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maryleopard (London, UK)

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Burnt Shadows
Burnt Shadows
by Kamila Shamsie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars overambitious but worthwhile, 18 Jan 2010
This review is from: Burnt Shadows (Paperback)
'Burnt Shadows' is set in three periods, 1947, 1983, 2001 and in several countries - Japan, Pakistan, Afghaistan and New York in particular, and traces the interconnections between the members of two families against the backdrop of major world events. This an involving and worthwhile read, and the ambition is laudable, but it falls down between too many stools. There seemed to be just too many characters, with little or no attempt to get under the skin of several of them. None of the Burtons convinced: both of the males were ciphers if not cliches, and nothing was made of Ilse's German origins,though the interaction of different nationalities and cultures is a major theme of the book. (I noticed that there were no German nor Japanese names amongst the individuals the author consulted). No particular insights seemed to be given into the major historical events that were encountered. The style seemed rather undistinguished, aspiring to 'fine writing' and imagery at times but often giving us clunky, unrhythmic, and poorly punctuated sentences. The evocation of different countries or cities was patchy, unsurprisingly better at Pakistan than elsewhere. However, Shamsie is an original devisor and manipulator of plots. The complex narrative moves along very efficiently - unlike some reviewers, I was especially gripped by the thriller-like final section and its surprising, if improbable, denoument. And there were a number of memorable images or epigrammatic remarks.
So, worth reading, but not superb, especially when compared with other writers on comparable territory - eg Nadeem Aslan, 'The Wasted Vigil'.


London Bridges
London Bridges
by Jane Stevenson
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars comedy of manners, 30 Dec 2009
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This review is from: London Bridges (Paperback)
Although described as a mystery or a thriller, this is mainly a comedy of manners. It involves the intersections of three groups of people in London, some involved with historical conservation/heritage,some academics, and two lawyers, with an elderly member of a Greek firm responsible for administering valuable land and property belonging to the monks of Mount Athos. Skulduggery ensues, and such tension as there is results from rival efforts to manipulate the old man so that the booty gets away from his hands.
If you have enjoyed Jane Stevenson's 'Astraea', this may disappoint - it is a much less serious work. I did not find it especially atmospheric of modern London and its disparate physical and social worlds, and its characters seemed overdrawn - the 'goodies' seemed less charming to me than they apparently did to the author, and the 'baddies' were somewhat biliously, even viciously evoked. However, the author moves the plot along skilfully, and is at times amusing. Certain aspects may irritate (see other reviews!), but overall it is a reasonably entertaining, upmarket read.


Death of a Salaryman
Death of a Salaryman
by Fiona Campbell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.45

3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, easy reading, 18 Dec 2009
This review is from: Death of a Salaryman (Paperback)
This tale of the adventures of Kenji, the salaryman who loses his job, is no masterpiece, but it is a creditable first novel. No, the subjects of the author's satire are not original. Yes, the characters are largely caricatures - and it is not easy to believe in the successes,as opposed to the mishaps, of Kenji himself. Nor is Fiona Campbell's style something to relish - she perhaps is aiming at a cartoon, or soap-opera style, with one dramatic or fantastic event following another, and often cliff-hanger chapter endings. Yet I found this enjoyable reading: the story moves along briskly, after a rather slow start, the situations are often amusing, and she maintained my desire to keep turning the pages. Don't expect profundity or even credibility - take it as light but not trashy entertainment.


The Post Office Girl
The Post Office Girl
by Stefan Zweig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed masterpiece, 4 Dec 2009
This review is from: The Post Office Girl (Paperback)
An enormously worth while book, and obviously by a major writer. As others have said, the intensity of emotion and the vividness with which the post World War 1 Austrian society were evoked were impressive. But there were flaws - and not just because the novel was not finished to the author's satisfaction. The series of events which drove the plot involved too many coincidences (the sudden appearance and disappearance of the aunt, the mother happening to die during the few days Christine was away, Ferdinand just happening to appear when Christine visitd her sister in Vienna). Ferdinand's tirades against society felt overly preachy and didactic - surely the tag 'don't tell, show' could have been profitably applied? Christine's transformations from dowdy outsider to belle of the hotel to outcast again seemed to happen in too swift and extreme a fashion. For me, it certainly was not a 'couldn't put it down' work. Yet many passages were enormously impressive, especially the way Christine felt she was assuming a quite new identity when she was given new clothes, with the consequent awakening of her zest for life and feeling for physical/sexual pleasure, and the delineation of the relationship with Ferdinand, not based on love or sexual attraction but on need. Both showed psychological mastery. What a tragedy that the author was not able to revise this unfinished work to make it a masterpiece.


Many and Many a Year Ago
Many and Many a Year Ago
by Selcuk Altun
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars mystery tour, 19 Oct 2009
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This is neither detective fiction nor a thriller - readers expecting these will be disappointed. It is something of a mystery, something of a travelogue, something of a reflection on life, loves and loss.
The central character is a young man (he seems older than his late 20s)who after an plane crash loses his status as a Turkish airforce star. A mysterious benefactor sends him off on a series of journeys to rural Turkey, Buenos Aires and Boston, during which he encounters a cast of memorable characters who recount their complex, interlocking life stories. It thus gains something of the 'Arabian nights' quality the author has mentioned or, to me, of medieval 'quest' literature. It is highly civilised and literate, with many allusions to Western literature (above all, Edgar Allen Poe) and to classical music, but it is not 'difficult' reading - it bowls along at a brisk pace, and though the geographical settings are skilfully evoked (though I have never been to B. Aires), it does not get bogged down in too much description. How 'profound' it is I am not sure, but the voice is distinctive and I would recommend it as elegant and vivid reading - best done, perhaps, over a short period of time to immerse yourself in the mood, and to prevent confusion among the many names that pass, often briefly, through the pages. I know little of the author and discovered this novel by chance, but will certainly try his work again.


Kimono
Kimono
by Liza Dalby
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars costume history and anthropology, 8 Oct 2009
This review is from: Kimono (Paperback)
This is an excellent book - recommended for costume, art, literary and social historians, as well as those interested in modern and older Japanese society. As a small-time kimono collector, dabbler in Japanese literature, and historian of early modern European art, I found a huge amount to stimulate and inform me.
The book is a series of linked essays on the structure and history of kimono, its adaptation under the impact of the introduction of Western dress in the Meiji era, the significance of kimono as worn today, and the way in which just one kind has come to be accepted not only as the prime kimono type, but a symbol of Japanese-ness. There are also fascinating chapters on the significance of colours in costume in Heian Japan - a system of conventions surely unique in world history in its elaboration - on costume books from the 17th C, and on the author's own experience in working with geishas. The book is beautifully and copiously illustrated with line woodcut prints. The writing is vigorous and lively, though the American English is sometimes less than intelligible.
At times I felt this was a brilliant book, but ended with some quibbles. While the author displays an admirable range of skills, it sometimes seemed to fall between several stools - neither a fully coherent history of kimono styles(what about developments in the Taisho era?), nor anthropology supported by enough evidence. As another blogger has said, the remarks on modern Japan may be out of date, and the author's desire to push her favourite ideas sometimes jarred. But altogether. most impressive.


Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An Account of Travels in the Interior Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrine of Nikko (Stone Bridge Classics)
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An Account of Travels in the Interior Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrine of Nikko (Stone Bridge Classics)
by Isabella L. Bird
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.14

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars late Victorian perspective on Japan, 27 Sep 2009
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This book would be enjoyed by anyone interested in Japan,in travel literature, or in anthropology. Isabella Bird, an intrepid late Victorian, travelled alone, apart from her translator/guide, into parts of Japan rarely, if ever, visited by a foreigner let alone a woman, at a time when the country was beginning to 'modernise'.
The book is composed of chapters formed from her long letters home. While the descriptions of the discomforts -endless rain, soaked clothes, dirt, insect-ridden inns and uncongenial food might pall (even if understandable), her evocations of the countryside are lyrical and deeply felt and her analyses of the characteristics and habits both of the Japanese and the Aino tribal people of the far north shrewd and entertaining. If you have visited modern Japan, it is fascinating to see both how much has changed (Japan is the most comfortable and hygenic country you could hope to visit!) and how much remained the same - the courtesy, the industriousness, the discipline. Of course,Isabella Bird writes from a Victorian perspective, and, not being affected by modern political correctness, is not afraid to use terms like 'savages' or comment on the 'ugliness' of most Japanese men. But there is no sense that European society is in all respects superior - several times, she comments on how we might learn from the Japanese.
The literary style of the book is a delight - easy to read, with a lucid use of language. IT SHOULD NOT BE MODERNISED!!! Perfect bedside reading - you can skip the longeurs. I shall read her other books.


Nuns: A History of Convent Life: 1450-1700
Nuns: A History of Convent Life: 1450-1700
by Silvia Evangelisti
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview of history of nuns, 6 Sep 2009
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This excellent overview of the history and achievment of nuns should be of interest in all who wish to explore women's history in the early modern period. Evangelisti, who has mainly been concerned academically with Italy around 1600, ranges widely here, not only in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, but in the Spanish and French-speaking New Worlds: all readers, whether from Catholic or non-Catholic backgrounds will learn a great deal about these often intrepid and creative nuns. There have been several fascinating studies of the culture of nuns in recent years - of nuns as mystics, musicians, writers, and art patrons - which Silvia Evangelisti has helped make accessible here to non-specialists. The multi-faceted character of convents emerges - sometimes sites of fervent, austere devotion or communal creativity, sometimes comfortable refuges for the genteel, sometimes near-prisons for daughters of impecunious families.
The writing is clear and lively, the topics covered well balanced. However, Evangelisti is not a native English speaker, and there are quite a number of occasions when the word used is very clearly wrong, for example, 'lockers' for 'locks'. The editor,or friends of the author, really should have ironed these out. This is a minor quibble, however, and many general readers will surely find the topic of nuns very much more interesting than they might have anticipated.


Fire in the Blood
Fire in the Blood
by Irène Némirovsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars masterful, 6 Sep 2009
This review is from: Fire in the Blood (Paperback)
This wonderful novella will surely become a classic. I would rate it more highly than the second section of Nemirofsky's 'Suite Francaise', which like this is set in the French countryside. Despite some lyrical scenes describing rural scenes or customs, this is by no means an idealised Arcadia, but full of dark secrets and repressed longings. With great skill, the author slowly draws the reader into the memorable characters and the way they are shaped by their environment and enflamed by the 'fire in the blood'. The world-weary narrator proves an eloquent commentator, combining longstanding involvement with the land and the personalities with the perspective gained by years away, and his voice allows big, uuniversal themes like youth/age, time, passion versus 'good sense'to emerge more explicitly. I look forward to re-reading the novella, perhaps in the original French, to further appreciate its economy and skill of writing, and its wisdom.


An Equal Stillness
An Equal Stillness
by Francesca Kay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars equal impressiveness, 27 Aug 2009
This review is from: An Equal Stillness (Paperback)
This thoroughly deserves the praise heaped on it. As others have said, the descriptions of paintings, and also the technical processes behind painting them, are brought off beautifully, together with their connections, or lack of obvious connections, with the events in the artist's life. I believed that Jennet was a wonderful painter, if not quite one of the most important painters of the 20th century, as claimed.
Equally impressive, though, and perhaps making the novel appealing to those less interested in painting, are the portrayals of relationships, not just with lovers, but with different generations within Jennet's family, sometimes painful, sometimes changing over time. The author also copes with the emotions of middle age and old age very well, for what I am assuming to be a fairly young woman. The different geographical settings are excellently evoked, and so are the historical eras, from the 1940s to the turn of the century, though never with heavy social realism: a wonderful balance betweeen the inner and the outer worlds. Finally, the sense of the transcendental, a world beyond which we cannot quite grasp, only sense imperfectly, lends a seriousness and nobility to Jennet's story and her work. Hugely impressive in many ways, and surely deserving of much re-reading.


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