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Sheenagh Pugh "Sheenagh Pugh" (Shetland)

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Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life
Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life
by Michael Moore
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A renegade curate's egg, 29 Nov. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The sub-title "Stories of my Life" is indicative; this is autobiographical but more in a short story than a novel form; 24 separate pieces from different stages in his life. Some, like the one where he runs for office on the school board at the age of 17, are gripping and well told; others, like his first date, are inconsequential and told at far too great a length. In "Abu 2 U 2", he seems to be desperately searching for "significance" in a really rather mundane story of travel delay - yes, it was indirectly occasioned by a terrorist threat, but he didn't really have any connection with that or know the full story at the time.

I don't think he knows the difference between an interesting, important event in his life and a mundane one; he thinks everything that happens to him is of earth-shaking moment and that's part of the trouble. I've seldom felt so conflicted about an author; on the one hand, I agree with him politically and think him both a brave and a principled man. But I also think he sounds like a pain in the neck, much of the time. The priest who expels him from the seminary says "I wish you well with whatever you decide to do with your life and I pray for those who have to endure you". I can see what he meant. Moore accuses him of smugness: well it takes one to know one. Moore has an utter conviction of his own rightness, and even when such a conviction is justified, (as, much of the time, it is here) it isn't attractive. It may, however, be necessary in a man who wants to bring about change.

Yet he can be a sharp, observational writer, especially when he isn't talking about himself, and often very funny: "The craniums in our part of the country were designed to leave a little extra room for the brain to grow, in case one day we found ourselves exposed to something we didn't understand, like a foreign language or a salad." And though the title "Here Comes Trouble" is, to my ear, annoyingly arch, it's a fact that he has been in some odd places at odd and interesting times, as when he got lost as a boy on a visit to the Senate and was found by Bobby Kennedy. "May you live in interesting times" is no curse to him; in fact he'd be busy making them as interesting as possible. I would say about half these pieces are too anecdotal and not as important as he thinks, but many of the rest are really of absorbing interest, both for the sake of their subject matter and for the style. More of that, and I'd have given it a 4, but there are too many I found myself skim-reading.

Bounceback Ultimate Software: Automatic Backup and Instant disaster recovery
Bounceback Ultimate Software: Automatic Backup and Instant disaster recovery

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dead cat bounce, 22 Nov. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
My husband tried this on our PC when data needed recovering and frankly it seems to have done far more harm than good. The PC has given trouble ever since and this certainly didn't provide the "instant" solution its title promised - or any other kind of solution.

EDIT: to be fair, I must record that he's now had occasion to try it again and so far, touch wood, it worked better. BUT - it's still awfully hard to use without a manual and it does wipe your hard drive so you need to buy an external hard drive and back it up first. I've upped the rating to 2 stars but still don't recommend it.

Breville VHB063 Cordless Hand Blender
Breville VHB063 Cordless Hand Blender

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Handsome is, and mostly handsome does - but at a price, 22 Nov. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a seriously good-looking piece of equipment, with a nice heft to it and easily stored - comes with its own integral stand/charger and is handsome enough to be out on the worktop. It cleans easily too.

Though the blade is small, it seems to do its blending job fine, certainly making home-made soups far easier. The one quibble that one of my family had was this: like some lawnmowers, it needs starting by pressing 2 buttons at once, after which you can stop pressing one. I don't know if that's a safety feature. But some people, apparently, like to blend in short bursts, in order to be sure of stopping when they get just the right texture. For them, this feature is a bit of a pest because every time they restart, they have to do the press-both-buttons thing.

Ar £45 though, this is a pretty expensive item, and good as it looks, if I'd had to pay for it, I would check other brands first to see if there isn't something equally good but cheaper.

The Castrato and His Wife
The Castrato and His Wife
by Helen Berry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not riveting, 22 Oct. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"The castrato who got married" sounds a potentially riveting story for many reasons, but didn't quite deliver for me. In the first place, there isn't really enough primary source material for a full-length history book. The consequence of this is some pointless and unprovable speculation on motives (even the Oedipus complex got a mention), some equally unprovable assumptions about how such and such a thing might well have happened, and what feels like a lot of repetition; she seemed to make the same points over and over. There's also a tiresome tendency to judge people as if they lived in our own day - eg her censure of Tenducci's mother for not preventing his castration which his father organised - really, what does she think an 18th-century married woman, completely under the legal and physical control of her husband, could have done about it? There's also some quite odd English usage - eg the last sentence: "Just a decade after, Napoleon's invading army rolled into Genoa and razed the church of San Salvatore to the ground, of which there is now not a trace to be seen." Well, actually, I suspect there are many traces of the ground still to be seen; she has separated the "of which" from its real subject, the church, in a way that makes nonsense of the sentence (needed to be "and razed to the ground the church, of which...") and there are other instances of infelicitous style.

The story is basically interesting, and intermittently fascinating, but took me several days to finish; it never had me that riveted.

The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe
The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe
by Christopher Stevens
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Playhouse first, Comedy second, 30 Sept. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I don't think this book does exactly what it says on the tin, and I don't think it shows exactly what it set out to show. Nevertheless, what it does show is something rather fascinating.

The title "The Masters of Sitcom from Hancock to Steptoe" is mildly misleading since it does in fact include some riveting script material from earlier in the careers of these writers, but it is better than the title he originally proposed, "The Men Who Invented Sitcom". They rightly turned this down - he says, because of innate modesty. I prefer their own explanation, that sitcom goes back at least to Shakespeare if not earlier. This is so obviously true (Aristophanes' Bdelykleon and Philokleon from The Wasps are essentially Harold and Albert Steptoe with robes on) that one wonders Stevens can't see it, but in fact he draws almost no parallels from the history of comedy before the 20th century, which is a flaw in the book and in his understanding of where Galton & Simpson came from.

Another slight niggle I have with the book is that early on, it clearly subscribes to the modern notion that any biographer or chronicler needs to explain what attracted him, personally, to this material; there has to be an authorial "journey". Hence, in the introduction, we get some childhood reminiscences which personally I can do without in this kind of book. But it doesn't last long, and soon we are into swathes of script material - the BBC may have wiped hundreds of tapes but G & S were the meticulous type and kept all the scripts. These scripts are naturally the most fascinating part of the book, particularly the less well-known ones, and taken together they highlight things one might otherwise miss, eg the number of times G & S used their own youthful experiences as long-term TB patients in a sanatorium.

The volume of scripts, though essential in my view, can actually make for heavy reading, both because of the constant need to adjust to a different mode of writing and for another, less expected, reason - they often aren't remotely funny or even light, because they aren't trying to be. G & S pioneered Comedy Playhouse, and the title of that is significant: they were writing plays. This is where I think Stevens would have benefitted from a closer look at Shakespearean comedy as a forerunner of G & S, because the only difference between comedy and tragedy in Shakespeare is that the former tends to have a happy(ish) ending. It is actually remarkable how completely G & S rejected most of the English comedic tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries that can be traced in the flowering of the postwar years; they had no time for music-hall, despised the punchlines and anecdotes of stand-up, didn't like catchphrases or funny voices (they couldn't stop Kenneth Williams smuggling some in, but then neither could the Angel Gabriel have done), didn't care for Wodehouse (that may have been partly a class-based dislike, but then I'm a leftwinger too and I find him hilarious) and, oddest of all, had no truck with the double-entendre, innuendo-based comedy that had been so popular with the forces and bloomed so happily in the contemporary radio comedy Round the Horne.

The number of things they didn't find funny was in fact an eye-opener and led me to the conclusion that they defined "comedy" much more as Shakespeare would have done than as anyone in the modern age does. They weren't really all that interested in being "funny" for its own sake; the character of Hancock is intrinsically funny because of the discrepancy between how he sees himself and how the world sees him, but a lot of the scripts, without him to animate them, read like the pure observation they are, Pinteresque rather than comic. One of their Comedy Playhouse scripts, "Lunch in the Park", a two-hander for Stanley Baxter and Daphne Anderson, managed, in the run-through, to get exactly one laugh from the studio audience - not because they were bored but because they didn't think they were watching a "comedy". Nor, to judge by the script, were they - I'm only surprised that both Baxter and G & S were shaken by the lack of laughs, because for the life of me, I don't see any. It's a bleak little playlet about two lonely and inhibited people.

Many Steptoe episodes, of course, are also bleak little playlets about two men trapped in a relationship, and they are innovative comedy in that this time, there isn't even really ever a happy ending in prospect. They are probably the most successful example of the kind of comedy G & S were aiming for, because they did, most of the time, keep in mind that there was a need to be funny along the way, which they achieve by means of the way the characters interact and their different but equally entertaining modes of speech. In some of their other work, they don't always keep that need in mind, and the script material shows it. What this book showed me, at least, was the extent to which they should be viewed as straight dramatic writers, rather than comic writers, and very interesting it was too.

From the Dark Room
From the Dark Room
by Sue Rose
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful detachment, 24 Sept. 2011
This review is from: From the Dark Room (Paperback)
The title "From the Dark Room" is a phrase from a sequence of poems called "Travelling Light". Some unexpected things happen with light and dark in this collection. In "Rare Old", whisky abandoned in Antarctica and "protected by the freeze" is "brought into the damage of light". Nesting house-martins in "Hemispheres", by contrast, are pictured "sliding the dark around themselves" in an act of protection, while "Globe" ends with the sinister volcanic image of

what might ooze if the egg

of the Earth were cracked, light
hatching from the world's blown sphere.

It will already be clear that verbal interactions are being carefully considered in these titles. "Hemispheres" and "Globe" are juxtaposed; the "Dark Room" and "Travelling Light" are susceptible of more than one interpretation, as is "Birth Rights". Rose is a professional literary translator, and it is tempting to see in her method of composition the translator's constant awareness of how many shades of meaning one word may contain, and how it may be nuanced and slanted by its context.

A translator also needs to preserve a certain amount of detachment from the material with which he/she works, and Rose seems unusually able to do this with her own original material. Some of this is very personal, like the old age and death of parents and the unfulfilled desire for children, but it is handled with a remarkable lack of sentimentality, an ability to stand back and create the distance that makes for accurate observation (and, incidentally, licenses the reader to feel the emotion the writer has suppressed). In "Hard Skin", the relationship of mutual dependence between a mother and daughter is expressed entirely through their care for each other's feet:

She rests her legs on mine. I massage
her bunions, rub the lump on top of her foot.
She kneads my protesting arches, the corrugated bone
of my ankle

We may certainly read into the practicalities of this event something about the relationship - "brusque and careful/though we both sometimes draw blood", but it is not dwelt on. The most powerful example of this method is perhaps "Making a Gem", in which she combines the ashes of her parents and dispatches them to be turned into a diamond. From the mundane details of queuing at the post office to the dispassionate account of the refining process in "a hot oven, three hundred centigrade", this distance is maintained, with the result that the one phrase capable of a less literal interpretation, "Matter breaks/under such forces", acquires a great poignancy.

Such material could be grim, but Rose often allows a sense of humour to come through. "Sample" may seem an unlikely scenario for a poem - a woman, on her way to the clinic in pouring rain with a sample of her husband's sperm, speculates that if the Flood were to return now, she'd be well equipped to board the ark as a pair - but it works beautifully, and in "Minute Waltz", a sense of ageing and loss are treated with a rueful self-deprecation that ends in a genuine punchline (which obviously I'm not going to reveal, but it is both funny and moving). This collection combines universal themes with a care for exact language and dispassionate observation that is far from universal.

A Merciless Place: The Lost Story of Britain's Convict Disaster in Africa
A Merciless Place: The Lost Story of Britain's Convict Disaster in Africa
by Emma Christopher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.06

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exporting trouble, 30 July 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is the story of events between the American War of Independence, when the ex-colonists made it clear that the mother country could no longer ship convicts to their shores, and the first convict arrivals at Botany Bay in 1788. During the intervening decade or so, Britain was just as anxious to export her more troublesome citizens; the question was, where to, and the answer, for that period, was the African coast. Convicts were sent to the Royal African Company, which ran Britain's coastal slave trading forts, and to the army, which guarded them - this despite the fact that neither the Company nor the Army wanted these dubious recruits. Nor, of course, did the local people, who were not consulted, but it hardly mattered, because the convicts had no resistance to local diseases and, apart from a few hardy souls, died like flies.

Refreshingly, Christopher does not whitewash the convicts - some were indeed the archetypal handkerchief-stealing children or political dissidents, but many were hardened recidivists, like Pat Madan, who entertains us hugely before vanishing from history around the middle of the decade, and John Ruglass, who survived transportation both to Africa and Botany Bay and lived into his eighties. But whatever their crimes, they could hardly match the iniquity of those in charge of them, who emerge as the real villains of the piece.

Mostly the story is told well. there are some odd usages - sometimes, as on p175, she seems to use "civility" for "civilsation" and on p167 I think her interpretation of the quoted phrase "a disgrace to the Colour" is open to question; she thinks "Colour" means "white race", while I think there's a sporting chance it means a regimental or national flag, particularly with a capital letter. And early on, she brings herself into the picture a little too much when giving us her impressions of the ruins of Cape Coast Castle, in a scene whose chatty style doesn't sit well with the more sober, academic (though very readable) tone of the rest.

But this is a well-told account of a decade seldom written about. The government's view of the convicts - a troublesome cargo whose ultimate fate mattered very little to anyone - matched its attitude to the human merchandise they had been sent to guard, and with whom they had a lot more in common than with the men of their own country who tyrannized over them. It can't help but be a relief, at the end, to see some old acquaintances like Ruglass and John Martin make a success of life in Australia - yet the ultimate irony is that the relative survival of convicts in Botany Bay, as opposed to their near-extermination in Africa, came at the expense of the indigenous population; whereas in Africa the convicts had died of the local diseases, in Australia they introduced their own, with devastating effect. Yet it'd be a hard heart that could grudge John Martin (himself of African descent), after all his sufferings, his arrival at the age of 88, surrounded by the 5 children whose progeny would survive to the present day.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 2, 2011 11:16 AM BST

Driver Genius 10 (PC)
Driver Genius 10 (PC)
Price: £9.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Instructions, please!, 26 July 2011
This review is from: Driver Genius 10 (PC) (CD-ROM)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I must be honest, this review comes to you courtesy of my husband, because I don't do techie stuff. He says:

"Quick and easy installation - although having to enter a 36 character code number is rather tedious.

Once installed it scans your system and finds your out-of-date drivers and identifies new ones. These can then be downloaded and installed without any real hassle, although you may have to restart your computer for some of them to take effect.

One problem is that if you want to look at the details of newly downloaded drivers, they are rather technical and will not mean much to the majority of users.

There are no instructions included with the CD nor is there a manual included on the CD. Allegedly there is a manual on-line but I have been unable to find it. The technical on-line help site is pretty basic."

(Now he does do techie stuff, and if he can't find the online manual it can't be in any very obvious place.)
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 30, 2011 4:50 PM BST

These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry
These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry
by Varied
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.47

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Voices from the edge, 11 July 2011
I feel very iffy about reviewing this anthology, because I have some poems in it. But it seems to me to have a far more interesting organising principle than your average anthology of "poets under 30" or "women poets", who don't necessarily have a damn thing in common. This is an anthology of poets who came from, or live on, Scottish islands (not just visitors on holiday) and as the thoughtful intro makes clear, this liminality does give their writing traits in common. "The islander's sense of being removed from the heart of things relates, I think, to the writer's sense of being an observer as much as a participant". This is true, though it should not be taken to mean that island poets are unaware of what is going on at the heart of things, just that they can view it with a certain amount of detachment. Jim Mainland's scorching, careering satire "Prestidigitator" is as committed a modern political poem as you'll find:

Watch this, watch my hands, look in my eyes:
this is viral, this is fiending, this is Celebrity Smash Your Face In,
I'm spooling tissue from an ear, I'm sawing her in half, no, really,
I'm vanishing your dosh, I'm giving it makeover, giving it bonus,
palming it, see, nothing in the box, check out
your divorce hell text tease sex tape, whoops,

but the same writer, in "The Gunnister Man", is acutely conscious of the massive timeline, reaching back centuries, on which he is a point and which connects him to everyone else who has ever lived there. Those who live in small communities are more apt, I think, to have this sense of connectedness to the past; it appears in the poems by which George Mackay Brown and Sorley MacLean are represented here (MacLean's "Hallaig", in both the Gaelic original and the English translation, being a bright particular star).

It is in fact thought-provoking to consider the roll of famous names who fit this anthology's criteria: MacLean, Brown, Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, MacDiarmuid, and in more contemporary times the recent T S Eliot winner Jen Hadfield. But there are many others less well known, like Jim Mainland, Laureen Johnson, William J ("Billy") Tait, Laurence Graham, who deserve to be more widely read than they are and who should come as a salty surprise to those who maybe picked up the anthology for other reasons but happen on something like James Andrew Sinclair's "Immigrant":

Fill my pockets with lochs
the wind will fit snug in my wallet.
I will weave a scarf of mackerel, haddock and trout
the good fit of sheep on my feet.
My jacket, knitted peat and heather
with a bottle of good humour for the journey.
Planks of fishing boat bound tight as a belt
the sails making dandy trousers.
My back-pack holds the entire ocean
and last but certainly not least
I will wear the sky beneath my hat.

by Mihangel Morgan
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Mysterious Stranger rides again, 20 Jun. 2011
This review is from: Melog (Paperback)
"Melog" is a novel with a rich cast of characters, but the only two who really matter are Melog himself, an avatar of that perennial literary type, the Mysterious Stranger Who Changes Lives, and "Dr" Jones, the hapless protagonist whose life is changed. Dr Jones is a failed academic on the dole, devoting his middle years to somewhat nebulous study of the vast 19th-century tome, "The Welsh Encyclopedia". At least, however, this is a real book, whereas the one for which Melog spends most of the novel searching, The Imalic, may well exist only in his imagination, as may several other things like his country and his history.

Melog is a young man, emaciated, with striking blue eyes and unusually white skin and hair, whom Dr Jones first sees theatening to throw himself off a high building. He's thus in an accidentally rather angelic pose (he is also stark naked) and Dr Jones' first impression, indeed, is that Melog is extra-terrestrial. True, the first request an angel makes is not usually to be taken to the nearest chip shop, nor are they generally portrayed as habitual liars, thieves and fantasists.

But an "angel" is a messenger, and the function of these characters in literature tends to be to bring people news of themselves. In this, Melog is in a long tradition indeed; quite apart from his Welsh antecedents, in English literature he is very reminiscent of at least two Melville characters, the Confidence Man and Bartleby, while David, the protagonist from Robert Alan Jamieson's "Da Happie Laand" (Luath, 2010) is proof that the tradition of the Mysterious Stranger carries on after him. There's a lot more to be said about this aspect, which I rather fancy doing in a later and more lit-critty post, but examining literary precedents and successors, for all its interest, doesn't really tell you whether you're likely to enjoy the book at hand, which is after all what reviews are for.

Basically Melog is an exasperating if engaging character who leads the timid doctor out of his habits and on quests which look almost, but infuriatingly not quite, certain to be wild goose chases. This book is very concerned with the fluid boundary between truth and fiction, which it crosses and recrosses with alarming ease. Since, like Dr Jones, we can never be entirely certain of what is going on, it is easy to enter into his combined excitement, bewilderment and fear. This cocktail can sometimes be fiercely comical; Melog is both deeply serious and sometimes very funny, as when Melog turns up in a car and invites Dr Jones for a spin:

Dr Jones pressed a little black button like a round sweet and the car flooded with lovely music. Unfortunately, because he was worried that he might soon be dead, Dr Jones could not relax into the luxurious leather seat or gaze at the landscape or listen to the entrancing songs. Trying to settle his nerves, he said -
I didn't know that you liked the songs of Schumann.
Is that what this stuff is? Melog said.
What do you mean? Dr Jones said. He felt the sweat on his forehead grow cold.
I haven't heard this music before, Melog said, overtaking a lorry at terrifying speed.
So what's the disc doing in your car? Dr Jones asked. He sneaked a look at the speedometer and saw the needle touching one hundred and ten miles an hour.
It's not my car, Melog said.
Melog. Whose car is it?
I don't know.
What? You've stolen this car?
I don't look on it as theft, Melog said, slowing to 90 miles an hour to take a corner. I look on it as a loan. (The wheels went over a hedgehog.) All property is theft, as they say.
In his extreme terror Dr Jones gripped the soft deep sides of his seat with all his strength.
Pity I didn't pick an automatic though, isn't it? Melog said. Bet it's a lot easier than having to change gears.
When did you pass your test?
Oh, I haven't taken the test.
Melog, Dr Jones said, his face white as Melog's hair, how many driving lessons have you had?

In some ways this terrifying drive, with each bit of revealed information increasing the anxiety, is a microcosm for the novel. But unlike Dr Jones, we do have time to study, and become fascinated by, the landscape of shifting fact, fiction and imagination. Mihangel Morgan has written an erudite novel of intricate concerns and questions - its epigraphs are all concerned with the nature of truth - but he never forgets, in his quest, the need to create convincing characters and places and tell a good story. I love this novel; if it has taken me years to get around to reviewing it, that is partly because it is one you see more in, each time you come back to re-read it.

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