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M. Harrison
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Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell
Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell
by Katherine Angel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.79

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary, alchemical, insightful, 5 Dec 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's hard to know how to describe this unusual book. Put simply it's a series of bullet points, each of which sits on its own page: most are brief, some just a few words, though some constitute passages. They way they relate to one another is indirect, glancing; they don't add up to a coherent narrative, and they raise more questions than they answer. But how else to approach the shifting, mysterious concept of desire, a subject so chimerical it's almost impossible to describe in words?

I say 'almost' because in 'Unmastered' Katherine Angel comes breathtakingly close. These aphorisms somehow add up to far more than the sum of their parts; lewd in places, funny, at times romantic, at times deeply sensual, they play off one another, slowly building into a picture of desire that is both unique and personal (and very brave on Angel's part), and at the same time common, I suspect, to heterosexual women in general.

I raced through this book, spellbound, smiling in recognition again and again. Parts of it have made an enormous impact. I plan to revisit it again and again.


Passing through the Woods
Passing through the Woods
by David Gwilym Anthony
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.32

3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bunch, 2 Dec 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
David Gwilym Anthony is clearly an accomplished poet, particularly when it comes to form: he works best with the strictures of sonnets, and metre, and rhyme. For the most part the poems in 'Passing Through the Woods' are accessible enough for a general reader, although some will also appeal to those seeking more depth. The spirit of Robert Frost permeates this collection, particularly Frost's emphasis on simple language and speech rhythms, but while some of Anthony's pieces stand up well to the comparison, others lack the intellectual rigour that made Frost's work anything but simple.

For me, the humorous poems in this collection are the weakest, and undermine the elegaic, contemplative tone of the others somewhat, pulling 'Passing Through the Woods' out of shape. I also felt that the explanatory notes could have been done away with; a poem about the Jamie Bulger killing needed no further explanation, and if I needed more information on Herdwick sheep, that's what Google is for. I would have preferred it if the poems had been allowed to speak for themselves.

Having said that, some poems here are lovely, particularly those that touch on nature and life's journey: 'Flotsam on a Winter's Tide', 'The Road Taken', 'Remembered Wings', 'Tallyman'. For me, a shorter collection with a tighter theme, leaving out the funnies and the poems responding to news items, would have shown David Gwilym Anthony's considerable skill off to better advantage.


Lensbaby 50mm Spark Selective Focus Lens for Canon
Lensbaby 50mm Spark Selective Focus Lens for Canon
Price: £59.53

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting effects; hard to get used to, 18 Nov 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Lensbaby Spark is a fun, entry-level lens for creating selected-focus effects on your Canon DSLR. It's very light, but feels sturdily built and was easy to fit to the body by the usual method; you then work with it in Manual mode, metering yourself.

It's a fixed focal length lens (ie prime) which you focus manually by pulling the ring forward using your 'spare' fingers; this method is pretty tricky to master, especially if, like me, you have small hands, or suffer from shaky hands or a tremor. If you're used to focussing manually using a ring you'll have your eye in, but even then it's difficult to hold the lens in position while you press the shutter. However, I have no doubt at all that this gets easier with practice.

Tilting the lens allows you to create a 'sweet spot' of focus, with blur around it. Again, this technique is hard to pick up, but by no means impossible, and some of the results are fun: you can create quite trippy, dreamlike results, as well as a simpler depth of field effect. I imagine it could also look very good with action shots, increasing the sense of motion and speed; however, I haven't been able to master this yet, because of the difficulty of focusing manually using the unfamiliar squeezy ring and light metering all at the same time.

I work in Manual mode anyway, which gave me a bit of a head start with this lens; however, I found that tilting the lens to alter the 'sweet spot' altered the light metering too, so the trick was to pull the lens to the correct focus, then tilt it to create a blur effect, and FINALLY meter. Not impossible at all, but hard if your subject is moving or the light is changing.

I also found that in bright natural light the Lensbaby Spark consistently caused my shots to overexpose, but this was easily enough fixed by metering down by one F stop. Indoors the tendency was not so pronounced, and in fact, probably made it usable in dimmer conditions.

Make no mistake, this lens represents a challenge, even to a confident SLR user; but having said that, it's nothing that can't be overcome with practice. Those with smaller hands or who are not confident working in Manual mode may find it harder, but still not impossible, and in fact new challenges are a good way to improve your technique.

I feel confident that given time I will be able to produce some great effects with this clever little lens; however, I can't help but wonder, given how easy it is now to create effects like this in post-production, why one would need a special lens to achieve them at all.


Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
by Dr Neil MacGregor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £21.62

5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely wonderful, 28 Oct 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I listened avidly to the radio show which this book accompanies, and this book is a wonderful companion, not least for the simple fact of having photographs and illustrations to accompany the items each chapter (and episode) discusses. But even if you didn't catch the series (and it's available on iPlayer!) this is still a fantastic book for anyone interested in the Shakespearean period. It's beautifully produced, on thick, smooth, heavy paper stock, so as a physical object it's a lovely thing to own.

As the director of the British Museum, few people are as well placed as Neil MacGregor to take this particular approach to Shakespearean scholarship, ie one based on historical objects. He writes accessibly but with erudition, bringing aspects of the Elizabethan (and early Stuart) world-view to life with specific anecdotes and glimpses of real lives, but on top of all this, what really brings the period to life is the dazzlingly simple idea of taking a real object - like a dagger found on the Thames foreshore, or a woolen apprentice's cap, or a silver box containing a shrivelled human eye - and using it like a window to peer deep into the period. And what emerges is a picture - necessarily fragmented, but kaleidoscope-bright - of a society undergoing enormous political, economic and cultural change, and trying obsessively to explain itself to itself; a period perhaps not very different from our own.


Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (Penguin Hardback Classics)
Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (Penguin Hardback Classics)
by Philip Pullman
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous retelling of old tales, 6 Oct 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Stories are vitally important, and we forget that at our peril: they are how we first come to understand the world, and they permeate every corner of adult life, too: politics, religion, science and advertising all employ stories (and their abbreviated form, metaphor) to provoke, strengthen, educate and move us. Stories can start wars, and help end them, too.

Fairy tales are one of the most vital and interesting storehouses of stories we have; often dark, often open-ended, these were ways in which our forebears passed on wisdom and negotiated fears and dangers, and they are no less useful today than they were then. Yet we are in danger of losing touch with this vital resource.

So who better to retell them for us than Philip Pullman, who brings not only his storytelling skills but his deep knowledge of the genre to bear to produce a lucid new version of the Brothers Grimm that loses none of the complexities of the originals, and doesn't patronise its readers either.

There are clear, simple notes and references at the end of each tale. These are often fascinating in themselves, as when Pullman shows the afterlife the story has gone on to have and the other stories/films/operas/plays it has informed, or gives (or pooh-poohs!) a psychoanalytic interpretation of a particular fairy tale.

There are familiar stories here, stories in new forms (I had no idea that 'Cinderella' had so many birds in it!), and stories that will probably be new to you, like 'The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About The Shivers'. Whether you have children or not, this is a fantastic book to own and enjoy.


Close Your Eyes
Close Your Eyes
by Ewan Morrison
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.39

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chilling, insightful, haunting, 6 Sep 2012
This review is from: Close Your Eyes (Hardcover)
I love it when Amazon reviewers say something 'isn't their thing' and then review it anyway. I might go and review a load of football books in that spirit! I know nothing at all about football and I don't like it either. But hey, everyone's got an opinion.

Anyway: this is a cracking book. For one thing, it's possibly the most convincing female lead character I think I've ever read by a male author. Female writers inhabit male characters ALL THE TIME, but so few male authors do the same; female characters, for them, are often there for their male characters to interact with in some way. So hats off to Morrison for even trying, let alone succeeding so well.

The stuff about the commune is great - I worked in self-help publishing for some years, which left me with a VAST distrust of the entire industry, and his material about Mind, Body & Spirit devotees rang very true. But for me the most impressive parts were those that illustrated the inner battle between the rational mind (nice husband, nice house, happy marriage etc) and the feelings that we all carry around and acknowledge to varying degrees, and which often undermine or contradict what we think we should do or what we think we want. How much should they be quashed, in case they render life unliveable, and how much should they be given credence, in case what they are saying is true?

I loved Close Your Eyes, and had no problems at all with the second-person style and jump-cut inner monologues. In fact, they felt very true to my experience of life.


My Big Photo Activity Book
My Big Photo Activity Book
by Pascale Estellon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.96

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BRILLIANT! Will be buying again and again to give as a gift., 28 Aug 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's almost impossible to overstate how much I like this book. I suppose at heart it's a colouring/drawing book, but there's much more to it than that: kids have to use their imaginations to add things to complete the images, often in surprising or humorous ways. So photos of potatoes become little creatures, sponges become animals, there are hats to add to heads, flowers to draw into empty vases, whole photos to copy, faces to add into frames and all sorts of quirky and brilliant ideas for things to draw. It's a big format book and the paper is good quality; you could paint on it without the whole thing turning into a soggy mess. There's so much here to spark children's imaginations, I can't think why other activity/colouring books aren't made along the same lines. To be honest, the others seem pedestrian in comparison. It would make a great present, as it's one of those rare beasts: something kids will genuinely enjoy AND that's properly good for their development. I can see myself buying this for friends' children again and again.


History On Your Doorstep: Roman Britain
History On Your Doorstep: Roman Britain
by Alex Woolf
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.94

5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and non-patronising, 26 Aug 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I got this for my friend's little girl; she's six, and her favourite programme is Meet The Romans with Mary Beard. This book is really great: the language is clear without being patronising or 'talking down' to children, it's full of great colour photographs and it tells you where in Britain you can go to find the Roman remains described. Each spread covers a type of Roman building, from amphitheatres to villas, temples, gardens, roads and forts, and there's also a general introduction, timeline and glossary. Looking at the back of this book there are more in the series; for curious children I can't recommend it highly enough.


London: A History in Verse
London: A History in Verse
by Mark Ford
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.36

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A scholarly, chronological treasure-trove, 12 July 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Given that the jacket copy opens 'Called "The flour of Cities all...' I was surprised not to find William Dunbar's 'In Honour of the City of London', from which that quote is taken, in this otherwise extremely comprehensive anthology.

The 'flower' metaphor is an interesting one, too, as it crops up again and again in verse about London; here is D.H. Lawrence, in 'Bombardment': 'The Town has opened to the sun/Like a flat red lily with a million petals...' and here is MacNeice nodding to Dunbar four and a half centuries later in 'Goodbye to London': 'Nevertheless let the petals fall/Fast from the flower of cities all.'

And it's that wonderful concertina-ing of time that chronological anthologies like this are so good at: picking up the themes and motifs that crop up again and again and letting you look at something familiar anew. The best pieces here are the poems written directly about London, rather than simply in it; poems by poets who have taken the city as their subject rather than simply moving there for fame, or for the court, or publication, or advancement.

Women poets are passably well represented, with some good historical rarities like Isabella Whitney's locquacious and imaginative sixteenth-century will and testament, and I very much enjoyed Heather Phillipson's 'German Phenomenology Makes Me Want To Strip And Run Through North London', too. However, satires like Pope's 'The Dunciad' and John Oldham's 'Satire in Imitation of the Third of Juvenal' just haven't aged well. Perhaps their time will come again, who knows.

In contrast there are some lovely, accessible pieces, such as Seamus Heaney's haunting 'The Underground' and T.E. Hulme's lovely 'The Embankment' with its heartbreaking and tender plea:

'Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.'


Philosophy (All That Matters)
Philosophy (All That Matters)
by Julian Baggini
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The introduction I've been waiting for, 30 Jun 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Before I went to university I don't think I even knew what philosophy was. There I had a boyfriend who was studying it, so I picked up bits and pieces by proxy - but mostly jumbled up and second-hand. It made me curious, but I couldn't really follow what he was doing.

In the years since I've thought several times about trying to find a 'way in' to this fascinating area; I bought Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) and Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy but neither of them really kindled the spark of interest that I had. This, however, is different. Perhaps it's because it's not told in a linear way, but instead guides your thought from one principle to the next, which feels more natural, more akin to what your natural curiosity would do. But also, Julian Baggini is a very lucid writer, able to make quite difficult topics accessible and with a light, at times humorous tone.

It's quite basic, so it won't suit those who are looking to deepen their understanding, but certainly for me it's the introduction to philosophy that I've been looking for; I feel now that I have enough basic understanding of the main areas (and enough confidence) to move on myself to explore philosophy further. And that, surely, is just what a small book like this sets out to do.


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