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Valentine Gersbach

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by Iain Banks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Readable with glimpses of real quality., 28 Feb. 2013
This review is from: Stonemouth (Paperback)
I've never read a Banks novel before so came to this one with no real conception of what to expect. I found the book to be largely run of the mill in terms of its overall impact with some irritating elements balanced against sections which hinted at the talent that other readers more familiar with his work have hinted at in their reviews.

One of these moments was a stand-off in a snooker hall which,for me,was the most compelling piece of writing in the book,full of convincing menace and fear. There were other passages where Banks' descriptive ability stood out surprisingly from the general faux young man speak of much of the text and had the unwanted effect of making this reader aware of the effort being expended to create the voice of the narrator by an older author.

It was the central character's preoccupation with mobile phones that jarred most - almost as if Banks believed that displaying knowledge of the technology would affirm the authenticity of his hero when,in fact,it had the opposite effect on me.I kept thinking about the conversations he might have had with the young 'uns to gain background in the area. I might be totally wrong of course and Banks could quite easily have the technology at his fingertips but the result was to make me aware of the novel as a product and this rather punctured its dramatic effect.

In the end,it was this awareness of the book as the product of effort which reduced its impact. Really good fiction seems effortless - gliding along like the proverbial swan with no hint of the strenuous activity beneath the surface. In this novel,I was too aware of the legwork to enjoy it consistently.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Penguin Modern Classics)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With a better translation,six stars., 31 Dec. 2012
Although I don't know Russian,there were still moments here where I felt there was something lacking in translation: the use of the word "peach" in preference to "grass" and "crapping" as an adjective jarred so much that they distracted me momentarily even from this truly magnificent book. "Peach" smacks more of public school than the Gulag and "crapping" would never be used by any self respecting curser of my acquaintance.

Having said that,it would take a truly horrendously bad translation to hide the light that shines from this novel and this one isn't.

From the very first page,the reader is grabbed by the narrative and thrown into a savage,freezing environment ruled by cruel and arbitrary forces on behalf of a monolithic and seemingly insane regime. Ivan and the other prisoners around him struggle with exhausting petty regulation,near starvation and Arctic weather to sustain some kind of existence.Through friendship,teamwork,improvisation and ingenuity they are capable of surviving the day described by Solzhenitsyn in a hundred and fifty or so pages.

Not every prisoner is a saint and there is even sympathy for some of the experience of the camp guards which is astonishing coming from a survivor of the Gulag. During the day,there are moments of exhilaration amongst the squalor and frustration of camp life which celebrate the strength of the human spirit in the most natural and convincing fashion.

The satisfaction gained from working in a team and being respected by its members is a central theme which is beautifully shown here and contrasted with the petty,bureaucratic narrowness of those supposedly in charge. Because the prisoners come to own their labour,the fact that it is forced becomes irrelevant to them and,paradoxically,those who seek to force them to work are seen as obstacles to the work's completion.Cleverly,Solzhenitsyn chooses an "ordinary" tradesman for his hero and this allows him to show that simple,human pride in manual skill can exist in even the darkest of worlds.

Most of Ivan's day,however, consists of a mixture of ducking and diving,casual cruelty,insult and humiliation.High points are assessed in bits of bread and bowls of starvation soup.He is a polished product of a system that was meant to destroy him but which he has largely come to terms with. There's not much scope in his life for bravery:it's about adapting or dying but out of it come moments of kindness and shared respect between the prisoners which are presented without fuss or fanfare.

This is at least the second time I've read "Ivan" and I chose to read it over Christmas as a corrective to the usual excesses. As it happened,I read it in bed having caught a cold.It's an excellent cure for "man flu" and its attendant miseries.

Even in an indifferent translation,this is a wonderful novel.

Bradley Wiggins: My Time: An Autobiography
Bradley Wiggins: My Time: An Autobiography
by Bradley Wiggins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard going., 29 Dec. 2012
I've been an armchair cycle fan ever since ITV4 started showing the Tour and watching Wiggins plot his way to winning it this year was a glorious experience.For him to follow up such an effort within days by winning the Olympic time trial showed not only complete athletic mastery but a sense of purpose and discipline rare in any walk of life. I was therefore pleased to receive a copy of "My Time" for Christmas and,although I've read it in relatively quick time,I must say that it has been a disappointment.

If there is one athlete who appears to possess personality and individuality,it is Wiggins. His various responses and utterances during the Tour were witty,honest and brave,from the savage and obscene rant against those who accused him of doping to the "raffle" comment on the victory podium in Paris. His ecstatic hand gesture on receiving yellow for the first time beat any raising of any cup by any footballer that I've seen.Yet in this book he emerges as nothing more than a decent man going about his business single mindedly with little to say about much other than training routines and the admiration he has for those in the team around him and his wife. Nothing wrong with that,of course but surely there is more to him than that.

What he says about doping and his attitude to it is interesting and moving but the most cogent words about it in the text have appeared in other places. The attempts to bring humour in tend to fall flat which is disappointing given Bradley's seemingly ready sense of the absurd.The pen portraits of those around him are often frank in part but tend to end in some variation of "I love him to bits".The attempt to recreate Bradley's own self deprecating,slightly laddish style fails to include the touch of devil that often comes with it.The cheeky,edgy quality that many admire is sadly absent and what remains is dutiful pleasantry.

The passages which deal with racing are informative but fail to capture the heady mixture of politics,strategy and sheer lung-bursting hard work that the actuality consists of.Perhaps the necessarily methodical nature of the training and its now certain outcome in victory for Wiggins and Sky described in the book must inevitably reduce the reader's enjoyment of reading about the playing out of the events.The increasing references to TSS and Vam statistics tend to mitigate one's response to the heroic efforts that they represent,interesting though it is to learn about their use.

In sum,I found it a bit dull,interesting in parts but mainly unimaginative in its approach and predictable in its treatment of what must have been towering moments of emotion in Bradley's life.There's a much better book to be written about these truly magnificent achievements.

The Art of Fielding
The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What's going on here?, 20 Nov. 2012
This review is from: The Art of Fielding (Paperback)
I didn't expect what I got here and I'm still not sure what it was.

First of all,there's the baseball.There were no concessions,understandably,to readers who don't know the sport and in the end,you don't have to know much to detect moments of success and failure as the book progresses.However,the initial plunge into the language of the game could quite easily put a hefty section of the readership off on both sides of the Atlantic. I took the view that I'd pick up what I needed to know as I went along,much as one does when reading Patrick O'Brian's sea tales.The obvious mythic significance of the players invites the reader to concentrate rightly on them rather than the intricacies of the sport.

And myth of the American kind seems to be what we're dealing with here with the emergence from nowhere of the rookie "natural" in the middle of the continent at a college touched,however fleetingly by one of the the greatest American myth makers of them all,Melville.The baseball team,steered by its very own Ahab pursues its course through the choppy waters of inter college competition,depression,injury,sexual jealousy and drug abuse.Various love stories run their course at the same time like porpoises alongside the Pequod and the conclusion arrives garnished with touches of Poe,Whitman and the great Herman himself. Coen Brothers fans may even find a touch of The Big Lebowski in there as well.

Along the way,Harbach shows himself to be an adept creator of literate and inventive prose. There's wit,precision and poetry on most pages,not least when making baseball come alive through a screen of jargon.What he doesn't do for me is produce truly convincing characters,which may well be something that he doesn't set out to do given the mythic underpinning of the piece.There's something stereotypical in the participants that makes them difficult to care for:they play out their part in the epic but,for me,lack the subtlety of fully rounded people.Schwartz,the player coach and driven captain of the team,for instance, is a massive presence within the novel but in the way that a face on Mount Rushmore is massive.He has his troubles and weaknesses but they amount to little more than bird droppings on his stony mien.He suffers like Ahab,not like Holden Caulfield.

There's a lot going on here,some of it predictable and sentimental but it is a very well written book with probably more going on underneath than I have detected.I look forward to the next from Mr Harbach.

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.14

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Big tease., 12 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
One given about any McEwan novel is that it will be written in clever and considered prose and this one certainly is.Whether the reader gets on with the plot or not,they will admire the quality of the writing. Even when,I suspect,the author wants to impart an element of the erotically banal into this work,he still does the sex scenes as well as many another less artful author might working to their imaginative limit.

But this book isn't really about the sex,or the spy story or the name dropping from the author's past or his reading list,in my opinion.What I think McEwan is giving us here is a rumination on what fiction is,where it comes from and what purpose it serves.At some stage in most novels,we know where we are but by the time I reached the end of this one,I had no bloody idea where the storytelling started,who was doing it and to what purpose.Layer these considerations on top of a story which,even if read conventionally,consists of serial betrayal and subterfuge and you have something to think about for a while.

The cleverness here is the apparent lack of cleverness.McEwan has employed the techniques used by William Boyd in his latest - the historical and geographical detail,the dramatic twists of plot-to seduce the reader into a false sense of security.Here's McEwan,I thought,treading the path down the hill to the valley of the page turner trading on his former glory with a bit of sex and spying and some recycling of recent history and I didn't mind because he does it so well.However,I was falling for a fiction as contrived as those deployed at several levels within the book.It's almost as if the author is asking the reader if they really think that he's fallen to the next rung down on the literary ladder and then producing the unspectacular ending that exposes just what has been going on.

Much as I enjoyed the book,I will admit to some embarrassment in response to the examination here of where I and many of my friends were in our thinking about the Soviet Union and the United States.Blinded at times by our outrage against the evident excesses of the latter,we excused the crimes that had been committed and were still being committed by the former.There was need for criticism and protest against what was being done by "our" side but it didn't obviate the need for a similar attitude to be taken against the criminality and cruelty that existed behind the Iron Curtain.Falling for another fiction,I remember sounding off blithely in defence of what I now see as indefensible in this respect and McEwan must have listened to many like me at the time and made notes for later.

Fibber in the Heat
Fibber in the Heat
by Miles Jupp
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Not just a joke book., 30 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Fibber in the Heat (Paperback)
I heard the back end of an interview with Miles Jupp on TMS a bit ago and thought he sounded a lot like Archie from Balamory,having watched it with my granddaughter on several occasions.Whether it was this that made him stick in my mind or the few details that I gleaned about the book from the bit about it that I heard,I don't know, but when I saw the book,I bought it and I'm glad that I did for several reasons.

Firstly,it is funny,often very funny but it doesn't give the impression of trying to be funny all the time.Jupp gives the impression of having genuine intelligence and wit that infuses his writing.He sometimes strays into rather strained comic metaphor but generally steers clear of the artificially produced laugh and relies on the obvious comic potential of his situation and the people around him to produce humour.His references to Boycott are a case in point:you don't have to exaggerate Geoffrey to make him comic,all you have to do is say what he does.

Secondly,the book is honest.Jupp is unsparing when relating the desperate sadness and feelings of inadequacy that his situation creates.He tells us about his social blunders,his panics and the sheer misery that trying to fit in with the "real" journalists causes him.His joy at being asked for a pen by Atherton only to be crushed by the great man's understandable indifference to him will strike a chord with many.The emotional highs and lows here put into context the troubles experienced by cricketers on tour.Jupp's ability to describe his feelings is impressive,as is his ability to convey the joy destroying nature of cricket journalism.

Another aspect of the book which I admired was its presentation of the journalists and commentators themselves.Jupp is clever in his ability to choose brief encounters with people like Agnew and Marks which reveal elements of their character quite clearly.No one named comes out of the book badly,with the arguable exception of Boycott who probably wouldn't think he does even if he could be bothered to read it and it's pleasing to hear that cricketing greats have the humanity to include a gauche newcomer in their revelry.Simon Mann comes out of the book especially well which confirmed my growing opinion of him as a decent bloke on the radio.Where Jupp makes criticism,anonymity is preserved althugh I'm sure those better versed in cricket writing will have their suspicions.

Jupp is also good at India.He presents the heat,the passion of the crowds and the petty officialdom very convincingly.He also writes well about cricket and cricketers,which,I suppose should be a given in a book such as this.It's obvious that he loves the game and admires the people who play or have played it.He even acknowledges Boycott's popularity in India.

I enjoyed the book a lot and was sorry to finish it.

At Last (The Patrick Melrose Novels)
At Last (The Patrick Melrose Novels)
by Edward St Aubyn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars As I lay dead., 23 Aug. 2012
I can't say that I've read better,wittier,more acid prose than St Aubyn produces at times here.There are sections which would have done credit to Evelyn Waugh.The opening chapter is rampantly funny and the tone is sustained virtually throughout the novel.Shockingly,the author slips his foot very occasionally into the sentimental,especially when introducing children into the narrative but,in the main,he sustains both a retrospective on his horrific childhood and a commentary on the antics of a crowd of upper class misfits and acquisitive cultists with admirable verve.

I've read others from this series but apart from having catalogued them under "very good" in my memory and having a vague recollection of St Aubyn's genius for recreating drunkenness on the page,I don't remember that much about them.This,however,didn't spoil my enjoyment of "At Last".The structure of the novel allows St Aubyn to inform the reader fairly fully of the part played by the various characters in his past life and the effect is rather like meeting people at a real funeral.I was pretty sure by the end of the book who everyone was and their significance in Patrick's life.

I also like the concept of a book which pretty well observes the unities of time,action and place.Although much of what "happens" in the book happens in the protagonists' memories,the central action takes place on one day,concerns one event and happens in only acouple of settings.To make a work operating within such a frame and make it consistently compelling and entertaining takes a large amount of literary skill.Only someone with St Aubyn's precise ability to verbalise the internal in such original and elegant prose would be capable of accomplishing the task.

Fred Trueman: The Authorised Biography
Fred Trueman: The Authorised Biography
by Chris Waters
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A hard hero to have., 21 Aug. 2012
As a kid,I can remember watching Trueman bowling on tv and being enthralled by the whole earthy glamour of his performance-the flapping shirt,unruly hair and the improbable athletic ease that characterised his run up.He made me want to be a fast bowler and,even though I never played for anything other than my grammar school house team,I've always loved bowling whenever I've had the chance,probably influenced by those early visions of the archetypal fast bowler.

The book that first taught me something about cricket was Arlott's "Fred" which is crammed with its author's poetic perception but obviously cannot deal with much of Trueman's later life and eschews a lot of the very early history of the man.I also remember it as being less frank about the off field behaviour of its subject than this book but I haven't looked at it for twenty years or so.

Had I noticed that this was "The Authorised Biography",I might have baulked at buying it on the assumption that it would lean towards the hagiographic but I would have been wrong because the tone here is generally pretty forthright on Fred's failings while preserving a rightfully admiring assessment of his abilities as a bowler.The author deals honestly with his subject's tendency to bombast and boorishness,especially during his later TMS years and makes a good fist of analysing what actually happened during Trueman's first tour to the West Indies on which a great deal of his notoriety and popularity stemmed.He also presents,without commentary,a few of the more outlandish claims made by Fred about his ancestry,amongst other things,which allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about the amount of trust they are able to place in Fred's adherence to truth.

Nothing much new is revealed about the shabby treatment that the young Trueman received from Yorkshire and England but the captains' and managers' reports from various overseas tours were new to me and often did less credit to their authors than to Trueman.I'm sure that he was a handful and I'm sure that he tried the patience of his team mates but one would have thought that those in the business of winning test matches would have persevered in their efforts to ease him into what was to him an entirely new world rather more energetically than they did.In ignoring so obvious a talent for so long rather than attempting to rub off what were,admittedly,some spectacular rough edges,the cricket establishment did little to dispel Fred's claims of class prejudice.As much as he had a duty to learn how to behave,his seniors had a duty to teach him.

Waters,I think, is right in identifying Trueman with the "angry young men" although John Brain would have been nearer the mark than John Osborne.Trueman did represent to me and many others the spirit of working class assertiveness that ran through the fifties and sixties.I was on the back end of it but the pride that I took in the straight speaking,irrepressible energy of people like Trueman was shared by many around me in the South Yorkshire of my youth.To see him become the repository of crusty bar room conservatism of his later years was a sadness to those of us who saw him as an athletic embodiment of something entirely different in his playing days.

His settling in the Dales and his reluctance to acknowledge his roots were specifics that I could have guessed at but was unaware of.The comment about the willingness to "lick the boots" of Major and Clarke I found shocking and,I hope,even with a deep dislike for his politics,untrue.One can accept only so much sullying of even fallen heroes.

Overall,this is an intelligent and interesting assessment of of a gifted,flawed,complex man which celebrates his glories without hiding his faults.I read it in very few sessions and found it pretty compelling.As with many good books about sport,it manages to set its subject in an historical as well as a sporting context.Trueman would have had a very different career had he been born at a different time.That he came to prominence when deference was beginning to fade as a characteristic of British society added much to his status as a working class hero.It's ironic that he probably came to regret the changes to which he contributed.

A Pennine Journey: The Story of a Long Walk in 1938
A Pennine Journey: The Story of a Long Walk in 1938
by Alfred Wainwright
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Wainwright warts and all., 13 Aug. 2012
I read this in very few sittings and enjoyed most of it immensely.The subject and time setting are both compelling-a walk to Hadrian's Wall and back from Settle at the time of the Munich crisis.Its authorship guarantees outspoken quirkiness and passion for the hills in equal measure.

The practicalities of the walk are fascinating in themselves.How do you cope with carrying the clothes and equipment that you need for a two week walk?Simple:don't change clothes and,apart from a map,don't take anything else with you.How do you find accommodation?Ask in shops,seek out delapidated pubs or just knock on doors until someone lets you stay for the night,exhausted and filthy as you are.I doubt that AW would have had much truck with Zen but he slips into Buddhist simplicity with ease here.What his reception in various inns and simple cottages tells us about how our lives have changed in the last seventy or so years is something that Wainwright obviously couldn't address at the time but,for the modern reader,the warmth and care extended to him by very often poor folk take on even more impact than he registers.

The hardships that he suffers and the joys experienced on the walk are rendered sometimes too dramatically for my taste but this is the work of a passionate young man,"mad" in the opinion of some,as he honestly admits.I also find his pontificating on gender differences and his regular assessment of the atractions of the women he meets somewhat wearing.He can be complimentary and sensible in these areas but is too often simplistic and sometimes rather worrying in his attitude even given the mores of the time.Again,his age at the time of writing and the fact that the book was seemingly not written for wide publication should mitigate criticism here and his vehement condemnation of the recounting of what appears to have been a sexual assault is to his credit.

Having made these criticisms,it must also be said that Wainwright is generally self deprecating and often very funny in these pages.He is also quick to praise the people he comes across of both sexes for their kindness to him.There is an almost Wordsworthian element in the impression made on him by the landscape and people that he encounters and this is heightened,at least in the earlier parts of the book, by the gloom created by the international situation of the time.The question of what war would do to to the environment through which he is walking sharpens his appreciation of it and this is the aspect of the book which makes it so striking for me.

by Andrew Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Grave matters., 8 May 2012
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
I'm very much between two stools in my opinion of this novel.I found the opening chapters engrossing and vivid,especially the semi surreal evocation of Versailles and the precise quality of language used in the descriptions of Paris,the lodgings of the chief protagonist and his macabre workplace.There also seemed to be a subtle,symbolic drive to the writing expressed in the putrefaction and stench which pervades the atmosphere and the early stirrings of revolt.

For me,at least,direction was lost about two thirds of the way through when the author's attention seemed to drift towards the development of Jean-Baptiste's personal life, the introduction of violent melodramatic episodes and descriptions of happy domesticity,none of which seemed particularly to lead anywhere.There was a brief revival of the memorable atmosphere evoked at the beginning in the final chapter but,by then,I'd found myself finishing the novel more as a chore than a pleasure.

I was very impressed by the early chapters and by the success in creating historical setting in intelligent and inventive prose but I must say the later sections of "Pure" left me disappointed.

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