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The Gentle Author's London Album
The Gentle Author's London Album
by The Gentle Author
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Gentle Author's London Album, 30 Dec. 2013
The Gentle Author's London Album is a collection of over six hundred previously unpublished pictures compiled to contrast the modern marvels of the city with the fascinating London of the past and to highlight the infinite variety of life in the capital. From the pubs of old London to the old ladies of Whitechapel, from the wax sellers of Wentworth Street to the chicken shops of Spitalfields, the Gentle Author has crafted a loving portrait of an immense city and an intimate tour of the lives of the eclectic individuals who have made London their home. The Gentle Author's London Album is a beautiful, thoughtfully produced book and is a true joy to look though; the pictures are often surprising and illuminating and the stories accompanying them are fascinating.


Asterix and the Picts
Asterix and the Picts
by Jean-Yves Ferri
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.48

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Asterix and the Picts, 29 Dec. 2013
This review is from: Asterix and the Picts (Hardcover)
Following the almost universal critical panning of Asterix and the Falling Sky (aka the one with the aliens) and the lukewarm reception for Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book, it seemed that the popular series was dying a painful death under the sole-stewardship of Albert Uderzo. While Uderzo's art was as good as ever, he couldn't craft the fun, adventurous and exciting plots that the late Rene Goscinny had masterminded for Asterix and Co. Fortunately though, after a few years hiatus, the series is being relaunched in fine fashion by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad with their first title (the thirty-fifth in the series so far) being Asterix and the Picts.

While out beachcombing one particularly chilly February morning, Obelix discovers a tartan-clad warrior frozen in a block of ice. Once thawed out and speaking in predominantly coherent sentences, this Pictish popsicle places Asterix and Obelix in a pickle as, no doubt due to the very warm welcome that he receives from the Gaulish lady-folk, Chief Vitalstatistix deputises them to escort the mighty MacAroon back home to Scotland and reunite him with his fiancée Camomilla. This of course turns out to be a far from straightforward enterprise, with Asterix and Obelix having to contend with pirates, Roman, the Loch Ness monster and the villainous MacCabaeus before they are able to reunite MacAroon with his love.

Asterix and the Picts is a great debut from Ferri and Conrad. While the storyline is perhaps not quite as detailed as some of the classic Asterix stories, it is engaging, funny and coherent. Asterix and Obelix (and the rest of the Gaulish regulars) all behave as they should, with lots of fighting, eating and wise-cracking being indulged in as they try to help MacAroon. There are a couple of slight wobbles story-wise (MacAroon's early nonsensical ramblings, too much Nessie/not enough Dogmatix) but overall Asterix's trip to Caledonia plays out well as he and Obelix [both on purpose and inadvertently] find wrongs to right and Romans to bash behind every caber.

In addition to the action-packed, fun-filled storyline, Asterix and the Picts is an incredibly visually pleasing comic. Didier Conrad's art is seamless; every character is perfectly realised and true to Uderzo's original style. Given the vitriol that was spilled on Uderzo's solo Asterix efforts, it's good to see that he has given his blessing to the new team - he's actually drawn some of the cover illustration along with Conrad. There are plenty of sight gags in addition to Ferri's jokes and many of the panels feature amusing details and secondary characters that serve to enhance the humour of the central storyline.

Asterix and the Picts is a really good edition to the Asterix cannon. Ferri and Conrad clearly love the plucky Gaul and his pals and have put a lot of effort into getting the tone and appearance of the story just right. Here's to hoping that it's not too long before they bring out their next Asterix adventure.


Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
by John Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stoner, 20 Dec. 2013
Like the literary resurrection of Richard Yates a few years ago, John Williams is a great American novelist who toiled away for years, received some modest success before being generally forgotten, only to be subsequently rediscovered and showered with heaps of posthumous praise. While perhaps previously best known for Augustus, the one novel of his that has never been out of print (not in his native USA anyway), Williams' greatest work is now considered to be Stoner, a novel of university life that was originally published in 1965 before falling out of print one year later. This year has been the year of Stoner (ahem) after the reprinted Vintage edition achieved surprising commercial success, went on to be named Waterstones Book of the Year and has featured in many newspaper `Best Books of 2013' lists.

William Stoner grew up in humble surroundings on a farm and had no other expectation in life than that he would one day take over and work the land that his parents had worked before him. Until, that is, one precipitous day when a county agent told his father about a new agriculture course that was being started at the University of Missouri and suggested that William should enrol. Stoner thus begins university life with the intention of learning how to make his parents' farm great but instead discovers the greatness of the written word, the epiphany he has after reading Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 leading to his dedicating his life to the study of literature.

Under the mentorship of Archer Sloane, Stoner stays on at the University after completing his Master of Arts and embarks on a career as an assistant professor of English. He remains at the University for the rest of his life, writes one book, and maintains a singularly undistinguished academic career. Stoner plods along, not loved by his students and not esteemed by his colleagues, making a poor matrimonial choice along the way. Stoner's home life is as tragically unfulfilling as his career with the vindictiveness of his wife leading to an estrangement from his daughter, the one person he has loved. Later on in his life, while still plodding along undemandingly at work, Stoner's last chance at happiness with a likeminded student is snatched away by a hateful colleague. Still he keeps plodding on.

Stoner is a truly great novel that is, at times, almost indescribably difficult to read. William Stoner is a complex character whose greatness somehow lies in his mediocrity. At the end of his life, Stoner looks back and ponders on whether that is really all there is to his life but really his life has been one of surprising strength. Against all the setbacks and heartbreaks, professionally and personally, that he has endured, Stoner has remained stoic in his work and he has endured. His life may not have been memorable to the other characters - Stoner in fact begins with an incredibly moving passage that says as much - but he is certainly memorable to the reader.

A lot of Stoner's trials and tribulations are those of the everyman - unhappy marriage, frustrating career, disconnection from children, etc - and that's no doubt why they are so moving [occasionally traumatic] to read about. When his deeply unhappy wife sets about creating the estrangement between Stoner and his daughter - even though she perhaps doesn't consciously make a decision to do so - it makes for incredibly painful reading. Stoner is actually one of those strange books where the reader wants to speed through it because the writing is so good and the characters so compelling, but at the same time it's such an emotional read that taking breaks away from the book is sometimes necessary.

Fortunately, while Stoner is certainly the story of failure, it is also the story of joy and love, albeit the all consuming love of literature rather than of another person. Despite the many, many setbacks that he encounters - most of them deliberately brought down on him by other people - Stoner never waivers in his belief that great books are surely worth suffering for. Even when his mind begins to decline during his final days, Stoner is able to draw some comfort from his own book. Despite his apparent inherent ordinariness, Stoner's life is beautifully written and the book clearly illustrates its central character's belief in the power of words to convey and produce emotions.

It's hard to actually describe just how brilliant a book Stoner is; I can only suggest buying a copy and finding out for yourself.


Back to Blood
Back to Blood
by Tom Wolfe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Back to Blood, 19 Dec. 2013
This review is from: Back to Blood (Paperback)
Nestor Camacho is a Cuban-American cop whose greatest act triggers his worst nightmare when he is sent out onto Biscayne Bay to rescue a would-be immigrant who is in great danger of drowning while making for the Miami shoreline. Nestor manages to affect a rescue - an act of heroism that is broadcast on live TV no less - but, once plucked from the water, the unfortunate illegal alien is arrested and later deported back to Cuba. While Nestor is lauded for his bravery by some, the unintended consequences of his rescue lead to his being shunned by his family and the wider community. To top things off, his girlfriend Magdalena leaves him for her sleazy psychiatrist boss, although this is less due to moral objections and more to do with a passion for social climbing.

While already persona no grata in the Cuban community, a subsequent accusation of brutality against an African American suspect causes Nestor to be vilified by pretty much everyone else in Miami too and so, in an attempt to restore his reputation, Nestor becomes embroiled in an investigation into the connection between reclusive Russian realist (try saying that three times quickly) artist Igor Drukovich and Sergei Korolyov, billionaire oligarch and current society darling. Having lost his prestigious harbour patrol job, Nestor is forced to team up with reporter John Smith on a trail through the seedy dens, pretentious art galleries and glitzy high spots of Miami in search of the truth.

Back to Blood is another massive, sprawling novel from Tom Wolfe with Miami providing the ideal canvas for him to portray his signature cast of disparate characters as well as his set pieces of action. Wolfe uses the social life and criminal investigations of Nestor Camacho to shine a light on the racial tensions and social pretentions that he feels are plaguing America and he does so with typical wit and vigour. Nestor is a good cop trying to do the right thing but is all too quickly vilified by his friends and neighbours and too easily chewed-up and spat out by the media. He's a sympathetic and engaging character and makes an excellent guide through dark side and bright lights of Miami.

Unfortunately, while Nestor is generally a well-rounded and thoroughly developed character, Wolfe's desire to use Back to Blood to completely cover/satirise the whole of Miami society means that other characters are far less developed and some incidents are discussed so fleetingly as to make them seem rather superfluous. Wolfe's attempts to tackle all of the big, news-worthy issues - race, class, wealth, drugs, prostitution, gangs, etc - currently facing America in one novel result in his not being able to adequately address the cause(s) and effect(s) of them on society and so quite often related set pieces (drug busts, difficult arrests, orgies at posh regattas, etc) fall a bit flat. It sometimes seems like Wolfe has set out only to shock rather than to expose reality and force an examination of why modern life is the way it is.

Back to Blood is definitely a flawed novel but its 700+ pages still absolutely fly by as ripples of sleaze, corruption and danger flow out across Miami from Nestor's original act of heroism at the harbour. It has been suggested that Wolfe is excessively fond of punctuation and onomatopoeia but that seems an unfair criticism; Wolfe is stylistically great even when he forgets to follow through with his plots. Back to Blood features a great many lively and intriguing characters - a fair few who would have been worthy of more consideration - and almost succeeds at exposing the highs and lows of Miami in the same way that Bonfire of the Vanities did those of New York. It might not be vintage Wolfe, but Back to Blood is still certainly worth a read.


Maps of Paradise
Maps of Paradise
by Alessandro Scafi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Maps of Paradise, 19 Dec. 2013
This review is from: Maps of Paradise (Hardcover)
With Paradise being potentially everywhere and nowhere, mapping it is an undeniably difficult business but such problems of logic and metaphysics certainly haven't dissuaded people from trying. As Alessandro Scafi discusses in Maps of Paradise, for something over two centuries learned Christians have been attempting to pinpoint the earthly location of Biblical Paradise and, since approximately the 8th century, they have done so by creating ever more splendid maps. Maps of Paradise contains over 100 excellently reproduced illustrations of these maps to heaven on earth along with Scafi's interesting, detailed commentary on the evolution of this divine mapmaking and the state of the (physical and theological) world at the time. This is a beautifully presented and informative book; I could spend many enjoyable hours looking through all of the maps.


East of West Volume 1: The Promise TP
East of West Volume 1: The Promise TP
by Jonathan Hickman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.50

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars East of West #1, 18 Dec. 2013
You know that the future's bleak when your best hope lies with Death, but that's exactly the fate facing humanity (or at least North American humanity anyway) in East of West. In 2064, following an extremely protracted Civil War, the USA is divided into seven separate mega states and the country is overrun with technology, magic and mutants. Three extremely youthful Horsemen of the Apocalypse are on a mission to bring about the end of the world but Death, in a white cowboy persona, is AWOL following a vaguely hinted at attack on him and those dear to him. While the Horsemen and a cabal of politicos plot, plan and maim, Death is on his own destructive mission while the rest of the world is caught somewhere in the middle. East of West #1 is a good opener to the series; it's a fast-paced and peculiar steampunk western that establishes the characters well and sets the scene for plenty of action and intrigue in future volumes.


Cupcakes
Cupcakes
by Peggy Porschen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Cupcakes, 17 Dec. 2013
This review is from: Cupcakes (Hardcover)
This is a delightful little book of cupcake recipes from Peggy Porschen. The ingredients list for each type of cupcake is clear, the recipes themselves are written in a straightforward, easy to follow style and there is a useful colour photograph of what each variety of cupcake should look like. I've had a go at the Red Velvet cupcake so far and the cupcakes tasted delicious (although they didn't end up looking exactly like the ones in the picture!) - I can't wait to pick the next recipe to try out.


Wallace and Gromit - The Complete Newspaper Strips - Volume 1 (Wallace & Gromit)
Wallace and Gromit - The Complete Newspaper Strips - Volume 1 (Wallace & Gromit)
by Jean-Paul Rutter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wallace & Gromit #1, 13 Dec. 2013
The Wallace & Gromit comic strips first appeared (not without Helen Lovejoy-style controversy) in The Sun newspaper in 2010 and the series ran on a schedule of six three-panel strips a week for the next three years. Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Newspaper Strips Vol. 1 is a compendium of the 312 individual strips (making up 52 self-contained stories) that were published during the first year and, while not all up to vintage Wallace & Gromit quality and comedy levels, should prove a big hit with fans of the dynamic, cheese-loving duo.

Centring on their daily lives at 62 West Wallaby Street, the comic strips involve Wallace and Gromit (well, mainly Wallace) engaging in a series of hare-brained schemes to better some mundane chore/event via the use of an unlikely and often ineffectual invention. Whether it be Wallace attempting to win the annual cheese rolling contest in `The Edam Dusters' or his attempts to make the game of golf more efficient in `Hole in One (Hundred)', he's every bit as lucky to have Gromit around to help him in the comic strips as he is in the films. There are definitely plenty of hijinks to be found in Wallace's adventures but there's also a bit of danger too: Feathers McGraw has busted out of the slammer and, armed with some thoroughly believable disguises, is ready for another crime spree.

As well as the amusing storylines, here are some excellent sight gags lurking in the strips, many that may be more amusing to adults than to children. The level of punning is set to extra high and the cheesy (in both senses of the words) references are abundant. Book lovers will probably get a particular kick out of spotting Gromit's choices of reading material: The Dog Delusion by Richard Pawkins, Paws by Peter Barkley and On the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwinalot are particular favourites.

While Wallace & Gromit is overall a good, entertaining read, it must be said that since the strips were written by a team rather than by a single writer, they can be a bit of a mixed bag. Generally speaking, even the most groan-worthy of puns (`Bona Lisa' and `Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese', I'm looking at you) can be salvaged by a good storyline but occasionally the expected build-up to a story is sacrificed completely so that there is just a [rather weak] punch line. These plotless `Funnies' strips do let the collection down although they're more distracting than dire.

Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Newspaper Strips Vol. 1 [as well as being a bit of a mouthful] is a really well-produced book. There is a foreword by Aardman supremo Nick Park as well as an amusing (and, admittedly, informative) feature - "Tomb of the Unknown Artist" - that gives credit to the team of artists and writers who actually produced the strips but were rarely given recognition at the time. The strips themselves are well reproduced and the book also includes a good selection of photographs from the Wallace & Gromit films that are bound to please fans.


The Blunders of Our Governments
The Blunders of Our Governments
by Anthony King
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Blunder Bonanza, 13 Dec. 2013
In The Blunders of our Governments Anthony King and Ivor Crewe trawl through the litany of woeful decisions and economic oddities that have been perpetrated by a succession of British Governments. Whether it be the mis-selling of pensions, the woeful NHS IT overhaul, the scrapping of ID cards or any of the other numerous examples cited, it seems that government incompetence knows no bounds. The Blunders of our Governments is as depressing as it is funny and is a real eye-opener to just how easily the British political system seems to facilitate folly and excess. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, it'll make an excellent Christmas present. Although, with a title like this, I can't be the only one who was expecting a bigger book.


Aama: Vol. One: The Smell of Warm Dust
Aama: Vol. One: The Smell of Warm Dust
by Frederik Peeters
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Aama #1, 12 Dec. 2013
Some point in the future, some place in the universe: Verloc Nim awakes in a smoking crater, on a desolate planet, with no memory of who he is and what he's doing there. Fortunately, after not too long, a robotic talking ape named Churchill ambles up and presents Verloc with a diary that explains, at least in part, what is going on. The diary, it turns out, is Verloc's own - the handwriting confirms as much - and thus he is able to explain to himself exactly what has happened to himself up to this point.

As Verloc and Churchill trudge across the planet, with Verloc reading the diary and Churchill longing for a smoke, two further strands of narratives emerge: in the first, Verloc awakes in a puddle on a Radiant street after a bender brought on by a combination of splitting from his wife, losing access to his daughter and being swindled out of his family business. Fortunately - or so it seemed at the time - Verloc's estranged brother Conrad happened to be passing that exact puddle at that time and so, after getting Verloc cleaned up, tells him about a project run by the Muy-Tang Corporation that is going to involve a journey to the far reaches of the universe. In the second strand of Verloc's story, he and Churchill are hiding out in some kind of fortified laboratory/research station with a group of mentally deteriorating scientists, with Verloc passing his time by writing in his diary.

The Smell of Warm Dust is the first volume in Frederik Peeters' Aama series (the whole series being originally published in French and now being given a staggered English-language release by SelfMadeHero) and proves to be an excellent, captivating beginning. As a hero, Verloc Nim is still hard to get a read on. He's clearly stubborn and self-destructive but he just as clearly loves his daughter, misses his wife and bitterly regrets that his folly has led to the loss of his family's once treasured bookshop. He also seems to be unique (or, once again, stubborn) in not wanting to have any of the various genetic/cybertronic implants that would apparently make his life easier. It seems likely that the reason(s) behind his distrust of these particular types of people-modifying technology will become more apparent as the series progresses.

While Verloc remains something of an enigma, so too does his brother. Conrad clearly turned his back on the family business years ago and is now a hotshot employee of the Muy-Tang Corporation - one of the two corporation behind the Great Crisis after all - but he does appear to actually care for his brother when chance throws them together and a quick visit to an old school friend also proves that he is not a complete sell-out. Far more straightforward - straightforwardly awesome that is - than either brother is Churchill the robotic ape. He certainly isn't the central character but Churchill manages to dominate both the story and the art. The danger of such great character invention is that the more unique character (so long as they stay unique and don't verge into gimmicky) may supplant interest in the central character but fortunately Verloc and Churchill make a great double act.

Aama is shaping up to be an innovative science fiction series that is perhaps closer in tone to the work of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson than to Peeters' previous graphic novels. There's plenty of emotion and action in The Smell of Warm Dust as well as enough intrigue to draw readers back for the next volume. Aama is definitely a series to watch.


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