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Jon Chambers (Birmingham, England)
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The Photograph
The Photograph
Price: £6.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, 25 April 2015
This review is from: The Photograph (Kindle Edition)
A most subtle ghost story, of sorts. The death of the female protagonist, Kath, provokes inquiries in the minds of all of those connected to her. Fragments of memory are recalled, fleshed out and reinterpreted, as the characters whose lives intersected with hers try to understand what happened, and struggle to re-evaluate their own role in events. And Kate reappears, walking and talking again, if only in the minds of others.

A most unusual narrative style, too, in which characters' thoughts direct the non-sequential flow of chapters. The result is highly convincing from a psychological point of view. Characters often fail to understand each other because of their own agendas and obsessions - particularly so in the case of Kate's husband, Glyn, an academic who is instrumental in researching the context of a photograph which shows that his wife was unfaithful. It's also successful from a narrative viewpoint. We end up with a mosaic which progresses from fuzzy to fully resolved.

A highly skilful, beautifully told and absorbing exploration of a domestic tragedy, in which seemingly mundane events and conversations assume much greater significance when viewed with the benefit of hindsight many years later.


Extreme Metaphors
Extreme Metaphors
by J. G. Ballard
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A Life in Interviews, 31 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Extreme Metaphors (Hardcover)
Without doubt, JG Ballard is one of the great interviewees of modern fiction. He may be only occasionally visionary, often repetitive and sometimes provocative verging on the insane, but he's always high on entertainment value. So much so, that many readers may actually prefer reading this collection of interviews to his challenging, even opaque, brand of avant-garde fiction.

As Simon Sellars explains in his Introduction, Ballard gave over 200 interviews throughout his career (of which 43 are presented here - several previously unpublished). The interviewers themselves are of variable merit, occasionally producing results that read more like questionnaires - they generally become more accomplished as the years roll by, ending up participating in illuminating dialogue with the novelist in the final years. But the great strength of Ballard is that he'll respond intelligently, originally and at length to even the most uninspiring set of prompts.

Almost every page has soundbite potential, crackling with the kind of static that Ballard generated so effortlessly. He'll probably be best remembered for his science-fiction, but Ballard remained an alert social commentator to the end of his life, and has many interesting things to say about modern society. About how Big Brother changed during the 2000s and what it showed about social trends. Or about future world leaders, where they might come from and where they may take us: 'The thing about fuhrers and messiahs is that they always come out of the least expected places - deserts usually. But of course the shopping malls and retail parks in England in 2006 are deserts by any yardstick you care to apply.' Not always prescient, perhaps, but always engaging.

Ballard's was a unique talent that is admirably served by this skilfully edited anthology, in which each interview is succinctly introduced by two people who know his work intimately.


Smart Weigh SMS500 Digital Bathroom Scale, High Accuracy, Dual Color Weight Change Detection and Smart Step-On Auto Recognition for 8 Users, Silver
Smart Weigh SMS500 Digital Bathroom Scale, High Accuracy, Dual Color Weight Change Detection and Smart Step-On Auto Recognition for 8 Users, Silver
Price: £34.95

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Neat tracker, 28 Mar. 2015
Keeping fit doesn't, unfortunately, simply require doing training routines. A psychology book I read recently suggested that doing exercise might actually result in weight gain, because we're more likely to reward ourselves after completing those press-ups or, as in my case, cycling up hills. Keeping accurate track of our weight is key.

The Smart Weigh SMS500 is an excellent way (pardon the pun) of both measuring your weight and keeping track of your progress/regress by means of simple, and highly motivational, colour coding. After taking your weight, the LED display will turn green (= no change, or weight loss) or red (= weight gain). Such information is surprisingly effective. It could be compared to displays which aim to help us control our speed when driving. From personal experience, a smiling/frowning face on a speed check control is much more likely to encourage co-operative driving behaviour than a simple speed read out. Wanting to avoid the red zone on these scales will probably be enough to help us resist the biscuits with afternoon tea.

Unlike some weighing scales, the device is very simple to set up, with the procedure taking no more than a minute or two. Conventional AAA batteries need to be inserted (ignore the mention of Lithium batteries in the guide book) and a button on the underside needs to be pressed to convert from lbs to kg (or vice versa). Other functions are performed automatically.

The SMS500 is sensitive and accurate. Repeat weighings gave the same result (which breeds confidence). Removing my cardigan to 'see green' was enough to achieve this. Trying to test the red display, however, by holding a two-litre bottle of water while stepping on the scales, was much too crude for this device - it simply assumed that it was weighing a different person and entered U2 (user number 2) on the display.

A highly recommended, neat, easy-to-use and professionally assembled set of scales.


The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
by Oliver Burkeman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Negative enrichment, 21 Mar. 2015
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Perhaps the most deflating thing you can do to a supposedly serious book of non-fiction is to describe it as 'journalism', suggesting that, whatever its merits, the work is essentially ephemeral. Oliver Burkeman is a very accomplished journalist, and he even describes himself in The Antidote as 'a reporter'. Yet despite being highly entertaining (and it's worth reading for its entertainment value alone) his book is eminently serious, tackling important issues like insecurity and the sense of self. Moreover, Burkeman's argument that adopting a negative outlook has positive benefits is potentially life-enhancing. It's an idea that's pursued rigorously and it gives coherence to what could otherwise read as little more than an episodic collection of feature articles.

The Antidote is intended to have a wider and more popular appeal than that of the average psychology text. In true investigative reporter style, Burkeman seeks out colourful, 'larger-than-life', characters who embody attitudes, theories and beliefs, like Positive Thinking and Buddhism. So, for example, he seeks out a modern-day Seneca (enter Keith of Watford), or a mind-changing, bench-sleeping, drop-out (the Russell Square hermit, Ulrich Tolle). He visits a lawless and life-threatening part of Mexico which, infested with criminal gangs and with zero police presence, is home to a bizarre new religious cult devoted to Saint Death.

But there is purpose behind each 'journalistic' foray. According to those quoted in the chapter entitled Who's There?, for example, there may not be any such entity as the undivided self, and it may not even be meaningful to talk in terms of self and non-self (or the dividing line between one's body and the space around it). But for me, if that's a meaningful concept, this chapter is the most puzzling and rewarding of all. And the book as a whole is one you'll probably want, or need, to revisit in order to puzzle over its implications. For despite its irreverent wit and often flippant prose, The Antidote is deceptively profound.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2015 7:33 AM GMT


Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life
Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life
by Paul Dolan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Design fault?, 19 Mar. 2015
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On the back cover of Happiness by Design are four quotations from journalists and psychologists. They form part of the 'blurb'. One of the endorsements is from Oliver Burkeman, who calls the book 'a powerful reminder to focus on what actually delivers joy'. Yet this same psychologist, in The Antidote (my current read), expresses scepticism about self-help and happiness books in general. They are 'frequently banal,' he warns, essentially telling you 'to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it.'

My own response to Dolan's book is similarly ambivalent, in that I find it both thought-provoking (especially in the first half, dealing with the philosophy and psychology of happiness) but rather less successful in its more practical, self-help orientated second part. The originality and usefulness of the book arises from Dolan's suggestion that people get happiness in life not merely from pleasurable experience, but from feeling a sense of purpose as well. According to the author, people tend to gravitate towards either pleasure or purpose ends of the spectrum, and he recommends that we try to achieve a better balance between the two in order to feel happier in what we do. (And actually do, rather than merely procrastinate on possibilities or ruminate on regrets and missed chances). Happiness lost, he says, is lost forever.

So far, so good. But the book ends with the same tick-list that appeared in the preface (about things that would give us more happiness, like changing career, or being healthier). In my case, my ticks hadn't changed, suggesting that Dolan's book wasn't of much practical help. Moreover, at points, his advice is morally dubious, to say the least. He advocates lying to our partners, for example, in order to save them (and us) from pain. He also suggests that, in our quest to improve, say, our sex-lives, we ditch fat friends and those who probably don't have good sex lives themselves, and surround ourselves with gracile, sexier friends instead. Hedonism trumps altruism throughout, because happiness is all that counts, apparently. His approach is all very refreshing, direct and uncomplicated, no doubt (but then again, so was Reggie Kray's.) There's also an overall smugness about Dolan's own sense of well-being, and pride in his rise from working-class East End to a middle class professorship - a smugness that isn't necessarily infectious.

So, an excellent (and highly readable) first half. But that second half: while it would be unfair to call it 'banal', it may not add much to your store of happiness.


Birds Without Wings
Birds Without Wings
by Louis De Bernières
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Poignant and lyrical beauty, 17 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Birds Without Wings (Paperback)
There's a certain irony in the fact that the paperback edition of this novel preceded the London bombings by just two days, because the over-riding theme of Birds Without Wings is that people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds are able to get on just fine - until the fanaticism of religious fascism rears its head (as great an evil, in the book, as the irrationalism of nationalism).

Louis de Bernieres has certainly found his terrain in writing about the Balkans. Birds Without Wings (like its predecessor, Captain Corelli's Mandolin) is a lyrical, sympathetic and poignant narrative which revels in the people and cultures of the fin-de-siecle eastern Mediterranean. While his earlier novels, with Latin American settings, showed brilliant flashes, this one combines brilliance with purpose. De Bernieres' gift for characterisation in this novel, meanwhile, remains exemplary. Within half a page or so of prose, we feel we know the characters as well as we might a life-long friend. Iskander the Potter, for instance, isn't just described as a maker of proverbs: we are shown his proverb-making habit of mind, and hear his distinctive voice, throughout. ('Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many', and 'He who slaps his own face should not cry out' are just two such utterances appearing in the first chapter.)

Yes, the book is long, and the historical chapters disrupt the flow of a narrative centred on ordinary villagers. But this is the point: political decisions and mad-cap schemes get in the way of everyday routines and start to destroy lives which, hitherto, have been well and harmoniously led. People of different cultures freely mix, sharing festivals, prayers, superstitions, songs etc. They intermarry. They even share alphabets: an illiterate Turkish boy is taught to write by his literate Greek friend, so that his letter home can be understood only by someone with a knowledge of both languages. With the onset of nationalism, hatred and division, this tolerant Ottoman way of life becomes incomprehensible and is lost forever. Whilst the ever-present nightingales and bulbuls can fly anywhere they want, knowing nothing of borders, the townspeople of Eskibahce 'cannot fly, and are therefore condemned to do things that do not agree with [them]', like fight former friends and neighbours in causes to which they do not subscribe. In Iskander's words, 'Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows.'

Probably the best book you'll read this year, Birds Without Wings is already a future classic, if that's not too paradoxical a thought.


Mozart: Clarinet Quintet In A K581 (Colin Lawson/ The Revolutionary Drawing Room) (Clarinet Classics: CC0068)
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet In A K581 (Colin Lawson/ The Revolutionary Drawing Room) (Clarinet Classics: CC0068)
Price: £11.72

4.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, 11 Feb. 2015
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Despite its obvious merits, this recording by Lawson and The Revolutionary Drawing Room fails to satisfy completely. There are lots of things to enjoy and admire here: the wonderful sonorities that the basset clarinet in A produces in the Clarinet Quintet; the completion of K581a by scholar Robert Levin; the inclusion of the 8 bar Andante Rondo fragment, which lasts a mere 42 seconds; and not least, the crisp recording. Colin Lawson's choice of instrument is unusual - it is intended to replicate the original played by Anton Stadler, the clarinet virtuoso for whom Mozart wrote all of his clarinet music. The basset versions differ from modern clarinets in their extended bass register, and listening to the two basset clarinets used on this recording, it is easy to see why one early reviewer (who's quoted in the CD booklet) telling Stadler that he created 'so soft and lovely a tone that no-one with a heart could resist it.'

It may be a bit heartless, therefore, to cavil and carp. But for me, the all-important Clarinet Quintet suffers from being over-decorated as much as it gains from being played on an original instrument. The same complaint could be levelled at the scholar who completed K581a, the version used on this recording. As it happens, I attended an all-Mozart concert last month (Birmingham Symphony Hall, 29.1.15) in which the fortepiano soloist was none other than Levin. Excellent scholar and virtuoso performer he undoubtedly is, but Levin, too, likes to embroider and freewheel - proving, I think, that more is sometimes less. Mozart's music is often at its sublime best whern simplicity and beauty combine, and Levin's fantasies, like Lawson's embellishments, can detract from the spare beauty of the melodic line.

One last word on completions and reconstructions. The aim is undoubtedly to make the transition between (here) Mozart and Levin as seamless as possible, and to make the latter an invisible presence. But it would be of enormous interest to the listener if the booklet could indicate at what point the original material ended. 'Bar 89' is sufficient if we happen to have the score in front of us. If we don't, then something like 3'25" into Track 5 would be much more helpful.


The Taming of the Shrew - Arden Shakespeare (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare)
The Taming of the Shrew - Arden Shakespeare (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Shrewd Shrew, 22 Jan. 2015
In post-feminist times especially, The Taming of the Shrew has not been without its detractors. Theatre critic Michael Billington once called the play 'disgusting and barbaric', while director Greg Doran confessed that he'd have been uncomfortable staging the play (RSC, 2003) without its Fletcherian 'sequel' The Tamer Tamed as a counter-balance. But for Arden 3's editor, Barbara Hodgson, Shrew is a 'brilliant, ambitious ... remarkable play'. Disgustingly misogynistic Petruccio may appear, but the play is 'great fun' in performance, and Hodgson is generous and perceptive enough to appreciate its protean qualities.

Her Introduction reminds us that Shrew isn't necessarily the 'sexist and brutal polemic' we might suppose, and points out that the long shrew-taming tradition of ballad and folk-lore is considerably more disturbing and macho (there is no wife-beating in Shakespeare's play, after all). Shrew, she argues, inhabits the 'theatre of illusions', and is full of 'gender slips' and instabilities generally, where inversions of class and hierarchy take their place alongside those of gender.

Hodgson admits that untangling the chain of events relating Shakespeare's play to others of similar name (whether real or imagined) is an intractable problem. Mercifully, she devotes more space to the play's long theatrical and critical histories than to its composition and early years which, all too often, can become an exercise in speculation based on supposition built on surmise. (It may be worth noting that the predecessor, Arden2, finally gets round to discussing the play proper only on page 88, and then with exclusive reference to 'the text', avoiding anything theatrical as far as possible.)

While Hodgson's explanation of Katherine's controversial last-scene transformation, in which she becomes the dutifully submissive wife and spouts a reactionary doctrine of male supremacy, is perhaps unconvincing, she does note that her sister, Bianca, shows signs of becoming a proto-shrew at the play's conclusion, providing an equality of sorts.

Laudably, Hodgson reprints the whole of A Shrew as an appendix, then summarises its troubled relationship with THE Shrew. Another bonus is her listing of all major theatre productions (until 2007) in her bibliography, together with lists of promptbooks, and film, tv and audio adaptations. An inspired innovation indeed. Her Commentary, meanwhile, is detailed and informed throughout, and incorporates numerous references to the play in performance.


Human Universe
Human Universe
by Brian Cox
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With science like this, who needs science fiction?, 19 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Human Universe (Hardcover)
Few people have the ability to communicate complex ideas in a simple, unpretentious and engaging manner. Brian Cox undoubtedly has this gift. His recently concluded BBC TV series proved the point yet again and was a spectacular success. Unlikely as it may seem, the book is an even more spectacular achievement.

Human Universe gives us an up-to-the-minute account of current thinking about the universe from an astro-physicist's point of view (it was written in September 2014). It is thought-provoking throughout, but begins to get a real hold on the imagination in a way that's beyond even the science fiction greats. From pages 220 to 226, to be precise, the worlds of science, philosophy and theology collide, and we begin to ponder the consequences of what Cox is saying. His initial premise is: 'Everything that is not explicitly ruled out by the laws of nature will happen given enough time.' And the Big Bang may be just one among many in an infinitely expanding and immortal universe, with our 'local' Big Bang giving rise to our 'local' universe. Now, unless I'm being as dense as a neutron star, the logical extension of all this is that you and me will inevitably exist. Again and again. The fact that we're here is proof that we haven't been ruled out by physical laws. And if we must exist once, we must be called into being an infinite number of times, throughout time and space. (Or have I misunderstood something?)

Anyway, even if immortality can't be guaranteed, there is plenty in this book to give us a lifetime of entertainment and thought-provocation. As well as being rather knowledgeable, Cox shows wit and humour. The three physicists who published a paper in 1948, Alpher, Bethe and Gamow have, he writes, 'the coolest author list in the history of physics.' And elsewhere, Cox argues that every complex form in the universe displays unpredictable behaviour - except Geoff Boycott.

In the mid-1980s, I used to edit a popular science magazine, Omni UK, which saw only one edition (okay, so not that popular). If Brain Cox had been writing then, and if we'd been able to afford him, the title would probably still be flourishing to this day. Never mind. If you read only one popular science book this year, make sure it's Human Universe. Your thoughts on life, the universe, and even mortality, might never be the same again.


The Shoemaker's Holiday (New Mermaids)
The Shoemaker's Holiday (New Mermaids)
by Thomas Dekker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Competent, 8 Jan. 2015
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Watching this play at The Swan in Stratford recently (December, 2014), I overheard a woman comment to her husband during the interval, 'I'm enjoying it, but I'm not overwhelmed.' Exactly. Compared to many Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, this one is thin on wit, poetry and excitement. So what kind of job does Gil Harris make of it in his 2006 edition?

Gil Harris writes knowledgeably and cogently in his illuminating introduction. He tells us that one of the main attractions of the play for Dekker's contemporary audience would have been the 'high-end' costuming on display. A section of the original Elizabethan audience was aspirational, apparently, and the conspicuous display of luxurious fabrics and high-quality shoes would have appealed to their ambition fantasies. They would also have been drawn to the story it tells of a humble shoemaker gaining wealth and status - Simon Eyre ends the play as Lord Mayor of London. (And the allure of sumputous costumes explains why impresario Phillip Henslowe very often spent more on apparel than he did on the actual playscripts.) In its discussion of sources, this edition reprints a chapter from the prose narrative by Thomas Deloney upon which Dekker based his drama, which allows us to see how and why the dramatist selected his material.

Despite the fact that this New Mermaid is considerably more recent than its main rival - in the Revels series, edited by Wells and Smallwood, 1979 - it by no means supersedes the earlier edition, which has a fuller commentary and an extremely thorough introduction. And whilst the later alternative understandably has a more up-to-date Performance History, there haven't been all that many recent productions of the play. Even reading this enlightened edition, it's not difficult to see why.


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