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P. Matthews (UK)

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Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano
Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano
by Madeline Goold
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Readable story of the early piano, 3 Jan. 2015
This is an interesting and well written book about the early history of the piano, in particular the 'square piano' that was developed and produced in the late Georgian era. The author Madeline Goold acquired a square piano at an auction, had it restored and looked into its history, this book being the result.
Several strands are woven together. First there is the story of the development and commercialisation of the piano, together with the musical scene in England at the time. Then there's the family stories of the Broadwoods, who built the pianos on an industrial scale (over 60,000 of them) and the Langshaws, father and son, organists and music teachers in Lancaster, who acted as an agent for Broadwood in that area. All of this is set in the context of life at that time, when goods had to be transported slowly by canal and cart but increasing enterprise and initiative was leading to the start of the industrial revolution.
The writing style is varied, with factual accounts interspersed with original letters, more speculative passages and even some fictional storytelling indicated by italics.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare ?
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare ?
Price: £4.68

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What Will Shakespeare doubters think?, 27 Oct. 2014
This book divides opinion. I seem to be the first to give it three stars. It is an interesting story and James Shapiro is clearly very knowledgeable about the subject, but it is biased and employs some weak arguments that would not stand up to serious opposition from the Shakespeare doubters. One aim is to try to explain their thinking, which is a rather pointless exercise - it's like the Pope writing a book about why some people don't believe in God.

The book starts badly. In the Prologue, Shapiro gives the impression that he himself discovered that a document from 1805 casting doubt on Shakespeare's authorship was a fake. He does not mention that this fact was found by an amateur, John Rollett, a few years before.

The four main chapters are headed Shakespeare, Bacon, Oxford and (curiously) Shakespeare. In the first, it would have been very helpful to have a concise summary of the undisputed facts of Shakespeare's life. But instead of this we get a chronological list of real and faked discoveries. Worse still, as they are introduced we are not told which are genuine until a few pages later, potentially leaving the reader confused. Shapiro attacks Malone, an early Shakespeare scholar, for starting the suggestion that some of Shakespeare's work may have been partly autobiographical. Curiously he then suggests that these people's arguments are autobiographical!

Chapter 2 is on two people called Bacon - Sir Francis, and Delia, who proposed Sir Francis as a possible Shakespeare alternative. This section is not a hatchet job on Delia Bacon; in fact Shapiro defends her against some of her attackers. Mark Twain is also discussed, but Shapiro makes no mention of the satirical nature of Twain's book "Is Shakespeare Dead?" and so misses one of his main points, namely to make fun of the tone of the debate. The previous issue arises again here - Shapiro says that the Shakespeare doubters are basing things on their own experiences when they say that Shakespeare was writing about his.

The third chapter is on the rise in popularity of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford as a candidate. Shapiro does quite a good job of making this seem implausible, but I doubt that he is presenting the Oxford case in an objective manner. He makes some nasty personal smears against J T Looney, who proposed Oxford as the author.

Finally he returns to Shakespeare, with some interesting detail about how and when his name appeared on the early editions of the plays. But here he indulges in a great deal of speculation - for example that Shakespeare must have been a bookstall-browser. Near the end there's a discussion of the collaborative nature of some of the later plays - both sides spin this to make it look like it supports their side of the argument, when in fact this and other topics raised in this chapter are of little relevance to the authorship question.

The Fry Chronicles
The Fry Chronicles
by Stephen Fry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pompous pretentious pillock or perspicacious philosophical polymath?, 19 May 2014
This review is from: The Fry Chronicles (Paperback)
What to make of Stephen Fry's second autobiography, covering roughly his late teens to late twenties? Let's start with the bad points. There is much luvvie-worship and name-dropping throughout the book. Of course this is to be expected given the nature of his career, but we really do not need to be told umpteen times how marvellous Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie are, or given a long list of all the Radio 4 programmes and voices he likes. There is a lot of detail about exactly how everything works at Cambridge University. Either you didn't go there, in which case you probably don't care, or you did, in which case you know it all already. And if you want to know exactly which plays were put on by all the amateur dramatic societies in Cambridge in 1980, and the names of all the students who took part in them as actors or directors, you will find this section of the book fascinating. There is some rather silly wordplay - is it clever that each section starts with the letter C? My English eduction stopped at age 16 and I can do that stuff too (see title above).

That's enough negativity; now for the plus points. Firstly he shows that he is aware of his weak points, for example, apologising at the start for his wordiness and later saying how awful he must sound. He comes across as very modest in some ways and brutally honest, for example when describing his addictions to first sugar and then tobacco. The ups and downs of his bipolar thing come through (although this is not explicitly discussed), as he goes through periods of euphoria and times of despair and fear of being found out as an impostor. Perhaps the best bits are the general philosophical musings, about education, self-doubt and so-on, with some agonising appeals to the reader. He won't be reading the 246th Amazon review of his book, as he says he doesn't read reviews, but if he were, I would say yes Stephen, I sometimes feel like that too. There are also some amusing bits about the ancient history of the personal computer, and other snippets of nostalgia for those of a similar vintage.

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not his best, and not really what it says on the tin, 24 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
This book is much in the style of others by Ian McEwan. There is an elegant structure to its carefully constructed plot, and some things that may seem to be an irrelevant waste of space in the book turn out to be
One (perhaps unfair) criticism is that the blurb on the cover is misleading. If you are expecting a gripping spy thriller, as implied, you will be disappointed.
Although MI5 provides the setting, the main theme is the familiar McEwan one of personal relationships, and in particular, trust and mistrust in these relationships. Another main theme is story telling and story writing - he employs the Dickensian technique of embedding short stories within the main story. There is some fun in trying to figure out what is really going on and what you are not being told.
One weakness of the book is the main character, who rather than being real, seems to be more of a middle-aged man's fantasy - young, beautiful, always wearing a mini-skirt and wanting to sleep with every man she meets regardless of age or appearance. This problem is only partially alleviated by final few pages.

Ten Billion
Ten Billion
by Stephen Emmott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unscientific illiterate scaremongering, 9 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Ten Billion (Paperback)
This is a ridiculous book.

It is hardly a book at all.

There are numerous blank or almost blank pages, and many pages filled with mostly irrelevant black and white photographs.

Someone genuinely concerned about the environment could have saved a lot of trees.

The writing style is appalling.

With paragraphs consisting of a single phrase such as "And we're not".

Page 41 contains the single sentence "This is where we are right now".

The final piece of advice given on the last page is "Teach my son how to use a gun" (also given a page to itself).

There are several poorly produced, misleading line graphs, designed to promote the hysteria. One claims that 'major floods' have increased by about a factor of ten, which is not true - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says "low confidence at the global scale regarding even the sign of these changes", in their special report on extreme events. This is accompanied by the text "extreme weather events are increasing rapidly", a blatant misrepresentation of the facts, as anyone can check by reading the IPCC reports. Another graph claims that the ocean heat content was negative until about 1980, which is of course physically impossible.

The Guardian, usually keen to promote environmental issues, says of the book
"Stephen Emmott's population book is unscientific and misanthropic ... error-strewn, full of exaggeration and weak on basic science"

As science, the book is worthless; its only value is as an insight into the irrational mind of a hysterical doom-monger.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2016 1:56 PM GMT

Essential Britten: A Pocket Guide for the Britten Centenary
Essential Britten: A Pocket Guide for the Britten Centenary
Price: £6.13

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Britten bio/reference, 5 Sept. 2013
This book sits somewhere between a biography, a catalogue and a miscellany of trivia.
There are sections on his life year by year, what he thought of other people and vice versa, his cars, his pets, and many more. The most substantial section at the end lists all Britten's works, giving comments on each, with a 1-5 star rating, and recommended recordings.
The style of the book is very much a list of facts, and it is refreshingly free of musicological jargon.
A slight weakness of the format is that certain themes come up rather too often, being repeated in the different sections - something that could never be said of Britten's music!

How to Eat Out
How to Eat Out
by Giles Coren
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Rambling restaurant reminiscences, 16 Sept. 2012
This review is from: How to Eat Out (Paperback)
This is a sequence of short chapters about restaurants and various food-related incidents in Giles Coren's life. The style will be familiar to anyone who has read Coren's restaurant reviews in The Times, though the language is less constrained. In fact some sections will be very familiar, since they are more or less copied from the Times reviews. In places the book is very funny, and some sections are quite interesting, such as the description of meals out with his father Alan, or the visit to a knife shop in Japan. There are some litle snippets of advice, but these are pretty obvious- for example, avoid restaurants where a waiter hangs around outside to try to lure you in, or don't order steak since you can easily cook that at home.
The editing of the book is, to use one of Giles's phrases, a bit of an aardvark's lunch. There are far too many brackets (often five or six per page) that disrupt the flow, and in one section a large chunk of text is repeated.
Overall though, it's a fun book to dip into and enjoy and not take at all seriously.

Kilvert's Diary, 1870-1879. An Illustrated Selection
Kilvert's Diary, 1870-1879. An Illustrated Selection
by Francis Kilvert
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Evocative diary of a Victorian clergyman, 3 April 2011
RF Kilvert (1840-1879) was curate at the village of Clyro near Hay on Wye, and later at Langley Burrell near Chippenham. His incomplete diaries provide an interesting record of life at that time. Kilvert wrote some poetry, which was not very successful, but he writes well, and has the skill of conjuring up vivid images and atmospheres with just a few words. Kilvert's life was privileged - a fact that he acknowledges. His leisurely job consists of taking a few services, visiting the poor, having tea with the gentry and taking long country walks.

As with many diaries, it takes a while at first to get acquainted with the large cast of characters, such as the 'Old Soldier' John Morgan, in his 80's, with his stories of the Napoleonic wars, and an eccentric hermit known as 'The Solitary', but one of the diary's strengths is its portrayal of the varied and colourful characters. Another strength is the evocative descriptions of the countryside and minor details of nature such as the frost on the trees or a bumble bee crawling across the communion cloth.

One aspect that is quite shocking is what the introduction naively describes as his 'susceptibility to the beauty of young women and girls'. Remarks about women are a feature of male diarists from Pepys to Alan Clark, but Kilvert's obvious and apparently unashamed fascination with little girls is in places quite disturbing. It is hardly surprising that some of the diary was destroyed by his widow after his death.

This hardback edition (now out of print) includes pictures of various locations that appear in the diary.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 4, 2011 11:53 AM BST

Pattern Formation and Dynamics in Nonequilibrium Systems
Pattern Formation and Dynamics in Nonequilibrium Systems
by Michael Cross
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £58.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Good overview from a physics viewpoint, 29 Sept. 2010
Pattern formation is a fascinating subject with wide-ranging applications, for example sand ripples and animal coat markings. Cross and Greenside have been writing research papers on the subject for thirty years, and so are ideally suited to writing a textbook on it. This book is clearly written and quite easy to read, and is aimed at graduate student level. The subject stretches across maths, physics, chemistry and biology, but the viewpoint of these authors is concentrated on physics, in particular laboratory experiments.

The introductory chapter has many examples of pattern-forming systems. This is followed by an explanation of linear instability, starting with the Swift-Hohenberg model and then progressing to patterns in chemical reactions, using the work of British code-breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing. Nonlinear effects and secondary instabilities of patterns are described next. Here, some students would have difficulties, as several new types of instability are introduced in quick succession. Much of the discussion uses simple model equations, which can be used because they show the same types of behaviour as real physical systems.
Competition between different sorts of two-dimensional patterns (for example stripes and hexagons) is studied, along with various instabilities that lead to, for example, wavy stripy patterns. The remaining chapters cover defects, large-amplitude phenomena, oscillatory patterns, models for neurons, and numerical methods.

Each chapter ends with exercises, some quite straightforward, others more challenging and open-ended. There are no solutions, but the more advanced problems lead the reader through the calculations, giving the main results. There are also several worked examples, called 'Etudes'. A strange feature of the book is the lack of references. In chapter 5, the various model equations are not referenced, and in chapter 12, some advanced numerical techniques are discussed rather briefly, and I feel that students would not be able to understand this material without referring to more detailed texts. The presentation of the text and diagrams in the book is clear and accurate; I found only one typographical error.

Cross and Greenside have done an excellent job of covering most of the important aspects of this huge subject in a single volume. From my perspective as a mathematician, there is a bit too much physics and discussion in the book, and not enough detail of the mathematics. My preference would be for the book "Pattern Formation: An Introduction to Methods" by Rebecca Hoyle, which deals with the mathematics and symmetry aspects of patterns more thoroughly.

by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, intelligent and challenging, 6 May 2010
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
This is an enjoyable and interesting book which represents a change of style for Ian McEwan, being less serious than most of his previous work and more in the style of a comedy, satire or even farce in places. It is sometimes reminiscent of the David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury style - not surprising since McEwan took Bradbury's creative writing course. However, it maintains McEwan's familiar arching plot structure, where a mistake or accident early in the book sets up an inevitable, dreaded confrontation towards the end (as in Atonement, Saturday and Amsterdam).

This book is often misleadingly described as being 'about climate change'. In fact it is about many things: science, corruption of science, infidelity, dishonesty, the power of the media, salt and vinegar crisps.

The science in the book is quite convincing; McEwan has clearly done his homework. The invented science is also reasonably plausible. Shame on those reviewers who complain that there is too much science in the book - they have missed one of its main points. I only found one, trivial, error: the "I" in IPCC stands for Intergovernmental.

The disreputable main character is doubtful about climate change, but happy to cash in on the scare and promote bogus solutions. The book also makes fun of a group of "climate change artists" on a trip to the Arctic. Overall, the tone of the book is quite cynical and challenging to the reader, whatever his/her views are on the subject.

The book does have some weaknesses. It lacks the intensity and emotion of his best work, and the ending is rather weak. Also, there are too many affairs, which become tedious and interrupt the narrative (a weakness he seems to have inherited from Bradbury).

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