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John Fraser "John" (St Albans)

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Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer
Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer
by Michael Mansfield
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.54

53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An inspiration, 7 Sep 2009
I studied law for a year before changing course at Uni a few years back (it wasn't quite for me) but never lost my respect for those who practice it. And arguably at the top of the list of high profile figures in the law is Michael Mansfield.

Lawyers, however, ever fluent in "legalese", aren't traditionally known for talking straight, so I feared that Mr Mansfield might be a little plodding. But you'll be pleased to know that this book is far from plodding. There are highlights here from pretty much every major case and inquest of the past 40 years here, each of which is narrated in very a pacey and intriguing way.

From his experiences in high-profile cases he brings to life the drama of the court-room and the tension of a public enquiry where a melting pot of huge emotions and questions of law are brimming over on every side. The moment when he makes a Para-trooper, Soldier F, finally admit that yes, he did shoot an unarmed man on Bloody Sunday, makes for harrowing, hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff. And there's lots more like it. The Jean Charles de Menezes chapter in particular is hugely fascinating and very moving.

I've read a couple of reviews of the book in the past week and what's funny is that even those who disagree vehemently with his politics recognise that he's an inspirational figure who's done more than any other person to help shape and improve the British legal system.

Anyone interested in the law, current affairs, international relations, government and policing should read it. You can't fail to be inspired, occasionally depressed, enlightened and entertained.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 22, 2011 10:32 PM BST

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
by Geoff Dyer
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.98

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hugely memorable, 13 Aug 2009
First up, Geoff Dyer is a very talented writer - he's written art criticism, WWI history, literary biography, you name it. But the book he's best know for is, obviously, the brilliantly written (and titled, it's fair to say) short story collection Yoga For people Who Can't be Bothered to Do It.

I'll be honest, I wasn't convinced that Geoff Dyer could neccesarily take his wonderful short story writing style into the novel territory - it's fair to say that he's not big on plot development and narrative arcs - and arguably this book is, in fact, two novellas. There's no real plot to speak of and yes - the two halves do have very different tones.

However, to say there's nothing connecting them is strange. I found the two narratives flowed rather wonderfully from one to the other and - maybe I'm being far too literal here - I just read it as though they were about one and the same person. Two sides of the same story, in fact.

To suggest that this book isn't memorable seems a bit strange too, as many of the scenes, particularly those in Varanasi, are beautifully evocative and hugely visual. He writes wonderfully about the pace and mood of Indian life, the weird rituals and events that pass as normal in any given day in this extraordinary city. And the character's progression (or maybe regression) is compelling and pretty heartstopping.

It's fair to say that this won't be for all the fans of Yoga... but it's nonetheless a very rewarding experience. You'll be hard placed to find such an unusual and arresting piece of writing published this year.

Breaking Away [DVD] [1979] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Breaking Away [DVD] [1979] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Dennis Christopher

4.0 out of 5 stars A certain charm, 6 Aug 2009
As a keen cyclist I'd heard of this a while back and was recently given it by a friend. There is something categorically naff about cycle films - something about the huffing and puffing and close-ups of faces of steely resolve and the panning shots of "our hero" during a race passing other cyclists who don't seem to be trying all that hard - and there is much of that in here, but it's fair to say that its charm ends up winning you over. The portrait of small town America in the 70s is acutely drawn (though with a nicely amateurish tone) and the characters are likeable and oddly believable by the time you reach the end.

This may sound like a very weird analogy but there's also something a tiny bit Star Wars about it - as much about the aesthetics as anything else I guess, but also it's portrait of a young disaffected man living in a smalltown who dreams of a wider world out there. Also there's something a little Mark Hammill in Dennis Christopher's performance.

To Heaven by Water
To Heaven by Water
by Justin Cartwright
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.30

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His best?, 7 July 2009
This review is from: To Heaven by Water (Hardcover)
I should confess to being a bit of a fan of Cartwright's and particularly of his last novel, the Song Before it is Sung. But while that was an audacious historical novel set around 30s Oxford and the Stauffenberg plot, a glance at the back cover of his new book showed a far less ambitious novel fixated on domestic London life. I wasn't sure what to expect...

But in a way, it's the everyday setting that makes it all the greater an achievement. A smaller canvas, maybe, but there are no tricks and conceits to carry the writing along - it has to survive line by line without dramatic historical events to help it on its way. And Cartwright is masterful at it. He is one of those writers whom one reads while constantly thinking aloud to oneself: how can he know this about people - about relationships - about life? How can he be so perceptive? There's a wisdom to the writing, often manifested in a beautiful and sometimes deceptively simple turn of phrase, that gets to immediately to the point: be it describing Gordon Brown perfectly in three words, or explaining the guilt one might feel after the death of a loved one. It seems to me the most emotionally charged of his novels and it also includes, which i wasn't expecting, some jaw-droppingly dramatic moments which really keep the pages turning.

In summary, a wonderful book that I will treasure.

One last thing: I heard the first episode of it being read on Radio 4 last night and Bill Nighy is perfect as the narrator.

For Emma Forever Ago
For Emma Forever Ago
Price: 7.57

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A quiet masterpiece, 7 July 2009
This review is from: For Emma Forever Ago (Audio CD)
This is one of those albums that various people had recommended to me and that I bought without having heard a track. I'm glad to say, it was a successful purchase.

It's rare that an album can affect ones mood to this sort of degree - it happened to me a while back when I came across Midlake's Van Occupanther - but every time I listen to it I become subdued and melancholic but in a rather wonderfully serene way. There's a beautifully forlorn air to every song and, even when he seems on the verge of "rocking out" a sadness pervades. In fact, it's hard to isolate what makes this such a successful album: it's pretty bleak, and there is also a general absence of strong melodies and identifiable lyrics, but somehow the power of the songwriting and the conviction of his delivery carry it through.

Three to See the King
Three to See the King
by Magnus Mills
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Unique and brilliant, 16 Mar 2009
This review is from: Three to See the King (Paperback)
What can you say about Magnus Mills?? Well, I know the word "unique" is banded around fairly liberally these days but there is no-one like him. He's managed to take a story that, as suggested by a previous reviewer has all the markings of a children's book, and evoke a beguiling allegory that manages to ponder on some of life's larger questions.

For those of you that might have thought that he could only do stories of working-men-going-about-their-business, Three to See the King shows that he can weave his deadpan magic on a more adventurous canvas. That said, it's hard to work out how he does it: the prose is flat and monotone, his characters are pretty much cut-outs and have no discerning traits, and not a lot happens. Still, he manages to do more than your average Booker nominee does in a lifetime of writing.

When's your next book Magnus... it's been too long!

The Lost Child
The Lost Child
by Julie Myerson
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Confound your expectations, 14 Mar 2009
This review is from: The Lost Child (Hardcover)
Having been a longtime fan of Myerson's I was curious to see whether, as most of the papers seem to have asserted, she'd completely lost her mind: had she resorted to writing an indulgent, tell-all misery memoir as most have said, and, if so, should she have published it? Well, if you're hoping for Dave Pelzer, please don't this book. If, however, you're a fan of moving, emotive, powerful writing about big themes and prickly subjects, with a keen eye for detail and a beautiful turn of phrase you will not fail to be moved. I'd implore anyone who's been quick to judge Julie Myerson to read this book and reassess!

by Dirk Wittenborn
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.64

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensational storytelling, 8 Feb 2009
This review is from: Pharmakon (Paperback)
I read Wittenborn's last novel, Fierce People, some years back and loved it: a no-holds-bared pacy version of The Great American Novel, with a rich narrative that stayed (just about) this side of melodrama, I'm pretty sure I read it in one sitting. I'd begun to wonder what had happened to him (it was about six years ago now) and Pharmakon gives us the answers.

If John Irving had a bit more edge and slightly less in the way of sentimentality, he might have written Pharmakon. Much like Fierce People it has a brilliantly pageturning plot (which I discovered in a piece in yesterday's Times is based, unfeasibly, on the author's life) but it's a much more grown up, emotionally considered piece of writing. It's a little like Jay McInerney, but with more likeable characters; a little like Brett Easton Ellis, but without the snarling cynicism. A little Tom Wolff, perhaps, but more generous-spirited and funnier. Wittenborn gives us an amazing portrait of family life (albeit a pretty dysfunctional family) in 1950 America and then takes the protagonist, Zach, on a compelling journey as he slides inextricably into drug addiction and personal crisis. On the way we meet some wonderful characters, not least Caspar, the sociopathic guinea pig who tries to kill Zach's family. There's a wonderful sense of redemption at the end of the novel, but it never feels forced or pat.

I'd have to say, this is one of the best books I've read in a good few years! For anyone who's a fan of modern American literature and great storytelling, it's a must.

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood
Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood
by Robyn Scott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.26

45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gerald Durrell for the 21st Century., 23 May 2008
I read a review of this in Conde Nast Traveller by Giles Foden describing it as "My Family and Other Animals - in Africa" and, having been a fan of Durrell since I was a teenager, I felt compelled to see if he was right.

So, granted, there's not so much about about animals in a pin-them-to-a-board-and-count-their-abdomens kind of way, but the way Robyn Scott brings to life the wildlife and landscapes of Botswana, where she grew up as a child, is very much in the spirit of Durrell's books. Hers is also an eccentric family - a flying doctor father, a homeschooling mother, an adrenaline-addicted brother and animal-obsessed sister, and, making regular cameo appearances throughout, her four wonderful grandparents, (in particular her grandfather Ivor who, with his crazy schemes, questionable flying skills and longstanding feuds, makes for many laugh-out-loud moments.) In the midst of it all is Robyn, the narrator, an oasis of calm who desperately wants to be a normal child from a normal family.

The book's real triumph is Robyn's ability to show us the warmer, more human side of Africa that we so seldom get the chance to read about. It's a really life-affirming and big-hearted book, like a love-letter to Botswana, it colourful inhabitants and beautiful landscapes.

Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, or My Single-minded Approach to Songwriting
Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, or My Single-minded Approach to Songwriting
by Will Hodgkinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.93

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sing-a-long-a-Hodgkinson, 22 April 2008
In an age when people are desperately trying to get on TV for no reason other than to "become famous" it's pretty inspiring to read a book by someone keen to follow a dream and better themselves for no reason other than the love of it. Will Hodgkinson learnt how to play guitar for his last book and this time around he's trying to learn how to write a song. It's fair to say that he didn't exactly succeed on that front (as a visit to his myspace page might attest) but he tells his story with such infectious enthusiasm, coupled with a rich vein in self-deprecation, which means that you can't help but root for him as he follows his quest.

Much as he did in Guitar Man, he also unearths some great advise from a interesting array of characters - from the more obvious 60s guitar heroes of which he's such a fan, like Keith Richards and Ray Davies, to the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a eccentric recluse by the name of Lawrence who used to front an obscure 90s indie band.

Inspiring stuff - and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Just don't expect to see him performing at the 02 arena any time soon!

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