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Half Man, Half Book (Dorset)

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The Granta Book of the African Short Story
The Granta Book of the African Short Story
by Helon Habila
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Good Collection of Short Stories, 2 Sep 2014
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The content of Africa has inspired so many epic novels and travel books that the short story genre has often been overlooked.

Granta have decided that this omission needs to be addressed, and have released this collection of short stories written by African authors. They are set primarily in Africa, but there are other stories set in different parts of the globe.

As with any collection there are the good, the bad and the indifferent. Some are really well written, others less so, but they all deal with issues that affect the African people, from unwanted pregnancies, living in the West, superstition religion and even a piece of speculative fiction set in pre war Berlin.

Overall not a bad collection, and a good starting point for those wishing to discover the literature that Africa has to offer.


Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon
Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon
by Steven Poole
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Most Amusing, 2 Sep 2014
This book is for all those who have had to sit through a meeting where some management whizz kid is spouting forth the latest acronyms and buzz words and not only do you have no idea what he is talking about, but you are not sure if he is even referring the the same things that you are.

Poole has taken the brave step of listing these words, and trying to make some sense of their meaning, which frankly in some cases there isn't any sense behind them. A number of them are borrowed from military vernacular, and as you can imagine make the transfer to the language of a middle ranking executive dealing with stationary...

He has written it with a healthy dollop of cynicism, and really does not hold back on the sarcasm either! There are some laugh out loud moments too.

Next time a road warrior gives you a cold eye view and asks you to hit the ground running you might, just might, know what he is talking about.


Marina
Marina
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 7.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Ok, but not exceptional, 25 July 2014
This review is from: Marina (Hardcover)
Oscar is a fifteen year old school boy, who has met a girl called Marina and her father who is a painter of some talent. One night Marina takes him to see a strange ritual at a local graveyard, where a woman dressed in black arrived by a horse drawn coach and leaves a single red rose on a grave marked only by a black butterfly. They decide to follow her to find out who she is, and by doing so discover a shadowy secret in the catacombs and sewers of Barcelona. It takes them on a whirlwind journey through the dark underside of the city, where they confront their greatest fears, and discovery their true mettle.

Really a YA book, and is a melodramatic gothic horror, which is not my sort of thing really. There is nothing scary in the book, but there are some really creepy parts. Nicely written, as most Zafon books are, and I like the way that he manages to convey the atmosphere in the scenes perfectly. Have given it three, but 2.5 stars is more realistic.


Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga
Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga
by Sylvain Tesson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful Reading Material, 25 July 2014
Tesson has a desire for freedom and solitude, and decides on a whim to take himself off to the shore of Lake Baikal, to stay in a 3 metre square log cabin, a six day hike from the nearest village. From February to July of that year he inhabits that small cabin, built many years previously by geologists it has a small cast iron stove and very primitive facilities. When he arrives in February he is in the middle of the brutal Siberian winter, and sets about gathering wood to warm the cabin. Each day is a challenge when he thinks about his solitude, but he starts a routine of collecting fuel, and taking time to smoke and read in the mornings, fishing and exploring his local environment.

It is written as a diary, with entries for most days describing what he did, what he drank and where he walked to. He has a regular stream of visitors that pop in for short visits and he also goes and see others in the locality in similar cabins to him. He takes time to explore the landscape too, climbing up on to the ridges, crossing the frozen lake and kayaking on it when it has thawed. He writes about the wildlife he sees, in particular the bears the wolves and the seal native to the lake. In his moments of solitude he describes how he feels being utterly alone. He has dark disturbing moments, and times when he has utter clarity of his emotions. He gives a kit list at the beginning, including the books that he took. Some provided comfort, others rattled him whilst alone.

It is beautifully written too, with moments of philosophy and insight that being alone with your thoughts can bring.


Nothing To Envy: Real Lives In North Korea
Nothing To Envy: Real Lives In North Korea
Price: 4.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grim but compelling, 25 July 2014
North Korea has been a closed society since the end of the Korean war, And whilst South Korea has gone from a dictatorship in the 1970’s to a full democracy now, North Korea has maintained its position as a 1950's communist totalitarian state.

Under the leadership, and I use the word hesitantly, of Kim Il-sung then Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un the country has made little progress. As other communist states have fallen or transformed themselves, the North Koreans have become ever more cruel and brutal to maintain the status quo. Both father and son were treated as Gods by the population, and following the death of Kim Il-sung many people never recovered from they loss. Informants were present when people were paying they respects to see if they were being sincere enough.

Corruption is endemic at military and Party level, with a lot of the food aid having been taken a sold or consumed by them, and not passed to the population as expected. The population is steadily being starved to death, with there being little or no food available these days. Mass state brainwashing still takes place, with the 'enemies' of the state regularly slated by the authorities.

Demick has sensitively recorded the lives of six people who escaped this repugnant regime. Through the book she retells their stories of hardship, starvation, deaths of family members, imprisonment and of working for the state as it slowly crumbles around them. When these people had managed to escape into China, and then onto South Korea they could not believe their new world, unlike anything that they had ever seen. And so very different from the world outside according to the authorities.

It is a painfully book to read, partly because that you cannot believe that a state like this cannot and should not exist in the 21st century, but also because it at the moment shows no signs of collapse. The ending is most poignant, whilst the elite and select visitors get to dine of fine foods the population is malnourished, stunted and has taken to sitting on their haunches whilst time stand still in this country.

It makes for grim reading, but people must read this.


Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients by Goldacre, Ben (2012)
Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients by Goldacre, Ben (2012)
by Ben Goldacre
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid Science, 25 July 2014
Goldacre has a way of making complex science subjects accessible to the wider public. His first book, Bad Science, highlighted the way that the media dealt with reporting science, and in this book he concentrates his ire onto the $600 billion global pharmacy industry, now dominated by a handful of behemoths.

And what he reveals is frankly terrifying. He details the way that the industry hides a large majority of the trial data, the way that the legislation requiring data to be published is ignored by companies, and in the EU it is still secret in some cases. There is loads of detail on the way that the data is cherry picked to demonstrate that a particular drug is so much better than the competition. There is lots of detail on the appalling way that the industry is regulated, even though it is very heavily regulated, most of it is ineffective and not enforced, and where the regulation could be improved to help patients and save lives these are not enforced or are not enacted on after lobbying from the industry.

The biggest chapter though is on the marketing that these companies employ. Their budgets for marketing are normally twice the R&D budgets, which gives you some idea of where their priorities lie. He explains how they sponsor various ‘conferences’ and provided sweeteners to medical professionals at all levels, from lunches to flights to what most people would consider bribes. The nefarious dealings of the drugs rep are dealt with too, from the pressure that they put onto doctors to use their medicines and the way that they collect data directly from surgeries and pharmacies. A lot of academic papers are ghost written, and a leading figure puts their name to it, shocking really.

There is some details on NICE, but not a huge amount. He looks at the way that they select the drugs for use in treatment, noting that even they do not have access to all the trail data for each medicine that they consider.

He also writes about how a lot of the drug companies fund patient groups either overtly with cash donations or covertly by funding particular conferences and so on. They have been proven to use them to exert pressure on national agencies (FDA and NICE) to supply the latest drugs regardless of the cost; i.e. 50K spent with a group means that they get their 21k per patient drug treatment approved, even though the trial evidence is not there or is at best not proven to be any more effective than the current items on the market. A real scandal.

Throughout the book he does give suggestions on how the situation can be improved but he does realise that they is an endemic problem and powerful vested interests do hold sway. Even just enforcing the current rules would make a difference, but it seems unlikely at the moment.

The phrase for illegal drugs used to be: Just Say No. Perhaps it should apply to legal drugs too...


Holloway
Holloway
by Robert Macfarlane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Short & Sweet, 25 July 2014
This review is from: Holloway (Hardcover)
This was written in memorial to the great nature writer Roger Deakin, sadly taken from us all at the peak of his writing powers.

Macfarlane, Richards and Doonwood revisit the Dorset village of Chideock and search again for the holloway that Macfarlane and Deakin visited in 2005. They find it, and so begins the discovery of the landscape that these ancient trackways inhabit.

Sadly it is a very short book, but it contains some very fine very writing and some exquisite art by Richard of these hollow ays. Its intensity is matched by its brevity and you are left wanting more.


Four Fields
Four Fields
by Tim Dee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.91

4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Written Natural History Book, 29 Jun 2014
This review is from: Four Fields (Hardcover)
This is the story of four fields on three different continents; his local field on the Cambridge fens a Zambian field, an America prairie and an abandoned field in Chernobyl in Ukraine.

Each of these locations has a story to tell, not only of the history that permeates them, but of the people that relied on them, the flora and fauna that inhabit them, and how they have been moulded to suit the will of man.

With his local field he describes the way that it changes throughout the seasons. The writing is beautiful and evocative; it almost makes you image in that you are standing alongside as he tells you the things that he is seeing. The fields that he visits abroad are so very different to the fens at home, from the fragile prairie, the wildness of the African farm and the abandonment of the file close to the scene of the nuclear disaster.

Nothing groundbreaking you might think, but with his acute observational skill and his eloquent descriptions of what he sees when he walks around these landscapes, make this a fine natural history book.


Dominion
Dominion
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 7.60

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid Alternative Future Story, 29 Jun 2014
This review is from: Dominion (Hardcover)
It is 1952 and in the UK the people are ruled by a puppet government that submitted to the Nazi government in 1940 after the disaster of Dunkirk. Churchill is in hiding, and the anti German feeling and the boldness of the UK resistance is growing week on week. Germany is fighting Russia, still, a long and protracted war that seems to have no end. Hitler is still in charge of most of Europe, but is suffering from health issues and hasn’t been seen for a long time. As his power wains, the jostle between the Army and the SS starts for control. The puppet government in Britain finally cedes to the Germans request and starts rounding up Jewish people with prior to deportation to the east.

David is a minor civil servant working in the Dominion department, with a secret that not even his wife knows. He has anti German sympathies and he is approached by his university friend to work for the resistance by providing secret material to them. He befriends another lady in the same department, and surreptitiously obtains her key to the secret cabinet. He has a couple of close shaves whilst in copying secret documents, but one tiny error leaves him exposed. Following the tragic death of their child, his wife thinks he is having an affair, but when she finds out his real role, and is questioned by the authorities, she is drawn in to the activities of the resistance reluctantly.

Frank Muncaster is a scientist and a another university friend of David. His brother is now lives in America and is working on the atomic project, but is over to for their mother’s funeral. They have never got on, and they have a massive argument in Frank’s flat where Frank is told some of the secrets that xxx knows. He pushes him out the window, where he breaks his arm. Frank is deemed to be mad, and is sent to a mental hospital for treatment. Both the SS and the resistance realise that he holds the secret to the new weapons that America is developing, and both go to see him and visit his flat.

As David’s spying is exposed, he and his cell look at extracting Frank from the mental hospital and getting him to America with his secret. And so begins a tense race between the resistance cell moving Frank across the country and the authorities trying to track them down until the thrilling ending.

Sansom has done a reasonably good job here of a speculative future of a post WWII Britain where Churchill was never made PM and the fascists take over the running of the country. The elements of the plot are good too, from the gloomy despondent population that are slowly being oppressed, but have a glimmer of hope from the resistance under Churchill, to a Germany poised on the edge of civil war.


Levels of Life
Levels of Life
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 7.69

4.0 out of 5 stars Raw and Emotional, 29 Jun 2014
This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
This is s strange book in some ways. There are three distinct sections; the first on hot air balloons; the Sin of Height. The second is on photography: On the Level. And the final one on his late wife: The Loss of Depth.

The first two sections make for interesting reading, nothing particularly profound, just a series of interesting anecdotes and facts on hot air balloons and photography in the formative years of those disciplines. At the end of these it was definitely a two star read, nicely written, but i couldn’t quote see the link.

The final section though is the foundation of the book, and the part that ties it all together. He writes about his late wife Pat Kavanagh who died in 2008. They had been married for 29 years, and even though he doesn’t say, I guess that they had been together for a period of time before that, meaning that he had known her for a significant period of his life. The details that he remembers about her are the little things, a shared moment, an oft repeated phrase, an endearing habit. But most of all he talks about her absence and the complete hole that her death has left in her life, how it is difficult to socialise as a widower with couples now, and how talking about his wife is now a taboo subject for people.

In hi moments of greatest anguish he contemplates suicide, even going as far to devise the preferred method, but is never brave enough to take that extra step. As he starts to circulate in social circles again he find he prefers theatres and in particular the opera as he can be social and be alone. He finds is hardest to deal with those who ask if he is not over it yet. As he says he never will be over it, as he remembers the last words, the final events, the anniversaries and other events.

It is heart rending in lots of ways, as he says grief is the negative image of love, and this raw account of his feelings gives you some insight into his love for her.


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