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Norman Housley (Leicester United Kingdom)

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Shakespeare: The Biography
Shakespeare: The Biography
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars definitive but so very long, 12 Aug 2008
I'm a great fan of Peter Ackroyd, whose technique is outstanding, but I nearly gave up on this book, somewhere around ch 57 which is entitled 'No more words, we beseech you'. A book of about 300 pp. as opposed to 500 would have been much more enjoyable.
The historical evidence about WS consists of two types of source: (1) a group of primarily legal texts about his investments, property purchases, his will and a few encounters with the law; and (2) comments by contemporaries, both favourable and hostile. There are more of (1) than I thought and many more of (2), so many in fact that I'm amazed that the 'Who really wrote Shakespeare?' theorists persist. The picture that emerges is of an exceptionally professional, hard-working, pragmatic, well thought-of, reasonably convivial man, respected and admired by most of his contemporaries. Of Shakespeare's opinions, beliefs and convictions we know, as Ackroyd says time and time again, absolutely nothing. Stretching that picture to 500 pp. requires a vast amount of conjecture (Shakespeare would have done this, Shakespeare would have known that ... ) coupled with a huge amount of admiring comment about the plays, some of it pretty banal.
I agree with reviewers that this is as close to WS as we can hope to get, given that he left no clues at all about himself. It's definitive, certainly the last book I want to read about the man as opposed to the works. But it's too long.

On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.62

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars masterpiece eh?, 8 May 2008
This review is from: On Chesil Beach (Hardcover)
Very far from being the masterpiece that the hype merchants have depicted. The style is brilliant but there's hardly anything at the centre. A clash of wills compounded by ignorance and innocence, blown up into a needless tragedy.
A good short story extended into a novel.

The Charterhouse of Parma (Penguin Classics)
The Charterhouse of Parma (Penguin Classics)
by Henri Stendhal
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.34

10 of 24 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars unreadable translation, 18 April 2008
I had a go at this classic because it's Alfred Brendel's favourite novel. All I can say is he can't have read this new translation by John Sturrock. It's atrocious -- unbelievably clunky. I got to p. 67 before giving up.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 7, 2009 6:45 PM BST

Ten Days in the Hills
Ten Days in the Hills
by Jane Smiley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.56

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Smiley's people, 7 April 2008
This review is from: Ten Days in the Hills (Paperback)
I thought this was one of the oddest books I've ever read. Jane Smiley plays the astonishing gamble of writing over 600 pages about wealthy/rich, pampered, oversexed Californians to whom nothing much happens. One relationship breaks up, another is crystallised, and a third recovers from the damage inflicted by the outbreak of the 2nd Iraq war. Oh, and a proposed film is discussed at lot. That's not much plot development for such a long book. There are many, many pages of esoteric discussion and long, rambling anecdotes that become incredibly tedious. Really disturbing is the introduction of two young Russian women who seem to serve no purpose other than to service the sexual desires of two of the male characters, a device that I found misogynistic, amazing from such an author.

Jane Smiley is so ironic and funny, and so good about people, that she kept me reading, and at times there are breathtaking insights into how self-deceiving individuals can be. In particular, Day Six section 1 is masterly, utterly brilliant writing. But she can't make this book work, and I found myself skipping the last fifty pages or so. You start to lose the will to live when Elena begins moaning for the nth time about Iraq. And by that time Paul, the most interesting character by far, had been edged off stage.

I recommend the reviews for some very polarised reactions. Even diehard US fans seem to find this hard going.

Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come
by J. G. Ballard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A seriously bad book!, 6 Dec 2007
This review is from: Kingdom Come (Paperback)
To say that this is disappointing would be a massive understatement!
You realize that something's wrong early on, when the first-person narrator, an advertising executive, has to voice the critique of consumerism that lies at the novel's core. THAT clearly isn't going to work.
After that it's all downhill. The plot, setting and characters are laughably banal. The whole thing creaks. I can't believe that it would've been published if it wasn't by Ballard. I can only suppose that Fourth Estate hoped that it would get by on the name. Well it doesn't.
It raises big questions about broadsheet reviewing. I bought it on impulse because the quoted reviews, while not ecstatic, were still appreciative. It's even a Book of the Year for the Spectator reviewer! Something's not right there.
'Buyer Beware' I guess -- but I wish I could get my money back.

Fantasy Island
Fantasy Island
by Larry Elliott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.36

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars enjoyable and stimulating critique, 22 Sep 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Fantasy Island (Paperback)
I've nothing to add to the excellent review by PhilosopherKing except to say that the economics can be quite tough going at times -- nothing worse than what you need for the business pages of a broadsheet, but challenging for those like me who don't have any economics training.

And nothing yet has happened under Brown to belie their gloomy assessment.

Beyond Black
Beyond Black
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.20

9 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars what an awful disappointment, 20 Sep 2007
This review is from: Beyond Black (Paperback)
I bought this book on the basis of the jacket quotes, which I certainly shan't again. In fact I wonder if the reviewers quoted read the same book.
Basically Mantel takes Pullman's imaginative insight about the dead not being so dissimilar to the living and wraps around it a wafer-thin plot, padded out to quite extraordinary length with repetitive and yawn-inducing detail about the mediocre quality of life in suburban Britain. I'm amazed the editors at HarperCollins let her get away with 450 pages of it -- or maybe it was cut down from 600 pages? There were whole stretches of text that could have been dumped with no loss to plot or character development. The only good thing about the novel was that when I finally finished it, it was such a fantastic relief to escape the company of Morris, MacArthur, Pikey Pete and the rest of the bores. Yes, Colette and Al too!

The Road
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a very great novel, 16 Sep 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Road (Paperback)
I read The Road several weeks ago and have since been urging everybody I know to read it. It's gripping and emotionally devastating. It stays with you.
The title I've used comes from The Guardian review -- I don't think there's any question about it, it's certainly at that level. Whether it will become a classic only time will tell, but I'd put my money on it. It's in there with masterpieces like 1984 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, insofar as it makes you question what being human means. But whereas Orwell and Solzhenitsyn expose human nature to the test of a wickedly perverse social construct, McCarthy does it by taking away any kind of society, reducing humankind to one moving and brilliantly handled relationship in a world that's both highly perilous and facing imminent extinction.

Most other books that you read are feeble compared with The Road. This really should win McCarthy the Nobel Prize.

Thomas More (Reputations)
Thomas More (Reputations)
by John Guy
Edition: Paperback

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "A daring book"? Hardly..., 31 Aug 2004
The most interesting thing about this reassessment of More is the discrepancy between the jacket blurb and the contents. It says on the back:
'This is a daring book... Those who are wholly satisfied by an idealized vision of More as the epitome of "a man of singular virtue", "the King's good servant but God's first", should not read this book.'
Whether or not this bit of nonsense originated with the author or with someone at Arnold, the fact is it's hilarious because these verdicts are precisely what Guy confirms after sifting through the various aspects of More's life. Of course More was not unflawed but he came extraordinarily near to living according to his values and beliefs. Surrounded by the trimmers at Henry's court (many of whom ended their lives on Tower Hill anyway) More shines like a beacon of rectitude. Guy, who knows the sources inside out, can find hardly anything to say that works contrary to More's reputation, although he constantly asserts that he is doing so!
As a study of More it's not bad but the lack of a narrative spine or of anything genuinely new to say makes it somewhat lame. Read the Ackroyd biography to really get to know More: pace Guy, he was no enigma, but a formidably learned, talented, good-natured and, let's admit it, virtuous man.
Norman Housley
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 27, 2011 9:59 PM BST

Our Game
Our Game
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback

17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars been there, done that, 31 July 2004
This review is from: Our Game (Paperback)
John le Carre is such a brilliant stylist and narrator that there are times in this book when you almost think he still has what it takes. But the fact is that the end of the Cold War robbed him of his Great Theme and since then he has been all style and no substance. Worse, as he's got older he's simply lost touch with the way young and middle-aged people talk, so his characters are now stuck in a weird 60s/70s time warp. The same applies to Ruth Rendell.
The rabbits coming out of the hat are now looking very predictable. Here is the gorgeous Emma, latest in the line of brilliant, sensitive, talented but oh-so vulnerable le Carre heroins,
'You see, Tim, Larry is life continued. He will never let me down. He is life made real again, and just to be with him is to be travelling and taking part, because where Tim avoids, Larry engages.'
Here is the cri de coeur of commitment that marks out the critical and catastrophic dash for freedom of the le Carre hero:
'because I've seen them, in their little valley towns and in their mountains ... In life it's the luck of the draw who you meet and when and how much you have left to give, and the point at which to say, to hell with everything, this is where I go the distance, this is where I stick'
And here is the upper-middle-class FO wife wheeled out for plot purposes:
'Oh marvellous, Tim ... Simon will be over the moon. He hasn't had any buddy-buddy talk for weeks. Come nice and early and we can have a drink and you can help me put the children to bed, just like the old days'
This is awful stuff from an author who at his best was one of the greats. He's written out: why continue?

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