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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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Falling Freely, As If In A Dream: (The Story of a Crime 3)
Falling Freely, As If In A Dream: (The Story of a Crime 3)
Price: £9.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Fiction is stranger than fact..., 13 Oct 2014
Lars Martin Johansson, Chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, decides to have a final shot at solving the twenty-year old assassination of then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. Pulling together a small team of his best detectives, he gets them to begin a review of the huge amount of paperwork relating to the investigation, trusting that fresh eyes might spot something previously overlooked. Meantime, Chief Inspector Bäckström, now sidelined to working in the Lost Property division, is determined to find a way to get the reward offered for solving the crime.

This is a rather strange book in that the assassination of Olof Palme is, of course, a real event, which has never been properly solved. Although one man was convicted of the murder, he was later released on appeal. While many still think him guilty, there are about a zillion other theories too - from rogue police officers to Kurdish terrorists - and all, from what Persson suggests, based on the thinnest of evidence or none at all. So from the start it was hard to see exactly where we were going to end up in this book - either Persson would have to stick with the facts, leading to an untidy unresolved ending, or he would have to invent a solution. I thought he might be going to use the opportunity to put forward his own pet theory (I'm guessing every Swede has one) but the book didn't really give me that impression. Instead it read more like a kind of slow thriller and seemed to veer further from reality as it progressed. In fact, I found all the way through that I didn't know which bits were fact and which were fiction, which meant that by the end I couldn't really say I knew more about the real assassination than I did at the beginning (i.e., nothing). I suspect this would work much better for anyone who knows the ins and outs of the crime and investigation before they begin, but for me it all felt too confused and unclear. The more I read, the more unconvinced I became about the merit of using a real, unsolved case in this way, especially such a high profile and recent case.

Putting the concept to one side, then, and looking at the book purely as a crime thriller worked a little better for me. Johansson and his team are well drawn and their interactions have a convincing feel. We get to see them in their off-duty lives too, which makes them feel well rounded. This is a team of professionals who on the whole respect each other and work well together. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Bäckström - obviously supposed to be the comic relief, he is an 'old-fashioned' sexist, racist, drunken, corrupt copper - oh dear! Yes, occasionally he has a funny line, but really he is so stereotyped and one-dimensional as to be completely unbelievable, and I tired very quickly of his foul-mouthed, offensive remarks. Maybe they were funnier in Swedish. The whole strand relating to him made very little sense as far as I could see, and I felt the book would have been better and tighter without him in it.

The fictional investigation sees the detectives discussing many of the 'tracks' followed by the real investigators, plus, I assume, some made up stuff so that Persson could deliver his own version of events. While interesting, there is a good deal of repetition in these sections, not just of information, but often the same phrases being used time and again, all of which contributes to the book being seriously overlong. The translation is fine for the most part, but occasionally becomes clunky and a few times actually leaves the meaning somewhat unclear. Overall, the interest of the original case plus the good characterisation of the main team just about outweighed the annoying Bäckström and my mild irritation at not knowing where the line lay between fact and fiction. I'd guess that Persson fans will enjoy this but, although it works as a standalone, in hindsight perhaps it's not the best of his books to start with. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Price: £6.87

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ten out of ten..., 13 Oct 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Having previously only read Mantel's Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which I loved, I was intrigued to see how her rather slow-burning style in those books would convert to short, contemporary fiction. I'm pleased to say the answer is very well indeed - Mantel shows she is a mistress of this format just as much as the novel. Although the ten stories in this book weren't written specifically as a collection, there is a common theme that runs through them of women somewhat trapped in their lives, usually either by physical circumstances or by social constrictions; and several of the stories feel quite autobiographical in tone, giving the impression that Mantel has perhaps drawn heavily on her own experiences.

I was expecting beautiful writing and I was hoping for some moving, thought-provoking subject matter and the book has both in spades. What came as a surprise to me though was the rather wicked humour that appears in many of the stories - Mantel uses her keen observation of human nature to make us laugh out loud with the characters at some points, and at others traps us with a kind of wry cynicism into laughing at them. She brings an almost conspiratorial edge to some of the stories, where she and the reader know more than the narrator, allowing us to share a deliciously guilty feeling of superiority.

I won't go through all of the stories individually, but here are a couple that particularly stood out for me -

"Harley Street" is a story of a group of women working in a doctors' practice in Harley Street (where the posh people in the UK go to have their hypochondria pampered). Told in the first person by a narrator who thinks she understands people but really misses the big things right under her nose, this humorous story, like many of the others, has a bittersweet edge. The three women are fundamentally alone and lonely and we see the ebb and flow of their attempts to connect with each other. In the end, though, the humour wins out and I found myself chuckling merrily as Mantel and I winked knowingly at each other behind the poor narrator's back.

"How Shall I Know You?" is a brilliantly told story of a once successful author visiting literary societies in obscure places to give talks on her work. The descriptions of the shabby hotels, the aspiring writers thrusting their manuscripts at her, the questions she has answered a hundred times before, are so cringe-makingly funny they must be based on truth! But there is a much darker side to this story and in the end Mantel left this reader at least rather wishing she hadn't found quite so much to laugh at in the narrator's life. A fine example of how a couple of sentences can change the reader's perception.

Not all the stories are as quirky as these. The first one, "Sorry to Disturb", very autobiographical in feel, is a longer story of a woman living as an ex-pat in Jeddah and finding herself having to conform to the very different expectations of women in that society. Another, "The Heart Fails Without Warning", is a dark and rather disturbing story of a young girl watching her anorexic sister starve herself close to the point of death.

The final story is the one of the title, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher", and the only one written specifically for this collection, I believe. It seems to have raised a storm of criticism because of the subject matter and to be honest Mrs Thatcher is too recently dead for me to feel that it's in the best taste (her children are, after all, still alive). However, it's an interesting take on just how hated Mrs Thatcher was by a large minority in her day, and while personally I thought it was one of the weakest in the collection, it is still well-written and very readable.

Overall, as with any collection, some of the stories are stronger than others, and occasionally there's a twist at the end which is just a little too neat. But overall this short book is a great read. The stories are varied enough that almost everyone is bound to find something to their taste, and the quality of the writing and characterisation is so good that it outweighs any weaknesses in the plots. Dare I say it? The perfect Christmas gift...

The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others
Price: £5.99

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes life really is too short..., 11 Oct 2014
This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari incident. I abandoned it at the halfway point - sometimes life really is too short. Fellow Amazon reviewer 'Mister Hobgoblin' has described it as 'Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good' and I think that's a perfect description. And I thought The Lowland was pretty underwhelming...

There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it's often not made clear what period we're in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the '60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in this book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).

But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that's not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover - at the point I abandoned it we still don't know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance - we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist's interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory - at great length.

The quality of the writing is fine - neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there's no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories - well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). In my review of The Goldfinch, I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all - Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be 'densely rendered' (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money's worth. Personally, I'd prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the 'Bengali-ness' that he is apparently trying to portray - I guess therefore it's understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.

The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn't a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I'd have become a Marxist terrorist myself, I think.

I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and I'll say it again - I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while - there has to be something to contrast it with if it's going to have an emotional impact. Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn't care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.

In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn't bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It's been shortlisted for the Booker, of course...

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 25, 2014 3:48 PM BST

The Skeleton Road
The Skeleton Road
Price: £6.65

4.0 out of 5 stars A welcome return to form..., 6 Oct 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Skeleton Road (Kindle Edition)
When a long-dead body is found on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh school, the case is handed to Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Calling on her friend and colleague, forensic anthropologist Dr River Wilde, for help in identifying the body, Karen soon finds that the victim is of Eastern European origin. So begins a case that is as much about the history of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s as it is about a murder investigation.

When Val McDermid is on form she's one of the best of the current crime writers, and I'm pleased to say that she's on form in this one. Personally I'm glad to see her getting away from the Tony Hill series, which in my opinion has gone on too long and has lost its way over the last few books. (In fact, I haven't even been able to bring myself to read the last couple.) And, unlike her last foray into standalone thriller territory with the truly bad The Vanishing Point, this one is a return to her strengths as a police procedural with an intriguing and believable plot. Although much of the action takes place in Oxford and Croatia, Karen Pirie is based in Scotland and I enjoyed seeing McDermid return to her roots (which she also did very successfully recently in her take on Austen's Northanger Abbey.) Karen is a likeable detective - neither drunken nor angst-ridden, she is in a stable supportive relationship with a man she loves, and seems to get on well with her colleagues, all of which is nicely refreshing.

As the investigation advances, Karen contacts an Oxford University professor, Maggie Blake, who was involved in a scheme to bring 'underground universities' to Croatia just before the war began. While there, Maggie had fallen in love with a Croatian army officer, so stayed on once the war began. Karen hopes she will be able to shed some light on the country at that time, and perhaps more specifically on why the Edinburgh victim may have been murdered. The book is told mainly in the third-person past-tense from Karen's viewpoint, but there are sections between the chapters where Maggie tells the story of her time in Croatia and her return to Oxford after the war. There is another strand which links through the book of two detectives from the International War Crimes Tribunal, who are investigating a string of murders of suspected war criminals. Oddly, it's these characters who provide a bit of much-needed humour to lift the book, despite their task - they are an ill-matched couple, fighting to keep their jobs, and their rather bumbling interactions with each other and Karen stop the book from becoming too oppressively dark.

But the main story is very dark indeed, as we are told of some of the atrocities that happened during that period. McDermid has clearly done her research thoroughly and, although obviously the events in the book are mainly fictional, they have a horrific ring of truth about them. While we're mainly seeing the story from the Croatian viewpoint, McDermid briefly gives the Serbian side of the story too and, while she doesn't attempt to justify, she makes sure the reader is aware of how complex the situation was - not quite as black and white as it is sometimes portrayed. Living through this period as I did, I must say I'm much clearer about what went on after reading this book than I ever was at the time.

The book isn't without its flaws, the main one being that there is too small a cast of suspects and it's therefore pretty easy to spot the solution fairly early on. This seems to be becoming a frequent problem in current crime-writing - the authors seem to be so concerned with cramming in a great deal of research sometimes at the expense of creating a complex mystery. However, taking the book as a whole, the quality of the writing and the depth of the story more than compensate for the weaknesses, and overall I found this an absorbing and satisfying read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

A Separate Peace
A Separate Peace
Price: £3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Heart of darkness..., 3 Oct 2014
This review is from: A Separate Peace (Kindle Edition)
The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.

In Gene's memory, Finny is a kind of golden boy, an exceptional athlete and a natural leader who recognises no rules but his own. Gene loves and admires him and is proud to be counted as his closest friend. But in his heart he is also jealous that Finny is always the leader and Gene is merely one of his followers. Finny is the superior athlete and the more imaginative of the two; and the only way Gene can see to outdo him is in the academic side of things. But he knows for certain that Finny will be untouched even if Gene excels in his studies - partly because Finny doesn't much care about classwork but, more importantly, because he is a truer, more honest friend than Gene, and will be pleased, rather than jealous, about his friend's success. And feeling this - that Finny is untouchably superior and the better person - leaves Gene struggling to reconcile his love for Finny with the jealousy and irritation that this intense adolescent friendship brings him. And, more than that, he resents, but is unable to resist, being forced to follow Finny into dangerous activities - effortless to the athletic Finny but terrifying to Gene. And, one day, all of these feelings boil over for just one second - but that second will change both boys for ever...

The boys' knowledge that they will be enlisted into the Army as soon as their schooling finishes is at the heart of the story. The parallels between Gene's moment of madness and the bigger madness of the war are obvious, but handled with a subtlety that prevents the reader from feeling lectured to. These privileged boys don't question that they will go off to fight - their families and school have made sure they understand it is their duty. Knowles shows very well how the need to hide any weakness from their peers means that the boys whip up a kind of self-induced enthusiasm for the war and all things martial, leading in turn to the ascendency of the athletic over the academic. And the microcosm of this enclosed little society mirrors the wider world, goading itself on to ever greater sacrifices in the name of war.

This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand - a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can't even point to on a map.

But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. Gene's first-person narrative is achingly honest in its portrayal of his emotions. Told as a memory from a distance, Knowles manages the difficult task of keeping the adolescent Gene's emotions feeling fresh and immediate, while colouring the whole book with a kind of nostalgic regret. Finny is seen at a remove - adult Gene recounting his memories of younger Gene's feelings about him - and has an almost mythic quality, as if surrounded by a golden aura. It's a beautiful evocation of how nostalgia and grief tend to lead to an idealisation of a person once loved. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Rapesco Stapler - Full Strip, Power-assisted X5-50f
Rapesco Stapler - Full Strip, Power-assisted X5-50f
Price: £15.36

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great..., 30 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Having worked in an office environment for most of my life, I've tried a zillion so-called 'heavy duty' staplers over the years. They have often required special staples, and have always required me to stand up and use my full weight to get them to go through a thick bundle of papers. This Rapesco stapler however goes through the promised 20 sheets like a knife through melted butter.

In fact, I decided to see how many sheets it could actually deal with, using normal weight printer paper. It worked like a dream all the way up to 40, at which point I had to stop, not because the stapler itself was having a problem but because the staples were too short to go through any more thickness. And at 40 sheets, I was still using it one-handed, not resting on a desk-top, with absolutely minimal effort.

The stapler takes standard 26/6 staples, has the usual reversible head so that you can have 'open' stapling as well as 'closed', and has a built-in paper guide so that you can set it to your preferred depth and ensure that all your staples end up in the same place. Loading the staples is dead simple - there's a button on top of the stapler which releases the staple holder, stick them in, shove it closed and you're ready to go.

In terms of packaging, it comes in a small plastic bag in an envopak envelope, so minimal waste. A box of 1000 staples came with it. (NB I got this through the Amazon Vine programme, so I'm assuming the packaging and box of staples will be the same when purchasing, but I can't be totally sure about that.)

All-in-all, this is honestly the easiest stapler I've ever used. I'll report back if I encounter any problems in the longer term, but meantime - highly recommended.

Price: £8.03

4.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing premise..., 30 Sep 2014
This review is from: Soulminder (Kindle Edition)
When Dr Adrian Sommer loses his young son in a vehicle accident, he dedicates his life to finding a way to prevent such unnecessary deaths in the future. In partnership with Dr Jessica Sands, he develops the Soulminder machine which can trap the life force or "soul" at what would normally be the point of death. This enables the soul to be held in a form of limbo while the doctors put the patient's body to rights, and then to be returned to it. At first the machine is seen as a marvellous invention, equivalent to keeping someone on life support. But gradually all sorts of moral questions come to the surface as people and governments begin to abuse the technology. As the head of the organisation, Dr Sommer also becomes its moral conscience, trying to ensure that his invention is used only for good.

Although this is a novel, with an overall story arc, it has something of the feel of a collection of short stories all set within the same society over a period of a couple of decades. There are a few recurring characters, but many others who only appear in one or two chapters. Once the basic premise of the Soulminder society is set up, each chapter takes a look at one or two of the ways the machine can be used or abused. That makes it sound very dry, but the moral questions are embedded into interesting and inventive stories, which keeps it all very readable. The quality of the writing is good and the main characters are likeable. The characterisation is not particularly in-depth - we really only get to know them in terms of their involvement with the Soulminder project, and learn next to nothing about their personal lives. I found this made it difficult to feel any real emotional involvement in what happened to them.

Assuming the reader can accept the premise of a soul being something that could be 'captured', the questions Zahn raises are interesting ones, and on the whole fairly credible. For example, he looks at how rich people might be able to achieve a form of immortality by transferring their souls into the bodies of poor people who can't afford to be in the Soulminder programme. In another chapter he considers how the machine could be used as a method of torture. I felt, though, that he completely underplayed the reaction of humanity in general, and religion in particular, to having absolute proof of the existence of a soul which exists even when separated from the body, hence implying some form of afterlife. I couldn't help but wonder if this discovery might actually have the effect of making people more willing to die rather than less, and I felt the casual acceptance of all the religious people in the book to the trapping of souls was frankly incredible.

Otherwise, though, I found it an intriguing premise - perhaps a bit too full of moral 'messages', at the expense sometimes of a feeling of credibility in the reactions of the characters, but well-written and enjoyable overall.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
by S. C. Gwynne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.62

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.", 30 Sep 2014
I'll start with my usual disclaimer that I can't speak to the accuracy of the history in this book. In fact, my prior knowledge of Stonewall Jackson, and indeed the whole Civil War, could fairly be described as non-existent. But Gwynne has clearly done a huge amount of research and, assuming the accuracy, the only word that I can find to describe the book is superb. In terms of the quality of the descriptive writing, the structure and skilful use of language, and the depth Gwynne brings to the characters of Jackson and his comrades and friends, the book stands not just as an outstanding biography but as a very fine piece of literary writing.

As Jackson and his force of cadets set out to war, Gwynne tells us of his pre-war life as a rather strange and awkward man, deeply religious, suffering from poor health and perhaps a degree of hypochondria. Having overcome his early lack of education to scrape into West Point, he took full advantage of the opportunities on offer there, dragging himself up from the bottom of the class to graduate in a fairly high position. The first signs of his heroism were seen in the Mexican war when his courageous - some might say reckless - actions against a much greater enemy force were crucial to the success of the assault on Mexico City. But after this war, Jackson had taken a position as professor at the Virginia Military Institute, a job for which he seemed remarkably unsuited. Unable to control his unruly classes and an uninspiring teacher, he was seen as something of an oddity by his pupils. Gwynne shows how that all changed as he became one of the Confederacy's finest leaders, with many of these same pupils ending up willing to follow him anywhere and die for him if necessary.

This is very much a biography of Jackson and a history of his military campaigns, rather than a history of the Civil War itself. Therefore Gwynne doesn't go too deeply into the politics of why the war came about, nor does he make any overt judgements about the rights or wrongs of it. Although in the course of the campaigns, we find out a lot about some of the commanders and politicians on the Unionist side, the book is rooted within the Confederacy and the reader sees the war very much from their side. As we follow Jackson through his campaigns, Gwynne, with the assistance of clear and well-placed maps, brings the terrain to life, vividly contrasting the beauty of the country with the brutality and horrors of the battlefields. He gives such clear detail of the strategies and battle-plans, of troop numbers and movements, of weaponry and equipment, that each battle is brought dramatically to life. In fact, my lack of knowledge was something of an unexpected benefit since I genuinely didn't know the outcome of the battles and so was in a constant state of suspense. And found that I very soon had given myself over completely to willing Jackson onto victory. The image of this heroic man mounted on his favourite horse in the midst of mayhem, the light of battle in his eyes, one hand held high as he prayed for God's help while the bullets and artillery thudded all around him, is not one I shall soon forget.

From the beginnings of the creation of the Jackson legend in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, then on through the series of battles where he snatched victory from what should have been certain defeat, till his final stunning achievements as the right-hand man of General Robert E Lee, Gwynne shows the growing admiration and even love of his troops for this man whose total belief in the rightness of his cause and God's protection led him to take extraordinary risks. He drove his men brutally hard, marching them at unheard-of speeds, on half rations or worse, and he threw them into battle even when they were exhausted and weak and hugely outnumbered. But his personal courage and strategic brilliance turned him into a figurehead - a symbol for the South, whose very name could make the Unionist commanders tremble. Cheered and adulated by soldiers and citizenry everywhere he went, he consistently insisted that all praise for his victories was God's due, not his, and remained awkward in the face of his growing celebrity to the end.

But amidst all the warfare, Gwynne doesn't forget to tell us about the man. We see the other side of Jackson - the family man, grieving for the death of his first young wife and then finding happiness with his second, Anna. Through extracts from his letters, we see the softer, loving side of Jackson and also learn more about his deeply held conviction of God's presence in every aspect of his life. We learn how the war divided him from his much loved sister who took the Unionist side. And we're told of the efforts he made to nurture religion amongst his troops. A silent and somewhat socially awkward man to outward appearance, we see how he opened up to the people closest to him, taking special pleasure in the company of young children. A man of contradictions, truly, who could hurl his men to their almost certain deaths one day and weep for the death of a friend's child the next.

A biography that balances the history and the personal perfectly, what really made this book stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne's brilliant use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson's own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. As Gwynne recounted the final scenes of Jackson's death and funereal journey, I freely admit I wept along with the crowds of people who lined the streets in wait for a last chance to see their great hero. And I wondered with them whether the outcome might have been different had Jackson lived. If only all history were written like this...

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Dragon Naturally Speaking Premium 13.0 (PC)
Dragon Naturally Speaking Premium 13.0 (PC)
Price: £84.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Percentages are funny things..., 26 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am dictating this review using the Dragon NaturallySpeaking program. It is my intention not to correct any of the errors that it makes, so that you can see and judge its accuracy for yourself. I have an educated Scottish accent, which I would suggest is fairly clear.

The program comes complete with a disc and a set of headphones. I am using the program on our(1) new laptop bought within the last two months and running Windows 8.1 and I am typing in Word. On inserting the disc the program to(2) over an hour to upload. It then took me to do(3) tutorial section, but almost immediately started giving me messages saying that it didn't recognise words that I was seeing(4). Unfortunately it didn't give any alternative ways to get past those blockages - by typing words et cetera. Eventually I was left with no alternative but to crash out of the Tory(5), and therefore have had to try to learn to use the program without any assistance from it.

The programme(6) hangs on a regular basis, and slows down almost every other piece of software that it's used with. It requires the downloading of add-ins which then make each program affected much slower to open. Regularly I find I have to crash out of Dragon NaturallySpeaking because it becomes impossible to get out of the loop that it's got itself into. And generally speaking that then leaves me unable to reopen it and till(7) I restart the whole computer.

But let's talk about the most important thing - accuracy. You should already be able to see from some of the garbled bits of this review that while it gets a lot of things right it also gets a lot of things wrong. Prior to doing the review I have spent some 10 hours dictating to the program and then allowing it to go through its process of updating my profile. Just before I sat down to do this, I dictated 571 words of a passage to the program and then counted the number of errors, which came to a massive 34. And that doesn't include place names, people(8) names or the fact that it constantly uses numerals when I would like to use words and gives me no chance to correct that. I'm not worlds(9) best mathematician but that comes to an accuracy rate of just over 94%. Percentages however are funny things - 94% sounds quite good, until you realise that you still have to go back and correct 34 mistakes. And when you then discover that the program rarely accepts the command words that will allow you to go back and correct mistakes, then you have no option but to start typing. And believe me it's actually quicker to type a thing from scratch, run(10) it is to back an proofreader(11) and correct errors. Also I'm entirely unconvinced that when you correct errors by typing, that the program (12) from the mistakes. There also seems to be and(13) major problem in that the program seems to have no built in grammatical context. Therefore it seems to be entirely random whether it will choose the word the year, the year or the year(14) (although course(15) it might use the word year in state(16) which is just so much better really isn't it?)

I look at all these other reviews full of praise for this program and can only wonder. Perhaps it's incompatible with Windows 8.1. I don't know. I can only see(17) that after devoting hours of time (18) training this program, the chances are that I will never use it again after this review. It is slow, buggy, and makes far too many errors. Had I paid for it I would be furious, and demanding a refund. Having got it for free, I still can see(19) best pleased given the amount of time that I've devoted to trying to make it work. I will now most probably be uninstalling it from my system and hoping that it takes its box(20) with it.

End of dictation microphone off(21)

(1) 'our' should be 'a'
(2) 'to' should be 'took'
(3) 'do' should be 'the'
(4) 'seeing' should be 'saying' - I have tried to 'train' it on that one several times - still gets it wrong every time...
(5) 'Tory' should be 'tutorial'!
(6) 'programme' should be 'program' - as it was the last time I said it half a dozen words ago...
(7) 'and till' should be 'until'
(8) 'people' should be 'people's'
(9) 'worlds' should be 'the world's'
(10) 'run' should be 'than'
(11) 'back an proofreader' should be 'go back and proofread it'
(12) Missing word - should be 'learns'
(13) 'and' should be 'a'
(14) 'the year, the year or the year' should be 'there, their or they're'!
(15) 'course' should be 'of course'
(16) 'in state' should be 'instead'
(17) 'see' should be 'say'
(18) Missing word - should be 'to'
(19) 'can see' should be 'can't say I'm'
(20) 'box' should be 'bugs' - lovely little bit of irony there to finish with
(21) 'microphone off' is of course a command to the program. It clearly 'hears' me correctly since it types the words, but it only recognises it as a command about one in every three attempts.

I'm going to give it two stars, which is pretty generous, I feel, because if you were just using it for dictation of very simple documents with no place names etc., and if you happen to speak with a BBC accent from the 1950s, then I'm sure it might work well. Maybe. But typing skills remain a must for correcting errors, and its inability to recognise commands consistently means I can't imagine using it for navigating the net, etc.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 2, 2014 9:16 PM GMT

Vax 15-in-1 Steam Fresh Combi Steam Cleaner S86-SF-C, 0.5 Litre, White/ Grey
Vax 15-in-1 Steam Fresh Combi Steam Cleaner S86-SF-C, 0.5 Litre, White/ Grey
Price: £69.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great for floors, not quite so good for the handheld tools..., 23 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Packaging - Starting from the beginning, the machine comes very well packaged with all the packaging consisting of cardboard or papier mâché, with the exception of a couple of small plastic bags. So full marks from an environmental point of view.

Assembly – The assembly was very easy. The machine arrives in three parts that basically just click together, without any particular strength or skill being required. There are holes on the back of the machine, supposedly to fit the tools into, but not only was I unable to work out how to get all six tools in (since some of the larger tools block the holes for some of the smaller ones), but it turns out that the holes are on the main machine rather than on the removable hand machine with which they are designed to be used. So all in all the tool holes seem like an unnecessary gimmick and it actually makes more sense to keep the tools in the fabric accessory bag which also is provided.

Instructions - The instructions are very simple, although for reasons known only to the manufacturer, they are printed in very pale grey and in a tiny font, making them exceptionally difficult to read.

The water tank – The water tank is small, but contrary to what it says in some of the other reviews it does in fact have a visible fill line allowing you to know how much water to put in it without the need to measure precisely. And although the tank is small it certainly contains enough water to clean both my kitchen and bathroom floors with enough left over to use the handheld device for a while.

Floor-cleaning - All filled, attach one of the two provided floor-cloths, switch on...and it really is ready to go within seconds! And it made short work of my pretty grubby kitchen floor. Got rid of the muddy pawprints at the backdoor easily, and dealt with the congealed splodges of food left on the floor by my ever-helpful cats with only a few passes and a little extra steam. (I really didn't need to use the built-in scrubber head, but I did just to try it out, and it worked great. And it's so easy to detach it from the main head when it's needed and to reattach it after – hardly breaks the cleaning flow at all.) The triangular head really does allow it to get into corners and it does a great job of edges too. It does take a little bit of effort to shove it along, but it cleans the floor so quickly that the effort doesn't need to be sustained for long. It leaves the floor damp rather than wet (and this despite the fact that I ignored the fiddly rule about giving it bursts of steam rather than holding the trigger continuously). The floor dries within about 15 minutes or so. The cleaner itself stands upright when not in use as you would expect, and is very slim and compact, so takes up very little space in the kitchen.

Detergent – The first time I used the machine I used the detergent. But the second time I just used steam and really didn’t notice any difference. I suspect the detergent feature may just be a gimmick – but perhaps it would be useful in areas that get particularly grubby. Personally I doubt that I’d bother to use it in future.

Carpets – Attaching the carpet guard is again very easy. Pushing the machine over a short-pile carpet does take a bit of effort and I’m not totally convinced that it does much in the way of refreshing the carpet. I did half a rug and waited for it to dry (not that it was anything more than a little damp immediately after steaming) but really couldn’t see any difference between the steamed and unsteamed halves. However, perhaps it keeps the carpet smelling fresher – can’t say that I noticed though. (In fact, I noticed Tommy the cat sniffing the steamed half later in the day, suggesting the steamer may actually have left a smell…)

Handheld device - I wasn’t quite as impressed with the detachable handheld device as with the floor cleaner. I really found it didn’t provide enough steam to make a particularly good job of getting into the nooks and crannies around taps etc. Also I found it quite awkward to use because, not unsurprisingly, it requires to be held in one hand. The other hand is used to direct the jet of steam. This means that it’s not possible to use a cloth at the same time to catch any dislodged grime. I think it’s unlikely that I would use this device on a regular basis.

Conclusion - So when it comes to rating the machine, it gets full marks for floor cleaning from me but probably only 3 to 4 stars for the handheld device and carpet attachments. I was lucky enough to be given this to try as part of the Amazon Vine programme but, to be honest, if I was purchasing one, I would probably get one without the removable handheld bit. I don’t think it adds enough benefit to justify the additional cost. But I’m still going to give the machine five stars overall since it makes such a good job of the floors, and that’s what I would primarily be using it for.

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