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William Pitt the Younger
William Pitt the Younger
by William Hague
Edition: Hardcover

28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent first-time biography, 25 Jan. 2005
Following the death of Roy Jenkins, there is space for an accomplished political biographer to take his place, and William Hague certainly shows the potential in this engrossing book to do just that.
Pitt spent most of his life as Prime Minister, a remarkable feat even for the time. He initially presided over a peace dividend, but half way through his first term as Prime Minister entered war against France, leaving his financial legacy somewhat more ambiguous, though he certainly prevented the country from being invaded by the French.
Hague makes the political manoeuvrings interesting, and the section of his relationship with Addington when the latter was Prime Minister is particularly engrossing. The analysis he renders of Pitt's actions seems sounds, and Hague's telling is straightforward account - there are no massive revelations here, nor is it a revisionist history in any way.
He also makes the period seem suitably interesting when describing events and social conventions of the time. Obviously it was a completely different time, but it is easy to forget and a number of the points were jaw-dropping.
There are a number of flaws in this book. There is often little analysis of his motives, though decision he made during the war with French are better looked at that occurs in the first half of the book. Hague also fails to get to grip properly with Pitt as a person, though again he is better at some points, for example on his speculated homosexuality, than others. The writing is also slightly repetitive, though his editors can be considered equally at fault for these small points.
More worryingly, perhaps, is Hague's refusal to engage in his own past to offer insight. Jenkin's strength as a biographer was insights into politics resulting from his sheer volume of experience. Hague has always struck me as a shrewd operator, yet fails to add any personal colour into it the mix. If he is to grow in stature as a biographer, this is something he may want to tackle.
As a book Pitt is an enjoyable romp through the times with much fascinating detail added about the times in which he lived. As a writer, Hague just needs to add a little polish and he will be capable of becoming a respected biographer. However, as a first book this is a splendid achievement and well worth reading.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2010 7:35 PM GMT

Alias Grace
Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Typicl Atwood brilliance, 25 Nov. 2004
This review is from: Alias Grace (Paperback)
This is the third novel by Margaret Atwood I have read, the previous two being the Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale. What is apparent after reading these three books is the wide range she can turn her hand to, and the fact that she is one of the most important living authors. Alias Grace is a brilliant book - with a twin introspective and external focus, making it an exceptionally relevant read.
Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, a teenager found guilty, along with another man, of the murder of her master and his housekeeper in Canada in the 19th Century. It was a notorious case at the time, making the papers as far away as Britain. Grace was given a last minute reprieve from the gallows and instead had to serve a life sentence.
The books focuses upon a psychologist looking into whether her claim of amnesia regarding the events is genuine or not. Atwood has written his letters particularly well and she succeeds in drawing out much humour and emotion - especially is his mother's missives. Indeed the whole book draws together a number of different strands - prose, poetry, contemporary reports and knitting patterns - to great effect.
The main part of the book, however, focuses upon Grace. Grace isn't defined by who she is but by who other people want her to be - reflected in the title. People who believe she is guilty or innocent do not do so on the basis of the evidence, but rather by the weight of their expectations. Atwood makes no judgement as to whether she is guilty or not. I suspect she is guilty, but then am I bringing the weight of my expectations to the book?
In this way the book is curiously relevant - we live in a world where much violent crime is sensationalised, and we make relatively few judgements on the basis of facts but rather by instinct. In this way Atwood allows us to search ourselves as much as we do Grace.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 26, 2012 1:31 PM BST

Margaret Thatcher: Iron Lady v. 2
Margaret Thatcher: Iron Lady v. 2
by John Campbell
Edition: Paperback

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A solid follow-up to the Grocer's Daughter, 27 Sept. 2004
The first volume of John Campbell's biography of Margaret Thatcher was entertaining because he succeeded in finding an original way of telling the Thatcher story. The book was based on the premise that she played up her past, so much so that in the 1980's Peter Hennessey was able to claim that it was almost as though her father was running the country from beyond the grave. In Campbell's telling of her life up until 1979, he exposed the extent to which she embellished certain truths to further her own position, and this made for a gripping and enjoyable read.
This second volume has proved trickier, if only because it is more difficult to create a chronological account of a Government in action. Campbell has wisely split the book up into thematic areas which broadly move forward chronologically as the book progresses - rather like Baroness Thatcher's memoirs. If this book has a theme it is her lack of man-management as PM, which eventually rebounded on her with the resignation of Geoffrey Howe. However, as the book moves through a number of areas this is a point which is sustained, but without any real sense of narrative.
This is not to say that this is a bad biography - rather it highlights precisely why the first volume was so entertaining. Instead, The Iron Lady comes across as informative first, entertaining second - and there is much to commend. He has created a very balanced and fair biography, acknowledging her strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. It is a book which has also been written a suitable period after events have been written - not only can we see the effect of her policies, but the personalities involved have also got their accounts out into the open.
Campbell's writing is superb - he has a fairly brisk writing style that enables him to argue a point well. There is some repetition of turns of phrase, but that is only to be expected in an 800 page volume. When he needs to do drama - especially in the penultimate two chapters - he does it exceptionally well. He is also adept at picking up humorous quotes and anecdotes which are illuminating at the same time.
There are a few other drawbacks for example there is little mention over her plans for Lord Young which to my mind is the most eccentric incident of her premiership which seems like an omission.
However, to list them all would be just nitpicking: The Iron Lady is an good solid biography. With a little more flair it would have been an excellent follow-up. Ultimately the difficult nature of the subject has left him with few strands to pull together through the whole book, though this does not prevent it from being a rewarding, informative and enjoyable read.

The Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench
The Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench
by Robin Cook
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Best accoubnt yet of the Iraq war, 2 Sept. 2004
The basic narrative of Point of Departure is Robin Cook's perspective on the build up to the War on Iraq after September 11th. He faithfully recorded for his diary the key events leading up to this and his role in it, though one wonders at the end of the book whether he was lied to, or is idealistic about what his efforts could achieve (or is that naïve?). Working from a position as Leader of the House of Commons he was mainly on the periphery of events, though he battles endlessly to secure voting rights for Parliament in the run-up to the war.
The second main narrative strand focuses upon his attempts to reform Parliament and strengthen it as an institution. He clearly loves Parliament, and works hard to ensure that the House of Commons is a stronger chamber.
All through this book there is a real sense of frustration - mainly directed at Tony Blair. He is frustrated that the Labour Party feels unable to resist moves towards war I Iraq, and through the book adopts a consistent and entirely logical argument as to why this should be the case. He is also deeply frustrated that the Government cannot see the merits of Parliamentary reform, on which he was thwarted a number of times, often by other figures in the Government.
This is an exceptionally interesting book on a number of levels. For those interested in politics it reveals the process through which policy passes - I was surprised at how much dissent there was within the government towards different aspects of the Government's proposals. At the same time it was interesting how united ideologically the Labour party is, with the exception of Number 10. Robin Cook appears to be friendly with a number of Ministers who are usually regarded as being Blairite - most specifically Alan Milburn and Steven Byers.
There also a lot here for the casual reader - the book is shot through with moments of humour, and it is interesting to read about the peculiarities of ministerial life. This book is definitely worth investigation.

Brick Lane
Brick Lane
by Monica Ali
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over-hyped, 19 July 2004
This review is from: Brick Lane (Paperback)
Monica Ali have received a great deal of positive press for Brick Lane over the last year, and this hype has perhaps proved to be damaging to Ali and the way that I viewed the book - my overall feeling after finishing the book was one of disappointment rather than believing that I had stumbled upon a great new literary talent.
The book tells the story of Nazneen, a girl from a small Bangladeshi village who enters into an arranged marriage with Chanu, a well educated man with a flat in a tower block in Tower Hamlets.
The book's first half is okay, showing the contradictions both in the life that Nazneen must now live, and the contrast in life in the UK and Bangladesh - most notably the diet of the poor. Whilst Nazneen initially views the flat she has moved into as a definite step above from her previous life, the frustrations of the immigrant population is summed up most definitely in Chanu. After some letters to contrast Nazneen's position with that of her sister who has remained in Bangladesh, we move forward to view Nazneen struggling to bring up two daughters. The second half is stronger, and represents better the dashed hopes of the entire community, struggling with problems, especially with Razia's troubled relationship with her son.
Nazneen's relationship with Karim is spoiled slightly by the blurb, but also doesn't entirely ring true. Ironically, despite its main failing being that it was too long, the book abruptly seems to be cut off when there is the chance for the regeneration of the community.
There are many good characters in the book - Chanu, Razia, Dr Assad and Mrs Islam, yet they are all caricatures, and there is little seriousness to contrast them against given the nature of the book - it is not a comedy but a drama - there is not enough space for so many characters like this. As a result the book doesn't really stitch together terribly well - it is definitely less than the sum of its parts.
This criticism is perhaps a bit harsh to lay at the doorstep of Ali: it is after all only her first novel. However, her novel cannot live up to the hype. If she learned some discipline, and cut around one hundred pages off the novel she would be a much better novelist. She has potential - the question is whether she is allowed to develop into a great novelist, or whether her next novel can live up to the weight of expectation.

Clerkenwell Tales
Clerkenwell Tales
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 22 Jun. 2004
This review is from: Clerkenwell Tales (Paperback)
Having read a London: The Biography and The Life & Times of Sir Thomas More, I was looking forward to reading The Clerkenwell Tales. Sadly I was disappointed, as the book largely failed to live up to the sum of its parts. This historical novel delves into the usurpation of King Richard II by Henry Bollingbroke, and Ackroyd puts forward a grand conspiracy theory for the events. The historical detail was superb, and it focuses is slightly skewed more towards ordinary people rather than the politicians and statesmen whom history tends to favour.
There were some nice comic touches to the book and the writing rattles along at a nice pace. The characters were by and large well drawn - especially the comic characters. One also felt secure with the detail in the book - often historical fiction plays hard and fast with facts to create a gripping storyline, but Ackroyd's reputation, and the footnotes made me feel like I was being guided by a safe pair of hands.
The book rotated through a number of voices, and it is here where the problems with the book start. Ackroyd fails to build up tension because one does not really feel sympathy or start rooting for one particular character. There is a collegiate nature to the way that the investigation into the conspiracy progresses, which tends to blunt much of the dramatic tension and the way that it is built up. The book works as a series of set-pieces, but doesn't really knit together terribly well. It comes across as quaint rather than dark and brooding, which was presumably the intended effect.
This is a disappointing book. Ackroyd is a superb historian, and that comes across clearly in the book. However, his dramatic skills perhaps need honing. If his next novel looks interesting, I would be tempted to give it a try...

The Lost Leaders
The Lost Leaders
by Edward Pearce
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Three wonderful political profiles, 13 May 2004
This review is from: The Lost Leaders (Hardcover)
Longer books than this have been written about individual politicians. That Edward Pearce has kept his book about RA Butler, Dennis Healey and Iain MacLeod to less than 400 pages shows the rare virtue of brevity coming to the fore. This is not to suggest that the book is lacking in insight or depth. Rather, Pearce has set himself a narrow line of analysis and keeps to it admirably.
This is not merely an ordinary biography, rather a look at why three of the most talented post-war politicians failed to become Prime Minister. All three were clearly talented, and their achievements are well logged. Pearce is more than capable of praising the men when they clearly deserve it. The cross-party nature of this book means he is well-equipped to recognise decisions made in the best interest of the country, even if they go against the prejudices of their respective parties.
If there is to be a villain in this book it is Harold Macmillan, who does not emerge well out of either the profiles on Butler or MacLeod. He connived to keep Butler from the top job, and MacLeod also got dragged into his power-play, to the detriment of the junior man.
Timing is often assumed to be the enemy. Healy and Butler each had the chance to take the leadership of their party, and in Butler's case the premiership. Each failed because of the existence of other candidates playing up to internal divisions rather than the good of the country. The single most important factor that kept these men from rising to the top was party. Each man was on the fringes of the party, peddling centrist-type policies, popular in the country as a whole but offering little to their parties as a way of shoring up support for bids.
Perhaps the most tragic "lost leader" is Iain MacLeod, who is often remembered more for his death within a month of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, rather than for any great achievement. He is often little more than a footnote in political history. Whether he deserves inclusion in this volume is debatable as he did not have a clear chance to take control unlike the other two. However, it is still an affectionate and interesting profile, and does not detract from the quality of the book.
The MacLeod sketch occasionally gets a little repetitive. Aside from that this book is well worth reading for those interested in political intrigue. Well written, balanced and insightful, Pearce has produced a wonderful book.

The Autograph Man
The Autograph Man
by Zadie Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Passable second novel., 20 April 2004
This review is from: The Autograph Man (Paperback)
I tried to go into the Autograph Man with an open-mind, determined not tocompare it to White Teeth, Smith's debut novel and one of the best Britishnovels of the last ten years. It always seems unfair to compare new workto the best an author, or indeed has produced, especially a book aspopular as White Teeth. However, by the end of The Autograph Man I wasleft feeling slightly disappointed that she has turned in a mediocrenovel, and not the promise she showed in White Teeth failed to completelyshine through.
The initial premise of the book, focussing upon a group of friends unitedby their love of autograph hunting, was an interesting choice of matter,if not an obvious commentary on Smith's brushes with fame since thepublication of her debut novel. She attempts to get to the bottom of abizarre and interesting hobby, and makes a number of witty and subtleobservations on the nature of fame and celebrity.
However, this appears to be lost with the characters she chooses toexamine it through. She appears to have attempted to write the mostpolitically correct series of characters ever to have graced literature -the central characters are Jewish, but each is from a separate ethnicminority. None of them ring true, especially when compared to thestruggles of identity contained within White Teeth. As the characters aremore united by autographs than by their faith or identity, it is hard tosee why she chose a set of such unrealistic characters.
Alex Li-Tandem, the chief protagonist, is a deeply unsympathetic character- he is uncaring, selfish and effuses to take responsibility for his life.It is hard to care what ultimately happens to him. His friends areone-dimensional, and do not really seem to develop. The most interestingcharacters in the book were minor players- Brian Duchamp, an aging man whofakes autographs, and Kitty Alexander, an old Hollywood star. They havelives that are worth investigating and fleshing out, yet are sidelinedAlex and his friends. The book only really takes off towards the end whenKitty enters the novel, yet is slightly too late to rescue the novel.
That is not to say that the book does not have any merit to it. Herwriting is occasionally witty, and her observations about London suburbsare sharp and witty. She is willing to experiment with the prose, alteringthe page lay-out, adding in diagrams and hand-written text. Thesubject-matter is very interesting, and the opening section matches anypassages in White Teeth. The book also rattles on at a fair pace.
Ultimately The Autograph Man in an exercise in disappointment. It wasalways unlikely that Smith would produce another masterstroke, but thereis so much in the book that could have been improved, starting with thecharacterisation. This is not a bad book, merely average. However, itstill shows much potential and I am looking forward to reading her nextnovel. Wonder if I could get an autograph from her in the meantime?

Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair
Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair
by Tim Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable tales of London, 25 Feb. 2004
Having previously read Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant history of London, I approached the Tim Moore with some caution. How could a book this size present a history of London a thoroughly as Ackroyd?
Moore is able to manage it because Do Not Pass Go is a tribute to London’s streets and thoroughfares, not necessarily to the people, sights and sounds that make up London’s past. This is not to say that this is not an entertaining book: Moore has found an original way of presenting a selection of London’s stories. By and large it works – it may not be the most logical way to pass through the streets, but then doesn’t that emphasise the point of Monopoly, and also the way in which London has developed according to need and not to any higher planning need.
He throws in many entertaining facts, figures and stories. The potted history of Monopoly is interesting, and although I live in London I must confess I had not made the connection between how random certain aspects of the board are before reading the book. He approaches some streets with a desire to do something – whether it is stay in a famous hotel or go to a famous nightclub.
Moore can be a very funny writer, and he allows the reader into a world of personal obsessiveness perhaps unseen since High Fidelity or Fever Pitch by Nich Hornby.
There are a number of criticisms of the book. He laments the destruction of many of London’s buildings, yet offers no alternative for how London is meant to develop. I appreciate that this isn’t a treatise on planning, but there is a little bit of the angry old man about it. His hatred of Cluedo destroys the narrative in certain places, and his endless campaign to build up Monopoly sometimes grates. It is the nature of the game – the acquisition of property and building – that is destroying the London he loves, or would like to imagine, yet this is not connection he is able to make.
His humour can sometimes blunt the wonder of the history he is promoting, and I was left wondering whether some parts of it were wholly accurate. He states that Londoners never seriously planned what was happening to their city or the way it was developed, and never went serious planning stage. Yet this is exactly what did happen in the wake of the Great Fire. His endless comments about prices going up were pointless (wages go up as well!). And he never explains what “dry risers” are either.
It is an entertaining book drawing together some strands of history. There are longer and more in-depth accounts, but this is an entertaining account of some of London’s history.

Any Old Iron
Any Old Iron
by Anthony Burgess
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable novel about identity., 6 Feb. 2004
Anthony Burgess is an author who has found himself in the unfortunate position of producing an era-defining novel, and finding the rest of his works cruelly under-rated. Any Old Iron received much praise at the time of its publication, yet his name hardly ever appears on lists of great post-war British authors. A Clockwork Orange may be a magnificent novel, yet it is unfair to expect every novel he has written to reach the high standard he set, and reading Any Old Iron demonstrates that Burgess was a great novelist with much to say and that his other works are well worth reading.
Any Old Iron is a novel about culture and how we define ourselves. The plot focuses upon the hunt for the sword of King Arthur, against a backdrop of the Second World War and Anglo-Russian relations. Focussing on the Jones family, the family inter-marry people from different countries (Russia) and religions (Jewish), yet there is still a strong sense of Welsh nation-hood amongst two of the off-spring.
The book has strong elements of Joseph Heller (another brilliant author who could only succeed in having one novel reach widespread attention) in its coverage of the atrocities of war. Main characters keep referring to the "madness of war", and it is interesting to see people both before and during the war, and in their attempts to rebuild their lives after its conclusion. Despite fitting so much into a relatively short space, the book does not feel rushed because it is only a side-plot, yet it is a worthy side-plot that sums up much feeling.
There is much humour to be found in the novel, yet it is the philosophical strands and themes running through the book that makes it a truly memorable novel. The relationships of people across cultural and national lines serves only to confuse their loyalties, and it is interesting where they choose that they lie. Burgess points out many absurdities of Welsh nationalism, preferring instead to cast people as defined by those that they choose to form relationships (platonic and otherwise) with. Although it was written more than ten years ago, these thoughts are even more relevant to contemporary Britain (or should be England Ireland Scotland and Wales) than ever before.
Any Old Iron is a cracking read. The characters initially appear to be broad-bush stereotypes, but each character deepens as the book goes on. The prose is witty and enjoyable. The combined effect is to add up to a great novel that should add to Burgess' reputation, and not merely appear in a list of "other novels by Anthony Burgess" in the front of an edition of A Clockwork Orange.

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