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Red Winter
Red Winter
Price: £4.31

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars GOOD BUT NOT QUITE AS GOOD AS HOPED, 24 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: Red Winter (Kindle Edition)
I had read a number of reviews that praised both this 'Red Winter' as well as Dan Smith's other, similar, novel, 'The Child Thief' and commenting that 'Red Winter' was the better of the two. So, having read and thoroughly enjoyed 'The Child Thief', I settled down to 'Red Winter' expecting great things. I was disappointed.

Firstly, these two stories are so alike as to be interchangeable; it's as though Dan Smith could only think of one plot line and so stuck with it. All of the salient elements of one book are in the other, including good men doing bad things and vice versa, redemption, a brutal regime, people aren't who you think they are, monochrome settings with a splash of red (the blood), a highly skilled hero, manhunting and being hunted, children and childhood etc, etc etc. The only difference is that, this time, there's a dog too.

There is one element that puzzles me still. It becomes apparent within the first few pages that the main character's brother is with him but is dead. In this situation there is great potential for a teasing story line in which the 'what happened?' question can open up gradually and be important. Yet that doesn't happen here at all and there is no real explanation about those events beyond the mundane. It's a waste. Then there's the ending. I can't give the game away but suffice to say that I can think of several more appropriate endings for a story this bleak. The ending of 'The Child Thief' was brilliant and left the possibility of a further adventure and I would much rather that Dan Smith had used his next novel to continue that story than to write 'Red Winter'.

Had I read this book first, then I have no doubt that it would be a 'five star' review here now because 'Red Winter' is a gripping tale with a bleak and chilling core. All of the good stuff that makes 'The Child Thief' excellent, and as reported in my previous review of that book, is here in some measure too, so I can't allow my disappointment to push me into giving this book less than four stars. Yet none of this is quite as good as 'The Child Thief' and, for some reason, the story here seems to be just that bit flatter and less engrossing and I certainly didn't feel quite the sensation of risk and jeopardy to the main character as I had in 'The Child Thief'.

So, on balance, if you've just bought this book as your first Dan Smith novel and are now looking at this review, then don't worry, you'll enjoy this book. But if you are wondering which of the two books to buy first, then go with 'The Child Thief' and don't bother buying 'Red Winter' afterwards, at least for a few months.

Three Day Road
Three Day Road
Price: £4.31

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars STRANGELY MESMERISING, 17 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: Three Day Road (Kindle Edition)
Having read 'The Orenda' and 'Through Black Spruce', I felt compelled to follow up with 'Three Day Road'. I'm glad that I did. These three books were written by Joseph Boyden at different times and not in the same chronological order as the story line. 'The Orenda' is set furthest back in history, with 'Bird' as the Cree Indian at the centre of the story. Then, 'Three Day Road' is set during the First World War and has a descendent of 'Bird', 'Xavier Bird' as a main character. And then 'Through Black Spruce' is set a few decades later and not only has a 'Bird' as a main character but has an appearance by Xavier Bird.

The strangely engaging technique of having two or three main characters and then rotating each chapter to tell the story through the eyes of each, in turn, was used to forceful effect in 'The Orenda' and 'Through Black Spruce' but is used less obviously in 'Three Day Road'. That is to say that the device is still evident, but not quite so obviously.

As with the other books, when looking back, it seems as though the story should have been a bit boring, as it is certainly quite slowly paced, but it isn't boring. Not at all! The characters are so engaging and well rounded that you really want to read on and find out what happens to them next. Then again, setting the two main characters in the front line trenches of the First World War creates a backdrop to the plot line second to none. Those reviewers who have praised the power of this tale of trench warfare have not mislead you; it really is that good.

For all of its brutality (and it is shockingly brutal in parts) it is the most tender moments that stay with you and this reminder that there is beauty and ugliness in every place is one of the things that lends such a powerful atmosphere of truth to this book. Nothing is overdone in this book; the mysticism is entirely believable, the friendships real and savagery all too 'normal'.

Like Joseph Boyden's other books, the ending is equally 'real', with no nice neat tying up of loose ends, except that, here, if you've read 'Through Black Spruce', you won't be left wondering if Xavier survives or not. Forgive a little pomposity here but this isn't a book for lightweight, thrill-seeker, readers; it's an intelligent book that demands an intelligent attitude from the reader. That isn't to say that it isn't exiting; it is, but this is a book that, having read and enjoyed it, you feel like a better person afterwards.

Sadly, I'm getting to the end of Mr Boyden's output as I would happily read on for a long time yet. You won't be disappointed with 'Three Day Road'.

The Child Thief
The Child Thief
Price: £3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars IMMENSELY SATSFYING, 8 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: The Child Thief (Kindle Edition)
I'm a slow reader. By that, I mean that I don't skim-read or speed-read or read while I'm doing other tasks (not even listening to music). I chew and savour every word and sentence and digest it before moving on and, sometime, I'll come back to read the same section more than once. I don't have several books on the go at once and even text or factual books I read like a novel, from start to finish; there's no 'dipping in' for me. And, unlike some reviewers, I have a real life that means that, apart from holidays, I don't have the luxury of several hours at a stretch to just sit and read. I still manage to read quite a lot, mainly by ending every day with an hour or so with my head in a book and by snatching the odd fifteen minutes here and there. I read in small bites or, as most of my intake is via Kindle, perhaps that should be bytes.

Every now and then a book comes along that makes me curse my lifestyle. Curse those intrusions of work, social life and home life that interrupt my immersion in a book because I just can't wait to get to the next page and the next chapter. The Child Thief is just such a frustration; I hated putting it down.

I haven't read any Dan Smith before so I didn't know what to expect. What I found was a terrifyingly bleak novel of relentless power that is so believable that you genuinely fear that, in this book, the hero could die, or be wrong or be less than perfect. The sense of jeopardy that such truth in a book conveys is astounding. You know when a book is drawing you in when you're sat, reading, in a nice warm room yet you feel cold because the hero is in the freezing snow. I spent half of my time in reading this book shivering like a fever victim.

The narrative is perfectly paced. It doesn't flit along like a swashbuckling romp, nor does it plod from one staged scene to the next, flabby with needless prose. It is spare, taut and moves like oil floating over water. I don't, normally, think of writing or stories as a colour but this book is, very definitely, monochrome. Every mental image it conjures is in deepest black, starkest white or a shade of grey and you don't notice until there is a splash of bright red blood that seems so alien in the monochrome movie in your head.

The characters here are superbly multi-faceted and the concept of 'Even good men can do bad things' is a recurring theme that works effortlessly with such complex and rounded characters. It's shockingly easy to empathise with all of the main characters, even the villains. The plot carries the reader along sweepingly and, although there are no massive surprises, there are enough twists to keep you guessing about what comes next. Dan Smith is just that tad too generous to his reader in flagging when there's something important hidden in the narrative so, when the hero, Luka, misses something, you, the reader spot it and when it's time for a main character to die, you know who it will be and exactly when. These things should have been more surprising and, in a Jeffrey Deaver novel, the reader would have been skimmed over these details artfully so as not to notice until it's too late ( a bit of an unfair comparison as Deaver is the absolute master of reader deception). Yet this tiny imperfection doesn't detract from the story at all so, when a main character arrives in a lethal situation that you saw coming, you still want to shout out "He's behind you!" in best pantomime style. The ending of this book is masterfully judged, reaching a conclusion yet not full closure. It leaves scope for a whole other story and I wonder if Mr Smith will re-visit this Ukranian village to continue the saga at a later stage in his career.

The author notes in the book show Dan Smith as a pedant and it reveals itself in his work here. This is, amazingly,a first main novel yet it doesn't need any polishing at all as Mr Smith's constant smoothing and attention to detail has already shaved off any rough edges. I must say that, I don't know where Luka / Dan Smith learned his 'survival tradecraft' but I spotted a couple of tiny (and I do mean miniscule) flaws there so a shade more research (setting a rifle down in snow is an art in itself and, as a sniper, Luka seems to be strangely content to pick up an unfamiliar weapon and just use it) would deflect those, like me, who take pedantry into obsession.

I'm off to read something else now (slowly!) but I already have Mr Smith's next novel, 'Red Winter' tucked away to savour. and it's calling to me!

QI: The Book of General Ignorance - The Noticeably Stouter Edition: The Noticeably Stouter Edition
QI: The Book of General Ignorance - The Noticeably Stouter Edition: The Noticeably Stouter Edition
Price: £4.19

5.0 out of 5 stars CONCENTRATED QI, 4 Feb. 2014
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As I didn't have the earlier, slimmer, version of this book I have no complaints about a re-hash or being cheated. Anyone buying this book will get exactly what they expect and almost all will be delighted by that. I was! There was very, very, little in this book that I already knew and the real frustration is that, after every new fact, I thought "Wow, I'll remember that!" when, in reality, I can remember almost nothing.

I didn't dip in and out of this book; I read it like a novel and like the true 'QI junkie' that I am. Each snippet is short; usually less than two pages and there are lots and lots of them. They are ordered in a very loose arrangement that makes some, often very tenuous, connection between one item and the next. All are utterly fascinating and I didn't come across a single item that was only 'mildly interesting'; every one was brilliant.

Everyone who buys this book (for themselves) must be satisfied with it as you wouldn't buy it unless you are a fan of the QI TV programme, and, if you are, this is like a concentrated dose of pure QI. This is the beef stock cube of pedantic trivia and I loved it!

As you might imagine, I'm a real 'know-all' and delight in trotting out those little known facts at the drop of a hat. It doesn't make me popular but it does entertain me! I will, definitely, be dipping into this little gem from time to time and the index at the back is very helpful. Actually, a tiny proportion of this wisdom will stay with me. For example, the next time that I see the banana plants around our villa in Cyprus, I'll remember that they aren't trees at all and are sterile! Osmotic learning at its best.

You wouldn't be reading this unless you were contemplating buying this book. And you wouldn't be contemplating buying it unless you had seen QI on TV and it had piqued your interest. Here's some news for you; If you've got this far, it's too late and you're hooked, so just give in to the cravings, buy this book and wriggle with guilty pleasure as you soak up everything you'll never need to know.

Through Black Spruce
Through Black Spruce
Price: £4.31

4.0 out of 5 stars GENTLY RIVETING, 25 Jan. 2014
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'The Orenda' was my first foray into Joseph Boyden and I was so impressed that I bought a couple of his other, earlier, books to try. There is a thread running through all of these books in that one of the main characters is a 'Bird' and can trace back to their early, Cree Indian character of that name (as in 'The Orenda'). A further similarity is the style of alternating characters in each chapter. In 'Through Black Spruce', the two main characters are Will Bird and Annie, an uncle and niece and their interlocking stories are told in alternating chapters; it's a very effective story telling tactic.

This is a very slow paced and gentle book and, really, little actually seems to happen. The story emerges gradually rather than being set out at an early stage and this narrative is all the better for that. If you are looking for a fast paced and/or action packed romp, then look elsewhere 'cos it certainly isn't here. However, I was amazed at how gripping this slowly unravelling story becomes and I was almost immediately immersed in the characters and racing to read the next portion of their stories. This created a quirk for me: as each chapter ended and I began to read the following chapter, it now switched to the other character (either Will or Annie) and I resented being torn away from the story of just the previous page. But a couple of paragraphs in and I was again hooked into that story until, at the end of that chapter.... you get the idea.

What made this book special for me was the insight into the world of the native American Indians living on the borders between Canada and the USA, a genre of work I know very little about. For me, this book was just a little bit too slowly paced and I was disappointed that it doesn't, really, have a proper ending (actually, the ending is true to real life rather than fiction). I preferred 'The Orenda' but, then again, Mr Boyden wrote 'Through Black Spruce' in an earlier part of his career. I have still awarded four stars here as, criticism aside, the word that best describes this book is 'beautiful' and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I feel like a better person for having read it. I will move onto my next Joseph Boyden now because I do think that he's quite a special author.

Jorte Calendar & Organiser
Jorte Calendar & Organiser
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars JUST THE JOB, 18 Jan. 2014
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This review is from: Jorte Calendar & Organiser (App)
Having read some less than complimentary reviews, I was a little unsure about getting this app but, hey, it's free so who can complain? I must have acquired the latest version in which the glitches had been sorted out because, I must say, the app that I have doesn't display any of the annoying things that other reviewers have complained about.

I use 'Outlook' on both my home and work PCs and I wanted something for my Kindle to mimic that. This app doesn't have several of the features of 'Outlook' but, for a basic and simple calendar / diary it's great. The biggest drawback, for me, is that I can't synchronise it with my other electronic diaries so, to be up to date, I have to periodically manually check it against my other diaries and make any changes necessary by hand.

The most impressive thing about this diary to me is its ease of use. It doesn't come with instructions because it doesn't need any; you can see how everything works just from looking at the screen. The screen is nice and big and bright and displays information exactly how it would appear in paper or 'Outlook' format. It is very easy to make and edit entries and the colour coding element is quite useful. As a 'tool', this is, actually, a pleasing thing to use.

This app displays and works beautifully on my Kindle Fire HD but I can't comment and how it might look on other devices, particularly those with smaller screens; I get the sense that it was designed around a Kindle Fire.

My only gripe is that, in the normal view, it shows the events for a day just as short lines of text, displayed in the order that you entered them, not ordered by their chronological order and not displaying their times. This means that, to see what you have planned for that day, you have to tap on the entry to bring up that day, at which point full details are displayed. This isn't such a terrible thing but it makes it more difficult to scan a week and get a feel, for the length of time taken by each appointment. The other thing that I have to be careful about is my poor management of the predictive text system within my Kindle; if I'm not careful, the words that appear on screen aren't actually what I had typed! I imagine that I could turn off predictive text if I bothered to learn how to do that.

This app does almost everything that I wanted and I would, happily, have paid money for it. At 'free', it's a great bargain! It doesn't quite display as I would like so I've held back one star but, to be honest, I feel a bit mean about that!

Military Blunders
Military Blunders
Price: £5.69

3.0 out of 5 stars PACKED WITH INFO, 18 Jan. 2014
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This review is from: Military Blunders (Kindle Edition)
Reviewing this book is difficult for me as I suspect that I'm not the real audience to whom Saul David addressed it, so I'm not entirely qualified to comment really. You see, I'm a 'general' reader with a strong lean towards history and, in particular, military matters. So I'll read a novel followed by a history text book followed by a 'quirky' science book followed by another novel; you get the idea. That means that I know a bit about history but I am, by no stretch, expert. I've read articles and such by Saul David previously and have seen him pop up on a variety of TV documentaries so I know his background. My problem with 'Military Blunders' is that it's too detailed and authoritative for me. If I was a military cadet studying in an academy or even a 'proper' historian, then this book would be perfect. But I'm just not that good!

The book is very well crafted and split into sections that each encompass a general reason for failure and then offers ten examples spanning the ages. Each example is apt and incredibly well researched. Mr David doesn't shy away from giving his personal opinion of where fault lies and one certainly can't accuse him of racism or nationalism as that blame is spread over a wide range of military empires and doesn't spare Britain, America or Europe at all. This is good stuff.

Where I began to have a problem was that, having researched the absolute depth of a military situation, Mr David just can't resist setting it all down, whether it actually matters or not. In almost all cases, I might want to know that "Three units of infantry advanced up the hill", but I don't need to the know the battalion / unit / corps designations of each one, nor the names of their commanders etc. When this level of detail is set out once, it imparts a sense of confidence in the research but, after a few times, it becomes boring and, quite quickly, I was thinking "Oh not again!" when it, inevitably, cropped up in the next section. To me, this was padding but I can see that, to a student, this would be vital. detail.

Most of the examples cited were incidents that I had heard about but knew little detail and these I found to be, on the whole, interesting. Some chimed with films I have seen (such as 'A Bridge Too Far' or 'The Bridge At Remagen' or 'Zulu') or major incidents such as the Dunkirk evacuation or Battle of Crecy. I don't, by the way, learn all of my history via the silver screen! A few were incidents of which I was previously entirely unaware and I felt educated by them. Most pleasing for me were those incidents where I thought that I knew quite a lot but still found something in 'Military Blunders' that I hadn't known. For example, I know a bit about 'Custer's Last Stand' but never knew why Custer was, unlike all of the other casualties, not scalped (you'll have to read the book to find out). Similarly, I knew that Jim Bowie was not the shinning hero of American 'spin history' but I didn't know about his incredible criminal empire with his brother and their ingenious scam to gain from the slave trade.

For those interested in such matters, there is a very useful index at the back of the book so you can go back and find a particular item easily; again, more important to a student than to a general reader I wold imagine. One pleasing element is that, unlike some other Kindle renditions, the maps in here (and there are lots of them) can be enlarged to fill the page and, on my Kindle Fire, are very legible.

I did enjoy this book but it became a bit of slog to get through the detail, hence the three stars. If I was either teaching a military class or attending that class as a student, this would get an easy five stars. If I might sound a little crass, this Kindle book was ridiculously cheap to buy so I was in no way cheated; it was, if anything, the best value couple of quid I've spent in a long time. Saul David knows his stuff!

The Orenda
The Orenda
Price: £5.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BEST BOOK FOR AGES, 3 Jan. 2014
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This review is from: The Orenda (Kindle Edition)
Wow, what an experience; this is the best book that I've read in a long while.

Many years ago, while on holiday, I picked up a battered compilation of J. Fenimore Cooper's 'Leatherstocking' stories in a charity shop. From then on I was hooked. These are five books and most people will only recognise the most famous of them; 'The Last of The Mohicans'. Their star is Hawkeye whose real name, in the books, was Natty Bumppo, but I'll bet you didn't know that as I can't see Daniel Day-Lewis accepting end credits to a film for a character called 'Natty Bumppo'! There was an awful lot wrong with Fenimore Cooper's novels but it seems odd to me that, although I've read thousands of books about almost every other culture under the sun, I haven't come across many serious books set in the North America of the 18th century and focussing on the aboriginal/indigenous/Indian culture. Other than pulp westerns of course. So, when I heard a radio review of The Orenda that praised it highly, I immediately bought a Kindle version. I hesitated because, for Kindle, the price was a bit high and I'd only, normally, pay more than £10 for the Kindle version of one of my favourite authors, not an author of whom I'd never heard. It was, however, one of my best choices for a long time.

This novel is a real 'tour-de-force'. There are three principal characters; a Huron (actually Wendat) warrior chief; the young Iroquois girl that he takes in a raid as his adoptive daughter and a French Jesuit priest. Joseph Boyden has adopted a slightly unusual style in that, instead of the whole tale being told by one character, each new chapter is told through the eyes of one of the three main characters in turn. As the reader, you switch your perspective periodically and this, simple, device works extremely well.

All of the characters, including the host of secondary 'players', are very well drawn and developed and the reader quickly forms a bond with, and an in-depth knowledge of, each main character. The descriptive passages of the landscape are beautiful and the dialogue is perfectly pitched to recognise the language barriers between these cultures. All of the characters are multi-faceted with no 'nasty villains' or 'dashing heroes'. More than anything, this novel is about family, community, loyalty and the struggle to survive, even for the indigenous population, in this beautiful but harsh country. And it's about change.

Now here's a strange thing that's difficult to explain. There are several very lengthy and brutally descriptive passages dealing with torture and all of these dwell on the detail more than any book I've ever read. Yet this isn't a violent book. That's because all of the violence (and there is quite a lot) is perfectly set in an appropriate context and is never, ever, gratuitous. The result is that the extreme depictions of torture are merely an expression of that part of the story. See, I told you that's it's hard to explain!

One of the problems with J. Fenimore Cooper's novels was his very limited knowledge of the Indian tribes of whom he wrote (he got very confused at times and this, unfortunately, coloured public views for many, many, years). Not so with Mr Boyden. This book just sings of authority; here is a man writing, with an assured flair, about a topic in which he is expert. This is quality. I learned quite a lot from this book (I'm ashamed to admit that it never occurred to me before that North American Indians were fascinated by woollen garments because they'd never seen them before; there were no sheep there). The writing style, in general, is superb. This isn't a rip roaring, action packed adventure story, yet it is very hard to put this book down once started (sorry for the cliché). The story just pulls you along. In case you're interested, the title comes from the American Indian belief that everyone has two souls, called orenda.

Being so impressed, I looked up other books by this author and was surprised by what I found. This historical novel is so compellingly authoritative that I expected My Boyden's other works to be set in a similar age; they're not. Interestingly, the main character in two of Joseph Boyden's earlier novels is called Bird, and The Orenda is prequel (by hundreds of years) in which the warrior chief is also called Bird, the ancestor of those in the earlier (or later, depending upon your point of view) novels. I shall read more of Mr Boyden and hope that it is all of the quality of The Orenda. Even if it isn't (and I find that hard to expect), I will always be glad that I read this.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 11, 2014 11:26 AM BST

Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars JUST OK, 29 Dec. 2013
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This review is from: Overcome (Audio CD)
My wife likes one track from this album so I bought the whole thing for her. She likes it but it isn't anything special and she, really, still just likes one track from the album! Half of the songs are actually sung by a man rather than by Alexandra Burke.

There are, however, a couple of mysteries in this purchase. Firstly, when loading the CD into my PC via i-Tunes, even though it loads OK and can find the album art work, it won't store it under 'Alexandra Burke' in the 'Artist' section; it considers the album to be by 'various artists'. As you might expect, when loading this onto an i-pod, it has the same problem; you can't find it by looking in 'Artists'.

Secondly, within the box there is also a DVD but this won't play either on my PC (through a variety of media players) or on my DVD player; it just gives a message that the format is incompatable. Is it Blueray? This is of no real significance to us but it is, still, strange.

Conclusion? It's just about adequate.

It's Your Time You're Wasting: A Teacher's Tales of Classroom Hell (Frank Chalk Book 1)
It's Your Time You're Wasting: A Teacher's Tales of Classroom Hell (Frank Chalk Book 1)
Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars DEPRESSINGLY GOOD, 29 Dec. 2013
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I'm not a teacher and I don't have children at school, although I do have a grandchild for whom the world of education lies ahead. What I am is a 59 year old man and product of the grammar school system. Frank Chalk has written this book but every word (except for the brief sections on skiing and sky diving) could have come from my mouth. I agree with absolutely every last thing that Frank Chalk has said in this book and, unfortunately, that includes his gloomy prediction that things won't get better any time soon.

This isn't an uplifting book; it's quite depressing and it should, really, be a bit boring as the whole book is just one long whinge about the secondary school system. But it isn't. That's partly because it is written in a very accessible and mildly humorous style and partly because each bite-sized episode is engaging and interesting in its own right. The book should also be a bit dated as it was written some ten years ago, but, again, it isn't because, depressingly, the dire conditions forming the backbone of the narrative have either not changed at all or, in some cases, have become worse. Frank Chalk does a good job of keeping party politics out of his rantings and, quite rightly in my opinion, blames the whole system rather than one party. His descriptions of the stereotypical characters chime perfectly with people that I've met, as do his feelings about them. I was surprised that one element was missing though and that is that, apart from a very, very, brief mention of a female 'student' (read 'child') forming a crush on him, he doesn't, really, say much about the very real problem in today's schools of teenaged girls looking and dressing like 20 year olds and teenaged boys having the voice, physique and facial hair of adults.

This book scares the life out of me because it is so close to home for me. We have a 2 1/2 year old grandson who is growing up on a 'Cherry Tree Farm' type estate with 'Kanye' and 'Chantelle' parents. If Frank Chalk is right, then our grandson's future is doomed from the outset. And I believe that he is right. My mum did better than her mum and I've done better than my mum. But that progression is now broken and I fear that our grandson (the product of my stepson in whose education I played no part) is already beyond our help.

Well done Frank Chalk; I thoroughly enjoyed your book. I wish that I could disagree with at least some of what you say but I can't! If I can find more of your output, I'll read that too.

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