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Girl Online
Girl Online
Price: £5.70

6 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for any age, 6 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: Girl Online (Kindle Edition)
At 67, my main reading is heavyweight biographies, science, philosophy, history and the novels of Anthony Trollope. I bought Girl Online because I understood it was set in Brighton, where I too was a teenager fifty years ago. Reading it I have learned that teenage life hasn't changed in all the real things that matter: we still had school plays, best friends, false friends we fell out with – and were dazzled at the first sight of foreign cities and foreign flirtations. Some critics have suggested that this is not Zoella's work but has been ghost-written. Personally I don't care whether she crafted every word on cream-laid paper with a fountain pen or outsourced it to a million monkeys bashing a million typewriters: it is a fresh and lovely book for anyone of any age who remembers what it is or was like to be young and awkward and in love.


TENDER IS THE NIGHT
TENDER IS THE NIGHT
Price: £0.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Greater than Gatsby, 1 Jan. 2014
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I first read The Great Gatsby fifty years ago, and have re-read it regularly over the years to indulge myself in the richness of the prose and the clear morality of the story. I had several times attempted to get into Tender is the Night, but until earlier this month it had always eluded my attention. Gatsby has a clear narrative timeline and two fine characters - the self-effacing Nick, and Gatsby himself - and two detestable pantomime villains: Daisy and her husband, who damage people but then pass on cocooned in their wealth.

Tender is the Night has a quite different structure - and there are no villains at all. I tackled the book again a week or so back at the urging of a friend and published author whose views I much respect, and who rated the book greater than Gatsby. I read it once, and at the end of this first reading quite frankly didn't see the point: medical charlatan marries young, beautiful, rich patient and gets his comeuppance. But, respecting my friend's views, I persevered: and half-way through the second time I began to get an understanding. Now, having read it in full three times in succession I can see why it can be considered to be greater than Gatsby.

The triptych structure is essential to the book. The first part shows Dick and Nicole Diver at the height of their existence: glamour and attractiveness seen through the perceptive eyes of a young (seventeen) but self-assured young actress, Rosemary, who falls heavily in love or infatuation with Doctor Dick. He rises nobly to resist her attempt at an affair without offending her, and clearly expressing his responsibilities to the wife and children he loves.

The second section is a flashback explaining how their relationship came to be, and the perilous quicksands upon which it is built. Dick is a serious young psychiatrist with a dazzling future ahead of him - but he is poor. Nicole, then sixteen, becomes his patient and over time they fall in love and marry: she is emotionally damaged, but very rich. Taking this history in the second part gives you cause to reflect upon the dazzling impressions of the first part, and to suspect the weaknesses that underlie it.

In part three, the finale, the edifice of their life together crumbles and eventually their marriage falls apart. They separate, divorce; with Nicole now strengthened to independence and Dick descending into alcohoiism and a succession of appointments in small towns where his charm can disguise the failure of his talent. Nicole still loves him for what he meant to her, and you know that he still loves her - but that there is no way back. Both Dick and Nicole terminate their relationship with a dignity that confirms that their relationship, although flawed, was nevertheless something of value.

I now, and somewhat to my surprise, agree with my friend's assessment that it is greater than Gatsby - but it requires more effort than a casual flipping through.


To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa
To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa
Price: £3.59

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent power, 8 Dec. 2013
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There are people who write to tell a story; some who write to put across a point of view; and some use the process of writing to discover things about themselves that they did not know. This last category contains many examples of hopeless self-indulgence and self-deception, but on rare occasions an honest and painful struggle is expressed in clear liquid prose that not only provides illumination to the writer, but may enable the reader to know the writer better than they do themselves.

Sovich is born into a life of financial security and comfort, but learns from her restless mother that although these things are central to their way of life, they have their price. Her mother tinkers at the edges with the self-indulgent slumming of the idle rich, but always returns to the nest. As Novich matures into an adult she follows her mother's restlessness with adventures of her own - but also always returns. By her early thirties she is married to a man who loves her deeply, and whom she loves in return . . . but it is not enough. She decides to emulate her mother, but to the extreme: not just a few weeks slumming, but a solitary and hazardous journey through wild and unknown parts of Africa. She returns, falls pregnant, goes out one last time.

For all the tribulations of her journeys, she is, because of her wealth, never more than a cab-ride from an airport and a plane home. However, what makes this memoire stand out from the countless hippy-trail indulgences of the other comfortable middle-class travellers she meets, is the honesty and clarity with which she describes her dilemma. She seeks to find herself herself by solitude and danger and trial, but the things she is running away from are in her own head. Her voyaging is in some ways a type of self-harming, in which only by exposing herself to the pain of loneliness and discomfort can she gain release. She stretches the envelope of her existence to the limit, but will never risk giving up her financial security - the one single action that would set her free, but would pose other different problems that might for her be insuperable. Her money allows her close-up glimpses of the lives lived by the people she moves amongst, but she is always an observer, always detached - however open the conversations and physical intimacy with the women she meets. She is always the purchaser, never the seller: and those two experiences are further apart than the suburbs of Connecticut and the villages of Africa.

Her life is, as it is for all of us, a flawed compromise to which there is no solution. It is this integrity of this self-revelation, and how she is learning to live with it, that is the magnificent power of this book.


The Hobbit
The Hobbit
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £39.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Magical and humane illustrations, 6 Oct. 2013
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This review is from: The Hobbit (Hardcover)
The illustrations are beyond the conventional standard for book illustrations. They pick up precise nuances in the text and present images of great humanity. The best of them have echoes of William Blake.


Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Price: £4.51

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece: a remarkable novel about an unremarkable life, 9 July 2013
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The first two paragraphs of this novel summarise the unremarkable life of William Stoner, and the rest of the book gives the details of this unremarkable man, unhappily married, a failure in his career, with an alcoholic daughter. But he dies content and fulfilled, and remarkably the reader comes to believe that this is richly deserved. His is an examined life, and his failures and a few small successes add up to a rich and profound existence. I have absolutely no idea how the author conjures up so much from such apparently sterile material, but he does, and it is a masterpiece.


Rationing and Revelry: The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953 (Kindle Single)
Rationing and Revelry: The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953 (Kindle Single)
Price: £0.98

12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Irritating errors, 30 May 2013
I took advantage of the free preview to decide whether to buy it. It purports to focus on 1953 but in the first few pages there were three irritating errors. All London trams had ceased running in 1952; and teddy boys dancing to roll and roll, and John Betjeman's poem Middlesex are all post 1953. I might still buy it because the style is pleasant, but not for historical accuracy. It is rather like reading a book about the Titanic and being told that the First World War was raging at the same time.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 1, 2013 5:51 PM BST


One Fine Day
One Fine Day
by Mollie Panter-Downes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully observed, 6 May 2013
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This review is from: One Fine Day (Paperback)
A slim book of less than 200 pages describing the ordinary uneventful day of a middle-class village housewife. Her dog goes missing, but she gets it back with no difficulty. She goes into the nearest town on a bus, shops for groceries, and comes home. She lingers for a while on a hill and falls asleep, then wakes up and runs home to cook dinner for her ten-year-old daughter and her husband home from his commute to London. That's the sum total of the plot – and one or two of the characters are stereotypes. And you know that every day of the rest of her life will be much the same. But the book is absolute magic, it lifts the heart, and I shall re-read it once a year every year until i die. The beauty is in the details, the observation.


All Around Atlantis: Stories
All Around Atlantis: Stories
Price: £5.82

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Undergraduate trivia easy to parody, 4 Mar. 2013
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This is an extract from an interview given by Eisenberg.

"Even now I have a huge resistance to getting to work, perhaps because my body knows how exhausting and shaming it's going to be. I don't want to go through the shame and the exhaustion! I mean this obviously cannot be true for most people who write. I have friends who are much more fluent, who write much more easily--certainly who write much more copiously. It's infuriating to be so constricted. Either you have to quit for good or you have to tough it out. That's the choice. You have to be patient. Yes, it's like a Ouija board. I write down some little thing, and then eventually something comes out of that, or doesn't. I'm just trying to get down one accurate sentence and then another accurate sentence. And most of my time is spent rearranging the little counters in the sentence. And then the little counters on the page, and then the little counters in the whole. But there is nothing in my mind when I'm writing until I'm well along in a piece. Until then I have no idea, no conscious feeling. I'm a person with virtually no feelings.You write something and there's no reality to it. You can't inject it with any kind of reality. You have to be patient and keep going, and then, one day, you can feel something signaling to you from the innermost recesses. Like a little person trapped under the rubble of an earthquake. And very, very, very slowly you find your way toward the little bit of living impulse."

I imagine Eisenberg finding herself at a table with the grey cylinder from the centre of a toilet roll and a collection of small shells from the beach. As she describes the process above, she spends hours, day after day, trying to make sense of them, sticking some of the shells together and some on to the cardboard tube. Eventually, after many weeks, the realisation dawns that the shell-encrusted tube looks a little like the boiler of a railway steam locomotive . . . and so that's what she spends the next eighteen months building out of more shells. The finished result does indeed resemble a lumpy opalescent pastel-coloured locomotive from a distance, but of course bears no real resemblance to the real thing: neither in form nor in function. People who love collecting shells will drool over it.

Her stories are like this: elaborate constructions from words by someone who gives no evidence of understanding the experience of real life, nor how human beings really react to circumstances. One of her stories is about a recovering drug addict: what the story points up in shining profusion is a complete lack of understanding of how a recovering drug addict feels, giving only the impression of what a wealthy sheltered academic imagines it must feel like. She writes often about death, but with no evidence that she herself has every faced death with any knowledge. All her characters are trapped in childhood and adolescence, suggesting (as does the interview) that she personally has never grown up nor ever had to face any of life's real challenges. To most of us, "toughing it out" involves coming to terms with redundancy, the loss of a child, or terror in the face of battle: not the act of putting words in a sentence. I may be maligning her, in which case she needs to write something that demonstrates an adult maturity and not just the vacant outpourings of a high school student of Creative Writing. "Shame and exhaustion" are emotions generated by events more profound than using the wrong word or misplacing a comma.

Her work is trivial and ridiculously easy to parody.


Closing of the American Mind
Closing of the American Mind

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly modern, 7 Jan. 2013
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Allan Bloom's thesis is that a University was historically a place where universal (hence the name) truths about human life were debated in the departments of humanities (hence the name) between various protagonists of opposed ideas in order to differentiate the merely fashionable from the moral concepts that are applicable in all ages and cultures, and under all political regimes. He claims that this is no longer the case, and that a surrender in the 1960s and 70s to fashionable liberal (left-wing in a European context) relative moralities has left the humanities as a poor relation in the pursuit of truth to the natural sciences (mathematics, physiscs, chemistry, biology) and science's dependent technological professions - engineering, medicine, and the law. He compares this surrender to a similar surrender in German universities to the right-wing views of the Nazis in the 1930s.

I found his ideas surprisingly modern, and feel that they have travelled better than other ideas that were around at the time of its gestation: the inevitability of world Communist domination, for example.

His central and passionate argument is for a return of civilised debate between political opponents to identify absolute moral truths, instead of mud-slinging between left and right and between those with no religious beliefs (atheists) and those for whom religion is central to their lives - Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others. He says that an increasing trading of insults and a refusal to engage in such debates is evidence of The Closing of the American Mind.

Some of the adverse reviews of this book twenty-five years on seem to confirm his worst fears.

"the book is a disgrace and an outrage . . .

meandering, incoherent, rambling babble . . .

ranting and raving on paper . . .

a bitter, hate filled man . . .

personal-grudge-filled . . ."


The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London
The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London
Price: £6.59

22 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Apologies to the author, 5 Oct. 2012
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When I first submitted a review of this book I gave it one star because a glaring series of errors of fact on page six caused me to stop reading it in disgust. However, I was prevailed upon by a friend to give it another go, and was pleasantly surprised. It is however not, as I had expected it to be, a sort-of companion to Dickens' writings to show his sources and inspirations. Rather, the Dickens connection is a promotional tag, in much the same way that a history of the last hundred years or so of popular culture from Ragtime to iTunes could be marketed as "The Beatles' Century".

So I was confused at first when events were mentioned that occurred after Dickens had died, and even more confused when events and vignettes separated by twenty, thirty, or fifty years were mentioned in the same paragraph or even sentence as if they were contemporaneous. And there are errors of fact, and not just on page six. However, the book is not a work of scholarship, but is written to give the impression of rummaging through a huge box of coloured trifles, often disconnected in time and space, but nevertheless giving - as a whole experience - a flavour of light and dark and coloured confections that overall leave a pleasant impression and give a rich flavour of a different and extended age.

So my apologies to the author for my initial irascible review. However, I do not give the book the five stars that would normally accompany such positive feelings after reading because of what I see as misleading marketing - which of course is not the author's fault.


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