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Alexander McNabb (United Arab Emirates)

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Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities in the Emirates
Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities in the Emirates
by David Millar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.76

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great guide to the hidden fascinations of the United Arab Emirates, 1 Sep 2014
"Dubai has nothing. No culture, no history, no character. It has no heart, no spirit, no traditions... It's not a real city, it's just a mirage, all spin and no substance, a city built on sand."

This book starts on that statement and then sets out to prove it wrong. Its triumph is that it does just that and it's a read anyone setting out to explore the Emirates will enjoy.

David Millar lived and worked in the UAE and decided to write a book about the place. He's by no means the only one, we have a small but growing coterie of books left behind by expats like animal spoor, from Desperate Dubai Diaries through to Glittering City Wonders.

I usually avoid these books on the grounds they will almost invariably irritate me. I've spent the past 26-odd years travelling to and living in the Emirates and I've seen enough of it with my own eyes to know I'm not particularly interested in seeing it through someone else's. Having said which, Jim Krane's Dubai: The Story of the World's Fastest City is the Dubai book.

David's taken a different tack, however. Unlike so many commentators on the Emirates, he's decided that below the surface - the half inch of champagne - is a more interesting place to be. Employing the charming little conceit that his visiting girlfriend, Freya, is mulling whether to come to the UAE to join him but won't live somewhere without history, David looks beneath the vavavoom and wawawoo of Dubai and explores the history of the place in a series of road trips. We go up to the East Coast, taking in Fujeirah, Kalba, Northern Oman and the Wadi Bih track; we snake around the fjords of Kasab and the concrete-crushing sprawl of Ras Al Khaimah and we generally do Al Ain, the Rub Al Khali, the Liwa crescent and, finally, Sir Bani Yas.

Each of the book's destinations is treated as a trip to the modern location but the object of the excursion is to unearth its history, the lost cities of the UAE. And David, clearly relishing his subject, mixes observations of the modern and ancient aplenty.

Let me be honest. I fully expected to hate the whole thing. There were times when I felt the discomfort of someone else's view of the place I live in. Having yourself discovered a thing, it's hard to feel a vicarious thrill on behalf of someone else discovering a thing. This is why running up to me and babbling excitedly that whales have belly buttons cutteth not the mustard. Reading Beyond Dubai, I had to fight quite a bit to stop being a dog in the manger all the time and yet - once I'd settled down - I found myself enjoying the journey. Given I have lived here for donkey's, spent quite a lot of time working as a features writer (and so been paid to unearth stuff and write about it) and generally made something of a habit of travelling around and poking things to see if they squeak, there was much in the book I already knew or had experienced myself. Having said that, I've taken a damn sight longer to do it than it takes to read a book: David's efforts have by no means been in vain.

This is a book that will appeal hugely to expats in the UAE or holiday makers interested in going beyond the beaches and taking a look at the rich heritage and culture the country has to offer. If you think that very statement sounds odd, then you need to buy this book. Beyond Dubai is a well written book, a light read that makes its subject accessible and enjoyable. It's sort of Bill Bryson meets Leonard Woolley.

From Jumeirah to Umm Al Qawain's millenia-old city of Tell Abraq, from RAK's lost Julphar and Ibn Majid the famous navigator (whose art eclipsed that of the Europeans whose navies were only then beginning to explore the world systematically while the Arabs had long mastered the arts of astronomy and navigation), Beyond Dubai takes us to the Emirates behind the new roads and skyscrapers and often does so with wit and charm. Brio, even.

Anyone with an interest in the wider UAE will enjoy this book and I reckon will profit greatly from it. If you've just arrived in the Emirates, want to live or holiday there or want to scratch around below the surface a little, Beyond Dubai will give you much pleasure.

I was provided a copy of the book by the author (whom I do not know personally and who approached me seeking a review).


The Paris Trap (Faber Finds)
The Paris Trap (Faber Finds)
Price: £8.58

2.0 out of 5 stars A story premise as stupid as a pair of gin-pissed March hares, 25 Aug 2014
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Joseph Hone is a spy novelist who made something of a splash in the 1970s but whose star was eclipsed by the likes of John Le Carré. Hone's books have been re-released as 'Faber Finds', including Kindle editions which are, for the back list of a 1970s author, massively over-priced at £5.99.

I bought The Paris Trap because of a recommendation on Twitter - as I buy so many of my books now. And I got a fascinating book for my money. Author Jeremy Duns, introduced by uber-geek Gerald Donovan, shared the first page of the book on Twitter and the text leaped off the page at me. Set in Riyadh, it clearly was going to be an extraordinary read. In fact, the introduction to the Faber Finds edition is by Jeremy, who says he regards Hone as 'One of the great spy novelists of the twentieth century.'

All well and good - but what I didn't realise was quite how extraordinary a read this was to turn out to be.

For a start, Hone was writing in a simpler time. So his editors didn't stop him doing all the things editors throw their hands up at today, from lazy adverbs and clear 'writer's kinks' (he constantly uses 'some' in similes as in 'some great bird' and - actually - constantly uses similes that would give Dan Brown a run for their daftness money) through to sillinesses such as "I tried to remember what the label reminded me of. And then I remembered."

Suddenly, I realised, Faber, for your £5.99, certainly weren't prepared to edit this baby. The text was merely jammed into a file converter, unloved and unread (presumably), leaving us with classics such as "I couldn't avoid an unpleasant sneer oranger."

Of anger. They meant of anger. Similarly "autumntinted" and "attaché casefor a file" and others such as word repetitions - silly 'literals' that shouldn't be in a text from a major publisher. And certainly not for - you may have got the feeling I have an issue with this and you may just be right - £5.99.

Whether this lack of editing is what left idiocies such as "a tactful after-shave lotion" in the MS we may never know. Let alone "the sugary orchestra"...

So what about the plot, the premise, the big idea? Bear with me here, it gets a bit involved. Super-spy Harry Tyson used to write TV scripts and had created a successful series called 'Hero' before joining British Intelligence as a real life spy. Hero is to be made into a feature film starring blue-eyed hearthrob Jim Hackett. Terrorists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause kidnap Harry's girlfriend Katy and Susie, his daughter by estranged wife Sarah in an attempt to coerce Harry into rewriting the screenplay of the film to make it more sympathetic to their cause. We've barely even started here and I'm already drooling and banging my head gently against the laptop keyboard. I also can't shake Jim Hacker from Yes, Prime Minister. I know it's wrong, but it's in my head like a Bony M single and I can't get it out.

Jim Hackett, an old friend of Harry and Sarah's, is estranged from wife Katy - Harry's girlfriend, although Jim and Susan don't know it. They, meanwhile, are sleeping together. Enter the French police, who are brutal, stupid and great at getting shot at. There's a French film maker called Belvoir and a French copper called Brion. With Sarahs and Susans, Belvoirs and Brions I'm already getting confused and that's without adding Anna Kalina the dumpy terrorist intellectual with a habit of wearing baggy jumpers and yet who has a gorgeous face. This makes her a Lesbian, apparently. I'd have thought dungarees would have done, but who am I to cavil at a chap's characterisations?

Anna has kidnapped Katy and Susan and is hiding them in a hole in the ground where she likes to drink Hine cognac and kiss people. She kisses Harry before sending him out into the world to rewrite his script and shoot Hero while his woman and daughter are held by terrorists in a bunker. His woman, Katy (previously Jim Hacker's smacker) is of Russian noble extraction (sorry, Hackett) and yet doesn't know much about Napoleon beyond Empire Line Dresses. She is a dress designer. I might have forgotten to mention that. At one stage, while she is being held by terrorists in a bunker, Jim and Harry work on the launch of her new collection which they aren't going to let a simple kidnapping disrupt. It all gets pretty messy, to tell the truth.

Harry's daughter, a pebble-glassed schoolgirl, is fascinated by Napoleon and so she and Katy set to in their new bunker home, making a Napoleonic puppet theatre. If only Terry Waite or John McCarthy had thought of this, the years would have simply flown by for them.

Katy, by the way, buys Harry a present of a 'sweetly pornographic peepshow'. Before she is kidnapped, clearly. The market for sweetly pornographic peepshows in terrorist bunker hideouts being - as far as I am aware and you can please feel entirely free to correct me here - limited.

We are reminded of this sweetly pornographic peepshow many times for some reason. Perhaps because Katy turns out to be a lesbian, too, eventually suddenly realising in a single moment of Anna's animal magnetism that she doesn't like boys and sex hurts her. If sex hurts you, you are clearly lesbian. And vice versa. Hope that clears up things for any of you gels out there feeling a little confused about things. Go get yourself a baggy jumper see if you feel any the better for it.

There is much in the novel that doesn't belong in a novel. For instance: "The Inspector stood up, walked over to the top of a filing cabinet, put the top back on a thermos of coffee and adjusted his shirt and tie in a little mirror on the wall behind. Then he blew his nose and settled his moustache."

Right.

BTW, Thermos is a proper noun and so gets a capital T, Faber.

Simile. Often odd if not a wee bit looney. "Striding around the first-floor salon like a minor prophet" had me wondering how minor prophets stride, while a warring couple "returned to the fray like sleep walkers".

If you really want to go to town, try "I took in the two absorbed figures beneath the arched ceiling, set against the white-washed background, in a moment - as in a picture: this suddenly proffered domestic interior, like the vision of a room seen while walking down a foreign village street at midday: an old man shaving from a bucket, or a woman turning a mattress - the work of other people's worlds, which we may share intimately for a moment, before losing it all in the next step we take down the street going back to our hotel."

I mean, whaaaaat? The shouty man's scaring me, mummy...

There are many Wisdoms: strange descents into claptrap and odd gobbets of tossed-in half-thought that draw the reader up and leave the questing mind wandering around, clutching at imaginary butterflies in search of anything that might be justification for the latest surreal assertion: "Children can remain the same for months on end and then suddenly change overnight." and, later on, "She wanted to surprise herself - not be the surprise."

Put the gun down, dude. Step back slowly.

There are issues of POV (or Point of View) throughout. I wouldn't usually bring this up as I think POV quibbles are the territory inhabited by Word Nazis, but they genuinely interfere with the flow in this book. The whole mixes Harry's first person POV chapters with third person chapters, but then we also flip-flop between the two and Harry has a nasty habit of knowing what everyone else is thinking. Show not tell, my editor would be screaming and I'd have to hit the cur hard to shut him up. "Katy, I could see, was conjuring up that lost world of sleigh-bells and privilege and sensibility even as she spoke - as a person will plan future holidays to take his mind off a serious illness which he comes to forget, poring over time-tables and sunny brochures."

Harry's a mind reader, although he would appear to be dyslexic.

There's a whole scene featuring Alain Belvoir the film maker and his old parents or someone like that. It features a loving portrait of an old lady called Chummy who has flaking skin and s***ty ducks. I do not know for the life of me why any editor would have left it in the book.

The dialogue is generally a horse's arse, too. "Brion was tired: he could only speak in clichés." had me laughing precisely because that's what Brion had been doing all along. And everyone else, for that matter. Later on Harry puts his finger on the very button. "Sometimes," He opines, "it all gets too stupid."

Reluctantly I have to stop, although there's a lot more. I had started making notes in my Kindle text, something I rarely, if ever, do unless I'm working on an edit or my or someone else's work. I like to enjoy books I'm reading, not pick them apart. But I couldn't help myself, simply because there's just so much in here you can't read fluidly or without being brought up time and time again by the flubs and bumps. To channel Hone, it was like a turbulent flight peppered with constant changes at foreign terminals like a series of interruptions that reminds one of the workings of complex roundabout systems such as those found in city centres that have a concatenation of major routes like some long piece of Italian pasta.

Don't get me wrong - don't think I disliked this book, because I didn't. I enjoyed it immensely. But for the wrong reasons, I suspect. This book is a text book raw MS for editors to practice on. It contains every quirk, error, oddity and clunk you'd want to demonstrate every aspect of good book editing for the modern self-editing author or professional editor. It's a classic 'before' manuscript that fails to tell its story well because of its legion flaws - including the fact the basic story premise itself is as stupid as a pair of gin-pissed March hares who've got their paws on an inexhaustible supply of Amyl Nitrate soaked carrots.


Passport To Oblivion (filmed as Where The Spies Are) (Dr Jason Love)
Passport To Oblivion (filmed as Where The Spies Are) (Dr Jason Love)
Price: £1.93

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I didn't get past page two., 7 Sep 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I only regret I got around to reading this purchase too late to get a refund. By page two I had been incensed by a stupid Kindle formatting error, clunky dialogue and obvious cliche - as well as mad word choices - to the point where I just gave up.

"The hotel was empty. He realised it was Friday, the Muslim day of..." Oh puhlease.

4 million copies sold. Grief.


Cryptonomicon
Cryptonomicon
Price: £4.31

5.0 out of 5 stars A Helical Sort Of Thing, 21 Aug 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Cryptonomicon (Kindle Edition)
This felt like a very long book, but not in a bad way. We jump around between the war and Bletchley Park and the 'present' day - I came to this one late and it was set around the turn of the Millenium, so there are some odd references to things like Windows 95 which now just seem odd - as do some of the technological premises.

Watching it all come together, a helical sort of thing with seemingly unconnected people and plotlines dancing their dance around each other until they all start to coalesce at the end, was great fun - and it's all well-written and highly readable stuff.


The Heart Of A Dog (Vintage Classics)
The Heart Of A Dog (Vintage Classics)
Price: £3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendous fun, 21 Aug 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
After The Master and Margarita, I was all ready to be disappointed with The Heart Of A Dog and my low expectations were rewarded with a romp around Moscow's streets that was a mesmerising, at times thoroughly odd but nevertheless consistently entertaining read. How Bulgakov elicited Stalin's help rather than ending up six feet under has to be one of the C20th's literary mysteries - this story lets the new faces of socialism have it right between the eyes.

I loved the atmosphere of it all, the sense of time and place and even the quirky writing, which at times looks unfinished - like a WIP that found its way into print too early - and yet which all comes together majestically.


The City And The Stars (S.F. Masterworks)
The City And The Stars (S.F. Masterworks)
Price: £4.99

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Readable, 3 July 2013
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I had expected brilliance, perhaps I'd expected too much. It's readable and I read it, but it never rose above that into thrilling or breath-taking, just readable. And I suppose that was just an expectation too far.

I'd write a more helpful review, but I feel I've already invested enough in reading the thing.


Ender's Game: Ender Series, book 1 (Ender Saga)
Ender's Game: Ender Series, book 1 (Ender Saga)
Price: £5.31

5.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling, 3 July 2013
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It fizzes with energy, bursts with ideas and grabs you by the hair and bangs your face against your Kindle until you find yourself standing naked in the bedroom going nowhere because you're glued to a book. It's that good. Verve and an odd sense of displacement together create an environment where anything is possible and you're in Ender's shoes from moment one and rooting for him like a root rooted in rooting compound.

A wonderful book, a sci-fi classic and gloriously enjoyable read.


Speaker For The Dead: Ender Series, book 2 (Ender Saga)
Speaker For The Dead: Ender Series, book 2 (Ender Saga)
Price: £4.31

4.0 out of 5 stars Still fascinating, 3 July 2013
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It reminded me of Frank Herbert's Dune series - stunning first book is head-spinningly brilliant, second book has maybe a little less verve and swagger but nevertheless delivers and then the third one starts to suffer from Lorenzian urges and just loses impetus under the increasingly suffocating swathes of irrelevance and invention for its own sake.

So this is the second book (what a shame, when you've read a trilogy you end up reviewing the last first and yet that's rarely the strongest of the three) and still has plenty of 'oomph' in it - Ender has destroyed the buggers and now faces making up for this. There are lots of interesting ideas in a book which veers deeply (for some reason) into Portugese Catholicism and is more nuanced than Ender's Game. Carried on by the impetus established by its stunning predecessor, there's nevertheless a slowing down here as we spend more time exploring family dynamics, tragedy and loss.

Amazingly, I'm starting to want to slap Ender by the end of the book.


Xenocide: Ender Series, book 3 (Ender Saga)
Xenocide: Ender Series, book 3 (Ender Saga)
Price: £5.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Getting tired now, 3 July 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
It reminded me of Frank Herbert's Dune series - stunning first book is head-spinningly brilliant, second book has maybe a little less verve and swagger but nevertheless delivers and then the third one starts to suffer from Lorenzian urges and just loses impetus under the increasingly suffocating swathes of irrelevance and invention for its own sake. It flies off to the left and right like a kid with Tourette's, barking here and howling there but never engaging or startling as Ender's Game did. By now I'm a little sick of Andrew Wiggins (and starting to think how sad it would be if the universe were indeed multiply saved by someone called Andrew Wiggins) and feeling he's something of a smug wee prig.

I liked the Chinese girl idea, but again the execution became wearysome. By the time we discover faster-than-light flight (by sitting in a cardboard box and rubbing the side of our noses) I've seen visions of Paul as a sandworm - a book I last read over 30 years ago - and remembered the frustration of a legendary saga that hit the ground running and then just started digging until it ran out of steam.

A shame, that...


Ubik (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
Ubik (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzling, 3 Jun 2013
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Ubik is dazzling stuff. The whole book is something of a joke at the reader's expense, the complicated - and possibly confusing - structure mimicking the nested loops of folded time that lie at the heart of the plot. But it's brilliant and fun.


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