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David Williams
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One Day
One Day
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Moving and witty, 4 Mar. 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: One Day (Kindle Edition)
If you are a fan of witty observational modern writing, read this book. If you don't think you're a fan of romantic and tender modern comedy (think 'When Harry Met Sally', 'Notting Hill') read this book anyway, because it's that and much more than that.

Simple enough premise - two graduating students have a one night almost-fling in late 1980s Edinburgh. It's St Swithin's Day. For the next two decades we check in on the couple - their separate lives and their (platonic) intertwinings - on the same date. I'm guessing St Swithin's Day is used because of its predictive symbolism of ups and downs - if it rains on that day it will rain for 40 days and nights; if it doesn't, well it won't.

Emma and Dexter have plenty of ups and downs, both in their separate lives and in their relationship. Emma languishes in one unsatisfying job after another until she realises one third of a dream as a popular writer for children; Dexter seems to have all he wants when he becomes a well-known TV face, only to lose it all through his self-centred behaviour and excessive lifestyle. Both of them have brief unsuccessful marriages to other people, and desultory affairs. Only their friendship gives them stability of a sort. Do they get together? Well, take another look at the title. But if you think that's the end, think again. There is more depth to this story than your conventional rom-com. It is funny, true, tender and moving.

There are faults. Although Emma is a more sympathetic character than Dexter (she's meant to be), she's not so well-drawn; I can never quite believe her alleged agit-prop student past or see her in the role of rock chick bass player or theatre-ed actor, two of her early occupations. But I do believe in the relationship, with all its ups and downs, its twists and turns.

And let me again mention David Nicholls' writing. This is the first I've read of his, and I've already downloaded another to my Kindle; he is a real find - somewhat in the style of Nick Hornby (another favourite of mine) but for me a more assured, more consistent and sharper observer of our times as measured out in everyday lives.

Review by David Williams, Writer in the North.


Ordinary Thunderstorms
Ordinary Thunderstorms
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, but I expected more, 18 Feb. 2011
This review is from: Ordinary Thunderstorms (Paperback)
I had been slightly disappointed by the last William Boyd novel I read, 'Any Human Heart', largely because of its lack of focus and its sprawling nature. I expected this one, in the thriller genre, to be much tighter, and it was, though Boyd still manages to cram a lot of characters in (rather too many - a few are mere caricatures) and takes us on quite a journey round London, from corporate jungle to sink estates, with the river literally and metaphorically at the heart of the story.

The basic plot and devices borrow heavily from both John Buchan ('The 39 Steps') and Alfred Hitchcock ('North by North West') in that an innocent man finds himself suspected of murder and tries to evade capture from both the police and the real culprits, who have their own reasons for wanting to kill him. The hero, Adam Kindred, manages to make himself anonymous by throwing away all the trappings of modern life and identity - mobile phone, credit cards, an address. His stratagems for evasion, and the adventures and relationships that come along in the pursuit of some kind of freedom are the most interesting parts of the book. The actual 'crime' elements, while engaging, are built on such absurd premises that you have to stop yourself constantly asking, 'but why would they do that?', 'why does he make that choice?' 'why didn't the police just...?' If you don't ask, it's because you are swept along by the action and by the empathy Boyd makes you feel for Adam.

On the basis that the book is a page turner, and on the whole elegantly written, I am giving it a three-star rating, but to be honest I could equally have given it a scathing review, and gone into detail about its inadequacies, its implausibilties, and its occasional lapses into cliche. Maybe I expected more because of Boyd's reputation and because I have enjoyed some of his work in the past - 'Brazzaville Beach' for example. He is a frustrating writer. Somewhere there is a great book in him. This certainly isn't it, but at its best it's 'a good read'.

David Williams, Writer in the North


Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
by Christopher Vogler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.90

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth the journey, 8 Feb. 2011
Christopher Vogler readily acknowledges his debt to Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 seminal work on comparative mythology 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' is the source of the Hero's Journey that Vogler uses as his template for an effective screenplay. Vogler's more contemporary style is perhaps more accessible for the modern reader, and his many examples from well-known movies ('Star Wars', 'Titanic', 'The Lion King') really help to demonstrate the practical application of the formula that he explains in rich detail here.

Make no mistake, it is a formula, and some readers have criticised Vogler (himself a Hollywood screenwriter and story consultant) for peddling a formulaic approach to the creative act. In fairness, he warns several times in the book about slavish adherence to the recipe, and is clear that no writer should simply spread out the journey map and start plotting the route accordingly. Like any writer's tool, this book is a valuable travelling companion, not a pilot. Vogler provides a good example in his analysis of Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' of a great script that contains all the essentials of a Hero's Journey presented entirely unconventionally with freshness and verve.

Novelists as well as scriptwriters should find this a useful and interesting guide. Don't let it be the only book you rely on (Robert McKee's 'Story' is another rewarding read) but be sure to take it with you if you are embarking on your own writer's journey.

David Williams, Writer in the North


Too Much Happiness
Too Much Happiness
by Alice Munro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Queen of the modern short story, 7 Dec. 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Too Much Happiness (Paperback)
Alice Munro is my favourite living short story writer, and this collection does not disappoint except, strangely for the long title story. Unlike the other contemporary pieces, this one is set in the nineteenth century and centres on the real-life Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician and novelist. The story simply did not come to life for me, and it seems out of place among the rest of the collection, though Munro clearly wants to draw attention to it through the title. Other readers may be entirely captivated by the romantic complications Sophia faces; I am perfectly ready to accept that the fault is my own, but all criticism is subjective.

The other stories are set in familiar Munro territory - in and around Ontario, focusing on small lives - but nothing is ever quite familiar with this writer, who has the unerring ability to unsettle us, often by examining the brittleness of relationships, sometimes by the placing of quirky incidents in seemingly ordinary circumstancess, as here in the story 'Wenlock Edge' where a student takes her friend's usual place as a solitary guest in a wealthy man's home and is invited, quite coolly and charmingly, to dine with him completely naked. Equally oddly, she complies, without knowing why, and nothing happens - the man continues conversational and correct throughout the meal. The perverse strangeness of it reminded me of Pip's visits to Miss Havisham in 'Great Expectations'.

I believe Miss Munro has said this will be her last book. She is 75, but I do hope there's more to come from her yet. As readers of her work, we can't have too much happiness.

This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth


The War of the Worlds (Illustrated)
The War of the Worlds (Illustrated)

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Still scary after all these years, 21 Oct. 2010
Just re-read this after many years, this time as a free download on my Kindle. I had forgotten many of the details of the story, and was gripped by it. The Martian fighting machines that Wells describes seem Heath-Robinson-clunky to a modern reader used to digital and electronic technology, but would have appeared state-of-the-art in the early twentieth century, still in the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. More universal is the sense of fear and foreboding that Wells conveys so brilliantly, especially in Part Two when we see our hero trapped in a house half-flattened by one of the Martian landings, trying to keep a crazed fellow-prisoner quiet as they hide from the enemy. Some typical Wells philosophising, too, on the nature of man and society. Certainly worth returning to.

This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth


John Macnab
John Macnab
by John Buchan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great to meet John Macnab again, 14 Oct. 2010
This review is from: John Macnab (Paperback)
I have fond memories of this book from my reading in early adolescence, so I was pleased to find it available to download free to my Kindle. It was published in 1925 but still feels fresh and spirited. This upper class world of fine manors and expansive grounds is as far away from me now as it was when I first read it as a miner's son in a council house, but that is part of the charm. The class assumptions are amusing, and relieved by Buchan's essentially liberal sentiments despite his being very much part of the aristocratic world in his day job as diplomat and governor. Above all, he is a supreme writer of adventure; here the reader is caught up by the thrill of the chase as three friends try for a dare to hunt game from heavily defended estates, using the collective pseudonym John Macnab. I know nothing whatsoever about hunting and shooting (am temperamentally opposed to both), but I found myself rooting for 'Macnab' and as a reader inhabiting his skin - that's the power of the story and the skill of a great writer in the genre. When I settled down to read, I wondered if I would be as absorbed as I had been nearly fifty years before. The magic was still in the pages, or in this case the screen. By the way, much though I love books, I feel my pleasure was not lessened in any way by using the electronic reader. This was one of my first sustained experiences with the Kindle, and I'm sure I'll be doing a lot more of my reading in this form from now on, especially when I can get it for free.

This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth


Summertime
Summertime
by J M Coetzee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Master in the mirror, 8 Oct. 2010
This review is from: Summertime (Paperback)
A quirky and interesting conceit: Coetzee imagines himself as dead, with a researcher interviewing associates from a specific period of his life (1972-1975) for a biography of the writer. The book (not so much novel as third person auto-fiction) is structured mainly around these 'interviews' and supposed snippets from Coetzee's own notebooks of the period. It sounds very clumsy as a device, doesn't it, yet it works surprisingly well, and there is a real zing in some of the interviews, especially with ex-lovers and those he wanted to be lovers, who are all disparaging to a degree of the 'great writer'. In his deliberately unflattering self-portrait Coetzee seems to be giving the lie to assumptions that charisma exudes from every pore of those who produce great work.

If I have a problem with the book, it is the nagging doubt about the way he places himself as the subject, not only in 'Summertime' but in his earlier quasi-autobiographical 'Boyhood' and 'Youth'. Even though he distorts the mirror with self-effacement, there is still something almost creepily egotistical about the image in the glass.

Ah, but he writes so well.

This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth


Any Human Heart
Any Human Heart
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not one of his best, 21 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Any Human Heart (Paperback)
Somewhat disappointed by this one after enjoying 'An Ice Cream War' and 'Brazzaville Beach' from the same author. This is a sprawling novel that extends over 70 years, a fictional memoir in which we are constantly encountering famous real-life characters, from Picasso to Jackson Pollock, Ian Fleming (in his role as spy-recruiter) to Ernest Hemingway. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are cast in a very shady light. It all sounds good fun, doesn't it, and there is fun to be had to a degree, and some sharp passages of writing, even occasionally superb; but there was no central narrative thread, which made the book lumpy and episodic. The glue was the central character Logan Mountstuart, who we follow from public school to the grave and all shades in between, from wealth to poverty, from hedonism to cynicism, from shallow romps to deep regrets. My problem was that I didn't care enough about him to sustain me through nearly 500 pages, and I was glad when I got to the end, not in that satisying way you reach the destination with a friend you have enjoyed being with, but when you have been stuck with someone who turned out to be a tad tedious halfway through the journey. Still, I have high hopes for my next travelling companion, whoever that might be.

This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 27, 2010 1:19 PM BST


The Art of Possibility: Practices in Leadership, Relationship and Passion
The Art of Possibility: Practices in Leadership, Relationship and Passion
by Benjamin Zander
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inspired, though I declare an interest, 25 Aug. 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I worked with Ben for several years, bringing his talks to British audiences, and I produced a video 'Benjamin Zander: Conducting Business' (now sadly unavailable) which brought many of the stories in this book to life through Ben's inspirational ways of working with business audiences and musicians directly. Ben's wife Rosamund was kind enough to act as 'first reader' for the facilitator's guide to my video, and I returned the favour for the first draft of this book, so I have to declare my bias. I have met many people (including one in my own family) who have told me that seeing and hearing Ben changed their approach to life and business for the better. Though the book cannot deliver quite so much, it is nevertheless a refreshing and inspiring read.

This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth


A Fraction Of The Whole
A Fraction Of The Whole
by Steve Toltz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Met only a fraction of my expectations, 21 Aug. 2010
It's difficult to sum up in any neat way how I felt about this book because my opinion of it, indeed my whole relationship with it (and it felt like a fairly long relationship after 700 pages) fluctuated so much during the reading; but I have to say that I was ultimately disappointed.

Yet I would not want to put anyone off reading the novel because it is occasionally brilliant, insightful and witty. No, more than occasional - there must be hundreds of lines that enlightened, made me smile, or nod with appreciation at the thought expressed. And the language is cool - as if spoken by an articulate Holden Caulfield of the new century, or a switched-on observational comedian. (I was frequently reminded of Woody Allen and, for his pithy one-liners, the deadpan stand-up Steven Wright.)

But none of this was quite enough to make 'A Fraction of the Whole' a great reading experience, enough to fully reward the time spent on it, or to fully satisfy either the intellect or (especially) the emotions.

Partly this is because Toltz's linguistic devices, that seem fresh and surprising in the early chapters, become jaded through over-use. For example, he has a tendency to present the first half of a cliche, then confound expectations by ending with its opposite, or with a metaphor from out of left field; but he does it so often that the unpredictable becomes predictable.

Neither is there enough variation of voice. The story is told sometimes from the perspective of a misanthropist called Martin Dean, and sometimes from that of his son Jasper; but there is relatively little difference in the vocalisations of the two, and their prevailing cynicism beats one down after a while, unrelieved by any sustained contrast from within themselves or from any of the other characters, who Toltz fails to free from caricature despite his best efforts.

The plot is a ragbag structure, there for the purpose of expressing the principals' world view and therefore able to go anywhere, including absurd and tortuous situations with plenty of convenient coincidences. It allows for some nice set-piece scenes and comic effects, but there is too little of a credible plot to sustain the reader's attention in the later stages.

The absence of a properly developing narrative and the lack of emotional range mean that the reader (this reader, anyway) cares less about the characters and their fate as they approach the end of their journey, just when we need to be most fully invested and engaged.

There is a lot to like (and do please give it a chance as there is some good, original writing here) but I am afraid that my final verdict has to be that 'A Fraction of the Whole' is not big enough a book for its length.

This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 12, 2015 6:40 PM BST


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