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The Rats
The Rats
by James Herbert
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Herbert's debut, to be sure, but still gripping, 24 Jun 2014
This review is from: The Rats (Paperback)
Though I had read one or two of Herbert's other books, and thoroughly enjoyed them - particularly 'The Ghosts of Sleath' - until I spotted this 'special 40th anniversary edition' in my public library I had not been particularly aware of Herbert's first foray into horror. The thing to note about this edition is that, apart from an attractive, glossy cover and a foreword from Neil Gaiman, it probably does not significantly differ from New English Library's first issue of the book in 1974, if at all. I suppose Gaiman's foreword was intended as something of a farewell to his friend - who sadly passed away in 2013.

As Gaiman notes, it is interesting how much of Herbert's formative years in London's East End seem to infuse his debut - perhaps much more so than his later works. I was intrigued by the character of Mary Kelly, who surely must be based on the final canonical victim of Jack the Ripper - the mysterious Mary Jane Kelly. As with that luckless harlot, the character in the book hails from Ireland, becomes destitute and drunken and herself falls victim to a vicious predator - the only difference being that her slayer is a rat.

Although the main characters of Harris and his girlfriend are nondescript and the essence of the plot a tad thin, even at this early stage, Herbert had the ability to draw his readers quickly into a story and hold them. The descriptions of the rats are genuinely unsettling - and perhaps not wholly implausible.

I look forward to reading the next two books in the rats sequence - 'Lair' and 'Domain'.


Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
by Nelson Mandela
Edition: Paperback
Price: 13.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and graceful . . . an extraordinary story, 14 Jun 2014
The only regrets I have about reading this weighty tome is that it took Mandela's death in order for me to do so and that I will never get to meet the man himself. Otherwise, it is a unique human document by a unique human being that should be compulsory reading for everyone. One hears that said often about books but, quite apart from the depiction of the malign and mean-spirited racialist system that Mandela so courageously and steadfastly resisted and about which all educated people should know, the book is just full of good things.

I came to admire his courage and his generally assertive manner; his perseverance when subsisting for days on only a mouthful of food or wearing the same suit every day for five years. I was deeply moved by his description of the death of his son in a car crash in 1969 and incensed by the mean-spirited refusal of the authorities to allow him to attend his son's funeral. And of course, above all I was in awe at not just the way in which he endured 27 years of incarceration, but the way in which in sought reconciliation rather than revenge following his release. How many of us would even be capable of contemplating reconciliation with an enemy like the Nationalists, let alone advocating and embracing it?

But I also hugely enjoyed Mandela's other reflections - from calisthenics and boxing to gardening and literature, even a debate with his comrades in prison as to whether there are tigers in Africa. Such things afforded him some measure of solace whilst on Robben Island and no doubt contributed to the poise and self-discipline that he would embody as a statesman.

Unfortunately, the book ends upon his election as president of South Africa, and a further volume - though planned - did not get written. It has been observed by some that Mandela does not say a great deal about events in South Africa while he was imprisoned, though he does mention the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Whilst the memoir is limpidly and honestly written, I do intend on reading Anthony Sampson's biography in order to perhaps get a more detailed picture on this aspect and on the question of the activities of the armed wing of the ANC. However, as to those yahoos who claim that Mandela was a terrorist, in my opinion he refuted this nonsense himself when he argued with some American journalists who came to lecture him in prison. For Mandela, the struggle against this most cruel and illogical of regimes and the liberation of his people from it was utterly paramount, and one could not vacillate as to the methods one adopted and the allies one courted to achieve that. Let us not forget, either, that Mandela paid a heavy price for his single-minded commitment: losing any semblance of a family life. It is something that plays on his mind throughout the book.

This is a book that will always stay with me. It is about an extraordinary man who lived through extraordinary times and who eventually triumphed over one of the worst examples of human stupidity and wickedness. Read it. You will be a better human being after having done so. I know I am.


A Thorn in Their Side: Hilda Murrell Threatened Britain's Nuclear State. She Was Brutally Murdered. This is the True Story of Her Shocking Death.
A Thorn in Their Side: Hilda Murrell Threatened Britain's Nuclear State. She Was Brutally Murdered. This is the True Story of Her Shocking Death.
by Robert Green
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and well-written, but decidedly puzzling, too, 11 Sep 2013
I sought this book out after reading Robert Green's piece in the Mail on Sunday, and the book does not disappoint. Gripping throughout and well-written, Mr Green has clearly done his homework on the case - and it is to his credit that he has seemingly exhausted every avenue.

The nature of Ms Murrell's death is indeed bizarre, and it is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that many aspects of the case - from the inept police investigation, Tam Dalyell's inside source and Ms Murrell's disturbing telephone call to Laurens Otter on the day of her abduction (though not necessarily the day of her death) - point to suspicious activity. The experiences of Con Purser, the Burys and Judith Cook, moreover, seem to me to demand that this case is looked at afresh.

It might not be the case that Ms Murrell was murdered by the British security services, but, in light of the obfuscation of officialdom in the Hillsborough tragedy only a few years later, I do not think it unreasonable that a wholly independent inquiry should revisit this cruel murder of a dedicated and talented lady. Britain would be a better place if more of our citizens were as alert and informed as Hilda Murrell. If the experiences of the aforementioned people and of Mr Green did indeed occur as they say they did - and we have no reason to believe that they did not, given that they are educated and upstanding citizens - then it is only right that those such as Michael Mansfield QC and Austin Mitchell MP are campaigning vocally for a reinvestigation.

However, it appears that not many other reviewers here have highlighted the fact that Mr Green's case is not necessarily watertight. It was never really touched upon in the book with what information, if anything, Ms Murrell was capable of damaging the British government and the nuclear industry. True, Dalyell contacted Heseltine two days before the abduction with penetrating questions regarding Belgrano, and Don Arnott later suffered a 'mysterious' heart attack, but these facts are still only relatively circumstantial. Furthermore, was there any phone record of Ms Murrell's call to Mr Otter, or indeed of her contact with the 'Inspector Davies' that she mentions? Was this not looked into? And surely it would be possible to get to the bottom of the mail tampering and interference? Somewhere along the line, someone must be tampering with mail and I shouldn't think it would be too difficult to identify the culprit.

As for Andrew George - well, the plain fact is that his handprint was found in the house and, much more incriminating, the aspermic seminal fluid on Ms Murrell's slip was identified as being his. How else are we to account for this being there than that George engaged in some sort of sexual activity over an injured and prone Ms Murrell? I think that Mr Green says that the semen was planted, but I'm a tad sceptical of this myself. Let's not forget that DNA was in its infancy in 1984, so would the 'abduction team' have known to, and indeed seen any merit in, extracting semen from George? Perhaps. I do not think it is mentioned either as to Andrew George's precise whereabouts between 21st and 24th March. Were the staff at Besford House asked about this? As for George not being able to drive, well, the abandoned situation of Ms Murrell's Renault might be indicative of the fact that someone who could not drive nevertheless attempted to do so, but did not, unsurprisingly, get very far before farcically crashing into a verge.

So perhaps the evidence against Mr George is not entirely found wanting. If he truly wants to be acquitted, then he needs to reveal more about the murder and also hire a defence lawyer that will ask more pressing questions than the one at his trial did. As evidenced by his photograph aged 16, George also had a naturally muscular physique and so, though he was shorter than Ms Murrell, would probably not have had much trouble overpowering a 78-year-old woman.

But then we must acknowledge the numerous witness statements regarding strange activity around Ms Murrell's residence, Ravenscroft, both before her abduction and murder and indeed between the time she was missing and eventually. Who, for example, was in the vehicle seen pulling out of her driveway at around midnight on the day of her disappearance? Surely, for heaven's sake, the police spoke to the people that Mr Green states saw various oddballs hanging around and so forth? Then again, maybe not.

It should be plain from what I have written that I have reservations about both the police line and indeed with some of what Mr Green says. But whatever the truth about the murder of Ms Murrell is, it is clear that, at the very least, the more disturbing questions surrounding it ought to be re-examined if there is ever to be any kind of closure.


In Concert
In Concert

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth it just for 'Is there anybody here'. A true classic, 27 Feb 2013
This review is from: In Concert (Audio CD)
I have only recently discovered the music of Phil Ochs, and this album is probably the best introduction to his music that I could have hoped for, such is the quality of the songwriting and singing. Upon hearing 'Is there anybody here' - in my opinion probably the greatest anti-war song ever written - I was blown away. And then, as with my all-time favourite songwriter, Newcastle's imperishable Alan Hull (equally ridiculously underrated like Ochs, it would seem, and unknown to many), Ochs moves away from his trenchant (though often hilarious) attacks on imperialism and the hypocrisies of the political right, to more beautiful and reflective numbers like 'When I'm gone' and the heartrending 'Changes'. Ochs was clearly a very gifted and clever songwriter, and it is to be lamented not only that he was unable to bear the burden of his genius and the topsy-turvy times in which he lived, but that there is nobody of his calibre writing today. His music is a joy and I unreservedly recommend it.


Dreams of a Life [DVD]
Dreams of a Life [DVD]
Dvd ~ Zawe Ashton
Price: 9.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Somewhere out there, in the great big void, the story is destroyed before it's connected, 8 Dec 2012
This review is from: Dreams of a Life [DVD] (DVD)
The above line comes from a hauntingly beautiful song by, in my opinion, Newcastle's most imperishable songwriter, Alan Hull of Lindisfarne. Most people only know him, if they know him at all, for 'Fog on the Tyne', but, as anyone who listens to his solo work will realize, he was so much more than that. And the strange and desperately sad story of Joyce Vincent puts me in mind of that said song of Hull's,'Somewhere Out There', about the mystery that is human existence with all its vagaries.

That's how I felt about Joyce Vincent's life: that her story was destroyed before it could be connected. I feel deeply sad and sorry for her that this didn't prove possible. Carol Morley deserves plaudits for her dogged efforts to unearth what information she could about Joyce's life, and also for highlighting how the social fabric of this country grows ever weaker. And yes, most of Joyce's friends and acquaintances come across as slightly self-absorbed in this film, and it could be argued that they should have made more of an effort to see how things were going in her life. Most seem to be products of the glitzy (yet wholly vacant) decade of Thatcher, which did so much to contribute to the atomization of British society.

Having said that, Joyce seemed to me to be a woman who could never establish roots or stability, and so consequently she led a pretty rootless, drifting existence. Whether this was because her father wasn't a big presence in her life we can only speculate, but I felt that she was actually quite a complex woman who was searching for something that she could never quite find, and that's a very sad reality of life. She was beautiful and intelligent, but what her life and this film show is that these things do not guarantee a fairytale ending. She clearly could never overcome her inner demons and those who knew and loved her couldn't help her to either. I don't think it's too much to conclude that Joyce Vincent died from natural causes. After all, she suffered from asthma, but did not, says an old boyfriend, take her medication as she should have - a potentially fatal mistake when it comes to this condition. The real tragedy, however, is the fact that someone's body can lie there decomposing for over two years, unnoticed, in a country like Britain.

This leads me on to some of the questions that the film failed to answer. Namely, how could someone lie dead and decomposing for such a length of time without the authorities not thinking something was amiss? Do the authorities usually wait until three years have elapsed before badgering someone for rent arrears and so forth? Even if Miss Vincent's bills were being deducted via Direct Debit, it still seems strange that not even one utility firm did not suspect something was up. Lynne Featherstone, Joyce's constituency MP, did apparently tackled the utility companies about the issue, only to be politely ignored. If an MP can be blithely ignored and fobbed off in such a fashion, then I'm not sure what this says about the influence of our estimable electoral representatives.

Overall, this film was generally well put together, and the affecting story of Joyce Vincent will stay in my mind for a long time to come.


Mortality
Mortality
by Christopher Hitchens
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Farewell, Hitch. A limpid and moving meditation on death, 25 Nov 2012
This review is from: Mortality (Hardcover)
In this slim and very moving meditation on living with the Emperor of all Maladies, Hitchens displays a similar courage and forbearance to that shown by Primo Levi as he stood in line during the "selection" process in Auschwitz. The Hitch was able to look death solemnly in the face and did not shy away from the implications of the cancer that had invaded his body.

Hitchens also dispels a number of silly cliches and canards concerning the disease, such as the notion that one is in 'battle' with cancer. Well, not quite. Rather, cancer is battling you, and your only real hope of conquering this bugger of a disease lies with science, and not, as Hitchens amusingly points out, with the pitiful hopes of petitionary prayer. How hopelessly inane are the burblings of the Christian who claims that Hitchens's cancer is God's vengeance. The said Christian clearly didn't think his discursive nonsense through before he wrote it, because Hitchens deftly and wryly skewers it by exposing the gaping holes in its logic. No, what Christopher was suffering from was nothing more than the type of malady that a man of his age and his lifestyle could expect to get, and it is gratifying in the way in which he shows how we mammals are all vulnerable to such afflictions. It is also gratifying to know that cutting-edge cancer treatments, like the types being advanced by Francis Collins, are on the horizon. Except that our religious friends are seemingly also intent on derailing these, too. The more one reflects upon organized religion and its precepts, the clearer it becomes that it is a fatuous hodgepodge of nonsense which must be opposed.

This memoir both demystifies cancer in its banal reality, and also moves us as we learn how that banal alien can still mercilessly destroy both hopes and loves. But, as Hitch pointed out, the party cannot go on forever. All the more reason to cherish that stroll with your spouse as dusk settles on Manhattan, and to recognise that such things will never be again.

It deeply saddens me to think I will never see another appearance by the Hitch on TV. I wish it were not so. But I will remember why he remains important and will also remember his courageous refusal to countenance false consolation - because, as Levi so memorably put it: "One does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing".


Jack the Ripper: CSI: Whitechapel
Jack the Ripper: CSI: Whitechapel
by John G. Bennett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.59

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A gorgeous and welcome addition to 'Ripperology', but also in need of proofreading, 25 Nov 2012
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It's the spelling errors and so forth that prevent me from awarding this very nicely-produced book five stars. There aren't a great many of them, but it is irritating when they do crop up, as the book, with its impressive CGI artwork, is otherwise a very welcome addition to the field.

The excellent CGI artwork almost transports the reader back to those dark and misty streets of gaslight, privation and vice. One really gets a sense of what it must have been like and also how such conditions were conducive to Jack's crazed killing spree.

This book would serve as a good general account of the Whitechapel murders for those new to them, and I thought the authors were right to highlight the attack on Annie Millwood - in my opinion quite possibly a precursor to the savagery that would unfold from August onwards that same year. There aren't many who point to this attack as evidence of Jack's first tentative foray into serial murder, but, as with the suggestion that magistrates' court records ought to be examined in an effort to discover Jack's formative offences (such as arson and cruelty to animals), I think that Millwood's assailant was quite possibly Jack the Ripper. Having said that, the Whitechapel killings is obviously not a clear-cut affair. For example, was it the case that, whilst Jack the Ripper was killing prostitutes, another future serial killer, Severin Klosowski (aka George Chapman), was residing at nearby Cable Street? Well, it does seem a little hard to believe that two sadistic killers were present in such a small locale (leading some to think that Chapman probably *was* the Ripper), but then we must also acknowledge that the Thames Torso murders were happening around the same time, and were probably unconnected to the Ripper's crimes. Thus, we should be wary about making confident assertions about the case.

So this book is, as I said, a welcome and novel addition to the field. Its CSI approach to the killings, the historical tidbits concerning pubs and the typography of the area, all serve to bring the reader closer to the crimes and to the period in general. It's just a pity that the work is slightly marred by the lack of proofreading.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 27, 2013 5:51 PM BST


The Complete History of Jack the Ripper
The Complete History of Jack the Ripper
by Philip Sugden
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping, reasoned disquisition of the Whitechapel murders, 9 Nov 2012
It has been said that the consensus amongst 'Ripperologists' is that Sugden's examination of the series of murders that plagued the East End of London in 1888 is that it is the best amongst the great many books on the subject. I tend to concur with this.

Rather than promoting a favourite suspect of his own, Sugden proposes to look at the facts of the case afresh and proceed from there. Many silly myths about the murders are dispelled, and one occasionally gets the sense while reading it that we are catching fleeting glimpses of the monster.

It is indeed perplexing how this man (whose name, as the noted Ripperologist Richard Whittington-Egan once opined, nobody would in all likelihood recognise were it to be announced) was able to evade capture, considering the densely-populated area in which he operated and the short amount of time he sometimes had in which to dispose of his victim and mutilate them. Personally, I think he was just very lucky, and indeed was probably nearly rumbled by Louis Diemshutz while he was slashing away at Liz Stride. The warren of secluded byways and courts in which he and his victims roamed also doubtless worked to his advantage.

The savagery of these murders also strikes the reader, particularly the grotesque slaying of Mary Jane Kelly. What the almost demonic ferocity which he displayed in Miller's Court says about the murderer, Sugden does not really say, beyond stating that 'the roots of such behaviour are complicated'. Admittedly, he does share with us FBI man John Douglas's psychological profile of him. Sugden also piques the reader's interest by noting that a search of magistrates' court records during the Ripper's formative years might also prove fruitful. Indeed it might, both with respect to his identity and also to see whether it backs up the Behavioural Science Unit's view that the Ripper was probably indulging in arson and the torture of animals during these years. This avenue of research really ought to be looked into.

And what of Sugden's suspect, the sadistic Pole, Severin Klosowski, aka George Chapman? Well, there is no definitive piece of evidence that shows that the triple poisoner was wielding a blade against prostitutes during his early twenties, but there is some rather strong circumstantial evidence against him. He resided in Cable Street at the time of the murders, had a degree of surgical knowledge (as did the killer), was somewhat nocturnal, and also bore quite a resemblance to the descriptions of the murderer offered by certain witnesses. Indeed, I was struck by the likeness between a contemporary illustration of George Hutchinson's witness sighting and a photograph of Klosowski with Bessie Taylor. And how likely is it that two serial killers were operating pratically next door to one another during these years? True, there were the torsos in the Thames, but note that I am highlighting the probability of two sadistic psychopaths operating within such close proximity to one another and around the same time. I struggle to believe that Klosowski hadn't killed others prior to his embarking on the murder of his three spouses which, as with the Whitechapel killings, were equally baffling and motiveless. Moreover, what objections there are to Klosowski as a suspect seem to me to be fairly minor ones.

Nevertheless, at this juncture, it is unlikely that we will now succeed in uncovering any conclusive evidence against anyone for these abhorrent crimes.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 11, 2013 9:34 PM BST


Men's Health Big Book of Food & Nutrition
Men's Health Big Book of Food & Nutrition
by Mike Zimmerman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.59

4.0 out of 5 stars The book on nutrition I've been searching for - informative and attractively produced, 9 May 2012
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I've ultimately given the book 4 stars because, as Remmy says, a considerable portion of the book is taken up with pictures and descriptions of the benefits of various foods; and that section may seem a little thin. At the same time, it's a useful reference section about many different foods and there are also many other good tips - so this is a minor criticism.

However, this is the authoritative book on nutrition that I have been searching out for some time now. Weber shows what your eating routine ought to be in order to stay lean and all of this is backed by distinguished sources and distinguised nutritionists, etc. There are no Gillian McKeiths here. It seems that much information out there concerning food and diet is extremely contradictory, and the average person struggles to judge what the true state of play is. To underscore this point, I Weber says that, once and for all, eggs are not bad for you. Then, a couple of days later, I read some nutritionist saying that eating so many eggs will increase your risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Nevertheless, I place a lot more store in this book's information and advice than many other sources of nutritional advice.


Flight of Peter Fromm: A Novel
Flight of Peter Fromm: A Novel
by Martin Gardner
Edition: Paperback
Price: 19.40

5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful novel, 28 Dec 2011
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It turns out that the late Martin Gardner, a polymath who could discourse on subjects as wide as math, science, literature, philosophy and skepticism, was also a rather good writer of fiction, too. It is a pity, therefore, that he didn't write more fiction, since this autobiographical account of a young man's journey as he wrestles with questions of religion and God's existence is a fluid, touching and often humourous book.

Gardner here propounds and defends the religious or philosophical doctrine known as 'philosophical theism', which holds that belief in a benevolent deity ultimately rests on faith and nothing more - something that the hero of the book, as he gradually grows disillusioned with organized religion and discovers Miguel de Unamuno, etc. ultimately realizes.

Although an atheist myself, and therefore someone incapable of making that 'leap of faith' across to philosophical theism, I synpathise with Gardner's stance. If I could bring myself to believe in a benevolent God, then it would be within the tradition of philosophical theism. Moreover, I have always felt that it is a position that has not been addressed by the advocates of the new atheism. Gardner shows that, if one can make the leap in one's heart, then having a belief in, and a yearning for, an all-loving, all-merciful God, is both tenable and acceptable.


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