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Ste J (Mansfield England)

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An Image of the Times: An Irreverent Companion to Ben Jonson's Four Humours and the Art of Diplomacy
An Image of the Times: An Irreverent Companion to Ben Jonson's Four Humours and the Art of Diplomacy
by Nils-Johan Jorgensen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Humorous, 19 May 2016
Having greedily devoured the author’s children’s books, a change of pace and a leap into the scholarly beckoned this time around. Using Jonson’s skill and invention as a poet to link into the world of diplomacy is effective and Jørgensen’s own experiences in such places as Harare, Bonn, Dar El Salaam and Tokyo amongst others make for a very diverse and entertaining book.

Part one is a wide-ranging study of history and literature and how various ideas and innovations have contributed to the play and the theory behind them. It’s also an underlining of Jonson’s enduring genius (although Shakespeare seems to have eclipsed him in popularity for the moment), his influence on 17th and 18th century comedy plays and literature and the wide range of sources from which his works are derived.

Jonson’s characters are formed through a mixture of sources, from the fields of scientific, psychological, medicinal and philosophical exploration and how they are linked to the humours and the rules (decorum) of the play. The humours I should explain are a blend of characteristics – personality types, that formed a foundation on which to base ideas and played a significant part in the above fields.

Despite the rigid rules of what was expected in the theatre at that time, Jonson and others managed to constantly reappraise and innovate their characters in order to create richer and more layered persona, allowing the masterful renaissance works of Elizabethan era to be created.

Finally there is an attempt to define the meaning of the Comic which rounds off the first part perfectly and is a neat bridge into the second with its lighter tone which is a great advert for the job of ambassador, where a sense of humour seems to be a key qualification. Jørgensen’s personal anecdotes from the world of diplomacy are not only wonderfully funny but derived from many places and like Jonson so many sources (as diverse as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and 11th Century letters about territorial disputes over the Shetland and Orkney Isles between Britain and Norway) . It make for a rewarding an eye-opening read into the mysterious world of the ambassador, where one has to play a role and say all the right things, it is a neat mirroring of the stage.

I really enjoyed this book, not only did I learn new things but it also allowed me to piece together the evolution of some of the theories I have come across through my reading over the years. The world of the theatre has always fascinated me, the manipulation of space and so forth but seeing how characters are created and the internal rules and logic of a play and its interpretations are fascinating and encourage the study of the stage and the ideas they were based upon.

Not only is this a good primer for the psychology of Elizabethan plays – as well as a welcome reminder of the Medieval mystery plays – but also brings about an understanding of the technical aspects of a play much less considered by the lay reader such as myself. Not only is this book a timely showcasing of Jonson’s capabilities as a writer but also a reminder of the parts that we all play in our daily lives.

Sway's Demise (Earth's Peril Book 1)
Sway's Demise (Earth's Peril Book 1)
Price: £2.05

5.0 out of 5 stars Raucous and Pacy, 13 May 2016
This year, I have mainly been reading serious stuff so its high time I went for something a little less so and Sway's Demise was an enjoyable, light palate cleanser that flies along and kept me reading a lot longer than I had planned for. I read this in two sittings, it would have been one but for my obstinate stomach demanding food, for which it was rewarded with a black coffee.

The clean design of the cover sums up perfectly what the book is about, the reader is treated to an action packed adventure with a high body count in a world gone backwards - but still with some future tech - thanks to war with aliens and the ever-present threat and paranoia that that brings.

There are many things I enjoyed about this book, Harpley's take on sentient robots is refreshing, as is the human interaction which has become more pronounced due to the seismic shifts of the recent past that humanity finds themselves in. This straddling of the low-tech personal and wider worlds is a welcome mix with one outlook influencing the other.

Information is given out in great dollops in the first part of the story, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps but with enough left to the imagination, that one wants to know precisely what it is all about. It's the good grounding of back story that gives the reader the details up front that which is key because the second half of the book is more like an action thriller than the dystopian sci-fi I was half expecting. The combat - and there is a lot of it - was very reminiscent of Starship Troopers but with a much more complex enemy and an equally ambitious body count.

The interspersing of letters and thoughts from the alien perspective on events is a welcome change of pace and provides a more private insight so often lacking in the genre; so that we can understand not only the hierarchy of this invader but also the motivations, questions and fears of the mysterious race. This makes for a much richer reading experience...I want to say this take makes them seem more human but that would be wrong by definition.

The ending was as enjoyable as it was unexpected, the drama gives way to a neat tying up of unanswered questions that the curious reader may have been speculating about for a time. It's gives a neat twist, inverting some of the ideas that I had assumed up to that point but also infuriatingly (the good kind, that is) throws more questions into the mix and could perhaps open up more stories within the same universe.

Sway's Demise is a more tightly written and darker effort than the author's debut The Mill, following for the majority of its length just one plot line - with brief forays to the other side of events - and is a really enjoyable read for anybody who fancies something pacy and short but with an intense action oriented plot and enough twists to keep readers entertained to the end.

East of the East Wind
East of the East Wind
by Nils-Johan Jorgensen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Eas(t)ily worth a read, 30 Mar. 2016
This review is from: East of the East Wind (Hardcover)
Throughout the book we are treated to all aspects of life, the good, bad and indifferent but above all a message there is the constant message to appreciate what we have when we have it.

A Snow Ballerina in a Red Cap is a story of growing up, loss and nature. It’s sure to illicit many questions from children and despite its melancholy air, it is a strong start to the book. The joys and sadness of time moving on, of nothing staying the same and growing up are all great life lessons and Izumi is a wonderful character who has that incisive logic that children seem to innately possess. A beautiful and touching story.

Monty and Mozart is something different, a life viewed through the eyes of a dog. Like a child, Monty is innocent and has no understanding of the decisions made around him but places his trust and love in his family. This short chronicle about their lives together is perhaps my least favourite of the four but at the same time it has, for me the most emotionally satisfying ending.

Barbed Wire sees a child trying to understand the wider ways of an impenetrable and confusing adult world. The shifting allegiances of history, the ambiguity of ‘the enemy’ and once again the transitory nature of things. The fickleness of wars and the unspoken trust between people in extraordinary situations is an intriguing one, the ending left me thinking about what life held for one of the characters in the aftermath.

The final story My Cinema starts with the return of much sought after entertainment after the war and is a reminder of the wonders and luxury of escapism in the bad times. In these days with so much entertainment vying for our attention, it is hard to imagine a time when things were so different but as the story shows, it is not just the films that play a big part in our imagination but the memories we keep with us associated with such pleasures.

This book is the most serious in the series so far, it has a stronger air of melancholy to it, the stories are more strongly geared to life lessons which is a good thing to ground children for the inevitable changes in life but also sad that as adults we still wish things to remain grounded and safe like when we were young and never quite get out of that habit.

There is a gentle philosophy that is subtle to children but for adults achieves a more poignant juxtaposition, it’s a wonderful book to encourage children to look at different perspectives on life and encourages questions and as ever adults will be truly charmed by the stories and the accompanying illustrations.

Standing in Shadows (Dark Fey Book 2)
Standing in Shadows (Dark Fey Book 2)
Price: £2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Shadow Play, 11 Mar. 2016
The cover photo is great, there is no denying that and were I to see it in a bookshop my interest would be piqued. More of this type of cover I say, rather than those dreary copy cat covers that seem to be so prevalent on the shelves these days. As well as looking nice, it also sets the scene for a darker and more foreboding sequel.

Like the first book, this is a fantasy steeped in the natural, of the polar opposites of light and dark and the overlapping of the two and whilst the plot took, for me a little while to get going – the characters even get time for a ball game – once it gets going though, it moves along at a pleasing pace. It is an interesting mix, the plot feeling both urgent yet also fairly relaxed at times, giving the book a more ethereal feel.

The book picks up not long after the first finished and we are quickly introduced to new mysteries and characters, always with that feeling that something sinister is lurking and can and will strike at any moment, a brooding feeling of the unknown and the horrors that could await there. As alliances are forged, decisions made and events set in motion the story builds to the heroic quest motif which will have repercussions for all to come, especially in the final part of the trilogy.

The darkness is tempered by the lightness of both Morgan’s descriptive and narrative flow which as any of you who have read her blog will know is lyrically steeped in nature and the beauty of art, romance and wordplay. The story does have that fantasy of nature feel that is easily recognised and many of the universal struggles which make this a good read for both adults and the YA market it is aimed at.

As with the first book, there is a continuation of the themes of courage and standing with friends, of trusting and doing what is right. As far as moral tales go, this one has all the right themes, coupled with some action, romance, drama and a little bit of sadistic horror as well which I think covers all the bases. The climactic passages promise for an interesting and more action packed book three, which should be an epic finale to the trilogy.

The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb
The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb
by David John Griffin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Curiosity, 14 Dec. 2015
Thanks to Matthew from Urbane Publications for sending me a review copy of this elegantly Gothic tale, one that feels familiar in all the right places – in a good way – but also has a fresh sort of rampant fiendishness running through it that kept me engrossed right to the end, with its thoroughly entertaining denouement.

The precisely constructed plot is chock full of seduction, blackmail, murder, depravity, madness and secrets aplenty which can’t fail but to appeal to any reader. What makes it more pleasurable is the interspersing of dark comedy from a supporting cast that sound like they are the offspring of characters from a Dickens novel, it’s a fine balance but the comic aspects never ruin the brooding feeling of the novel, if anything it makes the sinister more effective.

The first half feels very reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, the protagonists live almost separate lives in a big, aged house, yet they contrive to make their shared endurance feel like a claustrophobic and uncomfortable existence. This works well with the slow build up, that takes its time to reach a memorable boiling point.

Part two is set thirteen years later and feels the most fluid of the two, plenty has happened in the intervening years and the injection of pace is refreshing, little needs to be set up now and whilst there is no less drama, plot threads seem to be pulled tautly as the conclusion races towards the reader. I was perplexed by one thread, introduced late on and then quickly shunted to the side after one set piece, when I expected more from it. This isn’t a major problem though and I can see why the author did it,

There is plenty of style as well to compliment the substance, the settings are wonderful, all seem to be old and decaying, suggesting impenetrable mysteries and the villagers are fascinating as they seem to rarely meet and when they do, to not form much in the way of relationships, Muchmarsh is an odd place but I like it for its peculiarity and its abiding enigmatic atmosphere.

The book almost feels like one of those stories that is a curiosity but stands up better than most of those types of books, this is one to relish, outside of the norm and satisfying. I found the twists were not always what I was expecting and that engaged me more to this strange town, grounded in the customary way but beneath the surface a chaotic mix of ambiguities and conundrums.

Pale Highway
Pale Highway
Price: £3.88

5.0 out of 5 stars Behind the name is and let’s be fair a pretty cynical business structure in a lot of cases, 20 Nov. 2015
This review is from: Pale Highway (Kindle Edition)
With a growing elderly population, this book serves as not only a character study on one man’s fight against his own mind and body but also to highlight the continuing need to help the older generation and try to understand before it is our turn.

The name of the nursing home where Gabriel resides is the Bright New Day Skilled Nursing Center which is one of those names that by association makes the place sound awfully bleak. Behind the name is and let’s be fair a pretty cynical business structure in a lot of cases, staffed by worker who want to make a difference but are strung out by the lack of help and corner cutting, as the author’s own experiences in this field attest.

It is poignant and refreshing for a book to be written about those who feel forgotten by their relatives and the outside world, it’s perhaps something that should scare, the fear that our bodies could rebel against us and we would end up confused and in one of these centres. This is captured well here, the day-to-day struggles of keeping one’s dignity and constantly finding one’s place in the world make for a sense of dislocation and reorientation something that is more of a habit than innate.

I found it a challenge to focus on the book in hand as opposed to real life as both are so intertwined, which is the book’s strongest point. Fleshing out Gabriel’s character in particular with chapters detailing, in order some of the key moments of his life, allow a compare and contrast with the man we know and the journey he has taken. It’s a rich life, full of vitality and experience, a reminder to us all to pay attention to who we meet and how we can effect one another.

Gabriel’s desire to learn and combat this new and gory – as the author always does so well – virus, whilst simultaneously living with the fear of having his cognitive powers taken away from him lends the book a more dramatic edge, the knowledge that at any moment his illness could debilitate him really makes for a protagonist you cheer on and fear for in equal measures. What is real and what is hallucination and how to tell when both seem equally convincing?

What I liked best about Pale Highway is that it takes on a character who has had it all, has taken pride in his mind that won him a Nobel Prize and now is diminished and feels lesser than the people he lives with. This feeling of the loss of talent and the coping with that realisation is truly saddening and his last chance at the redemption of that is to fight this new plague that is truly horrifying.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom though, the other patients peopling the home are at once as lovable as they are infuriating. There are light moments of whimsy and intrigue and overall this pacy read would make a good addition to any book shelf, as not just a good story but also a study of the character traits of one man and perhaps the frustration of a generation.

North of the North Wind
North of the North Wind
by Nils-Johan Jorgensen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars North of Fantastic, 12 Oct. 2015
A jaunt into Scandinavia is always a welcome thing and sadly this one was over all too quickly, despite slowing my reading so as to thoroughly enjoy the stories therein, alas it had to come to an end. Balancing the short duration of the book though is that I now get to introduce the book to you, which is handy for a site about books.

The first line is my favourite and coincidentally is the perfect introduction to Jørgensen’s world:

In a small village school north of the north wind a new magic world was opening. The children were learning to write.

It’s such a great opening and exudes the feeling of so many different adventures just waiting to be created and read. It’s that lightness, the feeling one gets at the start of a journey to explore the unknown that keeps us enchanted and is the perfect way to kick-start these gentle adventures.

The four stories are varied and distinctive, each of which retains the thread of innocent curiosity about the world that can only come from the experiences of three children learning and attempting to understand life. At its heart the book is more than just four stories for children, it’s a treat that adults will love as well, combining many elements to form a well-rounded reading experience for all the family.

With plenty of vivid imagination, each page underlines how simple ideas – especially in nature – can be captured and turned into wonderful things – most notably through the eyes of children – and free us from the everyday grind. Some books retain that enjoyment of the first read over the course of years and this is one such book, together with the other volumes West of the West Wind and East of the East Wind it makes a fine series so far.

The Mill: Volume 1 (Verge of Desolation)
The Mill: Volume 1 (Verge of Desolation)
by J D H
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.38

5.0 out of 5 stars Millting with Anticipation, 18 Sept. 2015
It’s rare that, when an author contacts me about a potential review ,they also invite me to email any time I fancy a chat. Naturally the opportunity wasn’t allowed to pass by and that personal touch made me intrigued to read this, that and my favourite old local was called The Mill and so nostalgia played its part.

As short as this book is, covering only 160 pages, I was impressed with the amount of story packed into it. The story was certainly not what I was expecting and I’m glad of that as I enjoyed the feeling of being caught off balance as the narrative quickly turns from family drama to a fight for survival.

The Mill, at heart is a bloody Sci-Fi horror (a bit like the pub!) with plenty of wit and one liners thrown in to keep the plot from descending into something much darker and serious. There are plenty of ideas familiar to fans of both genres but those ideas are moulded into something different with enough mystery to keep me wondering about certain things even after the book was finished. The length of course has me hard pressed to mention anything specific without giving out spoilers.

Jen is the vulnerable yet sassy protagonist of the book, she is a character dealing with deep issues of which the book touches on mental health as well as mentioning suicidal thoughts and such. This layering of internal struggles is cleverly subverted though by the experiences and lessons learned throughout. There is a sense of the tragic here, perhaps not in the character herself as much as the opportunities in life lost to her before the events chronicled here.

Despite the gory violence that litters the text, it’s not all macabre, there is plenty of substance in the world building and lots of strange goings on that will make it a book read in one sitting or two at most. The fantastically arty cover makes this one a book to judge by its cover, as it pretty much sums up what you will get; a fast paced, sinister novella which has made this reader interested in finding out about all the unanswered questions and where the story goes from here, which I hope it will.

Unlucky: A Poker Novel
Unlucky: A Poker Novel
by Arthur W. Goodhart
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Not Unlucky to take a gamble on this., 20 April 2015
This review is from: Unlucky: A Poker Novel (Paperback)
Having dabbled in a few friendly hands of Poker yet never really making the effort to follow-up my vague interest – apart from with a few Flash Games when bored – it was probably not surprising that my curiosity would be piqued by a book on the subject. I was curious to see how the game would translate to the page and also if it would be successful in its endeavour, like Stefan Zweig’s book Chess was.

It is essential for a book of this kind to have the rules and terminology reiterated for casual readers and explained for non-players, this is put into the text early on and everything is made clear in a simple way by page 60 so everybody should be up to speed and ready to be submersed in the Poker, of which there is plenty.

The story is told through a series of poker games, I was curious to see how the Poker atmosphere would translate into a book. I enjoyed the way the players came across as natural with plenty of talking about everyday things and the camaraderie and banter of friends being a thinly covered veneer over the competitiveness. It feels real and I believed most of the characters and that gives the book a more immersive quality. There were a few over the top characters but that didn’t really matter as they became characters I loved to hate and hoped they lost their money, in short I was invested because of it.

It is important to point out that the book doesn’t glorify gambling at all but shows the pitfalls for the unwary and the novice, explaining the various tactics of experienced players to part competitors from their money. It is a down-to-earth piece of fiction that will encourage interest in the game but balance it with level-headed advice on what to do and what to avoid.

Reading this book was like a beginner’s guide in story form. There is a big market for Poker these days and a book like this will be more preferable to the dry text-book type of book in explaining how things work. It makes the game more accessible for the casual player and gives some good tips that wouldn’t seem apparent to novices even though they seem obvious when they are revealed. As an extra bonus there was also he ending, which I wasn’t expecting but left me pondering an important message that I had forgotten about whilst being caught up in all the big betting.

WordPlay: How words captivate, illuminate, intimidate, inform, and imbue us with intelligence.
WordPlay: How words captivate, illuminate, intimidate, inform, and imbue us with intelligence.
by Dr. Glenn A. Bassett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.13

4.0 out of 5 stars WordPlay, 11 Mar. 2015
The nuances of one’s own language are a fascinating thing but to compare the meaning of certain words to those of other languages and view them through the social and political landscape makes the way we communicate even more compelling. Language is shared collective experience of history, a record of societal beliefs, take the Aborigines for example, they have no word for freedom because they have no concept of it in the way that plenty of other cultures do, it brings to the fore how understanding a culture properly goes hand in hand with learning the language.

As the bloggers that most of you reading this are, when we write things we perhaps do so from the perspective of our own language, this book is a wake up call for choosing our words with more care for clarity. To consider others who have English as a second or third language, it makes the choice of words and the way we communicate seem more important, it feels almost like there is an art for picking the precise words to convey my thoughts.

WordPlay is a primer, it features lots of points I am familiar with as well as others that were pleasingly new, there is an understandably American flavour (or is that flavor?) which is understandable as the author is from over that side of the pond. Being intelligent people who use words I think that a lot of you reading this will already recognise Bassett’s views on political, scientific and philosophical (amongst others) uses of words from their own thoughts but will get a stronger and more confident feel from reading the book.

The inclusion of well-known strands of arguments is not the niggle it may be with other books because the style of writing and the love of words shine through and even the most recognisable themes are backed up with informative and though provoking information. Etymology, abstractions and many more facets are mixed in to give a comprehensive starter to understanding the wonders of language in more depth. It seems strange to consider the British idea of fair play is not something universal, which is perhaps why we tend to root for the under dogs with something akin to obsession. Yet to understand this sense of my own language is to understand my own culture better, these off the cuff words I throw around are so much richer than previously thought.

Ideas are formed into words, words communicate something much more intimate than any other medium of communication. This books subtitle: How Words Captivate, Illuminate, Intimidate, Inform and Imbue us With Intelligence is precisely what it does and I think it’s a great read and will allow you to think of language in new ways and change the way you communicate.

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