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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant depiction of life in 1916
Worthless Men transports the reader to an unnamed market town in England in the year 1916 where many of the men have gone to fight in World War I and the war has changed everyone's lives. This town could be anywhere in England with a butcher, a chemist, the wealthy family who dispense largesse to the poor, the crowded damp houses and the men who settle disputes in the...
Published 18 months ago by C. Bannister

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Word picture of WW1 and those waiting at home.......
Walter Barley, after attempting and being turned down several times before, finally manages to join up for the war. And after a while arrives home, alone, and wondering why no-one is talking to him. It's because he's dead, of course, for Walter is a ghost, overseeing his home, his family, his friends - his thoughts telling the reader much more that the spoken word could...
Published 12 months ago by Both the Macs


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant depiction of life in 1916, 10 Jan 2013
By 
C. Bannister (Jersey, CI) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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Worthless Men transports the reader to an unnamed market town in England in the year 1916 where many of the men have gone to fight in World War I and the war has changed everyone's lives. This town could be anywhere in England with a butcher, a chemist, the wealthy family who dispense largesse to the poor, the crowded damp houses and the men who settle disputes in the pub or with their fists.

The book is split into very short chapters which link together in an almost whimsical way, following each of the five characters memories of the past, as well as showing us the present. This device means that as the book progresses the reader has built up a picture of the town and its inhabitants in a similar way we usually get to know people by putting the facts of what they say and do together with the `reading between the lines' for the unsaid.

The book is written in the third person and two of the five main characters are interested in eugenics. Eugenics was respected at the beginning of the twentieth century and it is shocking to realise that some thought that the war was a way of cleaning up the gene pool thereby removing the worthless men. The theme of worthless men is strong throughout the book and different types of worthlessness are scattered amongst its pages.

I loved the style of this book; the gradual building up of a picture was immensely satisfying with every page of this 260 page book adding detail to this well-known historical period. After finishing reading the book I discovered that Andrew Cowen had recorded some oral histories earlier in his career which is probably why the feeling of authenticity is so strong.

I think this book would be an excellent for a Book Club.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Indictment on Indigent?, 23 Mar 2013
By 
D. Elliott (Ulverston, Cumbria) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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Author Andrew Cowan opens and closes his unusual and complex `Worthless Men' on a Gala Day in a town with rural connections somewhere in England in 1916, and he skilfully moves narrative backwards and forwards. It is a multi-layered story told in the third person, yet it comes across as personal commentaries on the main protagonists. Numerous individuals are involved with most important being working class Walter Barley and his mother Winnie living in poverty, middle class pharmacist Claude Dobson and his over-protected daughter Gertie, and upper class Montague Beckwith who is suffering psychological damage after time at the front. But who are the worthless men?

Chapters are headed by these names and from their different perspectives all contribute to a penetrating portrayal of life only 100 years ago, and to evocative explanations on the impact of The Great War. Walter appears as a phantom figure and his experiences as a hard working boy and as a teenager going to war are used by the author to expose harsh realities of life at home and on the front. Andrew Cowan employs analogies with shifts between the carnage of war and poor handling of animals on market day or slaughterhouse scenes; and ironies where the local Beckwith factory that manufactured wire netting then makes barbed wire, or repressed women suffering domestic violence do the work of men away facing horrors of war.

An ongoing theme is the behaviour of supposed betters to the working class - sometimes altruistic, sometimes antagonistic, but often just ambivalent. In particular there is a thought provoking exchange of views between middle class Dobson and upper class Montague Beckwith with comparisons of selective breeding to improve farm stock against eugenics for enhancing human qualities. Though Walter is a disregarded servant of the Beckwiths and an unwanted suitor for Gertie he invalidates such judgement. The title `Worthless Men' seems to link the deprived and poorest in society with the greatest sacrifices - is it an indictment on treatment of the indigent? The book is not easy to unravel, but it is rewarding as it gives readers much to think about.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Word picture of WW1 and those waiting at home......., 20 July 2013
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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Walter Barley, after attempting and being turned down several times before, finally manages to join up for the war. And after a while arrives home, alone, and wondering why no-one is talking to him. It's because he's dead, of course, for Walter is a ghost, overseeing his home, his family, his friends - his thoughts telling the reader much more that the spoken word could have done. I could have read the whole book through Walter's eyes, but each chapter is a little bit of the life of other characters. Montague Beckwith, his commanding officer - sent home with no outward wounds to show; Gertie, the pharmacist's daughter, whom Walter loved, and who gave him the white feather..... Dobson, Gertie's father; Winnie, Walter's mother, too many children, a little too much gin. A great cast of characters, well drawn. But.

I wish I had enjoyed reading this more. It has a lot going for it, not least the descriptions of the poor at that time in history. It is certain that you were better off being poor outside of towns and cities than you were if you lived in them. The area that Walter's family lived in, on the river, next door to a butcher and his slaughterhouse, with a shared midden(rubbish heap)and toilet in the yard, was nearly as hard to read about as the lice ridden and filthy conditions of the boys at the front.

I am not at all sure about this book. I felt something missing here. Every character has plenty to tell you, but as most of the book is written in the present "He walks down the alley"; "she offers her money", which I found irksome; and each chapter is about another character - which I normally enjoy - but this time found it very choppy, with no flow. It was as though the author had a great story to tell, but seemed unsure how to do it. Nevertheless, from knowing that Walter Barley is dead, the book does knit up the strands in the last chapter or so, and we found out how he died.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Effects of the Great War on a Norfolk Town., 30 May 2013
By 
Tommy Dooley (London, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Kindle Edition)
This is the second novel from Andrew Cowan who first shot to fame with his award winning debut novel `Pig'. In this his second book he takes us back to 1916 and an unnamed town somewhere in Norfolk, which is being steeped in the war effort. Everyone is meant to do their bit, from the son of the Lord of the Manor to the gutter snipes who jostle for the lowest of jobs. One at the latter end of that social spectrum is Walter, who has taken the Kings shilling and headed off to the mud spattered killing fields of Flanders. This despite being woefully under age.

He leaves behind a mother who has had to take up even more work while paying rent, and more, to her slum lord and a sister in service at the local big house. He also leaves a would be sweetheart in the adopted daughter of the Martinet like local pharmacist. He is joined by a load of his `pals' and even his father on their tour to hell. We have a tale of all of the people of the town and how bravery can come from the strangest places and a cruel deed can echo through a lifetime.

This is an excellent read the way Andrew Cowan has brought together the life of the town is incredible. He spends so much time subtlety describing the whole place that it almost feels as though you know it. Whilst he lays the characters of the players open - very much warts an all, which actually makes most of them quite unlikable. There is no real war dialogue, but the moments when there are turn out to be incredibly gripping. And I was kept in thrall right to the last word, so much to be applauded.

The only thing I found irritating are the paragraph headings like phrases such as `some are sickly from birth'. These lines appear at the top of a series of paragraphs and indeed chapters, the same way you get teasers in a tabloid newspaper. Then the exact same line is repeated a few lines down, so you keep feeling a bit of déjà vu. It did take a while to pick up the pace too, but once it does it carries you with it, so an extremely fine book from what looks like a rising talent.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A skilfull novel, 27 April 2013
By 
Eleanor (Oxford, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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Narrated in the present tense and from a number of viewpoints, "Worthless Men" describes the inhabitants of an unnamed English town as the First World War is waging abroad. The novel's characters include the town pharmacist, a fervent eugenicist; Gertie, his sheltered daughter, who is desperate for contact with men; the disturbing and disturbed son of the town's wealthy factory owner; and, most poignantly, Walter who, missing in action, wanders his old streets as a ghost.

Cowan's novel vividly evokes the town's narrow filthy streets and the constant labour of its inhabitants. Scenes accumulate until the physical and moral corruption found at home darkly mirrors the horrors abroad. "Worthless Men" is a compelling novel, which skilfully presents a dark vision of English life at a particular point in history.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Packed full of period insight and detail, 12 Feb 2013
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
If you read a lot of fiction about World War One, it's tempting to imagine pre-war England as an idle of peace and innocence. Andrew Cowan's "Worthless Men" depicts a much more gritty and earthy England. Set in 1916 in an industrial and market town, it weaves together several narratives that combine to depict a hard life even before the outbreak of war. In fact, its easier to imagine the lure of adventure that the war initially offered as a change from the harsh realities of life at home, although by the time Cowan's novel begins, the grim reality of what is involved has dampened much of this enthusiasm.

The book is set on market day in the town, and in many respects it continues much as it always has done. However, this day a train full of injured British soldiers is also expected back in town to attend the hospital set up in the grounds of the local big wig industrialist whose factory employed most of the town folk and now employs most of the women, ironically making the very barbed wire that will have caused at least some of the traumatic injuries to the returning soldiers.

The two dominant narratives are Walter's and Gertie's. Walter is a haunting voice, whose situation quickly becomes clear but when you first realize what's going on early in the book comes at the reader with at pleasing thump. So I'll gloss over him in order not to ruin that for the potential reader. But he is well placed to describe the pre-war life of the town. Gertie, the young daughter of the local pharmacist, another narrator here, is working at the local factory but before the war spent time as a companion to the two daughters of the local industrialist who themselves are not nursing in France. She therefore knows another of the narrators, the son of the industrialist, Montague Beckwith who is back in the family home recuperating mentally as well as physically.

Cowan's book has its origins in research he carried out in Norwich some years ago, compiling an oral history of people who lived through the Great War. As a result, it's packed with beautiful details that could only have come from real experience. His style is creative but the creativity serves the story and there's never the feeling, as can be the case, of the style getting in the way of the lives of these people. The result is a haunting, and often moving, record of live in a market town during the Great War.

The "worthless men" of the title would appear to represent those at the bottom of the social ladder whose valiance and bravery make them the true heroes, but what also comes over is the role of the women. Here, several suffered domestic violence and hardship before the outbreak of hostilities but now are not only running their families but also doing the jobs that their husbands did before then headed to France. Perhaps then, this is what Cowan is referring to in his title. Either way, it's a thoughtful and memorable story and Walter in particular is a character that is likely to live long in the memory.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading, 23 Feb 2014
By 
Denise4891 (Cheshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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This is a short but very powerful novel about the effects of the Great War on members of a small Norfolk community. We meet the local pharmacist Claud Dobson, who as well as dispensing remedies and medical advice to the townsfolk, has sidelines as a vet and abortionist. He shares a fashionable interest in eugenics and racial purity with local factory owner’s son Montague Beckwith, who has been invalided home from the Front, crippled by a disfiguring skin condition and psychological damage. (The theme of genetic purity and the ‘worth’ or otherwise of certain groups of men and women is a recurring theme throughout the book.)

We also meet Dobson’s daughter Gertie, beautiful but regarded as somewhat simple by Beckwith and her father, and finally there’s Walter Barley, or rather his ghost who has returned home in time to observe the repatriation of a trainload of wounded soldiers who are to recuperate at the Beckwiths’ mansion, which has been turned into a hospital for the duration of the War.

It’s a harsh but poignant portrayal of the devastation wrought on a small community when their sons are sent off to fight ‘The Great War’, and so many don’t return. The idea of war as ‘the great leveller’ is also touched upon, as the boundaries and distinctions between the classes blur. The language is sparse and brutal, but all the more effective for it. Each chapter is delivered from the viewpoint of one of the main characters as their lives blend together to produce a moving and compassionate story. Not easy reading but well worth the effort.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough but challenging look at WW1's impact on life at home [or back at home], 20 Mar 2013
By 
Arkgirl (North Yorkshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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Although this is a short book it packs in multiple narrative threads and definitely speaks volumes about the way WW1 altered the whole nature of the lives of people living through those times.
Seen through the eyes and experiences of characters from all the different social classes but the narrators that stood out for me where: Walter, from a struggling working class family, an under-age participant in the trenches warfare wandering through his home town and observing the impact; Gertie, daughter of the local chemist, tackling factory work to fill in for the fighting men and wondering about her place in society; and Montague Beckwith, son of the local industrialist and 'Big' House, home from the front struggling with physical and mental scars.
Andrew Cowan writes in a stylish manner with some great imagery and descriptive passages but sometimes I felt that the jumping from character to character limited the flow of the book and prevented me becoming emotionally drawn into these tragic and challenging stories; it is a bleak and tough read in places with some horrific stories of the time at the front but there was something which didn't ultimately gel and lift it to a 5 star read for me but I will certainly be encouraging my teenage son to read it [as a GCSE History student] as I feel it does evoke that time and gives some political and cultural context for his studies.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars VIVIDLY TOLD, BUT AN UNCOMFORTABLE READ, 10 Feb 2013
By 
Mr. D. L. Rees "LEE DAVID" (DORSET) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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1916. Market Day - the train bearing war wounded expected by its end. The day is described by young soldier Walter Barley, his mother Winnie, Gertie the girl he secretly fancies, her father pharmacist Dobson, shell-shocked Montague Beckwith at the big house where casualties will be nursed. Past and present interweave as the five observe and memories are jogged. For none of them will life ever be the same....

A disturbing read, for it contains so much that rings true. Here is a community struggling to survive, the stench of poverty everywhere apparent. Grim times indeed. For many drink represents an escape, the war thought so too. Those who enlist soon discover otherwise. Counterbalancing the local slaughterhouse where terrified animals were despatched are the trenches with their terror and carnage, in their hundreds and thousands lives being destroyed.

Underlined throughout: war is not just "over there"; one way and another, all are affected.

This is writing most skilled, the past recreated evocatively and with precision. Mystical aspects could easily have jarred but in fact work well - ultimately most movingly.

On this occasion the five stars reflect recognition of worth - the novel admired rather than "loved".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worthless? No. A diamond of a short novel., 5 Feb 2013
By 
JK "Julie K." (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worthless Men (Hardcover)
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What an absolute little cracker of a novel. At 259 pages it's easy to read in a few sittings and I certainly did.

Worthless is based around the population of a fictional English city during the First World War (1916) and is a tale of the day to day existence of the ordinary people caught up in war. Opening with the beautifully described 'Gala Day' we're soon made aware there's a dark heart to Worthless as Andrew Cowan describes a passing pleasure boat where ladies shelter from the sun, gentlemen wear white suits alongside injured soldiers returning home '...sporting clean dressings...'. Superb contrast and there are many more in the book.

The plot unfolds through the point of view of many different characters, Gertie, Walter, Montague, Dobson and Winnie. Their individual chapters feature highlighted sub-headings ie,. '...she works as hard as any man...', '...she was clumsy and dropped things...'. There are some real surprises with the different characters, not all is as it seems, but I'm not giving anything away.

How ambitious of Andrew Cowan to write in such a complicated style? I'm pleased to say his ambition payed off. You're given so much information from his characters Worthless comes alive through their individual accounts. Even the battle scenes are told from the personal perspective of the soldier involved which makes for an emotional ending.

Worthless is unique. This is my first experience of reading a novel plotted out and written in such a complex format. Didn't spoil it for me, I was involved to the point of shedding a tear at the end. Highly recommended.
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Worthless Men
Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan (Hardcover - 14 Feb 2013)
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