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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)

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Veniss Underground
Veniss Underground
by Jeff VanderMeer
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing short novel by a leading light of 'The New Weird', 3 Jun 2011
This review is from: Veniss Underground (Paperback)
'Veniss Underground' is a short novel by Jeff VanderMeer, a leading light in the 'New Weird' subgenre of fantasy. VanderMeer first came to attention as a writer of short stories, but has written other novels and multimedia works, and has a considerable profile as an editor and blogger.

If 'The New Weird' means anything - and meaningful definitions are hard to come by - it appears to mean a form of hyper-romantic fantasy that draws at will on urban fantasy, dark fantasy, SF, horror, noir and thriller elements. Its direct ancestors include Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter and, even more pertinently, M. John Harrison, whose 'Viriconium' stories are the template for 'Veniss' and similar work by other writers - notably China Mieville. More generally, this is fleshy fantasy, post-Cronenberg, post-Barker, post-Gaiman.

This makes 'Veniss' sound more attractive than it is. In practice, VanderMeer lacks the imagination of the writers mentioned, and especially Harrison's acute feel for tone, essential when dealing with deliberately mannered prose. The brief opening section of the book is quite horribly overwritten; almost a textbook example of how to alienate a reader by being simultaneously pretentious, obscure and coy. I almost abandoned the book at this point. I wonder how many readers have never progressed further?

The second and third sections are more lucidly written, but what emerges, disappointingly, is a standard fantasy narrative, loosely derived from the classical myth of Orpheus's descent into the underworld. VanderMeer packs a great deal of hectic incident and implication into a relatively small space, but as a result much of what happens feels underexplained, unmotivated and repetitious - as though 'weirdness' (and a very adolescent, Dali-Bosch idea of weirdness) for its own sake was the governing aesthetic.

This borrowed visual imagination means that VanderMeer's Veniss never makes an indelible impression, resembling as it does too many similar creations in familiar films and books. The emotional temperature too is operatically overwrought throughout, as though the fate of the universe were at stake, but the characters are so thinly imagined that it's never clear why we should care about them.

I understand that VanderMeer has written better elsewhere, but 'Veniss Underground' left me with little enthusiasm to investigate further.

Building the Better Guitar Scale
Building the Better Guitar Scale
Price: 0.77

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rational explanation of the fingerboard in terms of the major scale, 31 May 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
'Building the Better Guitar Scale' aims to teach the guitar student a clear, progressive method for constructing playable scale patterns for the diatonic major and minor scales and their modes. It does this by identifying simple repeating sub-patterns based on three-notes-per-string fingerings and adding a couple of simple rules for their combination. Once this material is mastered, the student is enabled to play the major scale beginning on any string and degree, and by extension the relative natural minor scale and the modes of the major scale.

This method is not new, but it does work, and it is very clearly and concisely explained here (the author does assume an adult command of language, but all the patterns are illustrated by diagrams). It is intuitive, covers the whole fingerboard without giving priority to any position, requires no reading of notation and involves a minimum of memorisation - although, as always, the real 'secret' lies in the student's willingness to commit the elements to memory and then to practice.

The value of this method is that it demystifies the fingerboard layout and the standard tuning system of the guitar, giving the student an absolutely secure reference pattern, which may then be used as a basis for further learning.

There are some necessary things that are not attempted here. The location of note names (rather than scale degrees) on the fingerboard must be learned in some other manner. Nor is the relationship between the different major scales covered: again, systematic practice of the scale patterns will be aided if the student already understands the cycle of fifths and can construct the major scales. Some hints for practise are given, and here the method seems to be aimed more at the improviser than the classical performer who might expect to be performing from sheet music.

The only real caution I would offer would be that one of the basic three-notes-per-string patterns involves a five-fret stretch that beginners may find difficult in the lower positions. The slight initial inconvenience of these stretches may be offset for finger-style players by the convenience of a consistent i-m-i, m-i-m picking pattern on each successive string pair. For pick players, three-notes-per-string also has clear advantages in facilitating more rapid and fluid movement when crossing strings. In any case, because the method is not constrained by the requirement to master the first position before any other, the player may begin in as high a position as is convenient for the fretting hand and work down as he or she becomes used to the stretches.

Excellent value for money and recommended for players who are looking for a rational, systematic and musical way of getting to grips with the fingerboard.

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick,  and Will (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton
The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton
Price: 2.32

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and provocative view of the future of the West's economies, 30 May 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
'The Great Stagnation' is a short, incisive disquisition, primarily from a North American perspective, on the macroeconomic historical origins of our current situation. Tyler Cowen - a highly influential American academic economist and columnist - doesn't so much disagree with other analysts of our recent troubles as propose that behind the specific problems they identify - such as perverse incentives for bankers - there are deeper ills at work that short-term fixes - such as better banking regulation - will not address.

Cowen proposes that First World economies are the victims of a slowing in the rate of revenue-producing innovation, against a background of the exhaustion of the most easily-exploitable ('free') resources dating from the early '70s. He marshals evidence to show that the extremely rapid rise in standards of living in the developed economies from the Industrial Revolution until shortly after the Second World War were the product of an unrepeatable combination of factors.

From an American perspective, he isolates three factors in particular: free land; significant technological breakthroughs; and a large body of educable, and previously uneducated youth. By the 1960s at the latest, he suggests, there were already clear signs that these 'low-hanging fruit' had been plucked. Cowen argues that electorates and politicians alike had by then become accustomed to rapid rates of growth - and thus rising personal wealth - as facts of nature. When growth rates began to fall as technological innovation slowed and spending on government activities rose, political left and right alike were disconcerted. In their different ways, they began to make promises to the electorate that their standard of living would nonetheless continue to improve: by redistribution of wealth (according to the left); or by lowering of personal taxation by restrictions on government spending 'waste' (for the right).

The general population, accustomed to these siren voices, refused to heed the tiny minority of commentators who were arguing that the party must soon end. A huge expansion of personal debt, coupled with an ever-rising but unproductive proportion of GDP devoted to increasingly ineffective government spending, sustained for a time the illusion of rising real standards of living. This complacency in turn led to overconfidence among both lenders and borrowers. For Cowen, the housing market bubble and subsequent financial crisis was only one aspect of an entire unsustainable system.

Cowen goes on to suggest that there may be remedies for these problems: but it's clear from his analysis that he envisages the necessity for a thoroughgoing change in attitude and a chastening of short-term expectations. Throughout, he eschews party-political point-scoring in favour of unexpected and unfashionable insights - as, for example, the idea that the West may now have something to learn from Japan in how to manage a slow-growing economy. As a result, there is likely to be something here to annoy almost everybody.

Cowen writes clearly but without condescension for a general audience. There is food for thought here well beyond the text. Recommended for anyone who wants to see the economic debate go beyond technical 'fixes' to issues of substance.

Note: The Kindle text runs about 15,000 words. This includes notes - with hyperlinks to source documents - and suggestions for further reading.

The Sickness
The Sickness
by Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.78

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars First translation into English of a distinguished Venezuelan writer, 28 May 2011
This review is from: The Sickness (Hardcover)
Alberto Barrera Tyszka is a Venezuelan writer, well known in the Spanish-speaking world as a journalist, biographer and scriptwriter for television, and also as a poet and novelist. 'The Sickness' is Margaret Jull Costa's translation of his second novel, 'El enfermedad', published in 2006 and winner of the Herralde Prize for Spanish-language fiction in that year.

'The Sickness' is a meditative exploration of the ways in which human beings deal with intimations of mortality. The central character is a doctor, Andrés Miranda, who has to respond to his widowed father's mortal illness while dealing simultaneously with the unwelcome attentions of a patient who himself may - or may not - be seriously ill.

Barrera Tyszka writes clearly and with deep feeling but without sentimentality about death and illness. An acute observer of human frailty, both physical and psychological, he describes how the brute fact of serious illness radiates out from its origin, touching everyone involved in different ways. Some of the ensuing narrative revelations resemble the complications of soap opera, but only in the sense that the author roots his observations in the emotional stuff of everyday life, which does not pause for the sick and dying. The result is an alternation between the distanced perspective of medicine, the abstract perspective of philosophy and the intimate perspective of personal life that illuminates all three.

This is a distinguished short novel, well translated, in which not a word is wasted.

Fixing Britain: The Business of Reshaping Our Nation
Fixing Britain: The Business of Reshaping Our Nation
by Lord Digby Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.25

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Earnest advocacy for UK business, 24 May 2011
'Fixing Britain' is a call to arms by the former Director General of the CBI, cross-bench peer and Minister of State for Trade and Investment. It paints a picture of an ill-prepared United Kingdom entering a century that will be dominated economically by the USA, China and eventually India. At home, Sir Digby sees a workforce that is badly educated and trained, a population that has become excessively dependent on state benefits, and governments that have lost sight of long-term objectives. The British, he argues, have forgotten the virtues that made the nation great: they must be recovered, at least to some degree, if the recent financial crisis is not to become the first episode in a 'fall of Britain' to parallel the fall of Rome.

Sir Digby's answer to all of this, imparted in a breezy, conversational and at times repetitive style, is business: the lessons of business, the values of the businessman, the virtues of entrepreneurialism and self-reliance. The objectives of government should be those of business. Business pays for everything else: the government's priority should therefore be the promotion of business, the freeing of business from unnecessary constraints, and the inculcation of the values of business in the population at large.

The author surveys the UK's relations with its major business rivals and partners. He examines the issue of economic immigration. He laments the state of British education. He proposes serious reform of the electoral system, the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Civil Service. He insists that the tax and benefits systems must be changed so that it is never again possible to 'earn' a better living on benefits than the average full-time employed person. He beats the drum for pride in the country's historic achievements.

In the course of this, Sir Digby makes play of his political independence and his track record in business, and this will be where for some readers this particular train begins to derail. No reader of this book will finish it in any doubt that the 'unaligned' author is a man of the modern Right. Figures of the Left are occasionally invoked, only to be excoriated; praise is limited, and permissible only where a New Labour man is seen to have done what Sir Digby (or a Conservative) would have done.

Moreover, Sir Digby's fabled 'business experience', which he invokes repeatedly, appears to be in the related fields of corporate law, corporate accountancy and corporate PR - not exactly the CV of a manufacturer, still less of a horny-handed son of toil. Nobody with more hands-on experience of industry would feel such a need to boast of his parents owning a shop. In truth, his perspective is that of the chauffeured MD or CEO of a large firm, and his limitation is that he applies this perspective to a whole country - and ultimately to the whole world - as though the United Kingdom were essentially BT writ large: UK plc.

On the individual issues, he has little new to say. The diagnoses he offers and the remedies he proposes are the daily stuff of newspaper opinion columns, and have been so for some years. In the light of recent events, his advocacy of the alternative vote and nuclear power don't enhance his reputation for prescience. Very occasionally, there is a flash of insight: for example, he notices how the 'business friendliness' of New Labour amounted to little more than an infatuation with a handful of highly visible charismatic entrepreneurs who are wholly untypical of businessmen in general. There are glimpses of the grubby world of the political fix. Almost everyone will find something here that will make him or her nod in agreement.

But in general, what Sir Digby offers here what amounts to patriotic cheerleading. Britain may need fixing: but its problems run deeper and are more complex than one would guess from this sincere but insubstantial book.

Terminal World
Terminal World
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 18.07

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing side excursion for Reynolds, 22 May 2011
This review is from: Terminal World (Hardcover)
Alastair Reynolds' reputation as one of Britain's leading SF authors is founded on the 'Revelation Space' books - a series of far-future novels and short stories that marry deep space adventure with a hard SF spine and some provocative ideas about our posthuman future (Reynolds is a serious scientist with a background in astronomy), but he has also published stand-alone novels and short stories.

'Terminal World' is one of the latter. Unfortunately, it may also be the least impressive novel the author has ever published.

The model for the story is 'planetary romance' - which turns out to mean not the Martian adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs but hackneyed steampunk-by-numbers. It's particularly sad to see a writer of Reynolds' abilities jumping on this tired bandwagon. Has somebody told the author that that's where the money is now? Whatever the reason, it's a decision that has taken him well outside his area of expertise, and he seems to have nothing new to add.

Almost everything here feels profoundly second-hand. The book bears the hallmarks of hurried writing and skimped editing. Too many scenes recall episodes from well-known films and other novels. The book lacks any sense of detailed structure: promising story elements are introduced and then abandoned without explanation in favour of repetitive, episodic confrontations with bathetically unmenacing menaces. As a result, the faults that Reynolds' more literate readers have learned to tolerate in his better work - the clunky prose, the film-derived dialogue, the cardboard characters, the continuity errors, all present here in more than normal concentrations - are mercilessly exposed.

Fans, of course, will not need a reason to read this anyway. Readers completely new to Reynolds, on the other hand, would do far better to start with 'Revelation Space' or the stand-alone novel 'Pushing Ice', either of which will give a much better idea of the author's capabilities. The rest of us should hope that 'Terminal World' is a one-off author's experiment that need not be repeated.

Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes
Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes
by Daniel Kehlmann
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A young Austrian metafictionist, 20 May 2011
'Fame' is Carol Brown Janeway's fluent translation of Daniel Kehlmann's 2008 novel 'Ruhm'. Kehlmann is probably the best-known young Austrian novelist.

Subtitled 'A novel in Nine Episodes', 'Fame' is short (175 pages in this translation, not 304 as stated: about 45-50,000 words, which in my eyes makes it novella length) and clearly written, which would make for a rapid read if one were inclined to skim.

Arguments about whether the book is really a novel or a series of linked short stories seem pointless: it's a postmodern fiction, owing something in its form to the likes of Calvino. Kehlmann structures his tale around recurring characters, in such a way that it isn't clear who is supposed to be at the centre of the story. This is completely in line with the book's central preoccupation, which is human identity, the extent to which it depends on the attention that we can command from others, and how this instability has been deepened in our own time by the electronic mediation and presentation of personality

Kehlmann's training in philosophy has obviously left its mark on his fiction, but he has a light touch. Much of the book involves a series of metafictional games in which the identity and ontological status of his characters is repeatedly called into question, sometimes in amusing ways but ultimately with a darker edge. Several of the characters are writers: but others may be characters, not just within Kehlmann's own fiction but within the fictions of these other, subordinate authorial figures. The reader is held off balance, not knowing where to invest.

This sort of thing is easy to mock, and readers who have little patience with metafiction will probably find the book annoying. I enjoyed it. Although I didn't think that Kehlmann was doing anything particularly novel, there is a complexity and seriousness here that emerges slowly as the 'episodes' prove to be linked in both obvious and more subtle ways. In the end, whatever one calls it, it's clearly one story: the resonance of the whole is more than that of any of the parts.

Recommended to anyone who wants to explore modern European fiction.

How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes: Two Tales of the Economy
How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes: Two Tales of the Economy
by Peter D. Schiff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.79

21 of 39 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A free-market fundamentalist excuse for a plain-man's guide to economics, 18 May 2011
This book is an unashamed piece of free-market, small-government fundamentalist propaganda masquerading as an even-handed guide to economics aimed at those who find real economics too difficult. The authors are American traders employed by the same company who, respectively, have backgrounds in securities broking and trading in precious metals and media communications - lecturing on the necessity of a free market and limited government. (To be fair, the authors volunteer this information, albeit at the end of their book.)

The authors' strategy is quite straightforward: pretend that economic issues are all very simple - so simple that they can be explained by means of a folksy extended allegory of the history of the US economy illustrated where necessary with cartoon-like illustrations. This takes its place in the long history of similar stories that appeal to the 'common sense' of the 'common man', who might otherwise be in danger of becoming too well informed for comfort.

The first few pages alone offer so many failed metaphors and tendentious misrepresentations of history that it was actively difficult to read further, and matters don't improve. The book is difficult to criticise in detail because the 'allegorical' - or 'fairytale' - method of narration means that the authors don't have to substantiate any of their claims by way of citations. The book is subtitled, in tiny letters, 'A Tale' - is it fact, or, as appears, a highly tendentious fiction? There are, of course, no footnotes, index or bibliography.

Even if the one-sided emphasis on American rather than international economic history had been amended, I don't believe that this book could have been published in this form in the UK. The level of discourse wouldn't tax an intelligent child. More worryingly, the book seems to envisage readers who don't want to think for themselves, balance authorities against each other or consider evidence, but merely to be told a story that reassures them that they are right and the 'experts' are wrong.

Sadly, because of the lack of emphasis on economic literacy in our education system, many potential readers are so ignorant of the basics of economic thinking that a proportion of those who read this attractively-presented book will believe that they are being granted a superior insight by insiders. The few reasonable points that the authors make are swamped in a sea of shoddy reasoning and political bias.

There are many recent books that explore the reasons for the recent financial troubles without minimising the complexity of the problems, caricaturing the causes or exculpating those who are truly to blame on both sides of the political divide. Among those I can recommend are Nouriel Roubini's 'Crisis Economics': 'John Quiggin's 'Zombie Economics'; Ha-Joon Chang's '23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism'; Raghuram G. Rajan's 'Fault Lines'; and John Cassidy's 'How Markets Fail'. Any one of these, read with attention, offers far more information and analysis than the Schiffs' opus. For anybody genuinely interested in the issues, 'How An Economy Grows and Why It Crashes' is infuriating: one to be avoided.
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Year of the Hare, The
Year of the Hare, The
by Arto Paasilinna
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars An existential fable from Finland, 18 May 2011
This review is from: Year of the Hare, The (Paperback)
'The Year of the Hare', published in 1975, made Arto Paasilinna famous first in his native Finland and subsequently internationally. In spite of this, it took twenty years for the book to be translated into English and it remains, alongside the later novel 'The Howling Miller', the only one of the author's books to be easily accessible to English readers.

This short novel is really an existential fable or allegory. The journalist Vatanen, an unhappy man in his early thirties, returning from an assignment in the company of a photographer, finds himself abandoned in rural Finland after an accident involving a young hare. The incident precipitates a radical change in his life: bailing out of his career and marriage, he runs wild through the countryside, encountering eccentrics, animals and authority figures, slowly adapting to a different way of being.

It's difficult to offer the English reader literary points of comparison. I was reminded to some extent of Jean Echenoz's 'One Year' and 'I'm Off' - Paasilinna has been influential in France - and also at some points of the deadpan humour of Magnus Mills and, more inevitably, the filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki.

Paasilinna was the same age as his protagonist at the time of writing, and with a similar background, but the autobiographical elements are not obtrusive. Instead the reader is offered what amounts to a composite portrait of a backwoods Finland that one doesn't find in the tourist brochures, and a picaresque and peripatetic way of life that has a strong appeal to anyone tired of people and cities.

by Jenny Erpenbeck
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting German novel of time and place, 16 May 2011
This review is from: Visitation (Hardcover)
'Visitation' is Susan Bernofsky's excellent translation of Jenny Erpenbeck's novel 'Heimsuchung', published in German in 2008. 'Heimsuchung' does indeed mean 'visitation' - a formal visit - but also 'plague', 'affliction' and 'infestation'. All these meanings will prove to have resonance. In English even 'visitation' itself, with its secondary meaning of 'haunting', has its premonitory side.

The place that we visit with Erpenbeck is a plot of lakeside ground in Germany that in the course of the novel and nearly a century of recent history passes through a number of hands and is the site of repeated building and rebuilding - the making and unmaking of a succession of homes. 'Heimsuchung' - literally 'a study or investigation of home' - is the underlying theme of the book.

Erpenbeck approaches her subject obliquely, in a succession of short chapters that each focus on a single character or family and their relationship to this piece of ground. In spite of the overt drama of historical events - the two wars, the rise of Hitler, the Russian occupation, the rise and fall of Communist East Germany - and their consequences for those who occupy this place, it is the place itself that emerges as the most powerful character of all.

This preoccupation with the existential relationship between human beings and the places in which they choose to live has deep roots in German thought. Heidegger, for one, seems to lie behind some of the author's patient descriptions of topography and the gardener's tasks and the themes that emerge from this act of attention. The slow rhythmic accumulation of detail, the steady deepening of emotion and the quiet way in which absolute horror emerges from the everyday reminded me of W. G. Sebald, and also of Walter Abish, author of 'How German Is It?'.

This is a book of great but quiet accomplishment that rewards slow reading.

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