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Harvest
Harvest
by Jim Crace
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Things fall apart...the centre cannot hold, 11 Mar 2013
This review is from: Harvest (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I would have to agree with an earlier reviewer; this is a book to read, if at all possible, at a single sitting. It draws you totally into its world, a world both particular and universal. The obscure rural community where events unfold - lacking even a church, it can barely be dignified by the name "village" - is described in minutely convincing detail, but the themes are universal. Not since "The Road" have I read a novel so stark, so gripping and in places, so beautiful. Yet the desperately hard way of life here is described with no illusions. Strangers are fair game - gang rape and the pillory are two possible fates, subsistence farming leaves the population on the brink of starvation, ravaged by disease and at the mercy of their manorial landowner in a society where class shouts louder than anything else and crimes, both real and perceived, are viciously and arbitrarily punished.

But there is beauty, too, particularly in Crace's detailed evocation of a landscape minutely known and cherished, the rhythms of nature and the consolations of love, community and celebration. All this is shattered when enclosure threatens the villagers' way of life, and things rapidly fall apart. Within a week, the community has collapsed. This book gives you a window into one of the least understood human tragedies in English history, the forced theft of common land which, some historians believed, dispossessed the common people and created a workforce for the Industrial Revolution. The story told here, though historic in particular, is happening to this day in many countries of the world.

However, this is not a political book, nor is it just the elegy for a lost pastoral idyll. It's also a fascinating study about fitting in, or rather not fitting in. Walter Thirske finds himself caught between two worlds - though he has lived among the villagers for over ten years he also has ties to the landowner and a level of education and insight that sets him apart in a deeply suspicious, isolated community under pressure. He finds himself emotionally involved and yet curiously detatched from the events unfolding around him, never quite able to stomach the moral compromises that would give him an escape route. It's one of the finest studies of loneliness I've ever read. In its evocation of a world where human beings might spend entire lifetimes without crossing their parish boundaries, and where affiliation to a group could spell the difference between life and death, this haunting story combines the strangeness of a science-fiction scenario with an historical narrative that still resonates today.


Amity & Sorrow
Amity & Sorrow
by Peggy Riley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.99

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dustbowl and Darkness, 25 Feb 2013
This review is from: Amity & Sorrow (Hardcover)
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In an ultra-libertarian society, how do you define right and wrong? It's a problem that has been addressed frequently in American fiction. When Aramanth and her two teenage daughters flee a fundamentalist cult, they reverse the journey of Steinbeck's Joads in The Grapes of Wrath and find themselves in the Oklahoma dustbowl, throwing themselves on the mercy of a hardscrabble farming family when, having driven non-stop for days, she crashes her car on their land.

The scene is set for the kind of claustrophobic drama that Tennessee Williams does so well, and there is a feeling of inevitablility as the narrative unfolds over the next few months, interspersed with flashbacks to the escalating horror that Amaranth has escaped - physically, at least. The worst damage, however, is at first invisible. Amaranth and her daughters are as deeply damaged as you'd expect, and non since Emma Donoghue's Room has a novelist presented us with characters less equipped to deal with the modern world. Never mind the Internet; these girls can't even read.

It's not that difficult to figure out the real reason why Amaranth has finally broken free of her polygamous cult-leader husband; in fact, it's horribly clear from the first few pages when the older girl miscarries a baby in a gas-station restroom. You may feel, as I did, that we're in entirely predictable territory here and there's little point in reading on.

But Riley is a skilful writer with a particularly acute grasp of dialogue and character, and the main theme of her tale is an original and troubling one. Why are women so often complicit in the abuse of themselves and their children, and so reluctant to report it to the authorities? Can it be because the favour of even the vilest abuser can confer a warped status on his victims? Riley's answer is clearly yes, and sometimes there's nothing you can do about it.

That's not a conclusion that everyone would accept, and this novel will make excellent material for reading group discussions. These characters aren't likeable, but by the end of the story you'll understand the reasons for that and understand, even if you can't condone, the choices they have made.

Riley has taken some of the archetypes of classic American fiction and given a contemporary twist to the well-worn theme of a dream gone bad. And in doing so, she's shown that sometimes the hardest thing to get right about escaping sexual abuse is knowing the moment before it will be too late to run.


Plato's Republic
Plato's Republic
by Alain Badiou
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 23.63

2 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for dummies, 18 Jan 2013
This review is from: Plato's Republic (Hardcover)
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My son, a student of Continental Philosophy, informs me that Badiou is a god among philosophers. This is a fine book, beautifully produced and laid out, but if you are looking for "Philosophy (or even Plato) for Dummies," then emphatically this is not it. You are letting yourself in for nearly 350 pages of highly abstract and densely argued text and you will have to be very determined to get much out of it. Do not be fooled by the apparently colloquial language - this is one for the serious student. Hopefully, if he ever manages to tame his reading pile, my son will get more out of it than I did.


Seducing Ingrid Bergman
Seducing Ingrid Bergman
by Chris Greenhalgh
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "And when two lovers woo....", 13 Dec 2012
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Rich in atmosphere and period detail, this is a book to curl up with on a grey winters' day or a long train journey. It's not particularly original and it won't change your life, but what it does, it does very well indeed.

Robert Capa, addicted to booze, gambling and the adrenaline of a front-line war correspondent job, meets the iconic movie star Ingrid Bergman while he's kicking his heels in Paris wondering what postwar life holds in store for him. For very different reasons, Bergman is equally restless and discontented. Though her career is at its zenith and she has every comfort money can buy, she feels trapped by a loveless marriage and the studio's relentless policing of her image and her private life. Both are ripe for an affair, but neither are prepared for the life-changing relationship that explodes between them.

They'll always have Paris. But, as Ingrid postpones her return to Hollywood, resisting the emotional blackmail of her controlling husband and the less subtle bullying tactics of Selznick and the studio, the clock is ticking on their idyll. Tough choices have to be made, and when Capa follows his obsession to LA things quickly fall apart under the glare of the publicity machine and the harsh West Coast sun.

Greenhalgh does an excellent job of portraying a man addicted to his own self-destruction and a woman longing to live an authentic life with the man she loves, but knowing deep down that she's fooling herself if she believes she can save him without destroying herself. The dialogue in particular rings true, every scene is fully realised and there's a screenplay in this book struggling to get out (In fact there's two - the movie that will inevitably follow in the fullness of time and the iconic "Casablanca" - there's even an emotional farewell scene on the airport tarmac as Bergman reluctantly follows the call of duty and marital fidelity across the Atlantic).

If the book has a fault, it's that this is a well-known story with an ending we more or less know. And Ingrid Bergman's moral anguish over her adulterous affair is somewhat undermined by the awareness that just a few years later she ran off with Roberto Rossellini (that marriage didn't work out, either, but hey, that's showbuisness).

If you revel in tales of Hollywood's Golden Age, or you just enjoy a well-written love story that's a few notches about formulaic romance, you'll spend a few happy hours with this one.


Threads
Threads
by Sophia Bennett
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.24

4.0 out of 5 stars Fashion Fix with a social conscience., 29 Nov 2012
This review is from: Threads (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
In an overcrowded market, this book shines out for the depth of its characterisation, its thoroughly researched backgorund and its social awareness.

Nonie, our teenage narrator, already has a pretty glamorous life in Central London with her ex-model, now art-manager mother, a friend on the verge of Hollywood stardom and an address book full of media and creative contacts - oh, and a brilliantly realised Dior-wearing granny. It all sounds like the stuff teenage dreams are made of, and it is, but the downside of celebrity isn't glossed over - her movie-star friend struggles with the media and unrequited love in the spotlight, her friend Edie wants to change the world and when they discover the phenomenally talented Crow, it's the start of a journey that will bring the four girls not only fame and fortune, but an insight into the harsh reality of refugee families.

There's a lot of warmth, wit and colour in this book, and it will appeal not only to budding fashionistas but to young teens who combine a love of all things sequinned with an emerging social conscience. It's well-written and manages to pack quite a punch while staying - just about - on the right side of credibility (although a 14 year old combining study with launching a 12 year old's collection in London Fashion Week is probably pushing it a bit).

Probably best reserved for 11 year olds and up, unless you want to have to explain what a condom is.


Winter Games
Winter Games
by Rachel Johnson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The past is a different country" (LP Hartley), 23 Nov 2012
This review is from: Winter Games (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a terrific read. I gobbled it up almost at one sitting. Rachel Johnson is an astute social commentator, if occasionally rather journalistic in style, and she's got a wonderful feel for dialogue and telling detail, particularly when portraying the English upper classes.

She evokes two separate, but oddly similar eras - the English love affair with Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the speculation-fuelled aspirational lifestyle of London metrosexuals in the years before the 2007 Crash. Francie is working on a travel piece for a glossy monthly when she finds herself shockingly confronted by a photograph of her beloved grandmother as a 20 year old girl on Hitler's arm. Thus begins her quest to find out why Grannie never talks about her brief time in Munich all those years ago, and what really happened. But when answers come, some of them matter more, and others rather less, than she expects.

So far, so hackneyed - but the story takes a couple of unexpected, even shocking, turns. It becomes a restrained but devastating tale of innocence lost and wisdom painfully gained, as Daphne's journey to adult responsibility unfolds in parallel with Francie's own. It turns out that human nature doesn't fundamentally change, but what has altered beyond recognition is the mechanisms that different generations have developed for dealing with painful secrets.

Rachel Johnson has a light touch. At times the story zips along as easily as a weekend supplement column consumed with a cappuccino at a cafe table, but there is real depth and substance to both her theme and her writing. This is a book that will stay with you. Highly recommended.
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The Cleaner of Chartres
The Cleaner of Chartres
by Salley Vickers
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Negative Space, 23 Nov 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
In the cathedral of Chartres there is a labyrinth which reveals the Cross only in the blank spaces surrounding its path. Perhaps deliberately, Salley Vickers has done something similar with her heroine Agnes, whose inner life and motivation is never directly explored. Agnes exists in the shadows of society. Deeply hurt in childhood, she expects little from life and exists on the fringes of other people's dramas, supporting herself by a variety of menial jobs. Nobody knows her whole story, though it is gradually pieced together through an initially complicated flashback narrative that comes into focus about halfway through the book. Agnes is one of the odball, rather sad people who haunt great cathedrals - places that have to open themselves to everybody.

I was rather surprised to discover that Chartres is actually quite a significant place - it feels like a small village community in this book. Vickers traces the interlocking lives and gossipy observations of her characters with practiced ease. There are times when her characterisation is a little flat, reading like the case history of a medical report. We are often told, rather than shown, what we need to know. It's not a soft-hearted book, and she has a keen eye for human malice and its tragic consequences. And possibly the happy ending, with the long arm of coincidence invoked to ensure that everyone gets their just desserts, is a little contrived. But it kept me reading along.

My problem with the novel is that Agnes is not entirely satisfactory as a main character. Observed only from the outside, she appears to lack emotional depth. It isn't that she doesn't suffer or feel things deeply, but we are told about it in an authorial voice of deteched omniscence. And so meek and virtuous is Agnes that at times there is something of the Dickensian heroine about her.

Overall, a good novel but not a perfect, or a particularly memorable one.


Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East
Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East
by Martin Sixsmith
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Russia - a good starting point for the popular audience., 7 Nov 2012
How could they do it? Having had the door to freedom opened by peristroika and glasnost, what made the Russian Federation's voters return to the iron fist of Putin's rule?

We in the West are always making assumptions about Russia, and they're often wrong. That applies not only to the ordinary, somewhat baffled observer, but to our world leaders - and the results are as tragic as they are potentially dangerous. Martin Sixsmith has been studying Russian politics since the 1970s, so he's more qualified than most Westerners to write about this vast and complicated country. For a start, he knows that Russia is just one of the many countries that make up what used to be the USSR, and that many aspects of Russian politics that seem inexplicable to uninformed observers are grounded in the aspirations of their volatile buffer states, whose uneasy relationship with their powerful neighbour has been sporadically flaring into violence for centuries.

I turned to this book because I'd managed to plough through "The Brothers Karamazov" and I wanted to understand what the characters were going on about. It possibly isn't the best choice if you are looking for a comprehensive history, because it's heavily biased towards the 20th century and beyond, and undeniably journalistic rather than academic. But stay with it, and you'll be gripped, horrified, moved to compassion and far better informed about a country we simply cannot ignore. Sixsmith's analysis that the heartbeat of Russion history is a series of reforming revolutionary movements followed by the return of the iron fist - something he attributes to their position straddling European and Asian sensibilities, could be condemned as over-simplistic, but it's a good starting point for his attempt to explain the sometimes baffling developments of the last decades in particular. It is also a gripping account of how revolutions can become dictatorships, not just once but repeatedly throughout a nation's history.


Ante's Inferno
Ante's Inferno
by Griselda Heppel
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.06

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classics re-imagined, 7 Nov 2012
This review is from: Ante's Inferno (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This sounds like one of those worthy ideas that probably won't work - an updated version of Dante's classic vision of Hell for children. In fact, it's very impressive. By tying it into the very fully realised experience of a modern child on the run from a bully, the author draws young readers into the heart of the adventure immediately. The first chapter is a small masterpiece of immediacy and puts us right into the head of Ante, Heppel's courageous but not altogether likeable young heroine. That's where we remain for the rest of the book - this is very much Ante's personal journey and we walk with her every step of the way.

As a school librarian, I'm regularly asked for books that teach children moral values. I try to oblige, but a book that doesn't combine a moral message with relateable characters and a steadily moving, absorbing plot is unlikely to win any young hearts over. This one takes the ancient tools of classical mythology and not only updates them wittily and thoughtfully, but leaves older primary school children with a meditation on the nature of evil, rooted in their own experience and topics they are likely to be covering at school, that will really encourage them to develop the ability to see a situation from the perspective of others.

Children often feel horribly guilty about actions done in the heat of the moment. Ante's sickening fear that she might have killed her tormoentor is a feeling that many of them will understand. It's very well conveyed and Heppel is wise enough to show that the tensions in the relationship that led to Ante's destructive impulse in the first place aren't conveniently dissipated when she's thrown into her enemy's company on their journey through the circles of Hell. Ante goes on feeling insecure, jealous, self-pitying and vulnerable, but she's also honest, moral and courageous. And, as it happens, black, though the point isn't laboured and that's one of the book's strengths.

There's some encouraging evidence that, after many years in the wilderness, Classics is enjoying something of a resurgence as a school subject. It's hard to think of a better way to get children hooked than this book, which wears its learning lightly but doesn't shrink from throwing around Virgil and Homer where appropriate (In a particularly adroit touch, one of Ante's companions is a boy from 1909, whose superior classical knowledge, grounded in an Edwardian school curriculum, turns out to be invaluable to the whole party).

To sum up, a colourful and original adventure with a strong but subtle moral message, somwhat in the style of Pullman's "The Amber Spyglass", but more accessible to younger children, aged from about 9 upwards.


Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
by Dr Neil MacGregor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 21.62

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A marvellous book, 25 Oct 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is the best book about Shakespeare I've read since James Shapiro's "1599" - and I've read many. It takes as its theme not Shakespeare himself but the restless, thrilling and dangerous times he lived in, all of their conflicts and opportunities reflected in his plays.

Repeating the winning format of "A History of the World in 100 objects", Neil MacGregor has selected twenty iconic objects from the early modern period, encompassing the entire range of society from dynastic depictions of the Tudor succession to the woolen cap worn by a London apprentice, and made each the basis of an illustrated essay explaining its historical context and applying it to scenes in Shakespeare's work. If this sounds dull, rest assured that it isn't - quite the reverse. A medallion comemmorating Drake's global navigation reminds us that this human achievement altered people's perception of their place in the universe as radically as the 1968 Earthrise photograph taken from Apollo 8. A pedlar's trunk turns out to be a disguised portable kit for the underground celebration of the Catholic Mass, as well as a window opened into the itinerant chancers who inhabit the fringe of society. A more gruesome emblem of religious intolerence is the eye of a Catholic martyr encased in siver, reminding us of the unsettling appetite for violence as theatre that fed the audiences who first witnessed the blinding of Gloucester on stage. And once you've read MacGregor's desciption of a soft-porn illustration on a Venetian drinking glass, you'll have a fresh insight into the prejudices against Venetian women that sealed poor Desdemona's fate.

Many books that recreate a successful radio series don't translate all that well to the literary format (Melvyn Bragg is an offender in this respect, whose books read like broadcasts hastily revised by staffers, very much an inferior product to the original excellent programmes). Neil MacGregor is a welcome exception; erudite but supremely accessible, each of these short essays could be savoured alone as bedtime reading, but they are so compelling that you may well feel the desire to stay up late reading just one more. If you are daunted by the prospect of Shakespeare - too alien, too intellectual - give this a try and you'll be converted. If you are already knowledgable about the Bard and his times, read this and you'll discover much that you were unaware of. I commend it to you unreservedly. It's a marvellous book - and the final chapter looks at the way Shakespeare continues to resonate with readers today, taking as its text the remarkable Complete Works that sustained the anti-apartheid campaigners in Robben Island.


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