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Donaldo "Book lover" (Manchester, England)

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Absolute Friends
Absolute Friends
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He's still got it, 24 Nov. 2006
This review is from: Absolute Friends (Paperback)
As with any author you read frequently, you do often get the sense that the same type of book is just being written over and over again. Whilst I don't think this one is a world away from what Le Carre has written before, it is certainly different in that it is the bravest novel he has written to date. Whilst in other books he was content to snipe the odd remark at our leaders, or to puncture the western world's self-satisfaction at being less evil than the Soviet Union, in this book, it's an all-out political attack on the American Neo-cons, and the unquestioning, uncritical helpfulness of Blair and his chums towards our American friends. At the time it was published, this book had some pretty mixed reviews. A few were probably because the political climate of the time polarised people into for or against the war, and such a passionate, angry anti-war book was hardly going to find favour in the pro-war camp. But perhaps now we can look at it more dispassionately, as nearly everyone agrees the whole war was a total disaster anyway.

I think this is a strong work by Le Carre - not his best, but better than average. Post Cold War, Le Carre has been sniffing out issues that have been overlooked by the popular media, be it the struggle of the ethnic minorities in the Caucasus (Our Game), gangsterism being exported from the former Soviet Union, with the connivance of western financiers (Single and Single), or cynical pharmaceutical companies `testing' products on poor Africans who no-one cares about in the west anyway (The Constant Gardener). Absolute Friends feels slightly apart - more like Our Game or The Perfect Spy in its flashback structure. Some of it creaks a little, as other reviewers have pointed out - it feels a little bit artificial and inauthentic at points. I think this would be the only criticism. Otherwise, it's fast paced, and unpredicatable.

The denouement is as excellent a one I have read, and not as unbelievable as other posters have stated. The more the political and intelligence failures and shenanigans following the war come into the light of day, the less and less unlikely the ending seems. When this book was published, it was a pretty risky ending to throw in. Now, it just pretty much falls into line with what we already know about the lead-up to Iraq.

I think the problem Le Carre has is that he has written another good book, but once you've read his greatest works - The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailer, Secret Pilgrim - it doesn't really compare. But think for a moment about how many other authors are writing intelligent political thrillers today, and I think you will agree there is very few. And even these few would probably be delighted to have this novel against their name. Five stars.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
by Christopher Clark
Edition: Hardcover

33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth buying, 24 Nov. 2006
It's taken me a couple of months to battle my way through this book (time constraints, not because it is boring!), but it's been worth every penny spent on it. Christopher Clark is a very able writer, putting across 350 of history in an engaging, interesting manner. When I ordered the book, I was expecting history mostly of the military kind, in the with the popular view of Prussia as mostly a military power. Actually, the author spends a lot more time on the economic, political and social aspects of Prussia, which really broadened my understanding of it. I didn't know - for example - that Prussia sat out most of the 18th century wars after Fredrick the Great. This is apparently why the Prussians were so humiliated by Napoleon.

Some areas received more focus than others, such as Fredrick the Great, the Napoleonic Wars, the frequent near-revolutions amongst the various working class and agrarian workers during the 19th century, the Jews, Catholics and Poles living in Prussia. You get a real sense of the diversity of Prussia beyond the stereotypical view of the toffee-nosed Junker or precise goose-stepping soldiers. The `birth' of Prussia itself is fascinating - it was almost wiped out during the religious wars of the 17th century, the land being repeatedly invaded and occupied by various powers. The Prussian enlightenment also gets a good section on it, along with Bismarck's political machinations.

There is little on WW1 or WWII, but I think this is rightly so. What happened during the wars was experienced by all Germany. In all, this was a terrific buy, and the only surprising me is that no-one has written a book about Prussian history before.

Deep Cuts
Deep Cuts
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £21.66

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Okayish, 26 Sept. 2006
This review is from: Deep Cuts (Audio CD)
The Knife are a brother and sister combo from Sweden, with an twisted electro-pop sound. I actually found this album a little disappointing, if the truth be told. There are some good individual tracks, but most of the album is pretty forgettable. It must have been a lean year when this won music awards in Sweden.

`Heartbeats' and `Pass this on' are good examples of well constructed electro-pop. Heartbeats took a while to grow on me - the first time I heard it I just thought it sounded cheesy, but now I don't mind it too much. The lyrics are gender-bending electro-clash in Pass it on - the DVD video that comes free with the CD verifies this beyond any doubt - but the whole effort feels a little too polished. It doesn't have that raw sound you would find with someone like Miss Kitten or Felix Da Housecat, and I think it detracts from the overall effect a little.

`You make me like charity' though almost justifies buying the album by itself. This is a superb little tune. It has a minimalist electro-beat in the background, and the Knife sing against the beat. The broken-English vocals suit if perfectly, and the lyrics are great. The main hook - "You make me like charity, instead of paying enough taxes" has to be the best line I have heard in years.

But the rest of the album is pretty forgettable. I try hard to think of any of the other tracks that stand out - other than those which I don't like (You take my Breath Away comes to mind as pretty annoying). There are some unusual film clips on the bonus CD. The hand drawn animation is worth watching, most of the rest isn't. Worth getting for You make me like charity, but otherwise you won't miss anything if you don't buy Deep Cuts.

Syriana [DVD] [2005] [2006]
Syriana [DVD] [2005] [2006]
Dvd ~ George Clooney
Price: £1.65

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard going, but worth it, 4 Sept. 2006
This review is from: Syriana [DVD] [2005] [2006] (DVD)
This is an ambitious effort, much in the same mould as Steven Soderberg's Traffic, with multiple storylines utilised to explore the various aspects of a contemporary issue, in this case the problems with the Middle East. The storyline focuses on a lawyer acting for a big oil firm making inroads to the Middle East; an idealistic young Middle East Prince planning to use oil to rebuild his country (against the wishes of America and the oil companies); a deep-cover CIA agent sent to investigate this Prince; a representative of a finance company who advises the Prince; a poor and unemployed Pakistani young man who has just been laid off by the oil company, and who is manipulated into becoming a suicide bomber; and a host of secondary characters who play equally important parts.

Confused? Well, then that's the main problem with the film. Whereas Traffic was pretty easy to follow, this film isn't. It isn't obvious what most of the characters do from the outset. The film also assumes you must have a reasonably decent grasp of current affairs. Perhaps some clearer direction at crucial points in the film - such as establishing what characters do, etc, would help out. It was ages before I knew what Matt Damon's character actually was, and I had even less of a clue with the lawyer. It wasn't until somewhere towards then end before I picked that up.

That said, this is a film admirable in its ambition. What it tries to do is to encaspulate how oil is the problem in the Middle East, not terrorism. As in Traffic, it offers no solutions or answers, but does try to show the problems. The difficulties facing the reforming Prince are clearly shown, for instance. It is not only the struggle with the Oil company - it's the struggle with the American Govt as well. America would much prefer the Prince's brother in charge, as his brother will spend his money on American goods, rather than reforming his country. Lack of reform means the poor get poorer, and when people lose faith in their political leaders, they turn to radical ideas for solutions. The CIA agent - Clooney - tries to tell the truth about the situation in places like Iran, only for his views to be ignored as they politically inconvenient (where have we heard that before?).

What is good about the film is that much of the plot is based on real life. If the film makes everyone look bad - including the American govt and CIA - this is because neither has come out smelling of roses lately. But what it does in addition to not providing any solutions or answers is at least give you a wider picture of what is happening out there, and for this the film must be given credit. This is challenging, intelligent and unpatronising cinema.

Miami Vice (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx) [DVD] [2006]
Miami Vice (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx) [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ Colin Farrell
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £1.00

4 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not great., 24 Aug. 2006
This film would be a second rate trash thriller if Michael Mann wasn't the director. If Mann's masterpiece is The Insider, or Heat, then I think this movie is a measure of how good a director Mann really is. Here, he takes a totally unpromising and unoriginal script, and almost makes a very good movie out of it. The opening scene in particular is totally thrilling, reminiscent of the club shoot-out scene in Collateral. Mann also gets a very good and subtle performance out of Colin Farrell, who as Sonny Crockett, finds himself torn between running off with the girl and the dope money, or doing the job.

This latter example is constructed almost completely by Mann. Nowhere in the thread bear script is there reference to these conflicting feelings Farrell is supposed to have. In fact, the direction alone and not the script create most of the great moments in the film.

In terms of thrills, the film moves along pretty well for the first hour or so, but after that, your interest will drop off. Once two leads have met Mr Big, there isn't much else after it to hold your interest. When directing the film, Mann has obviously fallen back on what he does best, doing gritty crime related drama. The problem is that by the umpteenth time a flash car or speedboat is brought into the film, it's hard to keep it gritty and real. It's only Mann's assured direction that prevents this film from descending into total pulp trash, though there are a couple of moments when it comes pretty close.

But there are still a few brilliantly tied scenes. There is a large explosion towards the end of the film, which is timed so well that it genuinely shocks you. The problem with most action films is that explosions rarely do shock you - it's a testament to how good Mann is that he makes other action movie directors look like the amateurs they invariably are.

Still, having watched it, I wouldn't recommend it as a must see. It's interesting to see how a good director makes something out of totally unpromising material, but Id much rather watch Mann direct a decent script.

Lions, Donkeys And Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Military
Lions, Donkeys And Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Military
by Lewis Page
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, 14 Aug. 2006
This is a superb book if you want to get up to speed on the British armed forces these days. Yes, it is of course a polemic against defence procurement, but you do learn an awful lot in the process about the army, navy and RAF. What's more, its easy to read and very accessible. As one of the previous reviewers pointed out, the writer can make sense of even the dullest topics such as logistics. For example, in the introduction there is a very persuasive, intelligent and accessible argument to the general public as to why they should be interested in defence matters. Dense terminology is explained, as is obscure military equipment, so we get an idea of what different parts of the armed services do.

Of course, that's by the by. The main purpose of this book is to show the problems the armed forces have today. The problem according to this book is that defence procurement is a total mess in Britain. We get most of our equipment through BAE, and BAE make shoddy, unreliable, and overpriced rubbish. Better, cheaper equipment is available to order from other countries. The sums wasted on projects like the Euro Fighter just takes your breath away.

But it's not just about BAE. The writer also goes to some lengths to show why the military is badly organised. Whilst his recommended solutions may not meet everyone's agreed idea of what we should have as an armed forces, a lot of it hits the nail on the head. He demonstrates how we are unable to deploy even a limited amount of armed forces without help from allies. In short, it's a little embarrassing.

Even if you only have a passing interest in the armed forces, this a book you should take time to read. It's also an absolute hoot. The writer has a scathing pen, and there are many moments when you will laugh at loud at the near Gilliam-esque surrealness of the armed forces.

Good Night and Good Luck [DVD]
Good Night and Good Luck [DVD]
Dvd ~ David Strathairn
Offered by Clearance Game Deals
Price: £3.59

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but not great, 4 Aug. 2006
It's not a bad film. Considering this is only Clooney's 2nd outing as a director, I think it's a very mature effort. The black and white photography is done well, and the decision not to have an actor to play Senator McCarthy - and just show newsreel of him - is also a very good decision. And the message is important, particularly today. The parallels between current American policy in the War on Terror (particularly in the Iraq War lead-up) and the Red-Baiting, anti-communist wave of hysteria that swept America in the late 50's is unmistakeable. This is as much a critique of lazy journalism then as it is today. Edward Murrow casts a long shadow.

Somehow though, the film just lacks punch, and dramatic focus. There is no obvious crisis point in the film, and the confrontation between Murrow and McCarthy is so underplayed that you fail to notice at the time that this is the climax of the film. The point at which Murrow looks like he is actually in real trouble comes almost at the end of the film, so when the film stops about two minutes later, you end thinking that there should be another half hour of film in which we see Murrow overcome adversity and triumph, etc. The film is also set in a film studio, with about two scenes shot outside it. The problem this creates is that the menace of McCarthy has to be largely in your own head, because it's threat is never carried across in the film, beyond two Air Force Colonels who appear close at the start, criticising the editorial of one of Murrow's shows. Perhaps some outside shots would have helped carry over the Redbaiting wave of madness at the time. With the whole thing set in a studio, it feels to clinical and detached.

The problem I had watching this film is that I couldn't help but compare it to two similar films, the Insider by Michael Mann and Network by Sidney Lumet. Network is a far better critique of the dangers of dumbing-down in the media - and also manages to be tongue in cheek. Mann's Insider is a beautifully told story of one man's struggle against a soulless, corporate machine.

But nonetheless, Good Night and Good Luck is still worth a watch.

The Pale Horseman (The Last Kingdom Series, Book 2) (Alfred the Great 2)
The Pale Horseman (The Last Kingdom Series, Book 2) (Alfred the Great 2)
by Bernard Cornwell
Edition: Hardcover

20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very disapointing, 26 July 2006
This is the first book by Bernard that I've not actually like, and I've been reading his books for years. There are a few problems with it. Firstly, as one reviewer has pointed out, this does feel like an identikit book. This feels exactly the same as the Arthur Books.

Second, this is the first book I have read where I have found it almost impossible to like the main character. OK, he's supposed to be an anti-hero, but even anti-heroes are supposed to be likeable. Basically, the main character, Uhtred, is an arrogant know-all warrior, with no obvious weaknesses. Basically, he is not very nice, and worse, not very interesting.

Third, the part of Alfred is very badly written. In his previous trilogy, Arthur was an intriguing character, particularly in the first book where it was hard to know him. In the first book of this trilogy, Alfred felt much in the same mould. You don't really get to know him. In this book though, you do, and what you see is basically a naive and pious man, dependant on his brave, sturdy and down-to-earth warriors to win his battles. It's basically unbelievable that this man could be a King, let alone become the only king in English history to be called `The Great'. I was reading through the book, waiting the moment when Alfred would show his true colours, his true talents. I'm not someone who would be offended by radical interpretations of historical characters, but basically it is entirely unbelievable that the Alfred in this book could be a King, let alone achieve defeating the Danes.

Fourth - I must have read about a dozen novels by Bernard, and there is a consistent recurring theme throughout. It is obvious he doesn't have much love for Christianity, as almost every single priest, monk or Christian in this book is thieving, untrustworthy, and well, generally unchristian sort of person. Pagans on the other hand are noble, decent, and honest. The historian in me bridles at this blatant bias, but it hasn't been a problem in previous books, which have managed well with it. The problem in this book is that Alfred was a very pious man. If I can entertain some speculation here - I think that Bernard's own bias against Christianity makes it hard for him to write up a good character for Alfred. This thereby weakens the whole purpose of the series, which is to fictionalise how Alfred managed to save Anglo-Saxon England from the Danes.

Fifth - boring, boring plot.

Perhaps I am being harsh in this review. But it's only because I've enjoyed Bernard's books so much in the past. There was much in this book I did like. As with all Bernard's books, I never put it down. Many of the minor character were brilliantly written, such as the strong archer from the Marshes. The Anglo-Saxon trial was very interesting.

I haven't read the next book in the series, and after this effort, I'm not sure I will bother. I really did like the first book. But maybe Bernard should try and change his formula a little next time. It's getting a little stale.

100th Window
100th Window
Offered by NetsavesUK
Price: £3.99

6 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre, 26 July 2006
This review is from: 100th Window (Audio CD)
This album is a bit of a letdown. I mean, it's not awful, it's just utterly boring, and totally nondescript. Compared to the peerless Mezzanine, there isn't a single track on this album that comes close to matching it. In fact, I'd have to go back to their first album to find some second rate tracks that I would rate alongside some on 100th Window. Even then, at least Protection was pushing some boundaries and experimenting with different strands of music and production techniques, when it wasn't producing perfect track after perfect track. 100th Window feels like an afterthought all the way through.

The feeling I have each time I played a track was of total disappointment. In previous albums, Massive Attack songs can start out different, and then radically change musical direction. I'm thinking in particular of Rising Sun on Mezzanine, which still sends shivers down my spine when I hear it. But almost every track on 100th Window lacks bite, and there is a total lack of imagination. They are not covering new ground here.

Perhaps I'm critical because it's Massive Attack, and they are capable of so much better. But my advice to anyone is to give this album a miss. It is totally forgettable, and there isn't anything on it that is in one of their previous albums - and was done better on them anyway. Buy Mezzanine, Protection and Blue Lines. Forget about 100th Window.

The Girl From Paris [DVD]
The Girl From Paris [DVD]
Dvd ~ Michel Serrault

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charming, but not sentimental, 12 May 2006
This review is from: The Girl From Paris [DVD] (DVD)
This is definetly a film which is more than the sum of its parts. The story is of a successful Parisian girl giving up her job in IT to run a farm. The previous grumpy, cold and unwelcoming owner is retering and selling, but has to stay on another 18 months before his nephew can look after him. This could have descended into cloying sentimentality, as one of the previous reviewers has stated, but it is a credit to the director that though the farm and the scenery are beautiful and idyllic, time is taken to show that the work can be hard.

Both characters are very well drawn, and very understated. At the start of the film, the farmer is a hoot to watch. He writes off the girl as a flake who won't last a week, but again and again the girl shows she has the intelligence, imagination and graft to overcome the difficulties that face her. This of course, just makes him grumpier. The girl tries on a number of occasions to reach out to him, but the farmer either doesn't notice or tries to ignore her. Over time he softens and enjoys her company, but his grumpy demeanour is always close to the surface.

The girl is looking for some meaning in her life, which cannot be found in her daily commute to work in Paris. She is smart, headstrong and determined, but also a little uncertain of what she really wants. Particularly her nice ex-boyfriend who turns up at her farm, and wants her to come back with him to Paris tests this. She gives distinctly mixed signals - happy to see him, but not wanting to show it too much, sleeping with him, but then pointing out firmly that she is sticking to the farm, and so can't be with him. As with the farmer, it is a very convincing performance.

Tensions eventually rise to the surface in the film, but it is a credit to the director and scriptwriter that they do not feel contrived. An excellent film, well worth a look in,

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