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Snowdrops
Snowdrops
by A. D. Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Child 44 it's not,thank heavens., 12 Nov 2011
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This review is from: Snowdrops (Paperback)
The first time I came across this novel was when it was read quite superbly on Radio 4 by Stephen Mangan in just the right nerdy but knowing tone that was required.I let a fair amount of time elapse before I read the unabridged version during which the novel figured in the Booker list.I can't speak for the rest of the books but I think that this one deserved its place in comparison with recent winners of the bauble of the books.

As with many reviewers,for me the book's most obvious strength is in its unrelentingly powerful evocation of Moscow and its changing seasons.We are constantly made aware of the snow coming and going,the changes of colour in the streets and the effect it has on how people dress and behave.It acts as a supplementary character in the action of the novel,eventually revealing what we are told from the beginning that it will reveal.There's no mystery here,we all know what's under the snow,only the detail is hidden.And that seems to me to be the essence of this novel.There is nothing in it than cannot be predicted.It is not a murder mystery because there is no mystery about what's going on in the Moscow in the novel - money will be made,legally or illegally;the weak will be disinherited;the gullible will be taken for every last penny and every human impulse will be exploited by people who have survived the wreck of the Soviet Union with everything in tact but what seems to them to be superfluous morality.

Nick,the narrator is a mere bystander who is sucked into the real action by his naive susceptibility to physical desire.He wants,throughout the novel not to believe the evidence of his own eyes,wants to be loved despite his glasses and his ordinariness,wants to act decently but just can't because of fear or the desire for passionate sex or money.The book's not really about him-he's not a hero,rather he's the voyeur who finally gets to take part in the action.The real centres of the novel are Masha,the almost heartless low rent femme fatale and Tatiana,a bearer of the long suffering soul of Russia,fooled by the new capitalism as she was oppressed by Stalin.There's never a question about which of the two women will come out of the novel the winner,the fascination is in the gradual coming to pass of the inevitable.

The device of framing the novel as a confession can seem irksome,particularly early on but when the enormity of Nick's betrayal of decency descends upon him,surely a mea culpa is believable.It's also pretty clear that Nick's manic infatuation isn't over and that he wants to provide the nice girl to whom he's confessing with a stick to drive him back to the life that he really wants-"the toasts and the snow....the rush of neon on the Bulvar in the middle of the night..".

After reading one or two novels set in Russia recently,including the truly execrable "Child 44" and the worthy "The Betrayal",I was pleased to have heard this on the radio quite by chance.Having read the whole thing,I'm even more impressed.There's knowledge of another world here mixed with humour and moments of classically hopeless unrequited love.There are questions about exploitation,everyday evil and one's duty to others that aren't dragged patronisingly into the foreground and underlined for the reader.Because of this,it's a book that stimulates thought and that sets it above much of modern fiction.


A Walk In The Woods
A Walk In The Woods
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Curate's egg,but aren't they all?, 8 Nov 2011
This review is from: A Walk In The Woods (Paperback)
I've read a few of Mr Bryson's books but haven't picked one up since I finished his Shakespeare effort.I thought that was stretching the franchise a little too far and too thinly.However,coming across this in the British Heart Foundation shop in Ilkley seemed too apt an omen to ignore,given its writer's passion for a bargain,so I bought it - for two quid.

Another reason for buying the book was that it is about the Appalachian Trail which attracts me because I've done a bit of walking myself and have had the odd thought about doing a part of the AT at some stage.In that respect,the book was very useful in that it put me off thinking about the southern stages of the trail at least,given my aversion to dizzy heights and homicidal inclinations in the locals on my walks.

I must say that Bryson's evocation of the attraction of long treks was often spot on.The feeling of a purpose which seems to exclude everything else is one that many walkers will recognise and Bryson describes it well.The irritation of wet weather clothing and the first experience of carrying a heavy pack are also well done,as are the annoyances and joys of travelling with others.Walking from one place to a new place shouldn't feel much different from walking a circular day route,but it does, as the later sections of this book confirm and therein lies my problem with "A walk in the woods".Without giving away the ending of the book,which is in itself pretty impressive,the impetus of the first section of the walk is lost in what follows.We are treated in the second section to an increasing amount of Bryson on American History,Geology,Town Planning and so on,some of which is very entertaining and informative,some of which isn't but none of which recaptures the narrative thread and human interest of the first section which,largely,simply describes what it's like to go on a long walk with an unusual companion.

The other problem with the non-narrative sections of all of Bryson's books is that they,by their nature,tend to date.The indignation that he expresses,for instance,against the actions of the US National Parks set up may be,for all I know,out of date.His descriptions of the woods and mountains and the diverse characters who plod through them are much less likely to lose force through time.I realise that this criticism is double edged to the extent that had I read the book when it came out,topical sections would still be relevant but it still has some force for those of us addicted to second-hand bookshops.

In general,I've always thought Bryson an intelligent and witty commentator on humanity but,having read this work and a good bit of "The Lost Continent" together,I must confess that at least when these pieces were written,he could be rather tiresomely critical of what he saw as human failing.He seems constantly obsessed with obesity and to equate it,often directly,to ignorance,social inadequacy and stupidity which allows him to mine a rich but easily reached seam of humour which really should be beneath him.He can do better and often does here. Perhaps his later works are more tolerant.

Anyhow,despite some the above,I enjoyed the book a lot and finished it in less than half a dozen readings.For all his failings,Bryson is always literate,often thought-provoking and generally funny.


The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Helen Graham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Puzzling and lifeless., 9 Oct 2011
I have some sympathy with previous reviewers of this book on two scores.The first is on the grounds of the language in which the book is written.On far too many occasions the writer opts for phraseology which clouds rather than makes clear her meaning.Other reviewers have commented on their need to re read sections to elicit sense and I share their experience.One example which comes to mind is her mystifying use of the word "cupola" on several occasions.It is ironic she should make some criticism of George Orwell during her book when one compares the clarity and impact of Orwell's reportage in comparison with her convoluted and constipated style.

My second criticism also involves Orwell in that the emphasis that Orwell gave to Stalinist attempts to "organise the apocalypse" of revolutionary fervour,especially in Catalonia during the war is very diluted here.At least one other reviewer has remarked on the lack of reference to the role of anarchism in energising the defence of the Spanish Republic in the book and a similar absence of comment on Stalinist attempts to suppress the influence of the POUM and anarcho-syndicalist supporters.She goes as far as implying that Orwell,as a member of the POUM militia didn't really understand the events of May 1937 even though he was there at the time and subsequently had personal experience of suppression of the non Stalinist left before leaving Spain for good.I tend to think that Orwell's analysis has rather more force than Helen Graham's does and the subsequent reaction of the Stalinist left towards Orwell in general and "Homage to Catalonia" in particular confirms me in this view.

I could,of course be wrong to reject Graham's view of the politics of the war,but I wouldn't be alone.It may also be true that I've misunderstood her position due to the turgid quality of her writing.In either case Graham would have far more chance if she presented her case in language that is on the one hand clear and on the other,persuasive.To be fair to her,her analysis of the politics of Francoism,its origins and history are perceptive and well argued,as is her identification of the war as being an early and vital chapter in the clash of cultures that finally led to World War II but I'm afraid these and other positives are rather hidden under a bushel of passionless jargon.


Old Filth
Old Filth
by Jane Gardam
Edition: Paperback

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars What's the point?, 1 Oct 2011
This review is from: Old Filth (Paperback)
My wife recommended this novel to me after having laughed out loud several times during her reading of it.I'm afraid that the odd smile was all that it raised in me.

I found the central character very difficult to get to know.He seemed to change shape depending on the circumstance in which Gardam placed him.At times he is decent and deeply thoughtful,at others capable of crass insensitivity especially towards people who work for him.Relationships which are at one minute portrayed as fundamental to him are forgotten for pages on end,then dragged back into view to provide impetus to a flagging plot.Similarly,the characters around him flit in and out of his life sporting character traits which seemingly differ to meet the particular requirements of that stage of the novel.They also have the endearing habit of turning up completely out of the blue at just the right time to save Filth's skin or further his career or to furnish touching or humorous moments for the reader.I'll allow a novelist one such event in a book before I start to suspect a serious lack of direction in the plot,here there were several.

In the end,I was at a loss to identify the purpose of the novel.What was being said about Filth apart from the fact that he had had an unusual upbringing and was irresistible to most women?Was it that his childhood experiences were being shown to have some impact on his later career?Was this some kind of indictment of how children from colonial families were treated between the wars?Or is the novel just a mildly jokey,sometimes sentimental,picaresque entertainment dressed up as something rather grander?

I was surprised by the number of supporters of this book and thought perhaps I was missing something,then I remembered the Queen Mary section and knocked it down to two stars from three-if ever a sequence in a novel smacked of desperation for material,it was that one.


Life: Keith Richards
Life: Keith Richards
by Keith Richards
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

12 of 20 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars They should have left it to Marlon., 20 Aug 2011
This review is from: Life: Keith Richards (Paperback)
I liked the Stones when they came out but saw them as Chuck Berry take offs.There were kids at our school who had been turned on to the blues by Elvis long before the Stones came along. I now realise that when I grew to really like them was when Keith discovered a whole new way to string and tune a guitar allowing them to produce "Honky Tonk Women","Gimme Shelter","Wild Horses" and so on.This is the only positive,if it is one,that I can take from reading most of this sickly,dreary book.

From the off,the tone here is one of tedious,unrelenting self aggrandisement. A catalogue of drug use, criminal damage and child neglect is interspersed with whining about suffering its consequences. Serial self abuse somehow translates itself into a gesture of freedom. His being "cared for" by strings of anonymous groupies is meant somehow to have liberated them.Other people are seemingly ranked on their capacity for sucking up to Keith,self destruction or both. Abandoning children is legitimised by leaving them in the care of anyone who might be there at the time.

If this shameful autobiography had been written with something approaching repentance or introspection,had it gone deeper into why a gifted musician felt the need to hammer himself into oblivion in the most chronically adolescent fashion,had it even been remotely well-written, then it might have had some pretension to merit.As it stands,it has none of these recommendations.

I'm sorry to say that I shared many of Keith's values forty years ago.I've largely grown out of them. The one person involved here with whom I sympathised now is Marlon,his son. His contributions were the only windows of sense in the whole,sorry tome.It was illuminating to read his account of his upbringing alongside the fantasised version presented by his father in the main text and it was in better prose.When he comes to write the biography of his father,I'm sure that it will be a far more worthwhile read.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 19, 2014 1:53 PM GMT


Ordinary Thunderstorms
Ordinary Thunderstorms
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Effective pageturner., 1 Aug 2011
This review is from: Ordinary Thunderstorms (Paperback)
I've read a lot of William Boyd over the years,from the excellent "Brazzaville Beach" to the forgettable "Restless" and there has definitely been a gradual decline in his creative ambition,similar to the one evident in the work of Ian McEwan. That said,what one loses in intellectual challenge in Boyd is to some extent replaced by the transfer of his undoubted skill as a writer into the realm of popular fiction. At least,when reading Boyd,the reader is unlikely to be insulted by the quality of the prose or the juvenile sensationalism that is to be found in the average thriller.

There is some improbability in the storyline but mostly in the opening chapters as a means to insert the central character into his predicamant.There are later coincidences but none are noticeably outrageous and the general sweep of the plot disguises them adequately.Characters are generally stereotypes - ruthless hitman with a mushy side to his character, diabolic master of business with a bland manner,indefatigable seeker after truth and so on,but they are fleshed out with skill and sustain personality throughout.Perhaps the least compelling character is the main protagonist but since much of the action is mediated through him,that isn't surprising.

The book has violence and the threat of violence throughout,but it never takes over. There is none of the prurient gloating over damage to humans that seems de rigeur in some other crime based fiction that it has been my misfortune to read lately.Boyd knows enough about writing to add excitement without shoving his readers' noses into a pile of blood and guts.What,for me,he doesn't demonstrate here is the ability to finish with a bang. I was distinctly underwhelmed with the conclusion of the novel but good manners towards future readers precludes detailing my criticism.

I must admit that one of the reasons I have for liking this novel is the element it has of "hiding out" from the world. For me, the early sections had a slight hint about them of Geoffrey Household's "Rogue Male" and when that Boys'Own phase of the novel ended, I found my interest decline a little.That said,I rattled through the book quickly and,despite the odd cavil,enjoyed it.


The Holy Thief (The Korolev Series)
The Holy Thief (The Korolev Series)
by William Ryan
Edition: Paperback

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting touches in a passable whole., 6 May 2011
I noticed a sticker on my copy of this novel which bracketed it with the execrable "Child 44" but thankfully,apart from being a detective story set in Stalinist Russia with some unnecessarily violent touches,the two novels are rather different.

For me, "Child 44" deteriorated into an unholy mess,whereas "The Holy Thief" actually delivered some of its best moments towards its conclusion in the shape of some musings on the need for ceremony in societies as a justification for the existence of religion.Such philosophical content would have been entirely alien in "Child 44" but connects with a theme which is touched on regularly throughout "The Holy Thief".

Unfortunately,the philosophy didn't lift the plot out of the mire of ordinariness sufficiently for me.The storyline is generally predictable and the action often ludicrous.There are some moments of originality of expression and humour and some mildly engaging characters in the novel but the wilder claims for its quality on the back cover are very wide of the mark.The truly inventive Soviet detective story hasn't come my way yet;I await its arrival with keen anticipation.


The Dog of the South
The Dog of the South
by Charles Portis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars General hilarity., 4 April 2011
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This review is from: The Dog of the South (Paperback)
This short novel reminds me of a cross between "Diary of a Nobody" and "On the Road".It's packed full of off beat humour at the expense of its central character and narrator who coasts nerdishly through its pages dispensing car maintenance tips and lifestyle advice to anyone unlucky enough to be collared by him.The point is that he never gets the point.

The storyline is minimal but largely irrelevant since the reader's interest is held by the parade of crackpots and catalogue of weird incidents and encounters that Ray,the narrator,experiences in his travels.Having said that,there is an impression of drift at times which poses questions about Portis's sense of direction.This impression was heightened for me by the fact that this book came in the wake of the truly brilliant "True Grit" which never for a second lacks drive.

Having made this one caveat,I must stress that the book contains many moments of eye watering humour and is well worth a read.In my experience,Portis is truly an original and supremely talented writer.


True Grit
True Grit
by Charles Portis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not a wasted word., 23 Mar 2011
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This review is from: True Grit (Paperback)
My interest in re-reading this magnificent novel was stimulated by the release of the Coen brothers' new version of the film.Having seen their attempt,I must admit that I prefer the John Wayne version largely because the 1969 film for me emphasised the humour and verbal dexterity of the novel more consistently and audibly than the Coen version.I was delighted at the time by the change wrought upon the Wayne persona by the verbal register that the role gave him.He rose to a challenge and,supported by a spirited and intelligent cast and matched by an equally great performance by Kim Darby, produced a memorable film.The Coens added their own signature moment in Mattie's tree climbing scene and happily included Rooster's revenge on the mule tormentors but frequently lost the impact of Portis's dialogue through a quest for authenticity in Bridges' mumbled delivery and the new Mattie's breakneck recitation of her part.

The novel itself is stunning.Within a couple of hundred pages,Portis creates a dynamic and convincing mixture of location,character,plot and,above all,language, that sweeps the reader along through one memorable and impeccably presented scene after another to a noble conclusion.The engine here is dialogue,descriptive passages being precise and spare.We find out about characters from what they say about themselves and others in an idiosyncratic and inventive mix of legalistic,biblical,poetic,witty,stately and profane speech.It's as unlikely that frontier folk employed this sophisticated language as the Elizabethans used Shakespearean blank verse but,somehow,authenticity doesn't seem to be the point:this is a dark,elemental world that has its own mode of discourse.Even Lucky Ned Pepper and the hapless Chaney are fluent in its use-it's not restricted to the good guys,it's the lingua franca of their world.

The characters are all memorable,their interactions are variously violent,hilarious or touching.The plot is simple and fast moving yet never seems hurried.The time honoured themes of the western are celebrated but with style and wit.This reader,at least, was left in admiration of brilliant work of fiction.I expect that the Coens' film will revive interest in the novel on which it is based and that the book will now gain wider popularity and acclaim.It is to be hoped that Portis will be recognised by a new cohort of readers as a writer of rare quality.


Solar
Solar
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Smart work from a real artist., 17 Mar 2011
This review is from: Solar (Paperback)
I was surprised to see the range of response from reviewers to "Solar".In my opinion an overall 3 star rating for what I regard as a stylish and witty satire on many aspects of modern life is very disappointing.

This book made me laugh consistently with its wry and humane take on human frailty and bears comparison with John Updike's work in its quality of prose and sharp humour.The central character,in all his venality,held my attention in much the same way as "Rabbit" Angstrom did in Updike's great sequence of novels or Bech in his less ambitious series about a blocked writer of youthful promise.He is despicable but all too believable.His conflicts with the modern life are motivated by greed and hypocrisy as often as they are by the stultifying hand of humourless posturing in his opponents.Virtually no one is guilt free in the world that McEwan has created,Beard least of all.Those who find themselves at odds with the novel because of their dislike of its main protagonist are surely missing the point.We are not meant to love him,we are simply invited to see him at work.

I found McEwan's take on the celebrity scientist perceptive and credible.A Nobel prize doesn't guarantee nobility,nor does it necessarily promote continued excellence.That someone blessed with an early stroke of genius and a Faginesque eye for the main chance could live the life that McEwan describes seems credible to me.The fact that such a person might well retain a few resilient human characteristics is also quite possible and legitimises the surprising denouement.

After reading several novels of differing genres recently,all of which seemed to have been produced by enthusiastic newcomers or steady artisans of the writing trade,I felt that here I was reading the work of a truly talented and generously skilled master.I expected quality from the writer of "Atonement","Saturday" and "Enduring Love" and I wasn't disappointed.


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