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Katherine McGrail (Spain)

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Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?
Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?
Price: £16.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grim subject, entertaining, informative read, 5 April 2015
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This is a really informative, interesting, easy-to-read book about the survival — or not — of our species. It's very entertaining, considering the subject matter. It's full of interesting snippets of history and culture from all over the world.
You may already know about the Haber-Bosch process, Norman Borlaug, the so-called green revolution and the hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers committing suicide over the last twenty years. If you don't, and you are disposed to believe that human innovation will save us from the consequences of environmental destruction and high population, the bad news is that human innovation has already vastly increased the amount of food we produce, the world's population rose accordingly during the twentieth century and the chickens have been coming home to roost for the last thirty years or so.
If you already know all that, there is still plenty of interesting history, statistical information and local opinion from places as diverse as Thailand, England and the Vatican. Weisman vistited countries all over the world, and he's really good at summarising the events of decades (or centuries, in the case of Iran and what is today Pakistan) as concisely as possible so that he has room for commentary from local authorities, activists and ordinary citizens.
I was mildly surprised that the issue of emigrants and temporary workers from populous countries to richer, less populous ones wasn't discussed more. I suppose that Weisman didn't want to make the whole book about xenophobia and cultural clashes, so he keeps that part very brief, with the UK getting most of his attention. Of Japan's ageing population, he just says that the Japanese elderly wouldn't want other Asians working as their carers because it might remind them of the war, and skips straight on to a description of the Japanese robot being developed to lift people out of bed.
The subject is heartbreaking, but Weisman manages to make this book almost fun to read. I can't agree with his cautiously optimistic outlook, but I'm going to go back to it now to re-read the part about the sixteenth-century bridges on the Zayanderud in Iran that I'd never heard of before.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Bill Bryson has really grown up since he wrote this., 5 April 2015
All the descriptions of hotel rooms, meals and prices made this a bit like listening to my in-laws talk about their holidays, except that my in-laws are nice people. Bill Bryson, on the other hand, really, really hates unfamiliar accents, fat women and people who earn low wages, and he's prepared to tell you so, over and over again. Oh, and he's not too keen on Spanish speakers either.
At least, that's what he was like when he wrote this book. His recent books seem to be written by a different person: one who does a lot of research and who is interested in the people he writes about and talks to. He has come a very long way since he wrote "The lost continent".

Borstal Girl
Borstal Girl
by Eileen MacKenney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.38

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Horrible narrator makes for good book, 11 Feb. 2014
This review is from: Borstal Girl (Paperback)
If she had more self awareness or interest in the outside world, Eileen MacKenny wouldn't have allowed her book to have a title so reminiscent of "Borstal Boy". Next to Brendan Behan, poor Eileen comes off as very dimwitted indeed. All the same, I'd recommend this book. With all its omissions and self-delusion, it shows a career criminal for who she is and gives you some idea of how she got to be that way.

Vicious bullies such as Eileen and her brothers are the ones who best survive poverty and abuse. Then they make life impossible for more co-operative types such as Eileen's sister Grace. When better, more prosperous times come, they continue to act as if their only option is to fight and steal.

People like Eileen and her husband make blatant police frame-ups and lies seem a lot more acceptable to everyone else. I'm sure plenty of people knew that the police were just another criminal gang and were glad all the same to see them bring Eileen and her family down. In the end, that influences police culture in a way that's a terrible thing for society in general. But Eileen doesn't think about things like that. She seems genuinely hurt and indignant when she wants the police to play by the rules and they laugh at her hypocrisy.

After describing a lifetime of thieving, bullying and psychotic violence directed at anybody who even looks at her the wrong way, the last chapter has Eileen go into a rant full of old-person clichés about how nobody has any respect any more, how the women aren't ladylike and the men aren't manly, and so on. Her shameless hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness reads like really good satyrical fiction.

If you took out the effing and blinding the book would be a slim volume. It's very wearing to be around people like this, who have to prove how hard they are by inserting "f..." into every second sentence and calling anyone they don't like a c.... But it gives you an idea of what Eileen is really like. Reading this book is like getting inside the mind of the neighbour from hell. She comes across as a self-righteous, hypocrital brute, and I would hate to have to live near her. But, as another commenter said, she lived in interesting times and she has a good ghostwriter, so the book itself is entertaining and gives you something to think about.

Commenting on Amazon provides for extra entertainment, because so many reviews mention that the reviewer used to know Eileen or one of her family. You can just imagine people writing feverishly sycophantic reviews under the threat of a smashed jaw or a mysterious house fire if the book doesn't become an Amazon best-seller. Of course that might not be the reason for the reviews; but it's just the sort of thing the book leads you to imagine.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers
The Solitude of Prime Numbers
by Paolo Giordano
Edition: Paperback

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dont believe the hype, 10 Nov. 2012
A doctor of theoretical physics writes a novel about a mathematical genius whose mother doesn't love him and who doesn't like anybody much himself. Impressed that a physicist is capable of writing a novel that doesn`t involve aliens or robot sex scenes, the Italian publishing industry showers him with praise, gives him a Strega prize and has his novel translated into lord-knows-how-many languages.
There's only one problem; the novel is hopelessly self-indulgent and the characters no more than psychological problems on legs. Though everyone in the book is dreadfully lonely and unhappy, the main characters have more fashionable mental problems(self mutilation and anorexia), which apparently creates a special bond between them that none of the other unhappy characters has.
Will our heroes finally get it on and grow into anything more than one=dimensional bores? Well, as the blurb on the back of the book explains, they are like solitary prime numbers, which can be close but never touch, so that's the ending revealed for you before you open the book.
Bad publishing industry! Bad! Loads of scientists are capable of writing a clear, concise sentence. That is no guarantee of a decent novel and definitely no reason to overrate an author.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 6, 2015 6:06 PM BST

The Post-Birthday World
The Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good book, badly flawed, 11 Jun. 2011
Where some people find love Lionel Shriver's endless reflections on life and the relationships irritating, I love them. I found the protagonist's affection for her live-in partner Lawrence much easier to understand than I did Eva's passion for her one-dimensional husband in "We need to talk about Kevin".
Other reviewers are disgusted by Irina's tendency to live her life around her boyfriend in this book, but it's a trap that many women fall into, well illustrated by the book, as is the financial insecurity that comes from an insecure, poorly paid creative career. It's feminism for people who don't like the word "feminism".
I was very interested to learn that the author married the ex-husband of one of the now-ex-agents who rejected "We need to talk about Kevin". So that's where Jude and Ramsey came from!
However, the author's inexplicable failure to grasp British English really marred my pleasure in this book. Several times Ramsey's ridiculous, cringe-inducing speech tempted me to give up reading, and when I read about things such as going to the loo for shampoo I had to stop short and try to work out what she meant. I'm not from the UK, but it seems easy enough to understand that Britons, while they may not use the US euphemism "going to the bathroom", still call their bathrooms "bathrooms". It was very disappointing to find a writer I admire behaving like the literary equivalent of Keanu Reeves in "Dracula".

Beginner's Basque (Hippocrene Beginner's)
Beginner's Basque (Hippocrene Beginner's)
by Wim Jansen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £25.00

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed, 18 Dec. 2010
I was studying beginner's Basque with a free online course in Spanish and I decided to buy this book because of the positive reviews here. And I thought it would be easier in English, my native language.

I'm very disappointed so far. The first exercise involves proving that you understand the author's transcription method, which he seems to have written on the assumption that everyone speaks English with the same accent that he does. They don't, mate. That's why we have the international phoenetic alphabet. Anyone capable of understanding the grammatical explanations in this book will also be able to pick up the international phoenetic alphabet without much trouble, so it's beyond me why the author didn't use it, especially when none of its more unusual or difficult characters features in the Basque language.

This version of the book comes with two audio CDs. A woman reads a list of Basque words to show you how to pronounce them. She pronounces two of them in her own dialect, in a way that directly contradicts what the author says about the rules of pronunciation. Unlike English, Basque has an official body that decides these things, so there is an official, standard pronunciation of Batua, and it's reasonable to expect that pronunciation in a beginner's guide. So, the CDs aren't much use.

The book begins with a chapter of Wikipedia-type general information about the Basque country, so you can see how the author writes in English when he's not giving grammatical explanations. His overview of the primary and secondary education system is so poorly written (the writing style, not the information he gives) that if I hadn't already been familiar with the topic I really wouldn't have known what he was talking about. He also seems to be confused about when to use "would have" and when to use "had". When someone's grasp of English grammar is that poor, he's probably not the best person to turn to for explanations of unfamiliar grammar.

Basque grammar is complicated to explain to a beginner; there's no getting away from it. Still, I suspect the author of being unnecessarily long-winded and technical at times. The contrast between the pompous, formal language of the explanations and the absurdly incongruous examples had me laughing out loud:
"The following are examples of this process."... "Good day! I am a boy."... "Hi! I am a girl" ..."It is recommended to pay careful attention to the exercises to learn the correct application of the article in Basque."... "Good morning Michael! How old is Johanna?"

This book really needed to be gone over again by a ruthless editor. If you speak Spanish (and maybe even if you don't) you can definitely find the same quality of material for free on the internet.

Hons and Rebels
Hons and Rebels
by Jessica Mitford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars thoroughly recommend, 9 Oct. 2010
This review is from: Hons and Rebels (Paperback)
The first half of Hons and Rebels will be familiar to you if you've read Nancy Mitford's books, with vague Muv and roaring Farve, debutante balls, cold houses and all that.

But the second half is something else: it's 1930s Europe (including Britain) and the US, observed by someone witty, engaged and entertaining, who has the enormous advantage of being born into the incestuous British ruling class, but who can't accept the status quo.

This combination of personality and accident of birth -- along with the witty, honest writing style -- is what makes the book so special. It enables her to save hundreds of pounds (this in the 1930's) without ever getting a job, and then get Winston Churchill's charismatic, anti-fascist nephew, who happens to be her cousin, to take her with him to Spain. British reporters travel to the Basque Country just to report on the scandal of the runaway Peer's daughter, even as the Germans bomb Guernica. Later, she and her cousin Esmond get away with behaviour that would probably land a less well-connected person in the dock for theft.

I unintentionally tripled my knowledge of the political climate just before WWII in a few pages. Ms Mitford doesn't write as an expert or a historian, but as someone who was unusually well-connected, observant and engaged. Her point of view is unique in my experience. If she had been a man she would have been more active, and quite likely have been killed. If she had been a woman more like her mother or most of sisters, she would have devoted herself principally to incubating more aristocrats, perhaps with some memoirs or a novel or two to keep herself occupied.

I thoroughly recommend this book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 22, 2014 6:35 PM BST

Empire of the Sun
Empire of the Sun
by J. G. Ballard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

9 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Did I miss something?, 17 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Empire of the Sun (Paperback)
I'd read a lot of enthusiastic references to J. G. Ballard and his tales of distopia, and was disappointed to find that this, my first J. G. Ballard book, read like "Gone with the wind" as told by "Jane's defence weekly". Like Scarlett O'Hara, Jim is catapulted by war from an extraordinarily sheltered, privileged life to one of hunger and privation. Like Scarlett O'Hara, he adapts to an amoral world, chafing a little under the disapproval of those who don't, and rather despising them. Like Scarlett's post-war admiration for Yankees, Jim's admiration for Japanese soldiers riles his countrymen no end.
Protected by their race, Jim and the other Europeans of Allied countries are sheltered and fed -- albeit not very well -- by the Japanese. The war may strip away the veneer of civilisation, but the pecking order doesn't change all that much, and the Chinese don't move from the bottom of the pile.
At the beginning of the book the author describes the beggar who lives outside the gates of Jim's family's house. Jim notes dispassionately that the family's chauffeur has run over the beggar's foot. It seems like a symbol of all the humiliation and brutality the Chinese experience in their own land while European expats are living it up. Later in the book, things only get worse for them. In their desperation they gather outside the internment camp, affording the inmates a look at their suffering and forcing them to realise that life outside the camps is even worse than it is inside.
My copy of this book has a plug from Anthony Burgess on the back describing it as "incredibly moving", but I found it impossible to take any interest in the protagonist with the locals going through far worse in the background.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 27, 2012 12:57 PM BST

Careful, He Might Hear You
Careful, He Might Hear You
by Sumner Locke Elliott
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars highly recommended, 9 Mar. 2010
This is a great tale of rivalry between sisters, loss of innocence, and childhood vulnerability. The convincing voice of the six-year-old protagonist adds both humour and a heartrending quality to it without sending it over the edge into sentimentality. Well, at least not until the very end.

The pretensions and deceit of the adults are mercilessly observed, but such is Elliott's skill that the more cruelly he portrays them, the more real and lovable they become.

It's also a terrific Australian period piece, set in 1930s Sydney and complete with the outspoken disdain of UK immigrants for all things Australian, and the resulting Australian defensiveness, along with your picturesque Sydney Harbour, ferries and trams.

My US edition of the book has characters drinking Pilsener beer, carrying purses instead of handbags and using grammar ("you better") that is normal in the US but which makes no sense coming from an anglophile character, especially not in 1930s Australia. I can't work out whether an over-protective editor sought to shield US readers from unfamiliar beer brands, handbags and overseas English grammar, or whether Elliott himself had forgotten these little things about Australia when he wrote the book after 15 years in the US.

It's a very autobiographical novel, with the names of people in a real custody battle barely altered. Helena Sumner Locke, the author's mother, was a short, vivacious writer who died just after giving birth to him, just like Sinden in the book. Henry Logan Elliott, the author's real-life father, only ever saw him once, just like the fictitious father Henry Logan Marriott. Jessie, the aunt who sought custody of him in real life, is the snobbish sociopath Ness, who does the same in the book. Elliott thoughtfully waited until his aunt Lilian, a successful labour organiser who brought the author up, and her husband, member of parliament George Mason Burns, were long dead before turning them into dippy housewife Lila and failed Labor candidate George. I was relieved to find that out, because I loved them by the end of the book, so convincing were they. They actually lived in Carlton, in south-western Sydney, but he cleverly changed that to Neutral Bay so that the characters could catch ferries back and forth across the harbour.

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