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Alun Williams "mathematician manqué" (Peterborough,England)
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A Gay and Melancholy Sound (Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Rediscoveries)
A Gay and Melancholy Sound (Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Rediscoveries)
by Merle Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hate thy neighbour as thyself, 24 Jun 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This book has been republished, some fifty years after its first outing, because the editor of the "Book Lust" series, Nancy Pearl, has long loved it, and has apparently read it more than a dozen times. I did enjoy reading "A Gay and Melancholy Sound", but can't help feeling her devotion is a little unhealthy: the narrator of the book, Joshua Bland, is a confirmed misanthrope, whose dislike of the human race begins with himself, embraces most of his family, and extends to almost everyone he comes into contact with throughout his life. Although he has, it seems, many good qualities, most people who do encounter him end up being badly hurt by him.
I think that if I got to knew a man like Joshua I would end up avoiding him, probably after a quarrel in which I would tell him to stop feeling so sorry for himself and to pull himself together (never very helpful advice to give somebody I know, but Joshua would probably be a *very* annoying friend). Two things gave me the patience to keep on reading what is quite a long book at almost 550 pages: the black humour with which Joshua narrates his very unusual life, and the fact that Joshua does recognize goodness and love on the rare occasions he comes across them, and indeed writes quite perceptively about them.
This is an American novel, and though it has some very American characters - especially Joshua's pushy and self-deluding mother, who attempts to find fame and fortune by exploiting her son's exceptional intelligence, and Joshua's Jewish literary agent with his all-American family, yet in some ways it is very un-American: Joshua is unable to find any kind of redemption or happiness, despite a fair measure of material success: religion, sex, and psychoanalysis are all unavailing.
I imagine some readers will loathe this book: it is certainly well written and contains plenty to entertain the reader, but I think some will be unable to stomach Joshua's unremitting self-hatred.


Satie: Piano Music (The National Gallery Collection)
Satie: Piano Music (The National Gallery Collection)
Price: £6.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So much more than "Trois Gymnopédies", 14 Jun 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I owned the music forming the first two thirds or so of this CD on a MFP cassette I bought in about 1981, and bought this CD in order to replace it when it was no longer playable. It was a delight to hear Peter Lawson's wonderful playing once again, this time without any of the hiss of the ancient cassette. As well as the contents of the original cassette there are a number of other Satie pieces played by Angela Brownridge. I was impressed with how seamless the transition between the two sets of performances is, and these latter pieces already seem almost as familiar to me as those played by Peter Lawson. Almost every piece is a gem, or as the CD insert has it, " a miniature polished to perfection, leaving not a single note too many".
Many of the pieces have humorous titles, and some have humorous quotations, or misquotations from other well known pieces of music. All the pieces have a certain minimalist quality. Yet, in spite of the humour, and although the pieces are very emotionally cool in a typically French way, some of them are really affecting.
If the only music you know by Satie is the Trois Gymonpédies, and especially if you have only heard them in the Debussy orchestration, I heartily recommmend buying this CD. I think Satie is one of the finest piano composers ever.


What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
by Michael J. Sandel
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Only in America?, 13 Jun 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have sometimes been puzzled by how left-leaning people are outraged when privatisation, or the introduction of a market, are proposed as reforms to how a public service is delivered. I have never really understood why somebody would care about this, so long as the job gets done better and more efficiently. This book has changed my thinking, and I think its message needs to be debated widely and publicly.
The author, Michael Sandel, is an American political philosopher, and a professor at Harvard. He wears his learning very lightly in this book, which is both short and easy to read, but nevertheless extremely thought-provoking. His central contention is that over the last thirty years the West has moved from having a market economy to being a market society, and that this has happened without any proper consideration of the consequences. Sandel argues that the introduction of a market, or other forms of commercialisation, has moral implications that need to be debated: if the debate does not take place than moral choices will in effect have been made unconsciously. Throughout the book Sandel gives a host of examples of small changes to how things are done, which cumulatively make for a world where there is far less public space, and where rich and poor, or the elite and hoi polloi, are more isolated from one another. Perhaps too many of these examples are drawn from American society for the book to be quite as relevant as it might be to the UK, (though the net is cast widely - with examples from China, Scandinavia and the UK), but at times I was chilled at the thought that some of the more recent developments in the US might soon be coming here too.
Sandel does not argue that the introduction of a market, or of financial incentives, is always wrong, just that one should not assume that there are no moral implications to doing so. In some cases the benefit of introducing a market may outweigh the costs. However, there will be few readers if any, who are not disturbed by some of the things that have been done in the name of reducing the cost of government.
Although I am being slightly generous in giving this book five stars (it is a little too American for this British reader), I think every decision maker working in the public sector and government to read this book. Whether it exposes a dangerous unconscious assumption, or helps someone to articulate their opposition to change more coherently, or to better anticipate unintended consequences of a change they are proposing, this book will usefully inform the reader's thinking.


Ancient Light
Ancient Light
by John Banville
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Remarkably tedious, 15 May 2012
This review is from: Ancient Light (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It takes a special kind of literary skill to make quite a short novel featuring copious amounts of sex between an adolescent boy and his best friend's mother almost unremittingly dull, but John Banville clearly possesses it. Whether or not it is not shortlisted for any other literary prize, "Ancient Light" should be a shoe-in for the Literary Review's "bad sex" award. This novel is unsatisfying on every level: it is peopled by unappealing caricatures, the various plot strands are neither tied up singly nor linked together in any satisfying way, and the writing is frequently ludicrously over-elaborate. The author seems to delight in spoiling images which might work well if expressed in English, by using words which very few readers will understand ("imbrocated banana sandwiches" and "leporine uncertainty" were just two of the phrases which made me reach for the dictionary). It is hard to see why the author thought this novel was worth writing: he does not seem to care enough about any of the characters in it to leave off turning over-polished sentences long enough to write anything with any real feeling, and while the writing has some of the bombast often found in comic novels it is hardly ever funny. The narrator and protagonist, Alexander Cleave, now an elderly and prosy actor, endlessly gives us details he then assures us cannot be correct, making it very hard to identify with anything that is going on. Much of the time the period and location of the story is only hinted at: the one exception is in the parts of the story relating to the suicide of his daughter Cass in Italy, near the place where the poet Shelley drowned.
A few things save this novel from getting an even worse rating from me: its brevity, the hint half way through that some of the disparate threads are going to be linked, which spurred me on for a while, and the fact that in amongst all the rococo verbiage there are some striking images. There was a point where I was sufficiently interested that I half thought I might want to give four stars in the end, but the story fizzles out, and this novel, with all its post-modern self-reference and nods to modern critical jargon ends with one of the oldest literary devices of all: a long lost relative who sets the the story straight. I'd feel quite justified in giving only two stars as I really felt quite cheated by this ending, but there are so many worse books that this just about scraped the third star.


The Age of Miracles
The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £4.45

10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great premise, shame about the book, 6 May 2012
This review is from: The Age of Miracles (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
If there is one measure of time that human beings trust completely it is the steady motion of the earth on its axis and around the sun, but what would happen if the earth's rotation gradually began to slow down, and days got longer and longer? It's a question I had never asked myself, but once suggested it seemed fascinating and I really wanted to read this book. Unfortunately, it was a big disappointment, and in giving it three stars I'm being generous: it is just about OK for teen science fiction, but as a novel for grownups it is a failure. It's not even easy to see this book being turned into a multimillion dollar blockbuster movie - it is too pre-apocalyptic for it to require much in the way of special effects; at a pinch it might make a good budget TV series for children.
The book is narrated by eleven year old Julia, a fairly typical American child living in a suburb near the coast of California, who is at least as bothered by the fact that she doesn't need a bra yet, as by the slow death of all the plants and birds around her. The beaching and death of a school of whales disorientated by changes to the earth's magnetic field is an opportunity for her to spend time with the boy she fancies but has been too shy to get to know before. The focus is resolutely suburban school-girl.
I've frequently read articles bemoaning how American films are now aimed squarely at the teenage market, and how not many films for grownups get made any more. If this book is anything to go by, the same is happening to American novels. Even as science fiction it is poor: a novel like this should have internal logic, from one change everything else should follow, but in this book the scientists have no explanation, and nothing makes much sense. For example, the slowing of the earth is apparently accompanied by gravity getting stronger and late in the book this is ascribed to increased centrifugal force. It seems clear that this book has been written by someone with almost no scientific knowledge, and no appetite for research. Tides become more extreme, but there's no attempt to explain how or why this happens, or how the motion of the moon around the earth (or the earth around the sun) is affected.
Events in this book happen both too slowly and too fast.: on the very first day of the slowing the length of the day increases by 56 minutes. Personally, I'd have found it much more interesting if "The Slowing" had proceeded far more gradually - even 56 seconds a day would soon mount up. As it is, within a few chapters the days have increased to 48 hours or so, and the natural world is dying wholesale. Yet somehow or other Julia's mother has managed to lay in enough tinned fruit, tuna and jars of peanut butter for suburban life to carry on as normal for a few more years.
Perhaps this book is satirical: the US president soon decrees that days should carry on being 24 hours long in order not to destabilise the markets, so people have to get used to sometimes going to bed in daylight, or going to work in the dark. They buy sunlamps, and when the grass dies buy artificial grass, and wait for scientists to come up with a solution that never comes. They even buy sunlamps to help food-plants to grow as normal. Tough luck on parts of the world where there isn't plenty of electricity, but who cares about that, or about the fact that there soon won't be enough fuel to generate the required power? This will seem a familiar story to those of us who believe that our current way of life is not sustainable. However, the world of politics and big business is too remote for any satirical message to be very obvious - though I did like the passing mention of how one store uses the fear of what is to come to get people to buy more canned goods.
The author has some fun with "real timers" - people who attempt to adjust to the changing length of days and nights by living life more slowly, but this isn't explored properly, and the author seems to want to have her cake and eat it in her attitudes to people who pursue alternative lifestyles. A family of Jews goes "off clock" so as to keep the Sabbath properly, but we never get to see more than the surface details of social changes which would certainly be matter for intense debate: the book is too short, and written from the wrong perspective, to be more than a smorgasbord of doomed suburbia.


All Fall Down
All Fall Down
by Sally Nicholls
Edition: Paperback

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unspectacular apocalypse, 4 April 2012
This review is from: All Fall Down (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Like many of my school-fellows in the 1970s I used to look forward to history lessons: whether we were studying slavery, the factory acts, world wars, or witch hunts, our teacher seemed able to come up with the kind of gruesome and gory details which can, for any right-thinking teenage boy, add spice to even the dullest subject, and send him running to the school library to do further research by himself. I still remember several of the plays we read,"The Crucible" for one, as part of those lessons.
Sally Nicholls has won high praise for her earlier books for children, and a story about the Black Death ought to be a sure-fire winner, but I am not at all sure that this will be. For me, it was far too plodding, with curiously flat writing most of the time, and the central character, Isabel, was an uncomfortable blend of medieval peasant and modern teenager. I assume the author has done her research well; there is plenty of everyday detail about life in Isabel's village (and also a nearby abbey where one of her brothers is beginning to study for priesthood), and, when the pestilence eventually reaches Isabel's village, we learn a good deal about the symptoms of the various forms of plague, and the bizarre ideas people came up with to explain it and to try to cure it. And, though most of the time the characters use very modern English, the text is larded with plenty of medieval vocabulary (most words helpfully explained in a glossary at the end).
Perhaps, as a middle-aged man, I will have had more difficulty than the younger readers the book is targeted at, in identifying with the central character, but Isabel seems curiously self-contained, and too much of the sickness and death happens to people we haven't learned to care about. For me, it is only the death of a young boy priest (drafted in when the old priest does a runner when called upon to visit a sick child), which really brings home the true horror of the situation. What ought to be the bleakest event of the book, the sickness and death of her father and much loved stepmother, loses force by mostly happening off stage. The action then moves to York for a time, which allows the writer to give us yet more historical detail, but reduces the tension somewhat.
This is one of several new books I've read lately to use first person historic present tense narration throughout. I am beginning to think writers should be very wary of using this form. Here, though it adds to the immediacy of the plot a little, and perhaps makes an easy to read book yet easier , I think that it makes it harder to empathise with the characters, particularly Isabel herself; there is too little opportunity to reflect on past events, to share her fears for the future, or to observe Isabel from outside.


The Beginner's Goodbye
The Beginner's Goodbye
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Hardcover

26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An ordinary bereavement., 4 April 2012
This review is from: The Beginner's Goodbye (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I've never read an Anne Tyler book before, but found the blurb inside the front cover of her new novel intriguing. The opinions on the back lead one to expect something funny, profound and moving. I'm sorry to say that I found "The Beginner's Goodbye" no more than OK, and am left wondering whether the quotes on the back come from reviews of this book or some of the author's earlier works.
This very short novel - a little less than 200 pages - is set in Baltimore and tells the story of narrator Aaron Woolcott's grief for his wife Dorothy, who dies when a tree falls onto their home and crushes her. If I liked the book as much as the critics seem to want me to, I suppose I would say that it is a gentle but poignant comedy. The manner of Dorothy's death is one of the few extraordinary events in the book; most of the time both the characters and the plot are fairly believable, and the comedy, such as it is, arises quite naturally. The book may help readers to think about how one should deal with people mourning a loved one; Aaron is quite a prickly customer, and many of the minor characters come unstuck when they try to help Aaron adjust to his new situation.
So why didn't I positively like the book? In the first place both the blurb and the first few pages mislead the reader into expecting something vaguely supernatural (the first sentence in particular), but after some early teasing we have to wait until the novel is around half way through for Dorothy's first post mortem reappearance. I might perhaps have enjoyed the first half more if I hadn't been waiting for this reappearance to happen. And, after waiting for so long, it eventually came as something of an anti-climax, whereas if I hadn't been led to expect it I might have been more disturbed by the event, as well as paying more attention to what I had expected at first to be no more than a brief back-story. Such pleasures as are to be had from this novel probably require quite careful reading, appreciating small details, and the nuances of everyday interactions and conversations between the characters; probably the most significant moment of Aaron's "moving on" occurs when he re-evaluates his way of dealing with other people, and the value of one particular person, after eating some home-made chocolate chip cookies. Some readers (perhaps mostly female ones?) will probably really appreciate the delicacy and subtlety of such moments, but I'm afraid they left me underwhelmed.
This isn't a bad book, but it is a book about a marriage, and what comes before and after (courtship and bereavement). If you read "The Beginner's Goodbye" expecting supernatural or paranormal fireworks you will probably be disappointed.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 16, 2013 3:41 PM GMT


The Limpopo Academy Of Private Detection (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency)
The Limpopo Academy Of Private Detection (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency)
by Alexander McCall Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.54

53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A familiar dish?, 30 Mar 2012
Sometimes a familiar treat you have been looking forward to proves to be a little disappointing, somehow not so tasty as you remember it. It's still good, but somehow not the same. For me, "The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection" is a little bit like that. The appearance in person of Clovis Andersen, author of Mma Ramotswe's professional bible, "The Principles of Private Detection", is a nice idea, and there is more happening than in some recent episodes: three of the long running characters run into trouble after getting involved with the wrong kind of businessman. Yet, despite at least one very enjoyable moment, courtesy of Charlie the apprentice, I cannot bring myself to give four stars this time around - 3.5 would be about right.
It is a long time now since I first discovered this series. Some people might wonder how a male Scottish author could write convincingly about African women, but I did find the early books very believable. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi both had enough troubles and weaknesses to seem real, and over the course of the series other characters came into the limelight from time to time, and moved the series on. This time, unfortunately, I felt that Mma Ramotswe, and particularly Mma Makutsi, were in danger of becoming parodies of themselves - the joke of Mma Makutsi's shoes talking to her has gone on more than long enough. I felt too that the baddies were so transparently bad that it was hard to believe that anybody could be fooled by them for a moment. Another minor annoyance is that Puso and Motholeli (the adopted children) were wheeled on for a page or two and then forgotten about. I am disappointed that Violet is once again an off stage presence. Overall I was left feeling that Clovis was introduced to spice up a dish that has been reheated too often. This book is less satisfying than the stews Mma Makutsi regularly prepares for Phuti.
I have bought almost all of this series in hardback, often on the day of release. Having come so far with it I'll probably continue to do so until the bitter end, but I do think it has gone on for too long now. There is a very confusing misprint on page 156, which I hope will be corrected in later printings.


Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend
Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend
by Matthew Dicks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of a kind, 12 Mar 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I've always enjoyed books and films where there is a character that only one person can see: Harvey - where James Stewart's best friend is an invisible six foot tall rabbit; or Calvin and Hobbes - a six year old boy whose best friend is his stuffed tiger; John Wyndham's last novel "Chocky", about a boy who communicates telepathically with an alien. For such a story to succeed, it must be interesting and exciting enough for the reader or watcher to more than half believe in the reality of the invisible/imaginary character. "Memoirs of an imaginary friend", the story of Budo and his eight year old human friend Max, is a wonderful addition to the genre, and a very exciting tale too - with quite a few fairly big surprises in its 450 or so pages. It is also very gripping. I read almost half the book - the final 200 pages or so - in a single stretch. Perhaps I enjoyed the book so much because I was expecting a whimsical childhood story with far less excitement than I actually got. So I'd advise potential readers not to find out too much about the story in advance. If you're intrigued by the blurb on the back you are unlikely to be disappointed by the content of the book. This review will not reveal any plot details.

"You've never read a book like this before" is the tagline from Jodi Picoult on the front cover, and it is spot on. Some readers my cavil at the plot, or at the somewhat childish language used throughout: the story is narrated by Budo in the present tense, and is told mostly in short sentences in words of one or two syllables, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although Budo is remarkably advanced for a five year old imaginary friend, and can spend time apart from Max, he is very far from being perfect or all-wise, so the reader does get a certain amount of fun at his expense, in particular because Budo has watched a lot of television (he watches it at night with Max's parents when Max goes to bed), and has trouble reconciling real life with the TV version. I also enjoyed the fact that Budo is quite constrained: while he has a few unusual powers, he can only do the things that Max imagined he could do. Incidentally, although this book is largely about a young boy, and doesn't use difficult language, it is a novel for adults, or perhaps young ones: there is a certain amount of "strong" language and as Budi says on the back cover, Max is in danger.

I'm being a little generous in giving this book 5 stars: 4.5 would be nearer the mark, as one or two chapters do perhaps drag a little, but a story this unusual and exciting deserves a generous review. This isn't a weighty literary novel, but it is a highly original, engaging, and amusing one. I've been an Amazon Vine reviewer for about a year as I write this, and this is only the second truly memorable novel I've been introduced to through Amazon Vine, and I'd recommend it to friends without hesitation.


Dick Barton and the Vulture
Dick Barton and the Vulture
by Edward J. Mason
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £15.28

2.0 out of 5 stars Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, 24 Feb 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am too young to remember Dick Barton, but as a formerly avid Archers fan, I knew that it was a very popular series in the late 40s, so I was keen to discover its joys. I was aware that this was a rerecording, rather than the version originally broadcast in Britain, but I didn't realise that it was with a completely different cast. That was disappointing, but since I'd only ever heard brief clips - mostly just the famous signature tune - I wasn't that bothered. Unfortunately, it turned out that the signature tune was about the only thing I did enjoy.
This set of CDs (there are four) contains the programs as originally broadcast. That means about half the CD is taken up with the signature tune, and the announcer recapitulating the previous episode. That might be OK if you are listening in a car, or are by the CD player, and can advance to the next track, but if you want to listen to the program as background entertainment (in my case while cooking), it quickly becomes tedious. Unfortunately the story, the acting, and the production were all very dated and I just couldn't get interested enough to follow the story properly, even though I like listening to radio drama and have no trouble watching equally dated films. On the first day I listened to most of the first CD, and on the second I listened to the rest of it after listening again to one and a half episodes I hadn't really understood at all. Then I gave up - I may go back and listen to the other three CDs some time, but I doubt it.
Another review suggests that this series is not as good as others that are available, so my advice would be not to start here if you are new to Dick Barton.


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