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M. Smith "M Smith" (London)

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Go Set a Watchman
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

2.0 out of 5 stars It will never be To Kill A Mocking Bird, 26 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Go Set a Watchman (Hardcover)
Do you read this as a sequel straight after TKAMB or a stand-alone book? I’d freshly read TKAMB so expectations for GSAW were high. Though I hadn’t read reviews, I’d heard whispers.

The first 100 pages set the scene, and then it feels as if a story begins. Though, what appear to be promising threads of stories don’t evolve e.g. when Atticus takes on Zeebo’s son court case it fizzled out, Atticus’ social and racial stance not very robust, even Uncle Jack’s final revelation just seems tepid, so the story of the book gets little traction, where events just pass through.

I sometimes re-read passages because the narrative, train of thought or stream of consciousness jumped from one page to the next making no sense (I thought I had a misprinted copy) as it was disjointed and jarred, affecting the flow. For language, the overuse of the n word at the meetings is appropriate as it shows somebody ranting and seems in context for 1950s America. Hence, the book may not be appropriate for children.

Major characters are gone (Jem, Boo) and even Calpurnia (Scout’s mother-like confidante) is distant. Like a mini-Atticus, Hank is the voice of reason and though born “trash” shows he can forge a useful career. it raises an interesting juxtaposition of nature-v- nurture, with Scout as a social intermediary of being born into good social standing (a Finch) but with Hank as a boyfriend. The Finches e.g. Aunt Zander and Uncle Jack bring a weightier family and society element, and even Scout reluctantly accepts some social conventions.

I found Scout difficult to like because though her strong character is unchanged and fights through her physical transition into womanhood, I feel her inner frenzy and tantrums could be better spent. As an unconstrained woman not overly pressured into marriage, at college and drives, there could have been much more for her to explore as part of a woman’s lot in 50s America. Scout mentally unloads and Atticus is older and frailer and though we see the past breaking away (Scout from her father, independence (state, person) despite youthful flashbacks e.g. eating ice cream, swimming, etc. and the family home has gone), the transition into modern 1950s and post-WWII, atomic era, communism is unappealing.

We see local reluctance to change and hackles are raised at Federal and state interference in local Maycomb/county affairs. Though racism is still squarely there, anything from outside or different, be it Hank (low class), Calpurnia (black), communism, the black rights groups trying to make inroads, Federal input, etc. seem to try to be kept at the perimeter of society, as locals try protect and reinforce local ways and tradition e.g. church meetings, social coffee gatherings, Klu Klux Klan/council/boys’ meetings, etc. and if any change occurs then it is at a pace that suits Maycomb. Looking behind a supposed respectable small town facade we see a goldfish bowl of gossip, interfamilial, racism and bigotedness, whereby everybody knows everybody, and knows their place.

From a publishing and commercial perspective, if the book had been published in the 1950s then who knows how it would have been received i.e. censored, not published, or a great hit. I think publication now (2015) was a good idea because though the book is a different flavour and not as innocent of TKAMB, it is indeed like an unruly teenager (beyond innocence). Is it worth reading with its gremlins – maybe, though I won’t read it again; is it a classic? – NO, because it is a book that doesn’t stay with me.

I was hoping for a twist or great denouement at the end, but things just felt unresolved or ambiguous. If someone were brave enough, there could be many directions this book could go afterwards.

A Song of Ice and Fire (1) - A Game of Thrones
A Song of Ice and Fire (1) - A Game of Thrones
by George R.R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Your adventure … The Great Read: A Fair Warning, 13 Oct. 2014
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Warning! If you are a big TV fan of Game of Thrones, then DON’T be tempted to read every book in the series in one go, or cheat by starting to read part of the way in. But start from here; the very beginning.

Read the books at your OWN PACE – you will be glad you did. TV gives a visual anchor on which to place characters, environments/landscapes, stories, etc. but the book IS the parent. The books have side stories, inner dialogue, infighting, adult content, language, fuller characters, action, etc. which culminate into a dense, treacle-rich story that fills in bits that are not seen on TV (e.g. Jamie’s inner thoughts). You will also have the enjoyment of bragging about the TV series “Well, that bit wasn’t in/is different/missed out from the book”!

Don’t be daunted by the idea of reading 7 physical books (5 books, two of them in 2 parts) because the story flows and you quickly get drawn in, and en route there are useful reminders (e.g. character’s backstory are dripfed), and with the book (and not the kindle) it’s handy to flick to the front and back (for maps, houses, siguals, mottos, allegiances, etc). My books are chunky and well crumpled and became second nature, like leaving the house – keys (check!), cell (check!), GOT (check!).

Read the books roughly in time with the TV series, so you have something to look forward to and be just as excited as viewers of what happens next i.e. instead of the instant gratification of drilling through to the very end of the whole 7 books, have something to look forward to (like staying up late for Santa [how old am I? – but you get the point])).

As a fair warning, I would say, that just as you settle into the first book, your GOT world will unfold, so don’t get too comfortable (this ain’t no comfy pair of slippers) as you have a long way to go. And if you think that you can guess how events, characters, allegiances/houses, etc. will turn out then think again, as shapeshifters, dragons, wightwalkers, questionable dead, etc. bit players, are all yet to come.

Like an adult fairytale gone bad (back in rehab) the stories and characters pull round as things grow heroically and epic. It reminds me of what someone (no idea who, or where I read it) once said, in that the books are as they would imagine (harsh) medieval times.

Expect a speedball of change in weather and location, veering through the geography, cultures and scenery changes; one moment you’re watching Drogo and Daenerys’ Dothraki band canter through warm savannah, and in the next chapter you feel the crushing cold in John and Sam’s bones as they walk along the Wall.

To me, it feels like a current void is being filled, since Lord of the Rings is a distant memory and while we await the next great cultural offering (Star Wars – can… not… wait). So, for the time being, while reading GOT don’t expect to get a life any time soon.

To Kill A Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition
To Kill A Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Harper Lee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Now I know why it is a Classic, 13 Oct. 2014
I only recently read this book for the first time. It was always referred to as a classic so I wanted to know why.

It is never too late to read this book because if you didn't read it as a kid then it works just as well (if not better) when read when an adult, because a grown-up brings life experience and will understand more the references, injustices, racial and social prejudices, etc. of 1930s America.

I could go into a lot of detail about this book, but won't; simply to say "try it, even if you don't read much".

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
by Mike Mullane
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ground Control to Colonel Mike ..., 2 Aug. 2013
It's not about an astronaut, but alot more. Mike's opening gambit of an enema to produce "dazzling pipes" for astronaut selection shows someone so singularly focussed to do whatever it takes to be successful, that I read on. From life in the Mullane household, early military life and then fast forward to NASA, I too shared Mike's adventure and dream to get into space.

BrontŽ, Mike's book is NOT. The language ranges from crude `Merican schoolboy, to political incorrectness/AD and inner stream of consciousness of a locker room e.g. Viet pilot, "Better Dead than Look Bad", scepticism of female astronauts, passengers, etc. yet times eventually catch up during Mike's transition to PC personified (East German sauna - hunter becomes the hunted) - engaging and even charming. The technical language (SRBs, ET, MECO, ATL, etc.) is easily absorbed.

Like Shakespeare, important characters are offstage, such as omnipotent George Abbey or Donna and, call me a romantic, but it seems that Mike's all-consuming dream becomes Donna's as she raises the family. Through physical aspects, such as liaisons with Donna show the human side of astronauts and seizing possible final moments. We also picture the other astronauts as we share the minutiae of comradeship, smells, intimacy and reality of space preparation.

The book shows the emotional rollercoaster, with fear and frustration as close cousins. We witness Mike going from hero (when times are good) to zero (passed over or mission aborted, like a rejected bridesmaid) and the emotional drain upon the families. Just as demanding seem to be the physical toll e.g. medical, kit tests, Gs, the Vomit Comet, etc., and while bolted to a chair with 7million lbs of thrust underneath with a gambler's luck, uncontrollable bodily functions, making last minute promises to God, focussing on T-9, then fear/danger of T- ...5 .... 4 we share the exhilaration at heading skywards "at last" or dull dread of abort.

The book is living history. After an era of (US/USSR) Space Race and Apollo (dangerous and experimental yet culminating in man on the moon), Mike was part of the Space Shuttle (STS) and ISS. Seeing backstage at the nuts-and-bolts (and politics) of NASA could take the shine off the glamour of the space programme, yet this account is the closest some of us will get to space, because though space tourism has begun (Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace) (pats pockets, "Nope, don't have a spare million pounds"), Mike's account reminds us of the importance and danger of early space programmes, where the research, technology (e.g. iPhone more advanced than the Eagle), tests, daring-do (chutzpah and style), self-sacrifice and lives lost, got us where we are today.

An irony is that the comms satellites put into space are probably the very same satellites that keep kids glued to a keyboard, phone and ignoring the great world we live in, whereas Mike was possibly brought up with little/no TV or internet, and a kid probably had to find his own hobbies, interests and adventure. I've heard astronauts say one of the best things on the STS during its 1.5 hourly orbit, is the window overlooking Earth, watching the lightning, deserts, oceans, etc. so Mike should not knock us mere mortals (passengers) who are inspired by his space experience and want to see the real thing for ourselves.

The book shows why the space programme was costly and accountable to the public purse e.g. a returned STS had an MOT of one million checks, but also interesting to see a saving e.g. an STS cannibalised to reuse on others. But for the glory of it all, you cannot put a price.

The book is one viewpoint (with its gripes), so detail, timescales and aspects I have taken to be 98%-ish accurate, but Mike's book is authentic because it is a first hand account. Though a product of NASA, we can see the difficulty to adjust to NASA afterlife, yet Mike managed three space missions (in addition to aborted ones) and perhaps God kept him safe to tell the tale and make us feel a little more mortal.

I hope Mike never grows up and still enjoys a challenge. Though retired the sharing of his tale in this book can still inspire, so while bumpy, what a glorious ride. It is human, warm, vitriolic, sufficiently technical yet basic and down-to-earth. I feel lucky to have read the book, and feel it can be summed up as "Dazzling" (Mike and STS).

South: The Endurance Expedition
South: The Endurance Expedition
by Ernest Shackleton
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, 2 Aug. 2013
It is more than a crew's experience of a woeful failed 1914-17 trans-polar Antarctica expedition but, via Shackleton's own words, a book that shows failure turned on its head when man is mentally stripped and truly tested in the most craven of icescapes.

Reading Shackleton's first hand account shows the frustration of navigating to 76oC S then pushed back again to 69oC, endless drifting, 24hr watch of gauging icepack, striking camp, rationing, camping on a floe for months then move at a split second's notice, rowing (and bailing) in enormous swells, and tedium, though spirit is resolute and survival the main goal in the numbing bleakness; the spectre of death is never far away and seems almost inevitable.

The account is not emotive but matter-of-fact with moments of poignancy e.g. shooting and eating dogs the crew became attached to, compassion (sharing bodily warmth), and when the crew physically adapt i.e. catch and eat seal blubber and penguin, downsize boats and stores when Endurance is lost (churned up and then swallowed), rationing, etc. the experience seems even more human and heroic; small touches are amplified e.g. a spoonful of sugar becomes a feast or an occasional treat/boost of extra ration, hot drinks, and keep demoralisation at bay.

There is uncertainty, but the defining quality of Shackleton's leadership comes through as he keeps the crew of varying abilities (condition, strength and experience) together by maintaining a sense of order and purpose, e.g. job as look out, cook, construction, etc. that see them through the worst even after he leaves them behind. Still, after enduring a surreal survival of the coldest climes of the planet, Shackleton and the battered Robin Crusoe-looking crew are reunited at rescue's end.

Shackleton's was not the first Antarctica expedition, but this account of the failed trans-polar expedition (which included an expedition party from the NZ side, whose ship breaks its moorings and leaves behind crews at depots, etc.) makes it a memorable one. If it had succeeded the expedition would have been a world first for British transpolar exploration, during a time of the outbreak of World War I (some crew expected to serve) and high expectations from Queen Alexandra, Churchill, sponsors and country, but with expedition crews having no little/no contact, any positive outcome seems uncertain.

This is the only Shackleton and polar-related book I have read and can see why the strong sense of spirit/human endeavour, adventure/exploration, relationships (transferable to life e.g. work, family, etc.) and leadership are qualities that inspire others e.g. this Antarctica expedition was retraced by Tim Jarvis (wearing period early 20thC outfits and using sun and stars to navigate).

It would have been useful (from the publishers) to have a more detailed map of Antarctica and locations (terrain, location of depot drops, huts, etc ) in order to plot the trail and get an idea of perspective, distances, etc.

After reading this book the beauty and impenetrable danger of the Antarctica is alluring and I would like to go.

It is difficult not to use superlatives when describing this book, because it is a book of superlatives i.e. man in the coldest, harshest, most extreme, bravest, etc. but it is one of the best I have read. I enjoyed and would recommend this book, and if I was going to only read one exploration book then this would be it. It is timeless.

The Tea Planter's Children
The Tea Planter's Children
by Eve Baker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A lesson in childhood, 20 Dec. 2006
Like most books, the back cover tempts with references to Ghandi, rise of facisim, etc. but the book has little of that. It's better for the fact it isn't a history lesson, but a pleasurable book of simple childhood innocence and (mis)adventure set around the British life and lives on a colonial tea plantation during the early 1930s.

I enjoyed reading this book because, in a way, I wish it had been me who had the adventure.

It is not delicate, flowery in use of language or overly-evocative, but written from a child's matter-of-fact perspective with accompanying outrage, fear, delight and sadness.

I would recommend reading this book.

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