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The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible
The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible
by Melvyn Bragg
Edition: Audio CD

3.0 out of 5 stars Extensive, well read, but sneaking suspicion I would prefer it as a book, 25 Jun. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is about as comprehensive a look at the King James Bible without it becoming worthy and weighed down as you could wish.

This audio book edition is unabridged and clocks in at a massive 11+ hours spread across 10 CDs. It was quite a surprise when it arrived in the post. I imagined it being one or at the most two discs. But then how could a study of the most influential book of all time be anything less than 10 discs?

Bragg's look at the impact of the King James bible is exhaustive, capturing perfectly the age of paranoia and devotion into which it was born. Along the way it tells the story of the bravery and devout faith of the men who made it their life work to translate the bible into English so that everyone could share it.

The narration is clear and authoritative. Divided into chapters that allow you to break the listening experience down into manageable chunks.

The main problem with this audiobook is one of format. It's not often that I get to listen to a CD uninterrupted, primarily on car journeys, and so a story as complicated and covering such a period of time is difficult to dip in and out of. Also I have a suspicion that I would enjoy reading it as a book more as I could refer back to earlier chapters for reference.

Fascinating topic, well written, well narrated then, but I think I personally would have preferred to read the book


A Rage in Harlem (Penguin Modern Classics)
A Rage in Harlem (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Chester Himes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An absolute romp, 11 Jun. 2011
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Hapless and gullible Jackson is conned by a man who tells him he can turn ten dollar bills into hundred dollar bills, loses all his money and then robs his boss to pay the debt. Chased by a man pretending to be a federal officer he turns to his brother, a conman who dresses as a nun, to help him retrieve the money. Quickly the situation descends into chaos as they become embroiled in a con using fools gold and a fabled mexican mine, a murder investigation and are hunted by the toughest cops in Harlem, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.

Chester Hines spent years in prison for armed robbery, so he clearly knows his subject. And he writes it in sharp, exciting and muscular prose. The writing zings off the page, the story moves along at breakneck pace, the characters are lively and intriguing. I don't want to use the word romp, but I can't help it. This short and snappy book is about as perfect a crime caper as you can get. Nothing too clever, just very streetwise, very well written and loads of fun to read.


The Tenderloin
The Tenderloin
by John Butler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.25

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Scruffy and shallow tale of San Fran in the mid 90's, 6 Jun. 2011
This review is from: The Tenderloin (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Evan and Milo, childhood friends, leave Dublin to experience the sights and sounds of 1995 San Francisco. The dotcom boom is in full swing and the rave scene is kicking off. Technology and drugs are changing, the world is an exciting new place. Evan begins to work at ForwardSlash, an early internet company. Here he meets Sam Couples, older, charming and irresistible to the sexually confused Evan. Then Milo's ex-girlfriend Roison joins them in America and Evan gets even more confused.

They meander around, take drugs and don't do a lot else. Then they come home. And that's it. Except it's not, because the time line is messed up, the speech is wooden and hard to differentiate between characters, as a reader you can't care about any of the characters, the plot is unsatisfying and the whole thing is a bit of a mess.

The only chapter that has any resonance is the epilogue in which we learn about Roison's life. Which is a real shame, because in this small section you get the impression that Butler could actually be a good writer and that more unfortunately he might have written a good book if he'd have chosen Roison as the main character.


Great House
Great House
by Nicole Krauss
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Challenging, complex and rewarding, 6 Jun. 2011
This review is from: Great House (Hardcover)
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Great House is a very self-consciously literary novel. It knows it's audience and goes straight for them. It's not a book for the casual reader. Even though it is relatively short it is a difficult and challenging read.

It is focussed around a desk, which may or may not have once belonged to Lorca, a desk which forms the centre-point in the lives of the characters of this book. It is essentially a set of short stories, split in half, each related to the other to varying degrees.

Nadia is a midlist author who was given the desk by Daniel Varsky, a Chilean, who lends her the desk for a time, but when he vanishes Nadia makes the desk her own.

Izzy, is a confused and damaged American student, who tells the story of Leah and Yoav Weiss, who's father specialises in locating furniture looted by the Nazis in the second world war.

Aaron is a retired lawyer in Israel, who's section of the novel is concerned with his hatred for his son.

Structurally Great House is complicated, I imagine it will take a second read to fully grasp how the stories fit together and the full chronology.

Equally the metaphorical meaning of the novel is challenging and hard to grasp. It is about loss and memory and the importance of time and place in our lives. But there is a meaning that pertains to Judaism that I struggled to reach.

This subtext is probably best summed up by this quote, 'Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and as intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form. Later his school became known as the Great House, after the phrase in Books of Kings: He burned the house of Go, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.'

It is about the meaning we project onto objects and how our memories are intrinsically locked into them.

It is a dense book, difficult to penetrate and while it is a rewarding read it can never be described as enjoyable.


Jamrach's Menagerie
Jamrach's Menagerie
by Carol Birch
Edition: Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Magical story of the nature of friendship and rivalry, 19 May 2011
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I knew from the first page that I would love this book. The image of a boy meeting an escaped tiger and, not knowing what it was, reaching up to stroke its nose is the powerful and enchanting introduction to a story that encompasses the world, but also addresses the intimate relationships between friends and families.

Jaffy Brown is eight when he has his encounter with the tiger (this like many aspects of the book is based on real life events, in this instance immortalised in a statue in Waping, London), but it sets him on a path that will see him travelling the oceans in search of a mythical dragon. The tiger has escaped from the eponymous Jamrach's collection of exotic animals and it is Jamrach who plucks Jafffy from the creature's jaws. Jamrach himself was an historical figure, supplying imported animals to the rich and famous in 1800's London.

Jaffy, used to the seedy underbelly of London is seduced by the brightly coloured birds, the grumpy elephants and the empathetic apes, and begins to work in Jamrach's menagerie. Here meets twins Tim and Ishbel, Tim becomes his best friend and Ishbel his only love. They grow up together in the slums of London, the exotic animals representing an exciting world away from all the squalor.

As they reach early adulthood the opportunity arises for Tim and Jaffy to take part in a journey to the other side in the world in search of a mythical dragon (presumably the Komodo Dragon) for a private collector. Both Tim and Jaffy take up the offer and set sail into the unknown on an old whaling vessel.

At first they revel in the new experiences, but once they reach their destination a curse seems to descend on the ship and they are faced with horrible decisions that will scar Jaffy for life. I don't want to go into what happens once they find the dragon as it will spoil much of the reading experience, but the events that befall the crew of the whaling boat are based on the historical fate of a whaling ship called the Essex, and illustrate how far human beings are willing to go in order to survive.

On face value this is an exciting, extremely well crafted adventure story, and it is possible to read it entirely on this level, however there is so much more at work under the surface. Birch skilfully examines the nature of friendship, particularly the bond between close male friends. The way in which she handles the complexities of Jaffy and Tim's relationship has a real authenticity to it. She also looks at the natural human desire to look towards the horizon and search for something bigger than themselves.

The level of descriptive language is superb. It effortlessly transports you to the London of 1857, draws in great detail the colourful animals in the menagerie, takes you with Jaffy and Tim to strange lands and when things start to go wrong it draws you in and doesn't let go until the last page.

Jamrach's Menagerie is a magical book and the way in which Birch takes pieces of history and stitches them together is close to inspired.


In a Strange Room
In a Strange Room
by Damon Galgut
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A meditation on memory and the importance of moments, 8 May 2011
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This review is from: In a Strange Room (Hardcover)
At an unspecified time a man named Damon looks back at three journeys he has made. Three journeys that have proved pivotal in the formation of the Damon he is now.

Firstly to Greece, where he met a German traveller. A man who he would find an attraction to, though he couldn't define why. Then the German joins him in South Africa and they travel together for a while until their relationship falls apart.

Secondly through various African nations with a group, again troubled by his attraction to a man, this time a man who can barely speak the same language as him, He chases the group across Africa then eventually to stay with the man at his family home in Switzerland.

And thirdly to India, with a suicidal friend, the extent of who's illness he doesn't understand until they are alone together on the other side of the world.

To anyone who has spent time travelling, these fleeting friendships will be familiar, the camaraderie built up through collective loneliness and the distance from home. Equally his description of place is incredibly evocative. There is a genuine sense of place that is built up throughout the book.

Where it works at it's best though is in it's descriptions of the nature of memory. The narrative slips from first to third person. The narrator admits to gaps in the story. He puts focus on small things whilst larger events are happening in the background. Galgut exhibits a real understanding of how we remember things. It is never expressly explained whether the Damon of the novel is the Damon that is writing it, but one can assume that in some places it is and in some places it isn't and that this is in itself a continuation on the discussion on the fallibility of human remembrance.

Damon seems to be searching for something. Both mentally and physically, both running away from something and doing his best to run towards something. This is a book that tells us little, but in doing so actually reveals a huge amount. It is a haunting and masterfully crafted meditation on what it means to be human and how we are created from our collective memories.


History of a Pleasure Seeker
History of a Pleasure Seeker
by Richard Mason
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Period romp, 7 May 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Piet Barol, the pleasure seeker of the title, is a startlingly attractive young man in early 1900's Amsterdam. From a poor background, with a pragmatic father and a contrastingly romantic mother, Barol sees himself as higher than his station. Before her death her mother taught him the finer points of society, music and culture and instilled in him a sense of self worth that spurs him on to better himself.

He finds work as a tutor to the agoraphobic son of the successful Vermeulen-Sickett family and is charged with bringing the boy back into the family fold and encouraging him to venture outside. Barol is quickly seduced by the glamourous lifestyle of the wealthy family and works hard at winning the affections of every member of the household, both above and below the stairs.

This is a book of rich imagery and characters, set in an opulent and sexually charged world. The sexual tension crackles on every page as Barol's charm works on all those around him.

It should be a cracking good read, but it lacks something, which for wont of a better word I'm going to describe as heart. It seems empty at the core. Sure, the atmosphere and the description are really well done, but I just couldn't find it in myself to care whether Barol succeeds or not and in parts he just comes across as a selfish spoiled brat.

It's also got a strange structure. The first 2/3 of the book are set in Amsterdam and the tension in the house, both sexual and financial pulls the book along. But when Barol books passage to South Africa the story fizzles out. It soon becomes clear that this is the intended first part of a potential series and the history is much longer than the 300 pages that we are given here, but it doesn't quite work as a stand alone novel.

Still, it's intriguing enough and Mason sets up just the right amount of foreshadowing of the First World War to make a second book a fairly enticing prospect.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 11, 2011 10:26 AM BST


The Intimates
The Intimates
by Guy Mankowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.30

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Obviously a talented writer, but not yet a talented novelist, 13 April 2011
This review is from: The Intimates (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
In a country home a group of friends meet up for a party to ostensibly celebrate the launch of one of their number's debut novel. A novel which is based on their friendship group, The Intimates of the title.

It begins with Vincent waking up in an empty swimming pool, a woman asleep in his arms. Through the fog of his hangover he tries to remember what happens throughout the evening that led to him being here, and in turn lets us into the circle of The Intimates.

A group of friends individually hugely talented, but also wasteful of their gifts, they meet and talk about what could have been and try and find some sort of future between.

Vincent, son of a hugely successful playwright.

James a painter who lost the ability to differentiate colour because of a car crash.

Franz, a past it rock star.

Graham a transvestite surgeon, whose family can't accept him.

Barbara and Georgina, mother and daughter actresses, consumed by underachievement and jealousy.

And Carina, the girl who Vincent always wanted to be with, but never quite found the opportunity.

Each one of them in their own way a failure and Francoise, the host wants each of them to confront their demons.

There is a real decadent swing to the novel, it is opulent and confident in its language and imagery. The interwinding stories are all interesting and well drawn. It feels like Gatsby meets Blow Out meets Easton Ellis.

Mankowski has written an impressive novel in terms of style. Where it fails though is in that it relies heavily on conversation to move plot along and there are often page long pieces of vocal exposition, which can feel stilted and unrealistic. And as it is an expanded novella the middle sags somewhat. It could either have been made a little longer and allowed the back stories to be teased out a little more, or made a little shorter and been much more compact.

Overall though a talented writer and an impressive enough debut novel


The Last Block in Harlem
The Last Block in Harlem
by Christopher Herz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Interesting idea, but incredibly frustrating, 2 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
A man leaves his job as an advertising copywriter and sets about cleaning up his neighbourhood in Harlem. Inspired by photographs of the thriving streets in the past, he tidies away the rubbish and attempts to galvanise the community into taking pride in their surroundings. As the neighbourhood begins to return to it's old glory the property developers move in and the people who worked hard to improve their situation find they can't afford to live there any longer.

And interesting concept. Timely even. I enjoyed the first page of this book and had high hopes for it, and while there are sections of fine writing, they are far too few to save it from becoming a frustrating mess of a novel.

The first problem is in the characters. As he works on the neighbourhood the unnamed narrator talks to his neighbours and learns more of the cities past. Nice idea. Except it is handled so clumsily as to be irritating. All the various characters talk with the same voice and preach rather than have conversations. Herz's dialogue is really poor. It just doesn't flow in a natural way.

The second and main problem is one of plot. There is no cause and effect here. Nothing happens for a reason. The book is just a collections of vignettes strung together.

There has been much made of the ending, which I guess is supposed to be shocking and telling, but it seems throwaway and far fetched.

What could have been a book of big ideas and commentary on the commercialism of our society instead meanders along, unsure of itself, to a frustrating conclusion.

Really disappointing.


Catching Fire (Hunger Games, Book 2)
Catching Fire (Hunger Games, Book 2)
by Suzanne Collins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Very much the second part of trilogy, 30 Mar. 2011
A year has passed since Katniss Everdeen triumphed in the Hunger Games. She has returned to District 12, but life as a victor is not as easy as her old life.

While her family live in comfort in the Victor Village she continues to break through the fence and hunt in the wood. Continues to be confused about her feelings for Gale and Peeta.

And The Capitol still won't leave her alone. Smarting from her act of defiance that caused both her and Peeta to be crowned victors, Katniss is aware that it is only a matter of time before The Capitol exacts her revenge.

During the victory tour of the other victories of the other districts she sees that the Mockingjay symbol has taken on a new meaning and the hint of rebellion is in the air wherever she goes.

But The Capitol has a surprise come the next Reaping and Katniss ends up facing her worst fears again.

The same break neck pace of the first book is still present, the same cliff hanger chapter endings, the same post apocalyptic bleak future. But, this is very much the second book in a trilogy. With the action widening out from the confines of the arena some of the tension is inevitably lost and there is a sense that Collins is setting up the finale.

That said Catching Fire is still highly addictive YA fiction and I read it in a couple of sittings. And she has done a great job of setting up the third book.


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