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R. A. Williams "Rosemary the rock nut" (Cambridge, UK)

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The Master of Bruges
The Master of Bruges
by Terence Morgan
Edition: Paperback

1 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable load of hooey, 18 July 2011
This review is from: The Master of Bruges (Paperback)
Crackpot theories about Richard III abound, and this has to be the crackpottiest yet. However, it isn't presented as serious history; indeed, the narrator of the novel actually warns the reader against taking what he says as gospel, so one can enjoy it as a bit of hooey.

The idea that Edward IV and Richard actually made an advance plan to have Edward's sons declared illegitimate so that Richard could take the throne temporarily and then hand it back to them when the kerfuffle had died down is so idiotic it's funny and makes a good yarn, so long as you don't worry in the slightest about psychological probability... can you imagine any king agreeing anything so bloody daft? As for the idea that it was Henry VII who had the princes (or one of them, at least) knocked off, this is a favourite with Richard III enthusiasts and there is not a scrap of evidence to support it. It's odd how the Ricardians are constantly howling about the blackening of Richard's character but are quite happy to blacken that of Henry, who, if not exactly lovable, was a good and prudent king and put England back on its feet -certainly the best of the Tudors excepting Elizabeth.

And Hastings actually begging Richard to have him executed without trial? I ask you!!!!

Truth is, if Richard didn't personally arrange for the princes' murder, it certainly happpened during his reign and he most certainly didn't prevent it, because he could have scotched rumours about it with the utmost ease by parading them through London. He didn't, because he couldn't, because they were dead. QED.

The bit about Edward V having an awful jaw disease appears to be true, however, or at least the skeleton that is supposed to be his had a badly diseased jaw. And it is of course true that Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard of York, and raised quite a respectable rebellion, though Henry saw him off very efficiently.

As for Hans Memling having done for Mary of Burgundy, well, that is certainly a turn-up for the book. Art for art's sake?

Actually the bits about art are quite good, but Hans seems to have been very casual about his artistic career amidst the skulduggerous doings of the great.

To Hull and Back: On Holiday in Unsung Britain
To Hull and Back: On Holiday in Unsung Britain
by Tom Chesshyre
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars See the mud but walk on the red carpet, 8 May 2011
For anybody who is sated with luxury hotels, fed up with visiting the world's most beautiful destinations for free, and wants to play at slumming it without any of the attendant discomforts, this book is a must. Chesshyre, as a travel correspondent, is in that happy position, and so - sez he - he decided to visit the nastier bits of Britain, purely for his own private amusement. And promptly wrote a mass market paperback about the experience.

It's hardly a new idea. Descriptions of life in Blighted Britain abound - some trying to amuse, some trying to shock (this book does neither) - and Chesshyre hasn't seen anything that anybody with two eyes wouldn't see if they visited these places. He does draw on his clout as a journalist to interview some local big noises, but all they ever seem to tell him is that their particular bit of blight is on the up-and-up. Hardly news, and probably not true.

Apart from this sort of chit-chat, Chesshyre spends most of his time in the top hotels, with or without his excruciatingly uninteresting girlfriend. On the few occasions he ventures into the really nasty bits, one look from a gipsyish immigrant is enough to send him away in a panic.

Investigative journalism, then, it ain't. And if I want to read about somebody else's holidays, I'd rather read about a more interesting person in a more interesting place.

In places the style is quite taking, which is why I've given this two stars instead of one. But Chesshyre has caught the contemporary novelist's disease of writing everything in the present tense, which leads to such clumsy absurdities as 'The MP, who is embroiled in the Westminster expenses scandal not long aftrer our visit (and has her car vandalised in Salford by angry constituents), shares the building.' Past, present and future all boiled up into a ghastly temporal sludge.

The MP, incidentally, was Hazel Blears. The building she shares apparently houses a museum dedicated to glorifying the working class, with which Blears demonstrates/demonstrated/will demonstrate such impressive solidarity.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 28, 2011 9:18 PM BST

Hobberdy Dick
Hobberdy Dick
by K. M. Briggs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.79

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly delightful folklore fantasy, 29 Dec 2010
This review is from: Hobberdy Dick (Paperback)
British children's literature is fortunate in having a wonderful thread of fantasy or time-slip stories set in the English countryside, written by authors imbued with a deep love of the area concerned and a deep knowledge of British tradition. Kipling, maybe, ushered it in with 'Puck of Pook's Hill' and 'Rewards and Fairies', which not only tell a sequence of wonderful stories but also exquisitely capture the golden evening of rural England that ended in the perpetual night of World War I and its aftermath. Alison Uttley's haunting evocation of Derbyshire and the Babington family home in 'A Traveller in Time' is a worthy member of the tradition; so are Mary Norton's 'Borrowers' books, set in the gentle countryside of Bedfordshire, long since murdered by the brutal planners of that self-proclaimed 'progressive country'. Lucy Boston gave us Huntingdonshire and 'Green Knowe'; more recently, we've had Alan Garner's Alderly Edge and Susan Cooper's Thames Valley (I'm not so sure about her Welsh and Cornish settings).

I've only just discovered 'Hobberdy Dick', but it definitely belongs in that enchanted company. The setting is seventeenth-century Oxfordshire, which the author describes with loving, utterly convincing but not excessive detail; the hero is a friendly household sprite, and the adventures of the Puritan family he befriends are both heart-warming and exciting, providing a lump in the throat from time to time. The gentle acceptance of Christian faith (while quietly reproving Puritan excesses) makes a pleasant change to the strident anti-Christianity of so many more recent authors (Pullman - ugh!), and above all, the author's matchless knowledge of British folklore brings us into intimate contact with a fairy realm that is just as convincing as that of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.

All children should be introduced to this book before the age of, say, eight. But if you meet it many years later, as I did, you'll still be as delighted. Buy one copy for your grandchild's Christmas stocking and one for yourself. Otherwise you'll find yourself robbing the stocking, and that would never do.

The Book Thief
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

15 of 29 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Surely the author went to a creative writing class?, 28 Dec 2010
This review is from: The Book Thief (Paperback)
Receipt for critical success in fiction:

(1) Be pretentious and obscure.
(2) Use any style of narrative you like, except the omniscient narrator who can tell a story straight.
(3) Never relate events in their natural order.
(4) Avoid using the simple past tense.
(5) Dress up the page in fancy type and add a few decorative twiddles.
(6) Don't bother about trifles like recognisable human characters or interesting story.

(7) Optional extra: set the book ('story' I will not term it) in Nazi Germany, the publisher's delight.

Result: a staggering success.

Effect on me: intense, withering boredom with a strong overtone of nausea.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 1, 2014 9:50 PM GMT

by Gerald Seymour
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.84

3.0 out of 5 stars Not Seymour's best, but still pretty good, 23 Dec 2010
This review is from: Kingfisher (Paperback)
Warning: spoilers
Warning no. 2: the blurb for this book gives away half the plot and more than half the suspense. Do you have to be an imbecile in order to be recruited to write blurbs for thrillers, or is the imbecility a consequence of doing the job?

For a reader who goes into the book with a blurb-free mind, which I did by refraining from looking at the back cover, the first half is a palpitatingly suspenseful narrative, recounting almost minute by minute how the three resentful young Jews are pushed into their desperate action, while also filling in the dark and sordid background of the lives they seek to leave behind. The hi-jacking itself is snappy and dramatic, and the story of how the plane is shoved from country to country before coming in to Stansted is totally compelling.

Once the plane's on the ground the pace slackens. In one way this is justifiable: dealing with a hi-jack obviously requires patience and involves long stretches of torturing inaction. And the uncertainty about how it will all end keeps the reader turnng the pages. However, the narrative does drag in places, particularly when we are forced to follow long and not particularly interesting interior monologues from a range of characters.

The other thing that bugs me about this novel is the way the author seeks to arouse sympathy for the hi-jackers. To me, this doesn't work. David is an over-inflated airbag, all wind and no resolution, with no clear political or personal programme apart from killing a Soviet policeman in order to make a point (what point?) - and he can't even organise that efficiently. Rebecca is a bat-witted, squealing little-girl dunce, and Isaac, the strongest character, is a cold-blooded killer with only the most muddled set of ideas and a fragile and unpleasant sense of identity. I was as relieved to see the three of them disposed of as the hapless passengers were. My sympathies were mainly with the reluctant, compassionate, courageous, disillusioned (anti?)hero, Charlie Webster, with some to spare for the steely female pilot and for the hardline Israeli captain who unsuccessfully enjoins Isaac to do a Masada.

What does come over very convincingly, as in most of Seymour's books, is the self-serving hypocrisy, craven moral cowardice, indecision and buck-passing exhibited by those in authority in the West: the German and Dutch governments who refuse to let the plane land; the foreign secretary crumbling under Soviet pressure; the home secretary terrified of making a decision, but willing to risk multiple deaths to make himself look bold; the pompous, stupid, assistant chief constable; and all the rest of the shabby crew: a pretty poor advertisement for the free world, if still preferable to the brutal Soviets. (Where are those bullies and torturers now? Probably still in office, albeit with a different name. Plus ça change...) I'd like to believe that Seymour's picture is exaggerated, but I've a strong feeling that it isn't.

Stoneheart: 3: Silvertongue: No. 3 (Stoneheart Trilogy)
Stoneheart: 3: Silvertongue: No. 3 (Stoneheart Trilogy)
by Charlie Fletcher
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous fantasy, 13 Dec 2010
Fantasy is very much the 'in' genre for children's literature at the moment, maybe because modern children are so surrounded by cotton-wool that there's no chance of their having interesting experiences in the real word. Even the Carnegie awarders have jumped on the bandwagon, choosing Neil Gaiman's unctuously self-satisfied and at times unpleasantly violent, but certainly fantasy-based, <The Graveyard Book>.

For my money, Fletcher is worth fifty Gaimans, and I think that if the children did the judging, rather than Guardian-reading adults, Fletcher would be a dead cert for the Carnegie. He has a brilliantly original idea and develops it with enormous verve. The inventiveness and pace of the story are terrific throughout the three volumes; I don't often read a 500-page book at a sitting, but I very nearly managed it with <Silvertongue>, and the other two books are just as good.

The setting - 'un'-London - is described with a dazzling combination of accuracy and invention. Once the film comes along - and what a film it will be, if it lives up to the books - London is going to be packed solid with fans identifying the various statues. In fact I'm thinking of setting up a small business in Charlie Fletcher Statue Tours.

The characterisation is excellent as well: both the statue characters, from the gruff and indomitable Gunner to the gloriously polysyllabic Dictionary, and the children. As so often in fantasy, the child protagonists have special powers, but unlike so many books in which these powers just give them an easy way out of every difficulty (as in Cooper's 'Dark is Rising' sequence, for example), George's powers as a maker and Edie's as a glint only serve to lead them into greater danger, and the mastering and proper use of these powers is something they have to slowly and painfully learn. It's interesting that they are very much children of our times, coming from broken families and deeply hurt by interaction with adults; and it's moving and encouraging to see them grow out of these hurts, and develop a relationship with each other which is neither sentimentalised nor sexualised - a rare achievement.

Since I'm writing this near Christmas, I'll advise all children who like a cracking good read to ask for these books for presents. Make sure you ask for all three, because once you've read one, you'll want to plunge straight into the next. And don't let any grown-ups get their hands on the books, or you may never get them back.

What are you writing now, Mr Fletcher? Whatever it is, get a move on, because your readers are slavering out here.

The Keys to Avalon: The True Location of Arthur's Kingdom Revealed
The Keys to Avalon: The True Location of Arthur's Kingdom Revealed
by Steve Blake
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A tottering mountain of absurdity, 22 Oct 2010
Not a year goes by without the publication of a new popular book about King Arthur, and while a few are worthwhile, or at least sane, the majority regularly add new extensions to the territory of the lunatic fringe. This particular offering extends the lunatic fringe to the size of a continent. Careless reading, linguistic incompetence, misleading references, sloppy thinking, infinite gullibility, misunderstanding, confusion and misuse of sources, wrenching of evidence out of context to support a lunatic theory -it's all here. According to the back flap, the authors are historical consultants to the North Wales tourist board. If that's true, then don't believe anything historical fed to you by the North Wales tourist board.

Some years ago I read a paper to the British branch of the (highly academic) International Arthurian Society detailing some of the more absurd atrocities of the popular Arthurian industry. We all had a good laugh, but one participant complained that if called upon to correct such mountains of error, he just wouldn't know where to begin. More's the pity, I said, because if scholars don't take the trouble to correct such errors the unfortunate reading public will probably believe them. If previous reviews are any guide (and were not, as I suspect, all written by the authors),that is exactly what has happened.

It is indeed hard to know where to start correcting the errors; in any case, there's not much point in arguing with madmen. I might start with the belief that the Welsh 'Bruts' represent the original text that Geoffrey of Monmouth pretended to have translated into Latin. They don't. They're translations of Geoffrey's Latin into Welsh, with variants and occasional additions, but no substantial changes. Geoffrey's 'very ancient book', if it ever existed at all, is irrecoverable.

Then there's the misunderstanding, either deliberate or just careless, of elementary linguistic facts. I don't know if the authors really understand any Welsh or Latin or are just pretending that they do, but the latter is infinitely more likely. Anyone who can say, for instance, that the sounds g, k and c are interchangeable in Welsh hasn't even got to lesson 1. The LETTERS c and k may be interchangeable in medieval orthography, but the alternation between the sound represented by the letters c/k and the sound represented by the letter g is grammatically vital, denoting mutation when occurring at the beginning of a word. 'Maen' does not mean 'sacred', it means 'stone'. The fact that some 'stones' can be considered 'sacred' doesn't mean that 'sacred' and 'stone' are the same thing, unless you're attending a Welsh version of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. More important, 'ynys' means 'island', not 'realm'. The fact that the Welsh Academy Dictionary says 'ynys' can occasionally mean 'realm' BY EXTENSION doesn't mean that it always or primarily means 'realm' - it merely indicates that early Welsh sources equate the Island of Britain with a single 'realm'.

But these individual stupidities are not as damning as the colossal silliness of making out that every name in the Welsh Bruts refers to a location in Wales, even when it patently doesn't. The Bruts simply use the accepted Welsh versions of Geoffrey's place names. Llundain isn't Ludlow, it's London - it's still the Welsh for London. Ceint isn't Gwent, it's Kent. Kernyw isn't the Lleyn peninsula, it's Cornwall - Kernow to the Cornish. Hafren is the Severn and Hwmyr is the Humber. And so on. Geoffrey's geography may not be impeccable, but it makes perfect sense, unlike the nonsensical farrago that Blake and Lloyd have dreamed up. Even if, per impossibile, all their identifications were correct, what are we to suppose was going on in the rest of Britain while their characters were frolicking about in Wales? Blake and Lloyd seem content to leave the remainder as a complete historical and geographical void - comfortably sealed off, apparently, by Offa's dyke, which is actually a Roman wall built by Septimius Severus. Funny the archaeologists never noticed that.

Of course it's dear old muddlehead Nennius who tells us that Severus built a wall. That brings me to another colossal idiocy: while cheerfully jettisoning every historian who has written about Dark Age Britain since the ninth century, Blake and Lloyd are quite happy to believe that Arthur set out to conquer Rome, that Merlin was a true prophet, that Uther Pendragon could transform himself by magic into the form of Duke Gorlois, and that Vortigern was troubled by two dragons fighting underground in a tent. Here indeed is the true spirit of historical enquiry. Not.

Then there's the sheer sloppiness. The early Saxon kingdom of the north is Bernicia, not Bernica. Saxons come in hordes, not hoards. 'De antiquitate' doesn't mean 'the antiquities', it means 'concerning the antiquity'. Gildas wrote 'De Excidio Britanniae', not 'De Excido Britannia'. 'Picts' and 'Scots' are not interchangeable. And so on, and so on.

I could go on, but what's the use? Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain. But if you really want the truth about Arthur, go read somebody like Richard Barber.

On The Beach (Vintage Classics)
On The Beach (Vintage Classics)
by Nevil Shute Norway
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Shows its age, but still packs a punch, 16 Oct 2010
Every generation has its version of the End of the World. I think it's because no human being can really accept the fact that the world will go on after his/her death: in a weird way, we want to think that the world will end with us. In the Christian Middle Ages they mostly tried to identify Antichrist (= the person in authority I most hate) as the precursor of the End. Just now it's Global Warming, with a touch of al-Qaeda. In the 'frightened fifties' it was nuclear war.

Everything previous reviewers have said about wooden dialogue and slack plotting is true: the book is dating fast. Nowadays, for example, a lot of readers would want to know far more about the impact of all this nuclear radiation on the ecology: not just people, dogs and rabbits, but plants, insects, sea life, etc. Shute doesn't seem to have thought very hard about this: there are a few vague remarks about fish, but there's no attempt to probe the subject. (So much for Shute as a Real Scientist.)

I also, like some other reviewers, find his account of how people react to imminent annihilation totally unconvincing. City after city is overwhelmed by nuclear radiation and people just sit there? Come off it. Even if you knew that the city you're fleeing to is going to be overwhelmed in its turn, wouldn't you go there as fast as you could, if it meant a few years or months or just days of life? And having got there, wouldn't you kill to stay there? Why not? What would it matter if you did? The passive resignation of Shute's characters - collective and individual -is ridiculous and impossible.

On the other hand, the book conveys very effectively the ghastly feeling of waiting for an inescapable doom that's drawing nearer and nearer. It's a bit like a nuclear version of 'The Pit and the Pendulum' - the ultimate nightmare. I'm not given to nightmares myself, but this book gave me one. It makes the danger of being unexpectedly blown up by a suicidal fanatic seem petty by comparison: at least you wouldn't see that coming.

Winterbringers (Kelpies)
Winterbringers (Kelpies)
by Gill Arbuthnott
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Eerie page-turner, 27 Aug 2010
Among the current deluge of mediocre fantasy novels for older children, a few stand out as genuinely worthwhile, and 'Winterbringers' is one of them. Based on an authentic account of an eighteenth-century witch trial, it involves the attempts of two modern teenagers to link with, and partially counteract, the previous witches' attempts to increase the power of Summer in Fife - an endeavour that anybody who knows Fife can only approve of! The idea sounds wimsey, but it is well handled; the story is exciting, quite often scary, and the unnatural winter conditions are chillingly (!) evoked.

I give this three stars as a well-constructed, well-paced, enjoyable read. The main reason I won't go higher is the flimsy characterisation. The teenage protagonists, Josh and Callie, have potential as a contrasting pair - ordinary city boy and gifted country girl - but this potential for tension and human drama is scarcely tapped in the story. Rose, Callie's witch grandmother, likewise has unrealised potential, but the other characters are virtual nonentities. I didn't feel any personal concern for any of the characters; the interest lies exclusively in the incident, which means that the book might not stand up well to a second reading. Another, lesser gripe is that the author has made no attempt whatever to reproduce the language or thought-patterns of the eighteenth century. That is intellectual laziness, of a kind that's all too common in time-slip stories. People in past ages were not 'just the same as us', and they most certainly didn't talk like us.

A Web of Air (Mortal Engines)
A Web of Air (Mortal Engines)
by Philip Reeve
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reinventing the wheel, or rather the wing, 22 Jun 2010
'Mortal Engines' made a fine quartet, but it ended with a very firm closure. I wonder which, of the author and the publisher, started thinking that there had to be more mileage in this imaginary world, but decided that the ending couldn't be unpicked so they had to go back in time? Whoever decided, it's certainly led to an enthralling couple of novels and there must be at least one more to come.

'Web of Air' isn't quite as good as 'Fever Crumb', where Fever's search for her identity amidst the peculiar world of pre-traction London was a powerful central theme, and the beginning of the dreaded Stalker made a poignant sub-plot, particularly to those who've read the previous quartet. The dystopic post-apocalypse world is very much softened in 'Web of Air', which has a romantic flavour almost reminiscent of 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', albeit brutalised to suit the obligatory savagery of modern literature for (admittedly) older children. The intolerant, blanket hostility to religion in Reeve's book is another commonplace of today's children's literature and one which we could very well do without. That being said, Fever's determined rationalism is both endearing and comically ironical, in that it leads her to dismiss as impossible many of today's scientific achievements (such as moon landings).

The depressing thing about this book, which stops me giving it five stars, is that it can only look towards a blank horizon - however many more pre-sequels Reeve manages to shove in first. However well-meaning Fever and her friends may be, their activities can only contribute to creating the horrible world described in 'Mortal Engines', and so the final feeling has to be one of hopelessness.

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