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John Self "www.theasylum.wordpress.com" (Belfast, NI)

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When We Were Romans
When We Were Romans
by Matthew Kneale
Edition: Hardcover

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When We Were Good, 26 Jun 2007
This review is from: When We Were Romans (Hardcover)
In Matthew Kneale's new novel, we are in the hands of Lawrence, a nine-year-old boy who at the beginning of the novel is living with his mother Hannah and younger sister Jemima. Father is in the background, muttered about darkly, feared and avoided and - so far as we can tell - the perpetrator of some unspeakable outrage. So much are the family in terror of him that they leave Britain and decamp for a time to Rome, where Hannah lived for a time in happier days. When not recounting their adventures in Rome with old friends, Lawrence occupies himself with stories about Roman emperors from his Horrible Histories book, or imparting information about every boy's favourite topic (after dinosaurs): outer space.

Lawrence's story is told with childlike energy and simplicity, not to mention an authentically lax grammar and spelling ("I had seen mum when she got worreid but I never saw her like this, this was worse. She just lay in bed looking up at the cieling with her eyes"). The book is even set in a slightly blocky, crude typeface. These are tools to be used sparingly, and fortunately Kneale never lets his creative use of language get in the way of the story. Even so, at first I thought we had another identikit child narrator, an affectless voice like Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke.

"We were coming back from the supermarket, we went to a further away one where we never went before so it would be all right, and it was an adventure mum said, we must be really quick, we must be like birds diving down and getting some food and flying away with it in their mouths."

And then I began to find myself thinking about the characters when I wasn't reading the book, and I realised that in its candid way, Lawrence's narrative had wormed its way rather deeper than I thought. And as I read on, and began to work out the truth of the story, his asides began to take on a deeper resonance. The Roman emperors, like the celestial bodies in the Milky Way and beyond, depicted how so much of our lives - and children's lives in particular - are dictated by forces outside our control.

"Sientists have known for ages that something terrible will happen to the sun. This is sad but there is nothing scientists can do, they can't stop it with any invention, even something really clever from the future, because the sun is too big you see, it will just happen anyway. ... But then scientists discovered a really good thing which is called gravitational lensing. ... Perhaps the scientists will see another planet with their gravitational lensing, it will be lovely and green, it will be beautiful. Then everybody will be all right after all. They will build a huge space craft and escape there before the sun goes out."

The story also reminds us that there was one thing even the richest and most powerful Roman emperor could not protect himself against. And the central revelation, while not entirely surprising, is plausible and gives the book a greater richness and depth. It makes you root for Lawrence and his family in a quite emotional way, and want everything to be OK for them, which is a simple achievement that many longer and denser books would struggle to manage.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 10, 2011 3:47 PM GMT


Bosch AHS 63-16C Electric Hedge Trimmer (discontinued by manufacturer)
Bosch AHS 63-16C Electric Hedge Trimmer (discontinued by manufacturer)

90 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bish Bosch - job done, 21 May 2007
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I can't praise this product highly enough (although I am probably about to). I used to use a Black and Decker hedge trimmer and cutting the hedge was always a chore - each area needed three goes and it took forever, and the results were never that brilliant.

In fact I thought it was my fault that the results weren't good, until we got this new Bosch hedge trimmer. It really is the bee's knees: the blades are super sharp (careful now!) and 2 feet long, so they cover a much longer area with each stroke, and the sharpness means you only need to run over each patch once. It has literally halved (or more) the time it takes me to cut our hedges. I wouldn't say it's become a pleasure, but it's certainly much less of a chore.

The collector is a useful attachment, but only for doing the top of the hedge. Then it gathers the trimmings as you go along, and you can just tip them into your bin as you go.

All in all a superb product which has transformed my gardening duties!


Victoria Wood Presents... [DVD]
Victoria Wood Presents... [DVD]
Dvd ~ Victoria Wood
Price: £7.63

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I love the way you say Situation Comedy..., 20 May 2007
Thank goodness these six individual comedy 'playlets' have finally been released on DVD, 18 years after they were shown. I taped them at the time and my VHS tape has all but worn out since - and in fact it's the only VHS tape I still have.

This series shows Victoria Wood at the peak of her powers, around the same time that she was doing Audience With and just before Pat & Margaret. The lines from these shows have peppered my conversations ever since: "my pet noire," "it's the first day of Lewis's sale," "I see that was Allardyce," all of which may mean nothing to you now, but will be all too familiar once you've seen the first episode, Mens Sana In Thingummy Doodah, set in Pinkneys Health Resort ("Boiled water with lemon was my special treat").

And the remaining five episodes are even better, with Wood drinking in with her wonderfully astute eye, observations on camping ("Trouble is meat and drink to daddy"), superficial TV people ("You father died... and you lost weight. Isn't that SO funny!"), dinner parties ("What happens to the prizes they don't win?") and cut-price travel ("Evelyn Waugh? I'm surprised she had time, what with her column").

It's no exaggeration to say that these six episodes comprise some of the very best television comedy of the 1980s. Essential viewing.


On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover

41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shallower Waters, 27 Mar 2007
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This review is from: On Chesil Beach (Hardcover)
Ian McEwan has reached the status of a British John Updike or Philip Roth, where the publication of each new book is a notable event. It is an appropriate accolade for a writer who has matured from enfant terrible to elder statesman: from edgy stories of sexual irregularity and dramatic violence, to richer investigations of the social and psychological makeup of a people.

Chesil Beach in Dorset is famous to any geography student as being an example of the phenomenon of longshore drift, and drift of a sort is what McEwan's new book is about. It tells the story of Edward and Florence, and their first night of marriage in July 1962 (the year before "sexual intercourse began," as Philip Larkin told us), staying in a hotel near "Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle."

Both are virgins: Edward has first night nerves, and Florence worries that by marrying him she has brought on the physical intimacy she most fears. What McEwan does terribly well is to invigorate old staples that we thought we knew, such as Edward's reciting of political analysis to (as Alan Partridge would put it) `keep the wolf from the door,' which seems both fresh and funny.

Less successful are the pieces of the couple's past which McEwan gives us: the scenes set before they met seem particularly unnecessary, and have the air of having been spliced in later to fill the book out from story to novella. And there is a danger of imbalance, when the meticulously detailed account in the first nine-tenths of the book suddenly switches pace and rushes to a conclusion. Overall, On Chesil Beach is more Amsterdam than Atonement.

But at its best, McEwan's great achievement, here as in Saturday, is to make the reader feel that nothing could be more important, or urgent, right now than to read about whatever his chosen subject happens to be. In this case, he makes a vital cause out of a transitional period, for two anonymous young people, for a generation, and for a country; the era when "to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of the cure," the time when "being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion."


Kitchen Craft Cook's Blowtorch
Kitchen Craft Cook's Blowtorch
Price: £9.95

66 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Torch of Class, 14 Mar 2007
All too often we hear people offer unjustified, exuberant praise for their kitchen gadgets. How many times have I heard fellow cooks tell me, "I'd be literally lost without my die cast tungsten lobster cracker?" or exercising their shrimps in excitement over the latest rechargeable kiwi skinner?

But here we have something which literally will blow you away. The perfect brulee has eluded so many of us for so long, but this little beauty will char your cap to perfection every time. You can even set it on a timer and leave the naked flame unattended, safe in the knowledge that when you return from shopping, your dessert will be crisp and nutty - as long as the kids didn't get to it first, that is!

It's also handy for melting ice cubes. Be careful though: get too close and it'll take your face off.


The Pesthouse
The Pesthouse
by Jim Crace
Edition: Hardcover

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Apocalypse Wow, 7 Mar 2007
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This review is from: The Pesthouse (Hardcover)
Jim Crace is an orderly, methodical writer (his friend Will Self said: "I wouldn't dream of saying that Jim's study demonstrates anal retention, but his marker pens are colour-coded and the distance between his keyboard and chair is painstakingly measured out"), so it's a surprise that the wait for his new novel, The Pesthouse, doubled the usual metronomic two-year gap between his books. It had better be good.

In fact, it had better be better than Cormac McCarthy's recently lauded The Road, because superficially the two have a lot in common. Both are set in a post-apocalyptic America, with straggling survivors battling against the collapse of civilisation and doing their best to evade marauding bandits. Like McCarthy's unnamed man and boy, the characters in The Pesthouse are heading for the coast, where they hope for... what? "We go. We carry on. That's what we have to do."

But where McCarthy produced an immersive, devastating fable, Crace has set his sights wider: and lighter. There are some threats in his story, but few real moments of terror, and his world is more colourful, because his language is too. Anyone who has read Crace before will know what to expect: a rhythmic and mythic prose, full of off-kilter but just-so detail. Dawn is "at the very moment that the owl became the cock;" seagulls are "stocky, busy, labouring, their bony wings weighted at the tips with black;" the ocean is "one great weeping eye. On clear days, we can see the curve of it."

One difficulty with this rich style is that often the drama, emotion or other engine of the story can be blocked out by it. You are so conscious of the beauty of the words that they stay on the surface of your mind without always sinking in. And sure enough, Crace's tale of Franklin, big and shy (and a bit of a muddler, like his earlier `heroes' Aymer Smith and Felix Dern), and Margaret, left by her family as a victim of plague (or "the flux"), to begin with lacks weight, and for the first half or so the book meanders along with going anywhere much. The feel is not particularly American, and more like a straightforward medieval setting than a future dystopia, or the sort of parallel world Crace has conjured before in Arcadia or Six (which, like The Pesthouse, showed us how well he writes about cities). Occasionally though, the glimpses of an industrial past do cut through and when they do, they work remarkably well:

"Colossal devastated wheels and iron machines, too large for human hands, stood at the perimeter of the semicircle, as if they had been dumped by long-retreated glaciers and had no purpose now other than to age. Hardly anything grew amid the waste. The earth was poisoned, probably. Twisted rods of steel protruded from the masonry. Discarded shafts and metal planks, too heavy to pull aside even, blocked their paths."

And it's around the halfway point that the story really begins to gather itself. Franklin and Margaret face separation, rape, death, and encounter a ripely painted series of characters. Allegories rise up reminding us not only of America's recent past but our own: immigration, prejudice, slavery, the scattering forms of family life. Crace even stops to have fun with some (literally) ineffectual religious cult members. By the time we reach the coast, he has fashioned most of all a remarkable love story out of the unlikeliest elements. And by the end it is moving and elegiac, altogether a warming and compassionate thing, and easily Crace's best book since Being Dead or even Quarantine.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 6, 2010 10:49 AM BST


Disturbing the Peace
Disturbing the Peace
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing (but Pleasing), 30 Jan 2007
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This review is from: Disturbing the Peace (Paperback)
It was with a strange and sad feeling that I realised, while reading Disturbing the Peace (first published in 1975), that this was the last time I would read a work of fiction by Richard Yates anew. Methuen have now reissued all his novels in the UK, and the cupboard is bare. And this novel, his third, has a weak reputation, and was the runt of Methuen's litter. Was it worth it?

The answer is yes. Some of it contains Yates's most vivid and immersive writing, not least the 40-page second chapter where the protagonist, John Wilder, spends a long (long) weekend in a psychiatric unit, the Bellevue, after being signed in by his best friend. "With friends like that..." you might think, but where we join the book it is clear that Wilder has for a long time been skirting the lip of a full nervous breakdown, largely fuelled by alcohol dependency. We can only presume that the Bellevue scene, like the utterly destructive alcoholism Wilder suffers, comes from Yates's own experience, in which case it's all the more remarkable that he even left us with this many complete works.

Disturbing the Peace also has a pithiness in much of the dialogue and narrative that some of his later work seems to lack, and lovely careful use of specific words, like the "probably" in the scene where Wilder renounces his lover and returns to his wife, and a paragraph of renewed marital love and happiness ends with the thought:

"This was probably where he really belonged."

However. Just as the book is racing along at a tremendous lick - miserable alco-ad-man, desperate housewife, inscrutably sad kid, all the fun of the fair - there is a switch halfway through which seems to fall somewhere between hazardous and disastrous. It's a reflexive and self-referential bit of narrative sleight of hand which seems quite out of keeping with Yates's usual pinpoint realism, almost postmodern by his standards, and threatens to derail the whole thing. And the sudden changes which follow this (I kept skipping back going, How did we get here again?) suggest reams of unproductive prose hacked out by an editor - or Yates the morning after.

Gradually, though, this bizarre bit of fancy is assimilated into the story and begins to make more sense as the story goes on. In Yates's biography, Blake Bailey suggests that the book is intended in part as a satire on modern values of sanity and insanity, but it's hard to detect this among the usual - and brilliant - Yates miserablism. The ending is more satisfying than (and as bleak as) many of this others, giving a circular sense of completeness to the story.

It seems to me that much of Yates's best work came toward the end of his life - Cold Spring Harbor, Young Hearts Crying - which makes his early (ish: 66) death a greater loss yet. He had also begun producing books more swiftly as the years went on - fifteen years for his first three, ten years for the next four. His loss to literature is immeasurable, but seven kinds of loneliness are better than none.


Wartime Lies (Penguin Modern Classics)
Wartime Lies (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Louis Begley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.91

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wartime Lows, 30 Jan 2007
You know you're getting older when the Penguin Modern Classics start getting younger. Louis Begley's debut novel Wartime Lies was published in 1991, and yet here it is, getting a little silver in its spine already.

Begley is best known, if at all, for writing the novel on which the Alexander Payne/Jack Nicholson film About Schmidt was based, and clearly writes his own About the Author blurbs (details of his children's occupations, anyone?).

Wartime Lies is written by a man looking back at his childhood in Poland in the 1940s, and tells us his story as a boy ("not very different from my own life during that time," as Begley tells us in a 2004 Afterword). 1940s Poland means of course that this is a story of the Jewish experience of the Nazis, and Begley writes with clear-eyed lack of sentimentality. And yet one can't help feeling that there's something lacking when the boy, Maciek, doesn't much mourn his (probably permanent) separation from his family, when he and his aunt Tania flee to live undercover as the wife of a Polish doctor who has been imprisoned by the Russians.

And the story begins with a desperately obtuse opening chapter - testing our stamina, Begley, with your convoluted Classical references? - and continues for a time in a somewhat dull style. However it does pick up once Maciek and Tania are in hiding and on the run, and some vivid details stick out, like the brutality of the Lithuanian soldiers, and the brilliant escape which Tania effects from the trains to Auschwitz.

Nonetheless in a glut of fictionalised memoirs of this sort - from Primo Levi to Aharon Appelfeld - Wartime Lies doesn't stand out from the crowd. It's worth reading, but modern classic status is probably a few decades off just yet.


The Woman in the Dunes (Penguin Classics)
The Woman in the Dunes (Penguin Classics)
by Kobo Abe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Perverse Sandscape, 30 Jan 2007
In this slippery and elliptical allegory, the woman in the dunes is in fact a secondary character, though her featuring in the title should alert to us to her true importance. Our protagonist instead is a man, a insect collector called Niki Jumpei. One day, so far as the rest of the world can see, he disappears. While strolling along a beach he has discovered a village, where sand dunes build up higher around each successive house, until eventually he finds that he is walking along the elevated dunes and looking down at the houses which are sunken into holes in the sandscape. If I go on, I'm telling no more than the back cover blurb does, which is that the man stays overnight in one of the houses, lowered down to the house from the sixty-foot dunes by rope ladder, and when he wakes up the next morning the ladder is gone.

And so we find ourselves in a bizarre fairytale-like world, where sand is everything and everything is sand. It permeates, literally, everything Niki thinks about, until he can think of little more than the properties, qualities, types and uses of sand. The book does for silica crystals what Moby Dick did for whales: that is, approach it from all sides and finish it off by writing more about it than we could ever wish to know. In the clichéd language of reviewers everywhere, the sand seems to become a character itself. But unlike Moby Dick, The Woman in the Dunes never loses sight of the story, and it becomes positively page-turning. It also evokes the borderline-otherworldliness J.G. Ballard - and in particular his novel Concrete Island, where a man becomes trapped in a sunken motorway island - and the sort of thing that I always thought Kafka wrote but actually didn't (ie paranoid allegories of existence which actually make linear sense). And it is beautifully illustrated by Machi Abe. And it inspired a film so much a "celebrated milestone" in cinema I'd never heard of it until a few minutes ago.

So The Woman in the Dunes is the best sort of literary discovery: new yet familiar (I'm sure the closing idea has been used before - or since); bizarre but lucid; perverse and pleasurable.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 27, 2011 12:15 PM GMT


Restless
Restless
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mother, Teacher, Lover, Spy, 30 Jan 2007
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This review is from: Restless (Paperback)
William Boyd will finally achieve the wider readership he deserves, now that his new novel Restless has won the Costa Novel Award and - more importantly in terms of sales - been given pride of place on Richard & Judy's sofa. He's been writing varied and engaging novels for twenty-five years, which manage to worm their way into every aspect of their characters' lives, and in turn sink deep into the reader's mind.

Restless is loosely a spy story - a young English woman discovers that her elderly mother is a Russian emigre who was a British agent during the second world war. I wasn't hooked from the start, but the book got its claws well into me by the halfway point. Like most of Boyd's books, it's all very traditional storytelling in a way, which could mean humdrum but he manages to pull it off with apparently little effort. As always, it's the immensity of detail and aspect which impressed me in Restless: all aspects of the characters' lives are explored, and points of narrative interest abound, from the double-historic time frame (2006 novel set in 1976 with flashbacks to 1939-42), the mix of fact and fiction (did the British secret service really work undercover to bluff the Americans into the second world war?), and the simple novelty (for me) of a female protagonist - or two - in a spy story.

The central 'twist' is not terribly surprising because it's so clearly foreshadowed, and the tension of whether Eva Delectorskaya will survive the war is obviously discharged by the knowledge that she is still alive in 1976, but the story still grips and the settings (of the long hot summer in 1976, of wartime Britain when people really didn't know if their country would survive, and of America at the same time when nobody really cared what was going on across the pond) are well realised. Boyd does not suit all tastes, but for me he's a reliable source of pleasure. If Restless is your first experience of Boyd, then I recommend among his earlier novels The Blue Afternoon, The New Confessions and Any Human Heart.


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