empathised with Milkman's search for his identity, he is also, possibly until a revelation towards the end, an extremely unsympathetic portrait of maleness. In one telling section in the centre of the book, young maleness is typified as being a combination of shallow flippancy and reckless thrill seeking.

Naming also plays a vital part in the imagery of a Song of Solomon. Alongside flight, the search of African Americans for their true names rather than those given by white slavers is crucial to the plot. indeed it could be argued that Milkman is dead until he learns the true identities of his grandparents through a children's naming rhyme.

This is absolutely an African American novel with white America appearing only intermittently in the background as a broadly malign entity, excluding and guiltlessly murdering African Americans. White liberals take a bit of a kicking in the character of a middle class poet who glories in Lena's education while employing her as a maid. The darker side of racial politics is embodied in Guitar, who joins a low level terrorist group and whose presence in the novel asks questions about what is the proper response to omnipresent and occasionally violent oppression. Milkman and Guitar's greed which damages their friendship is symbolised by the bling (to use more modern slang) of a white peacock.

In addressing issues of race, Morrison doesn't portray African American society in any idealised way. She writes of a very human society troubled with sexism, snobbery, jealousy, violence and any number of flaws and vices one could care to name. In fact, another way of looking at Song of Solomon is as a book of contrasts, black v white, male vs female, materialistic vs emotional, aspirational vs nurturing, forgiving vs revenge, responsibility vs freedom.

After flight and naming, the third dominant image was for me that of circularity and repetition with characters right through the four generations of the book making the same mistakes in their search for freedom. This takes its strongest form in the heartbreaking deaths of two of the main female characters which directly mirror events three and four generations earlier.

So, I could go on talking about this marvellous book, finding more and more in it, but perhaps I should finish just by saying - it's wonderful, read it.

L'Oreal Men Expert Shave Revolution Sensitive - 150 ml
L'Oreal Men Expert Shave Revolution Sensitive - 150 ml
Price: £3.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fresh but invisible, 21 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a non-foaming shave gel. As such the experience is very similar to using a shaving oil. One rubs it onto one's face, and from that point it is pretty much invisible. The visual guide to shaving is the disappearance of stubble rather than of foam. That said it is a good standard lubricant. Give your face a good wash first, rub this in well and you'll get a nice smooth shave. The feature I particularly liked was the ice effect/aloe vera which give a nice fresh feeling after shaving. Presumably, the ice effect, which L'Oreal claim actually cools the skin, is some form of rapid evaporant.

by Tom Bullough
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't achieve escape velocity, 17 Nov. 2015
This review is from: Konstantin (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Konstatin is a fictionalised account of the child- and young adulthood of the real life Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, father of Russian/Soviet rocket science. The narrative is discontinuous, being told through a series of episodes, sometimes separated by weeks, months and frequently years. This gives the book the feel of a set of photographs pinned to a noticeboard.

Through these still lives from a life we learn of Kostya catching scarlet fever and losing his hearing, of various boyhood scrapes and adventures, of his moving to Moscow to study, his frustrated love for an heiress and the loss of his virginity. In the final section Kostya comes to true adulthood, marrying and settling down to life as an eccentric teacher.

Perhaps, for me, the greatest value of the book is in bringing attention to Tsiolkovsky, a figure of whom I was previously unaware. The names of other pioneers are spaceflight, most notably Von Braun are better known, but if author Bullough is to be believed, Tsiolkovsky was a true visionary, for example in the use of gyroscopes to steer spacecraft. This is nicely brought to life in the final chapter where the idea is turned into practical use on the Voskhod capsule, used for the first spacewalk.

Overall this is an ambitious work, both in its subject matter, and in its structure, and I guess I wanted to like it more than I did. It is a book which aims high, but doesn’t quite get there. The episodic structure is a nice way of covering a great deal of time efficiently, but in themselves the chapters feel incomplete. At one point Kostya and his family are in a carriage under attack by wolves with one of the horses seemingly about to be brought down. The chapter finishes, and the next begins some time later, with no explanation of how they escaped.
It is a book heavy on symbolism, but that symbolism is frequently on the heavy side. Just before Kostya is nearly killed by scarlet fever, he is confronted by a wolf, its jaws red with the blood of a recent kill. As a boy, Kostya, the future rocket scientist, climbs to the highest point of a church and kicks at the stonework, damaging the fabric of the church. In fact, the wolf, as a symbol of peril and death is a constant and repeating motif throughout.

In addition to the somewhat unsubtle symbolism, the writing didn’t excite me. Early on, Kostya and one of his brother are described as being inseparable, and from that point on, I found myself on the look out for the clichéd turn of phrase, which sadly was too easy to spot. Furthermore the speech patterns often didn’t ring true. Too often characters seemingly speak using the antipodean interrogative, with statements of fact ending with a question mark.

Finally the overall concept is slightly frustrating. Author Boughton has taken an historical character and certain facts about his upbringing, and used that as a framework to for creating a picture of what might constitute the making of a scientist. Actually, having learnt about Tsiolkovsky, I found myself wanting to know more about the man himself than about an imagined early life.

by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poor little rich boy, poor little rich girl, 8 Nov. 2015
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This review is from: Purity (Hardcover)
Like its predecessor Freedom, Purity is a deeply ironic title for this novel based around dark and dirty secrets. Author Franzen gives Purity, (known as Pip), the eponymous central character, an emotionally and physical tainted conception and all of the major character are in some way hiding darkness in their pasts. While the central theme is one of corruption, Purity also shares, with Freedom, author Franzen's perspective on how we are heavily constrained by the actions and errors of our parents.

The principal players fall into three main groupings. Firstly we have Pip, a college graduate working in a dead end job and living in a squat/commune where she is besotted with an older, married man. Behind Pip is her reclusive new age mother, who refuses to divulge the identity of Pip's true father. Second we have Andreas Wolf, who we first meet as the dissident son of a senior East German politician, but who later becomes an Assange-like internet transparency fanatic (although Assange is frequently name checked to emphasise that Wolf is not him). In the DDR, Wolf's affections are centred on the troubled Annagret. Finally we have a grouping centred on journalist Tom Aberant, his semi-detached lover, Leila, her handicapped and estranged husband, Charles, and crucially, his eccentric ex-wife, Anabel, heiress to a fortune, seeking to separate from her family. Clearly, from that brief description, names play an important and none to subtle part, the predatory Wolf, the regrets associated with his girlfriend, Tom going off the rails, and above all Pip (more about whom later), nee Purity.

The story of how these deeply flawed characters come to interact in a complex web of love, loathing and deception is told in seven sections which move the action between the contemporary Bay Area, 1980s Berlin, the Bolivian jungle where Andreas has established his cult like Sunlight project, Denver, and Tom and Anabel's college days. Too often a non-linear narrative of this nature hides a weak plot, using temporal discontinuities to over-complicate and withhold facts with no real purpose. On the other hand, in this book, Franzen provides well crafted story where the slow reveal of the true nature of the relationships between the characters feels natural and unforced.

At one level, Purity is a book about the Internet and its power over people's lives, and certainly in one polemical section, Franzen seeks to portray life on line as being akin to Stalinism, with conservative orthodoxy being ruthlessly enforced. However I couldn't get over a view that he writes as a digital immigrant rather than a digital native, and that his true interests are much more traditional. Thus the fundamental story is one of pauper princess. Anabel, as the rebellious heir to capitalism, and Andreas as the dissident son of socialism are both versions of the poor little rich kid. Andreas echoes Jekyll and Hyde, or the more modern version, the charismatic pyschopath.

Purity is a highly self referential work. At one point Charles makes a comment about the number of authors called Jonathan. At other Franzen, refers to the value given to length in the modern novel. Above all, by calling his heroine Pip, he also makes a link to Great Expectations. Certainly Pip's mother is a strong candidate for Miss Havisham, one can have fun making other links, is Andreas Bentley Drummond, is Pip, Pip or Estelle? Having slipped the link into the reader's mind early on, Franzen proceeds to make an overt connection in a later conversation within the book.

Overall this is an entertaining and engrossing mix of journalistic thriller, family saga, and dark comedy. The comedy is very much that of embarassment and discomfort, as in Pip's clumsy attempts to seduce an older man, or her leaving a lover waiting while eating a bowl of cereal. The main weaknesses for me were the stereotypical nature of some of the characters and the way they can change to suit the needs of the plot. Most troublesome is Anabel, who comes dangerously close to being a twisted version of the sexist standard, the manic pixie dream girl, a sort of demonic pixie nightmare girl. At the end of the book, it feels as if Franzen has told his story, had his polemical rants, but realised that he still has some ends to tie off, which he does a little too tidily to be wholly credible altering Pip's character as he does so.

One final, ridiculously generalised thought. Purity seems to me to illustrate once again the difference between American and British literary fiction. The latter is passively miserable with characters sitting around regretting the mistakes of their lives and moaning about the awfulness of their middle class existence. In the former, characters are actively miserable, striving for happiness but suffering in the attempt. In this case, my preference lies with the U.S.
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