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Bob Ventos "Bob Ventos" (UK)

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Common Ground
Common Ground
by Andrew Cowan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Strangely Compelling Drabness, 26 May 2016
This review is from: Common Ground (Paperback)
Mid-nineties England. Ashley is an unenthusiastic young geography teacher living in a scrabby terraced house in a depressed town with his bad-tempered partner, Jay, who has just got pregnant. The only good thing about the town is the Common, and that’s due to be bulldozed for a new road scheme. Ashley is mild-mannered to the point of laxness; we only see his liveliness and humour in the letters he sends to his younger brother, who is on a round-the-world backpacking trip. The book’s 18 chapters take place in each succeeding month of Jay pregnancy, and their daughter’s birth and early babyhood, which take place alongside the protest against the road until its denouement.

The mid-nineties, from the evidence here, seem a lifetime ago. Like, the total lack of internet and email (a PC gets a mention once – Ashley’s writing on a typewriter). The idea that not being married and house-husbanding are unusual. The heroic age of road protests. There’s also a lot of feeling vaguely depressed, being cold, rain, nappy-changing, ineffectual DIY, going to the corner-shop for beer, arguing with your partner, worrying about your boss and putting up with difficult parents. It’s all done in an instant-coffee manner so downbeat and drab that you sometimes do really struggle through alongside the characters. But maybe this is how working-class or lower-middle-class fiction sounds or ought to sound in the era; it ended up being strangely compelling and memorable.


The Ladies' Paradise
The Ladies' Paradise
by Emile Zola
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Consume, Be Consumed, 26 May 2016
This review is from: The Ladies' Paradise (Paperback)
I thought that modern retail methods (sales, returns, cafes, rearranging the shop, etc) were invented by 1950s American supermarkets. But no – they appeared when the French invented the department store in about the 1860s: as revealed in this fascinating novel. Mouret the endlessly driven and inventive owner of Au Bonheur Des Dames destroys all competition and grows and grows his business until it fills a whole block. He spreads his interests from drapery into gloves, millinery, lace, children’s clothes, umbrellas and furniture. (But never, it seems, into men’s clothing?) He sleeps with his shopgirls. He uses his rich mistress to get favours from the Haussmann-type rezoning the street. He sacks 30% of the staff during the low season. He has everything – everything except for Denise, the Cinderella assistant buyer who loves him back but, being a good moral model Victorian heroine, won’t give it up until he marries her. But will he sack her instead, out of pique? Endless descriptions of goods and sales; amazing minutiae of the inner workings of a C19th grand magasin; a very gendered critique of consumption; lots of great and varied characters. For me, another great and enjoyable Zola novel.


Evelina Or the History of A Young Lady's Entrance into the World n/e (Oxford World's Classics)
Evelina Or the History of A Young Lady's Entrance into the World n/e (Oxford World's Classics)
by Frances Burney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.49

5.0 out of 5 stars In The Jungle of Society, 26 May 2016
Orphaned Evelina has been brought up quietly in the country by her kind guardian, but now seventeen, has the opportunity to visit London with some friends. She sends very frank and detailed letters back to him about life in ‘society’, with foppish Mr Lovel, misogynistic and cruel practical-joker Captain Mirvan, kind Mrs Mirvan, completely characterless Maria Mirvan, razor-witted Mrs Selwyn, hot-tempered Madame Duval, and many others. Evelina gets hit on by most men she meets including her worthless cousin, her grandmother’s companion, sleazeball Lord Merton, and especially by the deviously insistent and marvellously villainous Sir Clement Willoughby. The only man who is kind is to her is Lord Orville, and he’s as fastidious, square and upright as Evelina is, which means they keep misunderstanding each other, and erroneously suspecting each other’s actions and motives. I wasn’t quite so keen on the Branghtons section in the middle, where Evelina becomes hopelessly snobbish, although her hapless attempts to disguise that these mere silversmiths are her cousins did make for some good comedy. But the rest was terrific.


Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them
Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them
by John Yorke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All Plots Are One, 29 April 2016
There are a number of books around about the ten, or nine or four or fifteen or however-many basic plots, but this one claims to have found the _single_ ‘underlying structure’ to storytelling, and claims furthermore that it’s an archetype that we know already. In short: the empathetic (but not necessarily nice) protagonist one day has a problem (the ‘inciting incident’), refuses to confront it, then does and looks like failing, then succeeds (or, in a rarer variant, fails).

The problem takes the protagonist to a new environment (literally or metaphorically); opponents may be ‘internal’ (psychological) and external; there will be reversals/ surprises/ turning points (at least two: a ‘call to action’ and a ‘realisation of consequences’, spaced around the mid-point); there may be episodic sub-goals, with sub-problems and sub-reversals using the same structure; even individual scenes follow the same setup-to-conflict-to-crisis pattern (but the first and last of these can be implicit in earlier or later action, so sometimes the scene is only the conflict).

The protagonist has a flaw and changes, which means their eventual goal may change too; but nonetheless they use their new knowledge at the final climax which resolves the original problem (or, rarely, the flaw leads to tragedy);

These structural claims are the key part of the book. But it also contains sections on: showing not telling; using psychological theories in characterisation; making the most of characters’ facades; using dialogue that tells the viewer important background (without being obvious about it); and more. And there are interesting analyses on things like the structure of TV series (where characters have to have forgotten what they learned the previous week), and the issue of why humans tell stories in the first place.

The book nods to various forms of high culture every so often, but most examples are from TV and Hollywood films. The style is somewhat buttonholing, but I was won over by the writer’s enthusiasm and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. There are quite a few sentences like ‘We are all identical – yet we are all different,’ but often I was just beginning to speed-read when a really sharp sentence or idea brought me up short. I liked the idea of narrative structure as dialectic, for instance… It was a good read and I guess possibly useful for writing synopses and doing early structures on what’ll happen in your screenplay…


The Bat: The First Harry Hole Case
The Bat: The First Harry Hole Case
by Jo Nesbo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.19

3.0 out of 5 stars The first but far from the best, 29 April 2016
The first Harry Hole thriller finds Harry in Australia helping to investigate the death of a young Norwegian woman there. We learn a lot about different aspects of Australia (often in a clunky way) and a lot about Harry’s background.

He gets a Native Australian assistant, who takes him round Sydney’s tourist locations and gay scene, and then up to Queensland, all the while telling him aboriginal tales whose purpose in the plot I wasn’t always clear on. While investigating, Harry falls in love with a Swedish woman, but it all goes tragically wrong and he goes on a bender, but finally pulls himself together and solves the case. It was OK but coming to it after reading Nesbo’s totally brilliant ‘Headhunters’ it felt rather disjointed and sometimes cliched, with some pedestrian dialogue and fairly flatly-written romance scenes.


Hudson River Bracketed
Hudson River Bracketed
by Edith Wharton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Imaginary U.S. Literary 30s, 29 April 2016
This review is from: Hudson River Bracketed (Paperback)
This unusual title refers to a style of American domestic architecture - the sort of house where Halo Spear, a young artistic woman, lives with her modest, moderate, high-class family. She meets Vance Weston, who’s from the midwest and an aspiring writer, and later helps him get to know people in literary New York. Her wealthy husband gives him a job on his literary review; he marries; his wife dies; and he returns West. Later he comes back to New York and Halo and he realise they are in love. The novel moves along well but I struggled to believe in the depictions of young people and the New York literary world of the 1930s, and most of all in Vance. I wasn’t clear if he really was supposed to be a genius, or if Halo and everyone else were being satirised for thinking he was. Most of all, I felt that Edith Wharton in this book wasn’t writing about something she knew; that she was out of touch with newer literary movements, with young people’s behaviour and with America itself (having lived abroad for so long), which for me made it not one of her best


Public Order Policing: Contemporary Perspectives on Strategy and Tactics (Crime & Security Shorter Studies)
Public Order Policing: Contemporary Perspectives on Strategy and Tactics (Crime & Security Shorter Studies)
by Nigel Brearley
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Changes in Riot Policing from 1960s to 1990s, 4 April 2016
This book describes and analyses the changes in public order policing from the Vietnam War protests of the late 60s up to the mid-nineties. It takes in the National Front confrontations of the late 70s; the Poll Tax riot of 1990; industrial disputes like Saltley, Grunswick, Orgreave and Wapping; festivals like Notting Hill Carnival; and urban riots of the 80s and early 90s like Brixton, Broadwater Farm and Handsworth. On the way it looks at typologies of crowds (‘audience’ vs ‘mob’), what long-term and short-term causes precipitate riot, and examines how police training is (was?) premised on a causation theory (Smelser’s) which may well be wrong, and therefore actually provoke avoidable disorder. Massed police, the authors note, also constitute a crowd and may riot of their own accord (as at The Beanfield). The general trend they report is a steadily increasing paramilitarisation, with the use since the early 90s of specialist highly-trained units, backed by increased surveillance, extensive forward planning and new negotation strategies.

This is a proper academic work with footnotes, a good bibliography, and a solid, undramatic style; twenty years out of date now, I suppose, but still an interesting read.


We Were Liars
We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.19

4.0 out of 5 stars We Were Sync Liars, 4 April 2016
This review is from: We Were Liars (Paperback)
The Sinclairs are a very rich extended family who spend their summers on a private island owned by their patriarch Harris, and his wife Tipper. The island, off Martha’s Vineyard, has a house each for each of Harris and Tipper’s three daughters and their families, with swimming, tennis, boating, and ‘staff’ to do the chores. It looks idyllic but it’s also confined and claustrophobic. The husbands of the three daughters have all left them, and the remaining adults are arguing about money. The teenage narrator, the marvellously-named Cadence, and her cousins gradually become aware of these tensions, and decide to try to intervene themselves, with (as blurbs tend to say) tragic consequences…

Lots of funny and authentic-sounding teen dialogue, a pacy present-tense style, oceans of angst and illness and glamour and tragic love-interest; light-touch on issues of materialism and intra-family racism, and a fantastically screwed-up but loveable narrator. Not sure about the twist? It was unexpected, but so vast and genre-bending that I felt a little taken for a ride, and then left adrift? But gripping to the end.


Agincourt: A New History
Agincourt: A New History
by Anne Curry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Hard-Won, 4 April 2016
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War, Anne Curry says, was a good way for a feudal king to ‘generate a practical demonstration of loyalty’. Henry V, son of a usurper, in dire need of such loyalty, decided to re-open the English monarchy’s longstanding claims to large parts of France. He besieged and took Harfleur, and then, on a chevauchee towards Calais, defeated a French army in battle.

This is proper historiography: it goes back to the sources, treating Henry V’s PR-friendly accounts of campaign with justifiable scepticism, and doing serious slog instead in the treasury accounts and other unglamorous places to justify its hard-won conclusions.

The English choose to remember and celebrate Agincourt because it’s one of the few English high-spots in the brutal marauding of the Hundred Years’ War, and was also the high-water-mark of the longbow. (Subsequently, and especially by Joan of Arc’s time, archers were mostly decimated by cavalry and cannon, and from 1429 to the end of the war in 1453, the English never won another battle.) So this book’s revisioning of the numbers at the battle and Henry’s own character and decisions felt controversial as well as convincing. I read it in parallel with Juliet Barker’s ‘Agincourt’ which is fluent, racy, full of interesting digressions on aspects of medieval life, and less sceptical about the vignettes in the chronicles. The two books complement each other well, though to me this one was more persuasive.


Into Thin Air
Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dying At The Top Of The World, 31 Mar. 2016
This review is from: Into Thin Air (Paperback)
For a mere tens of thousands of pounds nowadays, it seems, you can climb Everest, as long as you’re in pretty good health: an agency will organise the camps, guides, food, acclimatisation, health-care, additional oxygen and the rest, and you’ll do it in a group of other amateurs, guided by Sherpa and Western specialists. But that doesn’t mean it’s without risk. In 1996, two such groups were hit suddenly by bad weather which exploited mistakes they’d made. Nine climbers died. The author here was in one of the groups, and describes the preparations, tough conditions, technical aids, the characters and their ambitions, and the awkward skewing of competition versus co-operation that in the end led to, or at least failed to avert, disaster. It’s like reading a tragedy – in the slow and steady build-up, the tiny errors, the little interpersonal conflicts, you can see it coming, and you just have to read on. Courage, fear, terrible suffering, awful pathos. Full of fascinating information, too, about high-altitude alpinism; it’s made me really interested in Everest – but not in going there… :-)


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