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P. G. Harris

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What a Carve Up!
What a Carve Up!
Price: £4.35

4.0 out of 5 stars Carry on up the 80s, 28 July 2015
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This review is from: What a Carve Up! (Kindle Edition)
In 1961 the wealthy Winshaw family meet in the family home on the Yorkshire moors to celebrate Mortimer's 50th birthday. It is not a happy family, son Geoffrey was killed in the war and his apparently insane sister holds her brother Lawrence responsible. Mortimer's wife Rebecca cannot stand her in-laws, but her unruly children Harriet and Roddy seem to have inherited the family's ruthless streak.

Meanwhile, in Weston-super-mare, Michael Owen is traumatised on his ninth birthday by being dragged out of a screening of a sub-Carry On film, a murder mystery set in a mysterious mansion on the Yorkshire moors.

Switch to 1990 and the Winshaw family have done very well out of the economic changes of the eighties, while Michael has retreated from early success as a writer to become a recluse, failing to complete a biography/expose of the Winshaws. He sits in his flat, endlessly rewatching a scene of coitus interruptus, or rather coitus non initium from the aforementioned film, What a Carve Up!

Jonathan Coe uses this set up to write a massively entertaining, completely OTT, satire of the excesses of the eighties. Different members of the Winshaw family personify different aspects of the darker regions of the late Thatcherite period. Dorothy is, in a particularly stomach churning section, an unscrupulous proponent of factory farming (with dire consequences for Michael's father). Mark is an arms dealer, merrily equipping Saddam Hussein, and peripherally involved in the Westland and Matrix Churchill scandals(with dire consequences for the husband of Michael's friend). Henry is at the forefront of the commercialisation of the NHS. (With dire consequences for Michael's sort of girlfriend). Hilary personifies the Murdoch media, and is a remarkably prescient forerunner of the appalling Katie Hopkins.

Coe makes some serious points, many of the more dreadful acts of the virtually pantomimically villainous Winshaws are, according to the notes at the end, based on real events. However he also brings a massive amount of fun to writing his over-blown tale. The country house theme is a connecting thread throughout the book. It starts almost with a nod to the quintessential eighties TV drama, Brideshead Revisited with its location at Castle Howard. It then descends to the gothic setting for the titular film before shrinking to a game of Cluedo, eventually growing back to full size for the novel's climax in a real life maze of secret passages.

Coe's writing is full of references to other authors, at one point it feels like a Carry-on film scripted by Paul Auster as the ludicrous and seemingly unconnected story threads rub against and spark off each other. There are references on the way to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. There is also a strong whiff of a West Midlands childhood, bringing to mind Coe's other work, Sathnam Sanghera and even Nigel Slater's Toast. In a strange way, the other book this brought to mind was the History Man. While at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the Winshaws are used to ridicule the faults of the 80s in the same way as Howard Kirk personified some unedifying themes of the 70s.

What a Carve Up is a masterpiece of outrageous plotting as Coe frantically ties together disparate strands with what appear to be ridiculous coincidences which turn out to be the result of heroically Machiavellian machinations.

Alongside the satirical barbs, and the narrative fireworks there is some good, old fashioned, straightforward beautiful writing here. A car journey with a fractious father law is a comedic delight. A scene in a broken down tube train is wonderfully claustrophobic. A death in a hospital is tear inducingly poignant.

If I had any criticisms, they would be firstly that Coe's satirical edge is a little blunt. The Winshaws are just a bit too stereotypically villainous. But then maybe that's just in keeping with the larger than life style of the book. Secondly at times it felt that Coe was trying a bit too hard, throwing so many different stories at the reader that it became rather fragmentary.

Overall though,the verdict has to be that this is great fun, whilst also carrying a bitter satirical edge.

Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries
Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries
by Antony Sher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.39

5.0 out of 5 stars The theatrical knight in late summer, 26 July 2015
I have recently posted a review of Anthony Sher's "Year of the King", a book I first read in the 80's, shortly after it was first published. That was an account of playing Richard III, written by an actor still building his career. The contrasts (and similarities) with this work are interesting.

Here we see a fully established theatrical knight, confident in his place in the world, working on the character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV. That is not to say that Sher in without insecurities. He is in the favoured position of being married to the Artistic Director of the RSC and director of the plays, and yet this simply leads to concerns about perceived nepotism. In the Year of the King he worried about his physical ability to play the part, having ruptured his Achilles while playing the fool in Lear. Here he worries about whether a short Jewish South African can play the quintessentially English fat knight. This is despite the book opening with an endorsement from Ian McKellen.

At its heart, this is a similar work to Year of the King, but that is its strength. It is the portrait of a massively talented actor putting together a performance. It is a picture of a company gradually coming together (and Sher is a very generous writer in his appreciation of those around him, both on and off stage, there is no bitchiness or backbiting). It is an account of the mechanics of rehearsals, previews, press nights and openings.

The Year of the Fat Knight, like its predecessor, is illustrated throughout by the author's own drawings and paintings. These include a series of pictures of other actors playing Falstaff, which are both very recognisable, and also have a similarity, with the fat knight himself present in all of them. Amongst others, there is a touching picture of Sher with husband Greg Doran.

In summary, this doesn't have the raw energy and excitement of the earlier book, but it instead gives a much mellower, considered view of an actor working at the top of the profession.

Braun Series 9 9040s Wet and Dry Electric Shaver
Braun Series 9 9040s Wet and Dry Electric Shaver
Price: £179.99

4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best electric razors I've used, 5 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I judge all razors against my normal standard of wet shaving with a safety razor.

This is one of the best electric razors I've come across. It gives an even shave, without pulling, even when I've not shaved for a few days.

I like the tilting head, which can also be fixed and all of the controls are conveniently placed.

It's a bit on the large side for travelling purposes, but then the battery has a good long left

Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Price: £9.75

3.0 out of 5 stars No better or worse than their normal brand, 5 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Not being a cat, I'm afraid I can't tell you what these taste like.

When I first put them down, my cats shunned them in favour of their normal brand, but when not given a choice, they trough away at them quite happily.

Now the two brands side by side go down equally quickly.

So I guess the verdict from my cats is "OK"

I Am Pilgrim
I Am Pilgrim
Price: £3.66

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Wham bam, no thank you maam, 1 July 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: I Am Pilgrim (Kindle Edition)
This book is a very definite piece of genre fiction. It is a politically right wing techno thriller. It doesn’t therefore fall within my normal choice of reading. It qualifies for one star, because I hated it, I nearly gave two stars because as a politically right wing techno thriller, it delivers to its audience after a fashion. That said, two things knock it back down. Firstly the inherent racism. Secondly the fact that the plot is entirely dependent on a single, utterly ridiculous, co-incidence.

I am guessing that the target market for I am Pilgrim is blokes on holiday. In fact this is a book so bloke-ish, it should be sitting on a lounger by the pool wearing swim shorts, working its way through a six pack of Carling while gradually turning pink with sunburn.

The story is that of a retired superspy who is now helping a friend in the police force but who is returned to active service to hunt down a brilliant but extreme Islamist who is plotting to destroy America.

Politically this ticks all of the neo-con boxes. The laxness of EU border controls are a threat to the free world. Globalisation endangers American Security, by exporting US jobs to Europe to be carried out by illegal immigrants. The only way of effectively delivering healthcare is through the free market with no government intervention. Workers’ rights are protected by philanthropic capitalism, not by unionisation. Attached to these Farage-esque economic views are the sadly predictably more offensive racial and gender politics. In the author’s world view, the words Arab and Muslim are entirely interchangeable, and are applied to people who are either evil schemers plotting to bring down the west, or are funny foreigners whose mangling of English is a source of amusement. Women basically consist of breasts. Virtually every time the hero meets a woman, her breasts are commented on. This reaches its apogee, or more accurately nadir, when he is interrogated by the CIA, and the female agent’s technique is to …… flash her boobs at him.

One of the most entertaining things for this reader was spotting the influences/other authors plagiarised by Hayes. One of the main reasons for this is that he has tried to throw as much as he possibly can at the book. So, this is a techno thriller with a near invincible loner hero. Hats off to Tom Clancy and Lee Childs. But then we have the gratuitously gruesome police procedural with a grizzled old detective. Say a big hello to James Patterson, and possibly Michael Connolly. In an article I read on the web, Hayes listed Frederick Forsyth among his three favourite thriller writers, and sure enough we get a post war escape route for Nazis a la Odessa file. Alastair Maclean appears in the form of the Satan Bug. There is even a nod towards Sherlock Holmes and the mysterious but elusive Irene Adler. A second of Hayes’ favourite writers (the third being Robert Ludlum) is John Le Carre. While there are nods to the master with references to spies coming in from or going out into the cold, it would be difficult to imagine a book further away along the thriller spectrum. Intelligent, nuanced, subtle are definitely not words which apply to this great big dumb high octane action adventure.

A few years ago while passing through a small Italian airport one of the few books in English on sale was by a British author called Patrick Robinson. That was an unashamed love story to the American Way, the hawkish end of the Republican party and the philanthropy of the US military. In it, a fiendish but brilliant lone Arab terrorist uses submarines to attack the Land of the Free. It is Robinson to whom Australian Hayes bears the closest resemblance.

The book’s strengths lie in its big set piece action sequences. In one particularly entertaining one, while escaping after being disturbed engaged in covert intelligence gathering, the hero is pursued through a nautical warehouse resulting in boats swinging through the air on giant cranes and squishing bad guys. However, in between the tension, I am Pilgrim is, at times, surprisingly dull. This arises from two sources. Firstly it goes into far too much detail. The sequence in which the villain is synthesising his virus is particularly tedious. Secondly, the writing is primarily in flat, short, staccato sentences with little variation or colour. For that matter, the chapters come at the reader in a similar machine gun fashion, with the constant ending on a mini cliff-hanger becoming rather irritating. Where Hayes tries to make use of imagery or metaphor, he often repeats exactly the same phrase which is either lazy, the result of poor editing, or both.

In conclusion, I won’t criticise this for being a violent techno-thriller. That is what it is, it’s not my thing, but that’s a matter of taste. I won’t criticise it for its economic politics, again, not a position I share, but Hayes stands by his views. I will criticise its racism and misogyny. I will also criticise it for not being a particularly good techno-thriller. Yes, the ending gathers pace well and it is a genuine page-turner, but the whole plot swings on a co-incidence so preposterous, that if there could genuinely be an attack on the Western world of this nature, we might as well head for the hills now.

Year of the King
Year of the King
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Unequivocally Brilliant, 25 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: Year of the King (Kindle Edition)
I was recently lucky enough to be given a copy of Anthony Sher’s latest book “Year of the Fat Knight” as a birthday present. Before reading it, I thought I’d reacquaint myself with this, earlier work. I first read it in the 80s, shortly after it was initially published, and I’ve returned to it on a number of occasions since. I have, over the years, on several occasions tried to list my ten favourite novels. Were I to list my ten favourite books, this would easily find a place on the list, and probably be in the top three.
Despite the familiarity arising from repeated reading, it has never lost its power to excite. For anyone with an interest in the theatre, this is simply one of the most thrilling and indeed inspiring books it has been my pleasure to read.
The basic structure is straightforward. As a youngish actor on the verge of a major breakthrough, Anthony Sher, after recovering from the agony of tearing his Achilles tendon while paying the fool in Lear, is offered the part of Richard the Third at the RSC. From there, Sher takes us through the agonies of whether to accept the part, and then once he has taken the plunge, the process of building a part. He takes the reader through the research, the psychological analysis, the building of relationships with the rest of the cast, and also the mechanics, the costume, make-up, set, and music.
One of the reasons the book succeeds so wonderfully is that Sher is an excellent storyteller. He starts slowly, with a languid holiday visiting his family in South Africa playing a major early part in his tale. Then on return, he gradually ratchets up the pace and the tension as the play goes into rehearsal and careers towards the opening night, and the catharsis of eventual success. Of course, the book wouldn’t be half as much as fun, and indeed probably wouldn’t have been published if the production hadn’t been a success. However, it was and that gives us wonderful moments such as Sher denying that he reads reviews, only for Michael Caine to suggest that he wrote them.
Aside from being a damn good story, one which had me staying awake far too long to get to the end, one of the other joys is the cast of other actors. Brian Blessed, who was seemingly as loud in the 80s as he is now. The now virtually ubiquitous Roger Allam as a young actor. The lately venerable Jonathan Pryce and Bernard Hill as dangerous young risk-takers. It also extends beyond the actors to a fascinating array of directors, costumiers, dressers, Fx people, and even drivers.
Sher’s talent goes beyond acting and writing. The book is illustrated with his own sketches, one of particular note portrays the author himself in a dream flying round a Laurence Oliver’s giant face. At the start of his journey he is thoroughly intimidated by “Sir’s” apparently definitive playing of the part. He is also feels oppressed by Shakespeare, railing at him for starting the play with such a famous line. “Now is the winter……”
To finish, I have one uncomplicated thing to say. If you are interested in the theatre, and in the art of acting, if you haven’t already read the Year of the King, do so. Now.

So You've  Been Publicly Shamed
So You've Been Publicly Shamed
by Jon Ronson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but insubstantial, 20 Jun. 2015
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The central tenet of Jon Ronson's "So you've been publicly shamed" is that the Internet has become the modern equivalent of the stocks, and public execution as a tool for the extreme humiliation of those who transgress societies norms. Amidst a number of examples, he spends most time on three cases. A biographer who is found to be fabricating material, two delegates at an IT conference whose puerile banter offends a fellow delegate, and a woman who makes an off colour tweet, which results in a global storm of abuse on social media.

In the first of these cases, there is a definite transgression, but the question is whether the consequent destruction of a career is a disproportionate consequence. The second is an exploration of the extremes of the "PC" debate as firstly the offended party brings the wrath of the on-line world to bear on two men making frankly school boyish jokes, resulting in their losing their jobs, but then the anti-PC brigade attacks the original complainant, and she loses her job.
The third case involves a woman making an arguably self depreciating but tasteless joke, getting on a plane, and when she lands, misunderstanding has resulted in desktop Dobermans destroying her career. This third case is backed by that of a woman who posts a stupid photo and suffers similarly.

It is probably the second case which is the most concerning. The first victim was in fact guilty of professional misconduct. To a generation X dinosaur there is the simple solution to the third (and fourth) case(s) - don't post stupid things on social media. In the second situation, two people suffer damage to their careers for the heinous crime of being a bit juvenile in a public place, and a third suffers similarly for objecting to it.

As he considers these situations and others, Ronsson takes the reader on a journey which takes in those who have survived public shaming by facing down their critics, companies which provide a service to bury negative on-line criticism with mountains of positivity, the tactics of the East German Stasi, and the place of shame in a confrontational justice system.

It is these last two which point to the main weaknesses of the book for me. It is an extremely interesting, easily readable, thought provoking and often deeply worrying book, but boy, is it shallow. Admittedly it is worrying that the English justice system often seems to be less dependent on fact than on the ability of a clever lawyer to discredit a nervous witness, but to fillet an institution which has endured for hundreds of years in a few short pages of widely spaced text doesn't really come across as a well thought out, robust argument. Equally, Ronsson seeks to distill the complex psychological network of observation and betrayal which existed in the East prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall into a single simple motivation. He is in danger of tripping over from simplification into superficiality.

In the way that book shops (real and virtual) are full of works of popular science, this is a work of popular social psychology. Intriguing and engaging, but ultimately it is a snack which left me wishing for a more substantial meal.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Famous for fifteen minutes, 14 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"Of course you're not psyche, only a nut would want to go back to the war. We'll have the lawyers plead temporary sanity for you, how about that? You're too sane to go back to the war, Billy Lynne has come to his senses. It's the rest of the country that's nuts for wanting to send him back."

Sound familiar? The Long Half Time Walk of Billy Lynne is described by a blurb on its cover as the Catch 22 of the Iraq war. These words, spoken by Kathryn, main protagonist Billy's sister both hint at Heller's comic masterpiece and illustrate one of the major differences. This is a book not about the madness of war, but about the madness of a country fighting a war remotely on the other side of the world. It is a book about the falseness of media invention. It is a book about the obscenity of a ridiculously opulent country fighting its wars through teenagers paid around $14,000 a year.

The setting of the book emphases this last point. Billy is a member of the Bravo Squad, whose successful firefight by an Iraqi canal, which nevertheless resulted in the death and maiming of two of its members, was captured by an embedded news team. As a result Bravo Squad have been brought home and sent round the country on a glad-handing propaganda tour. The main thrust of the novel takes place in Dallas at a football game between the Cowboys and the Chicago Bears. In one extremely telling scene the soldiers, the grunts whose Iraqi reality is about the squalor, discomfort, and genuine danger, meet the superbly equipped, and pampered false warriors of the Cowboys.

Right through the novel Fountain skewers the shallowness of the propaganda machine surrounding the soldiers. Even the name, Bravo Squad is false, or at best a distortion of reality dreamed up by Fox News reporter. At the other end of the scale, the whole treatment of the Bravos during the football game is a metaphor for Americas treatment of them, intermittently publicly lauded, forgotten and ignored, and finally made to dance to the drums of the corporate band in a ludicrous halftime entertainment - Billy's long walk.

This is a book more about message and metaphor than about plot, but such as they are, the book revolves around three plot lines, the attempt of a Hollywood agent, Albert, to set up a deal to make a movie of the Bravo story, Billy's faintly unreal instant relationship with a cheerleader at the game, and the attempts of his sister to persuade him to desert.

On the evidence of this book, Fountain is a extremely talented writer. Very early on I was struck with his description of applause from the sparse early crowd as being like little rockslides tumbling down the walls of the stadium. They are rockslides which build into a full blown avalanche as the book builds to its crescendo of the half time entertainment starring Destiny's Child. It was only really in this section that this novel developed the almost hallucinatory surrealism of Catch 22. Whereas Heller depicts the madness of war through his company of misfits and off kilter style, Fountain generally describes something closer to a straightforward reality. It is only in the midst of the noise and spectacle of the half time entertainment that Billy loses his grip on reality, and the environment becomes more dream like. That dream however is more of a nightmare as the sensory overload has the Bravos almost wishing for a return to Iraq.

A stylised but effective technique Fountain uses to the portray the disconnect between the soldiers and the, by the end of the tour, repetitive and empty adoration is to spread isolated phonetic words across the page. currj. Dubya em dees. Nina leven. TerrR. His spelling is highly reminiscent of political cartoonist Steve Bell's talking monkey version of Bush.

If I have two criticisms of the book, the first is a common one which can be levelled at so much US literature and film depicting its overseas wars. The tragedy of the war is its impact on the young Americans, with little or no thought given to the citizens of the country in which they are fighting. That said, if a book is going to base itself around the GIs as victims, this is an excellent example of the art.

Secondly, while the Bravos are generally a very well drawn, and believable set of characters, just occasionally their thought patterns and ways of analysing the world seeming to take on the characteristics of a middle aged novelist, rather than late teenage/early twenties squaddies.

Overall, however, this is a really really good book. Fast paced, credible, intelligent, and ultimately tragic.

Philips Style Shaver QS6141/33 Dual Ended Shaver and Beard Trimmer for Wet and Dry Use
Philips Style Shaver QS6141/33 Dual Ended Shaver and Beard Trimmer for Wet and Dry Use
Price: £59.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Lightweight unit, probably best as a back up when travelling., 10 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
What you get here is a fairly bog standard foil shaver at one end with a fairly bog standard trimmer, with 12 length settings, at the other end. You could probably spend about the same on a separate, similar standard, of shaver and more flexible beard (and other hair) trimmer.

So, basically what you are spending your money on here is the convenience of a two in one unit. So this might be suitable for you if you travel a lot and need both functions "on the go". That would line up with another of my impressions, neither unit feels robust enough for everyday use. I have fairly thick, wiry facial hair and for an everyday shave I like something which gives a much smoother experience than this unit.

So, thus far, it's a case of paying your money and taking your choice. If you want a lightweight compact unit to do both jobs, and don't need a particularly powerful shaver, it may well be for you.

My biggest gripe about the product is the location of the on/off switch. It is precisely where I naturally exert pressure when shaving. As a result, I frequently find myself inadvertently switching it off in the middle of a shave.

Igenix IG7400 Traditional Corded Kettle - Metallic Red
Igenix IG7400 Traditional Corded Kettle - Metallic Red
Price: £32.26

4.0 out of 5 stars Incredible - transforms cold water into boiling water. What a clever idea, 8 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Fundamantally this is a kettle. It is a vessel, with a heating element, in which one boils water. It performs that job successfully. So at that level it is successful.

It has a pretty modern appearance, even if it owes slightly more to the traditional kettle shape than it does to a jug kettle.

It's easy to fill, boils reasonably quickly, pours well, and is no more or less noisy that most other kettles.

And it's red. Which I like.

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