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Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia)
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On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Nice idea but too pompous, 29 Jan 2009
This review is from: On Chesil Beach (Paperback)
As good a writer as Ian McEwan undoubtedly is, for me his works can never seem to shake off that air of middle-class smugness that pervades so many English novels. Even here, in his latest Booker-nominated attempt at satirising the suffocating climate of sexually repression that existed in early sixties provincial England, you get a feeling of being simultaneously lectured on the beauty of Oxford and the superiority of its academic milieu. This is paradoxical because, for all their lofty education, the two protagonists turn out to be pretty dim. The story itself is very simple: a virginal couple get married but live in suppressed fear of their wedding night. What kind of denouement will result from their inexperience? In about three hours of reading you can find out. Not a bad idea but too pompous.


Americana (Penguin Modern Classics)
Americana (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Don DeLillo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Both historically interesting and dated, 29 Jan 2009
The American Dream has always meant different things to different people but between the late 1950s and late 1970s there was a general consensus of healthy disillusionment with the nature and value of success and prosperity. Don DeLillo's impressive first novel Americana is one of many (as well as plays and films) of that era that reflected that disillusionment.
Egotistical TV executive David Bell feels trapped in a world of turgid mediocrity, of endless meetings and uninspired projects. So what does he do? He does what all bored Americans did back then; he goes on a road trip across the country. He takes with him a 16 mm camera and begins filming the sordid underbelly of small town America in an attempt to try and understand the soul of a country that he has already decided is lost. Beautifully written if a little verbose at times it manages at the same time to be both interesting from a historical perspective and to feel dated.


STRIKE THE FATHER DEAD.
STRIKE THE FATHER DEAD.
by John. Wain
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scandal, race and the generation gap in Wartime and Post-war England, 29 Jan 2009
It is a real shame that a work and author of this quality should have fallen from view in recent years and it raises the question of why some novels and not others are considered dated. It certainly seems that many books written during or about the 1950s suffer particularly from this perception. One of the problems is that the central issue of this book is scandal and disgrace whereas the nature of scandal took on a more urgent meaning after the Profumo affair in 1963 and made this seem quite tame. In fact, the main events in John Wain's rather sardonic work take place during the War years though that particular event plays little or no part in the story. Jeremy Coleman quits public school at 17 and runs away to London to escape the suffocating `decency' of suburban England, and his anachronistic university don father and maiden aunt. Driven by an obsession with jazz, he avoids the call-up and slips into the nightclub world of wartime London, playing the piano and picking up with Tim, a dodgy chancer, and Percy, a black American saxophonist who is to become his inspiration and closest friend. Success as a jazz combo sends them to Paris and to the American community there but things take a down turn and they themselves eventually fall victim to changing times.
This novel reveals that the much-vaunted generation gap, supposedly fomenting during the 1950s, and which exploded in the 1960s, had begun much earlier. The story is told from three different viewpoints: from Jeremy's, from his father's, and from his aunts and it is apparent from the start there is almost no common ground between the generations. However, the futile exchanges between father and son change from exasperating to moving as tragedy finally forces both to at least try to understand the other. Strike the Father Dead contains much indignation about injustice and prejudice and especially about the individual's right to pursue his or her life in the way he or she wants without obligations, but there is little real anger. Maybe that also has the effect of dating the work. If you can get hold of a copy, it is well worth the read though it is most likely to appeal to readers from England with an interest in post-war social trends and attitudes.


Last Orders
Last Orders
by Graham Swift
Edition: Paperback

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Booker winner? Leave it out, knock it on the `ead..., 4 Jan 2009
This review is from: Last Orders (Paperback)
This is Faulkner's As I Lay Dying relocated to estuary England, right down to the different viewpoints, brief chapters, attempts at dark humour and tedious dialect. In this case that is a grating sub-Guy Ritchie geezer-speak - and I'm a fifth generation Londoner. As the four men closest to deceased Bermondsey butcher Jack Dodds transport his ashes to scatter off the Kent coast as he requested, messy relationships are unravelled (as in Faulkner) including the reason why his wife Amy declined to go with them.
The problem with writing in the patois of the working-class is that it can come across as just inarticulate, like a story written by someone with learning difficulties. Unless the protagonists are unrealistically literate it restricts the quality of narrative and makes the characters seem like meatheads. However, if there is a detached, articulate narrator (not here) then it can seem patronising. In other words, it takes an exceptional writer to pull it off and I don't think that this is one. It is not a bad book and the chapters narrated by Amy are quite touching but this was the Booker Prize winner in 1996. That may not have been a vintage year but the victory of Last Orders is more likely a sobering statement about the standards of Britain's premier fiction prize.


Birdy
Birdy
by William Wharton
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sanity is in the eye of the beholder, 22 Dec 2008
This review is from: Birdy (Paperback)
Birdie is a canary. Birdy is a man. Birdy's best friend Al is enlisted by the military to visit Birdy in the psychiatric hospital where he sits crouched in the corner flapping his arms like wings. Al is unsure whether Birdy is pretending or not and, in order to elicit a response from him for the baffled authorities, begins to recount their young days together. But Al has a deep and affecting concern for his friend who he is hoping is fooling everyone in a bid to escape from the real madness of the outside world. Al's nostalgic recollections are intercut with increasingly long passages of canary observations related by Birdy, beginning with the delight when he first receives Birdie, the tentative introduction of a male, Al, and the gradual expansion of his canary population which provides a good income for him and his suspicious parents. However, Birdy's hobby turns to obsession and eventually he blurs his life as a boy with dreams of being a bird and becomes totally dislocated from reality.
Birdy is an astonishingly imaginative work and says reams about the fuzzy distinction between perceived normality and insanity. Al and Birdy are war victims and passages describing the horror of Al's war experiences serve merely to show that sanity is in the eye of the beholder. Wharton's book has a rather seventies feel about it and comes out of the same left-field stable as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Catch 22. It is at least the equal of these two iconic novels. If boys who love birds is your thing then Barry Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave (filmed as Kes) should appeal.


Of Love and Other Demons
Of Love and Other Demons
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love, the greatest demon of all, 15 Dec 2008
In the days when Colombia, Venezuela and Panama formed the Spanish colony of New Granada, twelve year old Servia María is banished by her father to Santa Clara convent in preparation for exorcism after being bitten by a rabid dog and displaying diabolical symptoms. However, the priest appointed by the Bishop to carry out the exorcism, Cayetano Delaura, does not believe that she is possessed by demons and subsequently falls in love with her. He is sent to a leper colony for discussing the matter with a sceptical doctor but each night leaves and scales the walls of the convent to spend time with Servia María in her cell. Of Love and Other Demons is a love story at once fantastic and bizarre, typical of its author's most passionate work. It was stimulated by an event witnessed by him; the discovery of the skull of a young girl alongside twenty two metres of red hair when the tombs of Santa Clara were being opened up in the 1940s.
For me the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is as poetic and entertaining as that of any writer alive. But the real triumph of his work is in the compelling portrayal of the sights and sounds, smells and rhythms of the steamy, swampy Caribbean coast of his native Colombia, especially in colonial days. He manages convincingly to recreate a bustling, chaotic world of docks, taverns and brothels peopled by aristocrats, traders, priests, beggars, slaves and prostitutes from jumbled communities of Spaniards, Africans, Amerindians, mestizos and mulattos. Of Love and Other Demons is a tale set in an exotic land where unrestrained behaviour is fomented by a mix of idolatrous religions and superstitious beliefs, all related with Latin verve and panache.


Demian (Perennial Classics)
Demian (Perennial Classics)
by Hermann Hesse
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Adolescent torment on the eve of the Great War, 10 Dec 2008
Herman Hesse was one of the leading figures of twentieth century literature and this one of his most important works. Cosseted by a prosperous, pious family Emil Sinclair becomes aware of the duality of good and evil through the actions of a school bully. He is freed from persecution by an enigmatic older pupil Max Demian who, along with organ player Pistorius, becomes his master and mentor during a turbulent adolescence. Tormented by vexatious existentialist problems, Emil's sensitivity sees him vacillate between a yearning for a deep, spiritual love and the temptations of self-destruction. Poetically written in the tradition of German Romanticism and influenced, among others, by Nietzsche and Jung, Hesse projects through Emil and Max a vision of the future for a Europe which he believed had lost its soul in the aggressive rush for technical progress.
If you enjoy Demian then read Steppenwolf, where the protagonist is likewise torn between bourgeois respectability and crude, biological instincts.


Memories Of My Melancholy Whores
Memories Of My Melancholy Whores
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.00

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A magical tale hewn out of a preposterous story line, 9 Dec 2008
The latest fare from the master story-teller is a magical tale hewn out of a preposterous and unsavoury story line. A bachelor journalist whose failure to find love has instead compensated himself with a lifelong frequenting of local brothels. Starkly aware that the end is close he decides on a night of love with an adolescent virgin for a ninetieth birthday treat. When he turns to a local madam to provide for him she sends a beautiful young girl who is so exhausted from work that she passes all her time in slumber. Lusciously and sensuously descriptive of the smells and sounds of the steamy Caribbean coast, Memories of My Melancholy Whores is a poignant and humorous meditation on our desperate need to experience love at least once before we are recycled.


The Russia House
The Russia House
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A first rate novelist and not just an author of spy stories, 9 Dec 2008
This review is from: The Russia House (Paperback)
Although genre fiction - historical, romance, sci-fi, espionage, detective, mystery and horror - has to struggle to be taken seriously by literary critics there are a few authors in each category who command universal respect. John le Carré is among the best loved and most respected, and with good reason. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War I wondered which direction his writing would take with the loss of its raison d'être. However, since then he has continued to turn out high quality fiction.
The Russia House takes place during one of the defining periods of modern history, the thaw between the USA and the USSR and the era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction) just before the collapse of the Communist giant. At a Moscow book fair Nick Landau is passed some documents by Russian vamp Katya imploring him to smuggle them to the UK to a publisher, Barley Blair. Once in England he takes them to the Intelligence Service which sees the enormous significance and value of the technical information contained within and seek to track down Blair in order to send him back to Russia to identify the author and substantiate his motivation and the authenticity of the documents. We are led into a murky, cold-hearted cloak and dagger operation of Byzantine complexity. Crisp, realistic dialogue, especially during the interrogation scenes, believable characters, mouth-drying tension and all-round entertainment, the Russia House is confirmation - if any was needed - that le Carré is a first rate novelist with a lot to say about human fears, needs and motivations, and not just an author of spy stories.


Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
by Jung Chang
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.22

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fable for the twentieth century, brimming with pain and sorrow, 4 Dec 2008
This haunting personal odyssey through the political and social convulsions of twentieth century China should carry a health warning: This book will linger in the mind for months to come. Jung Chang recounts through personal memoirs and memories the turbulent and tragic lives of her grandparents and parents in Manchuria early in the century as the country desperately tries to shake off the brutality of the feudal warlord government. But no sooner had the Kuomintang arrived to unify most of China than the hapless population of Manchuria fell under the nightmare of Japanese occupation. Several years later and the brief and cruel `liberation' by the Russians is followed by the Kuomintang-Communist civil war. During the Japanese occupation many people had sided with the Kuomintang nationalists rather than the Communists as they appeared at the time to be in a better position to kick out the foreign oppressors. However, they were to pay for that allegiance once the Communist Party was in power.
The author was born into the People's Republic of China in Sichuan province. Her parents had been enthusiastic activists and supporters of the Communists but it didn't take long for the great socialist utopia under Mao Zedong to degenerate into an unutterably crass and barbaric regime hell-bent on manipulating, controlling and terrorising the population. Their actions cloaked in totalitarian doublespeak, Party officials invent, hunt down and persecute `class enemies', `counterrevolutionaries', `rightists' and `capitalist-roaders' in an endless cycle of murderous campaigns. Jung's parents, like millions of others, see their fortunes rise and fall with these campaigns at the whim of the Party because of their family's early association with the Kuomintang. They are periodically denounced, threatened, beaten, tormented, paraded, imprisoned and exiled, suffering every humiliation that could be inflicted on an individual. That suffering, told with an astonishing lack of bitterness forms the backdrop to Jung's early life.
As Mao's grip tightens his obsession with demonstrating the superiority of communism over capitalism results in the catastrophic Great Leap Forward when the labour of almost the entire workforce is directed towards producing steel while the countryside implodes resulting in an apocalyptic famine and the deaths of an estimated 30 million people. Incredibly, propaganda blamed this on bad weather and after a slight drop in his popularity Mao begins to engineer his own demonic cult of the personality, his deification coming easily to a culture that had been used to worshipping emperors as quasi-gods. Now Mao was to set about destroying the Party, the last impediment to his total personal power. The battered and impoverished Chinese people, desperately trying to recover from the horror of the Great Leap Forward, now had the Cultural Revolution unleashed upon them. During this collective spell of insanity Mao's Red Guards, consisting largely of schoolchildren and students on the rampage, were whipped into a frenzy to turn upon, humiliate, beat and destroy their teachers and consequently all education. In an attempt to edit the past out of existence, China lost almost its entire written heritage along with its religious and historical sites, statues, temples and old towns, everywhere destroyed. Eventually, with everyone denouncing everyone in order to survive the country had been turned into a `moral wasteland of hatred' and there was nowhere left to go.
This exquisite and powerful book follows the author and her siblings through these terrifying phases and is a compulsive page-turner written in clear, delicate English and brimming with pain and sorrow. I doubt if there has been a more honest and poignant portrayal of daily life under a totalitarian regime, where terror pervades every stratum of society, every family, every thought and deed.


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