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David Roffe (Sunderland England)

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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dream on., 5 Feb 2012
Returned item as we believed the product was faulted due to a dip in the top third of the mattress. The person using the item weighs less than eight and a half stone and each morning there was a clear dip that would would correct itself after several hours, only to reappear once it was next lied upon. First I was told I'd have to completely repackage the item in order for it to be collected, which I did. The courier arrived a day late. I was told the product would need extensive testing to verify the complaint. After several emails I heard nothing for two weeks. I contacted the company and was told via Amazon that no faults could be found and I would be refunded £70, which was less than I paid for the mattress. Rather than make an issue of this I accepted the amount. In truth I wanted the the problem resolved as soon as possible. Poor product, very mediocre customer service.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 14, 2012 11:29 AM GMT

The Secret River
The Secret River
by Kate Grenville
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great novel, 28 Mar 2009
This review is from: The Secret River (Paperback)
The Secret River begins in 1790s London. William Thornhill is born into a large family, living in extreme hardship. As a youth Thornton gains an apprenticeship as a waterman, carrying cargo up and down the filthy Thames river. However, before he can complete his apprenticeship his employer and benefactor dies, leaving the young Will virtually penniless and destitute. Forced to steal and cheat in order to survive, he is caught and sentenced to be hanged. He receives clemency, conditional on his being transported to Australia for the term of his natural life.
Thornhill arrives at the new territories determined to improve the life of his dependants. He diligently works off his sentence in order to become a free man and subsequently identifies a beautiful stretch of terrain of which he stakes a morally dubious claim for himself and his family. He persuades his reluctant, homesick wife to set up home here and cultivate the land. Initially things appear to go well as his business thrives and the farm yields enough for them to become virtually self-sufficient. Thornhill is proprietorial about the tract of land he quickly regards as his own. However, the native Australians, who have lived here for centuries, have other ideas.
The Secret River is a compellingly written, lyrical novel. Grenville paints a picture of squalid, slum ridden London as convincingly and evocatively as she does the austere, verdant beauty of the Australian outback. There is very little by way of direct speech, and it is a measure of Grenville's skills as a novelist that this almost archaic technique enhances rather than detracts from the empathy we feel for the characters. Thornhill is by nature sullen and uncommunicative though essentially decent; this spiritual clumsiness is portrayed both touchingly and convincingly. The novel raises questions regarding the moral justification of colonising already inhabited lands, with differing viewpoints given equal validity.
A brilliant thought provoking novel.

A Long Long Way
A Long Long Way
by Sebastian Barry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No man's land, 28 Mar 2009
This review is from: A Long Long Way (Paperback)
At the heart of this remarkable novel is the dilemma which increasingly faced many Irishmen during the latter stages of World War 1 - divided loyalties. Willie Dunne is a Catholic Ulsterman whose father, as a policeman, is a conservative loyalist. As war with Germany begins, Willie, being too short to follow his father's footsteps into the police force, enlists with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to fight for the allied cause. Initially Willie sees the absolute moral correctness of the path he has chosen to take and identifies war-mongering Germany a sinister, clearly defined enemy. Gradually, however, Willie and his comrades learn of fomenting insurrection in his native Ireland. The rebels, whose aim is home rule, are accused of exploiting the uncertain and parlous state of a nation at war: "England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity." The advocates for Home Rule flex their muscles, only to have the loyalist forces crush this rebellion brutally. Rather quell the growing unrest by reacting with a reasonable and measured response, the authorities instead clumsily fan the flames by over-reacting with blundering brutality and witness the conflagration of civil disobedience that ensues as a result. From the trenches in Belgium Willie learns that several of his countrymen had been executed for their part in the uprising. By this time many of those who had volunteered to enlist with Willie regard their allegiances misplaced, with confusion and in some cases hostility towards the Allied conflict being voiced more openly. Moreover, several of the English commanding Officers expressed their contempt and animosity toward all Irish soldiers, referring to them in disparaging terms as feckless and cowardly, and as such far more expendable than their English counterparts.

Willie is as innocent abroad as he is naïve at home, and not blessed with great powers of self-expression. His initial moral certainty and simplistic, unfocused idealism is replaced with ambivalence about the rights and wrongs of the war he is directly involved in and the corresponding developments in Ireland. The reader here is subtly led to question just how nebulous the concept of enemy is. Are Willie's enemies The German Army; the haughty and sneering English; or his own countrymen, be they Nationalists or Republicans?

This inherent inconsistency is personified by Jesse Kirwan, who though a peripheral character, articulates the dilemma facing the Irish soldiers. Jesse takes a principled stand against the executions at home. As an intelligent young man he is able to express with eloquence the moral conundrum facing his fellow Irishmen. Do they continue to risk their lives for a cause and values which many of them do not share or reflect their political aspirations, while those who do share those aims are being executed by at home as traitors? This turmoil also reaches Willie's own family. If Jesse represents rebellion, and Willie represents ambivalence, then Willie's father is an embodiment of intransigent conservative values. The previously loving and reciprocal relationship between becomes fractious as the elder Mr Dunne accuses his son of treachery for expressing sympathy for the freedom fighters shot by their own countryman. Later, of course, the reconciliation between father becomes as impossible to grasp and hold on to as the mustard gas that had tormented his comrades.

The irony is, of course, that Willie is essentially apolitical. Having led an insular life Willie had never, prior to the war, left Ireland. At the onset of war he had accepted the crude propaganda fed him of the Germans as demonic inhuman brutes. Crucially, Willie is by nature compassionate and feels empathy for individuals rather than the causes they espouse. Moreover, Willie does not always fully understand the complexities of events unfolding before his eyes. Battle lines become drawn and firmly entrenched between the Nationalists and the Loyalists, but not particularly for Willie.

A conceit that runs through the novel is the humanising and unifying effect music has on the emotionally vulnerable and battle weary soldiers. Against the backdrop of filth, exploding bombs, waist deep ubiquitous mud and the threat of foul, choking mustard gas, Willie and his comrades experience a minor euphoria as a makeshift band strike up an Irish jig. The unrelenting mentally destabilising horrors the soldiers face each day prove as difficult to shake off as the lice that feed off them. However, on several instances throughout the novel music does provide relief and escape of a sort.

Willie, whilst home on sick leave, finds his beloved Dublin fractured and divisive. Greta's rejection of him had achieved what the horrors of war could not: broken his spirit, albeit temporarily. But once again his decency reasserts itself: he no longer feels enmity towards the comrade who had betrayed him. Against the literal and metaphorical carnage surrounding him, Willie finds peace within himself. Ultimately, and despite the tear-inducing conclusion, the novel ends as a triumph of the human spirit. Willie's legacy is not his bravery or contribution to the war effort. His decency is.

A Long Long Way is a remarkable achievement.

The Tin Roof Blowdown
The Tin Roof Blowdown
by James Lee Burke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Burke, 1 Mar 2009
This review is from: The Tin Roof Blowdown (Paperback)
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke. I think I've read about a third of James Lee Burke's novel and this has to be the finest. As everyone should know, the novel is set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina that wreaked havoc across much of New Orleans a few years ago. Reading Burke the reader is reminded that within the constraints of a crime genre novel there is as much a place for beautiful, poetic and lyrical prose as there is for snappy, sparse writing by the likes of Elmore Leonard and Dan Winslow. When this is dovetailed with psychologically perceptive characterisation and intricate plotting, the result is as much of sensory joy as the New Orleans sunset described here with such effortless eloquence. The windswept and rain sodden evocative descriptions of the aftermath of the hurricane are as potent and as honed as the rage JLB directs towards the apathetic responses to the catastrophe by the indifferent Bush administration. James Lee Burke's outrage here is as fierce and raging as the hurricane itself. However, what elevates this novel to undeniable greatness is the bravery and risks JLB has taken in presenting a character who is a double rapist and murderer and inviting his audience to feel if not sympathy, then certainly empathy for him. The Tin Roof Blowdown poses moral conundrums that are almost theological in their moral complexity. Is redemption within the reach of even those who have committed the most heinous of crimes?
This novel, more than any novel I've read over the last few years, conveys a level of control, wisdom and maturity that only an absolute master of his craft is able to produce. Brilliant novel.

Life and Death in Shanghai
Life and Death in Shanghai
by Nien Cheng
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Madness, 1 Mar 2009
Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng.

Over the last month or so I've given crime fiction a bit of a break and have been reading quite a lot about China, both fiction and non-fiction. The above is a factual memoir concerning a middle class woman caught up in China under Mao Tse Tung, the Leader of the People's Republic of China and Chairman of the Communist Party of China, and the impact the Cultural Revolution had on its people.

It's significant that the author is, to my mind, not always an entirely sympathetic individual. For example during the upheaval in China, when it was apparent that all aspects of Chinese society were going through fundamental social changes, she clings tenaciously to her middle class status and continues to live, in comparative terms, an affluent lifestyle. During these volatile times she retains a number of servants - an inflammatory action certain to ignite the ire of the authorities. This, coupled with her former work for a multi national English company - Shell - ensured that she was soon under the scrutiny of the unblinking and penetrating gaze of the Communist authorities. What is tiresome is the author's refusal to adapt to her changing circumstances and her insistence that each member of her family, including herself, has the temperance of a saint, the intellectual capacity of a genius and the humility of a Buddhist monk. This is a pity because it does, to an extent, detract from the sympathy we feel for Nien Cheng and the suffering she experiences at the hands of the oppressive regime under Chairman Mao. As a social document, however, this memoir is fascinating.

The memoir begins around 1966 and Niem is a reluctant witness to the Cultural Revolution and the resultant confusion and attendant terror. A struggle for power in the higher echelons of Chinese government is taking place, with Mao Tse Tung obviously in the ascendancy. A brilliant strategist, he manipulates disparate student groups and peasant workers sympathetic to Communist ideology. Indeed during this period of instability and before the blood red socialist idealism had began to fade, it seemed that ever more extreme factions appeared overnight like bamboo after a spring rain. Each cadre spouting mindless devotion to varying interpretations of Marxism and espousing virulent class hatred. Mao, for his part, adopts and favours The Red Guards - a particularly brutal and idealist caucus in order to consolidate his own position of power.

Niem Cheng is initially targeted as a class traitor and is forced to attend self-criticism classes as a result of a particularly savage pogrom. She is made to stand alone on a platform as minor communist party functionaries subject her to increasingly ludicrous accusations of spying for the West. Eventually she is arrested and thrown into a freezing prison cell and tortured in a fruitless effort to force her to confess to crimes of which she is innocent. She remains here for six years. She never confesses and retains her dignity and self worth by the sheer force of her intellect, fearsome personality and intransigence.

Meanwhile the changes outside Cheng's prison cell continue to flow as deep and wide and as the Yangtze River. Indeed the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China under the by now immovable Mao was as far-reaching and sufficiently radical to satisfy the most extreme autocrat. All those Chinese who had once ran their own businesses prior to the Revolution were branded as capitalists, ostracised by their communities, beaten up and frequently imprisoned, as were their extended families. Because of the disastrous isolationist policies propagated by Mao, fuel supplies became low until they only warmth felt was that which was generated by the ubiquitous bonfires burning "decadent" western influenced books. In an inherently flawed attempt to create a utopian, classless society, intellectuals were victimised and given the most demeaning jobs; hospital surgeons became porters overnight; rural peasants - those with unblemished working class credentials - found themselves replacing those with professional academic degrees; University professors were forced to clean the toilets of the colleges in which they had formerly taught. Those less fortunate faced execution squads. Equally sinisterly a new ethos of snooping was established and became for the ambitious a well chosen, potentially lucrative and prestigious career path: by now the supposedly egalitarian Chinese were encouraged to betray those failing to demonstrate sufficient revolutionary awareness or obsequious allegiance to Chairman Mao. To be identified as a class traitor could mean facing a firing squad or lifetime imprisonment. Whole neighbourhoods en mass became sullen and uncommunicative; an imprudent or casual Chinese Whisper could quite conceivably result in tortured screams in a blood spattered freezing prison cell. Villages unable to meet the ever rising agricultural quotas were accused of betraying their comrades or charged with deliberately undermining the Socialist aims of the Chinese people. Whole communities starved to death as a result of this unswerving policy. Meanwhile, chairman Mao Tse Tung and his chosen sycophants, holed up in mansions, lived the affluent and luxuriant lives of, well, Chinese Emperors.

In order to discourage individuality or independent thought, the population, both male and female, were issued with industrial identikit cheap woollen Mao suits. The Red Guards, encouraged by Mao, committed cultural vandalism on a scale not seen in history, either in the West or the East. Centuries old Buddhist temples were razed to the ground and beautiful ancient artefacts and paintings deliberately smashed and destroyed and derided as the results of:

"The enduring exploitation of the working class by the capitalist oppressors."

Upon her release Nien Cheng discovers that her ordeal is far from over and that her uncompromising stance has partially contributed to a brutal act perpetrated on a member of her family. With her characteristic tenacity and bamboo like inflexibility she sets out to discover the truth, which is shocking and powerful. Life and Death in Shanghai, despite the somewhat clumsy title, gives added poignancy to the Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times."

Fascinating memoir that reminds us just how fortunate we are to live in a liberal democracy.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 23, 2012 5:36 PM GMT

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