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David Williams
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War Horse: Special Gift Edition
War Horse: Special Gift Edition
by Michael Morpurgo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars War from the horse's mouth, 10 Nov. 2012
Having first come to this story through the film and play (my neighbour's son was a puppeteer in the original and superb National Theatre production) I was surprised to find that the book is already thirty years old. Like the best of classic children's novels it is of course ageless even though it deals with a very specific and sad time in world history, The First World War. Though this subject has been much covered in the past, to witness it from the viewpoint of one of the horses involved in the conflict is both innovative and challenging, and of course very appealing to children. Morpurgo is not the first to use a horse as a narrative voice (Anna Sewell, most famously, in 'Black Beauty' which I remember reading while ill in bed with some childhood infection)but he does it very well and it allows him the advantage of being able to describe the horrors of war at one remove so that he can remain close to the action without unnecessarily upsetting younger readers. It takes a little leap of faith on behalf of the adult reader to accept an astonishingly articulate horse who can apparently understand English, German and French without any difficulty, but it would be no problem for the target audience to suspend disbelief and we should too, thus allowing us to enjoy a troubled, often exciting and thoroughly warm-hearted adventure.


The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Its power still resonates a century on., 7 Nov. 2012
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This biting and bitter social satire was declined by publishers in Robert Tressell's lifetime which says much about the prevailing social order that the novel criticises, for it is as uncomfortable for the establishment as it is powerful for the reader. It is now a century since it was written but the book (sometimes called the bible of socialism, sometimes the first working class novel) remains as broadly relevant today as it did in the period just before the First World War. Under the surface of apparent progress surprisingly litte has changed with respect to class distinction and social economic status in the western world: the rich still wax fat on the labours of the poor; politicians still rise to power on empty promises that are swallowed whole by a deluded electorate.

Robert Tressell was the pen-name of Robert Noonan. Fittingly the name was taken from the decorator's 'tressell' for Noonan was himself a decorator and signwriter. The central characters in his novel are a set of impoverished painters and decorators whose work and lives are examined in relation to each other, their struggling families and their grasping employers. The book is overtly political and occasionally doctrinaire - setting the principles of socialism (as a theoretical ideal) against the unjust realities of capitalism - but it also has a strong narrative and characterisation played out in credible if oppressive situations. There is humour too, which serves to season the prevailing mood of near-despair.

Tressell's only work may lack the subtlety of, say, George Orwell, but it greatly influenced Orwell and other political writers when they were finally able to read it. It is a pity that Robert Noonan died without knowing his ambition to be published would eventually be realised and unaware of how seminal his book, written in angry sincerity, would become. Even if he knew this, however, he would doubtless remain disappointed that socialism as he understood it has never genuinely been tried while, after flirting with mixed economies, most western nations have reverted to a capitalist system as virulent as the one he knew. Plus ça change.

Reviewer David Williams blogs regularly as Writer in the North.


The Moonstone
The Moonstone
Price: £0.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Detective classic, 20 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: The Moonstone (Kindle Edition)
I think this is generally recognized as English literature's first detective story. It certainly provides some useful patterns for others to follow, and like all great detective stories keeps the reader gripped and guessing from first till last.

Wilkie Collins was a contemporary and friend of Dickens, and there are similarities of style, though in general Collins is less given to authorial moralising or the use of the extended metaphor. Both employ the mini-climax technique to keep us turning the pages. Collins has other clever tricks up his sleeve. I particularly enjoy his multi-narrative structure, where the responsibility for telling different parts of the story is passed on from one character to another. Collins does a superb job with voice and characterisation of both male and female narrators - my favourites were the loyal servant Gabriel Betteredge with his passion for his pipe and 'Robinson Crusoe' (preferably together), and the prudish Miss Clack, a wonderful comic study in sanctimonious egotism. It is interesting also, for the modern reader who may have read Kate Summerscale's 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' to see the famous real-life Victorian detective portrayed in fictional form here as Sergeant Cuff.

Like most 19th Century novels 'The Moonstone' is quite long, but there is always something interesting going on and the denouement is more than satisfactory.


The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray
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4.0 out of 5 stars Succeeds on many levels, 10 Oct. 2012
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I knew the central theme of this book so well that I had almost persuaded myself I had read it, but I am glad to have convinced myself otherwise as I would have missed out on a pearl. It works on several levels: first as a superior horror story, with Dorian Gray effectively selling his soul for eternal youth, with all the marks not only age but of debauchery, sin and eventually murder appearing on the portrait which he has locked away in his attic; secondly a morality tale of vice, remorse and retribution; thirdly as a philosophical discourse on hedonism and its consequencs as practised by a section of the upper classes in late Victorian society; finally as a comment on contemporary attitudes to homosexuality, still illegal at this time and for the best part of a century afterwards (the author Oscar Wilde was of course notoriously imprisoned for transgression).

The language is deliberately mannered and at times almost overblown, teeming with typical Wildean epigrams and paradoxes which are usually articulated by Gray's mentor, the cynical Lord Henry Wotton, who leads Gray into self-destructive pleasure-seeking. In the background of the narrative nature imagery abounds, setting into relief the stiflingly artificial lives and discourses of high society.

The novel might best be described as a blend of gripping story and moral essay or discussion involving the active participants (like Plato's'Republic'). It is the story, however, and the final image of bloody atonement, that remains longest in the memory and for which the book is justly famous.

Reviewer David Williams blogs regularly as Writer in the North.


I Know You Really Love ME
I Know You Really Love ME
by Doreen Orion
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and thoughtful true account, 25 Sept. 2012
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This exploration of erotomania is as interesting and valid today (I am writing this review in 2012) as when it was first published in 1997. Written with scientific authority, it's doubly powerful in that the author, psychiatrist Doreen Orion, is speaking from her personal experience of being 'stalked' by a female patient she calls Fran who clings onto the delusion that the two of them have a lesbian love relationship. At the time of publication this 'affair' had already gone on eight years and counting, surviving a series of restraining orders, spells by Fran in a mental hospital and a prison, and even a move by Dr Orion and her fiancee across two states - Fran simply moved right to the same town, despite the author's enormous efforts to wipe away all evidence of her own move and clues to her whereabouts.

At the beginning of the book - which is narrated chronologically and skilfully mixes illuminating commentary into a gripping novel-like narrative structure - Dr Orion knew nothing about erotomania (the delusional but sincerely held belief that the 'object' is in love with the erotomanic), not even the name of the condition. Eight years on, she had become an expert, a campaigner and a lecturer in the subject, having researched as much as she could to understand what was happening to her, and ultimately to help others. The reader gets many of the fruits of this research delivered in a style very accessible to the general reader and including other fascinating case studies such as celebrity victims Madonna and David Letterman, and some tragic ones too, for some frustrated erotomanics turn to revenge and retribution with acts of violence and even murder.

It seems there is no known cure for erotomania, and little medication can do. Therapy doesn't help - erotomanics cannot be talked out of what they honestly believe to be true; what is the problem? The only relief for some victims is that sometimes their pursuers move on to other love objects. I'd like to think that by now Fran has moved on from the guiltless Dr Orion, except (and I know the author feels this too) this simply means more suffering for another victim.

I understand from a online reference I read just now that there is an updated version of this book, so perhaps new readers will find some kind of end to the story there. I hope it's a happy one.

Reviewer David Williams blogs regularly as Writer in the North.


Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
Price: £4.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not up to his usual high standard, 17 Sept. 2012
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
I always expect so much of an Ian McEwan novel that when one slightly disappoints it really disappoints. In truth, I have given three stars out of respect for the author more than for the novel, which I won't be reading again (though I am currenly listening to the recorded serialisation from the BBC's Book at Bedtime).

Plot-wise there are too many false set-ups, starting with the opening couple of sentences: 'My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely.' Now, I'm no great fan of the spy story, but having been tempted in with such self-advertised promise it was a real let-down to be served porridge as it might be cooked in a 1970s English seaside B&B; porridge which is anyway removed by the landlord before it's eaten, and replaced by another unexciting course. Or to move the metaphor into more familiar territory for the genre, it's like being offered fantastic sex only to find oneself engaged in an unadventurous affair that 'ends' in coitus interruptus.

Serena's 'mission' - to recruit a first-time novelist who will unwittingly accept funding from MI5 who have some vague hope that he will turn out a story that is a) pro-establishment/anti-communist and b) highly successful and influential - is neither gripping nor credible. That the writer Tom Haley, having been thus recruited, goes on to write a novel at apparently breakneck speed that immediately wins a major literary prize and another book within the short space of this narrative that is meant to upend Serena's (and our) expectations is a device too far for this particular reader.

Yet it is not plot but character and tone that left me most dissatisfied. McEwan is usually pitch-perfect. His characters chime with the times and he provides subtle but revealing psychological insights through and of his protagonists. I don't know whether it has anything to do with his choice of a female voice to deliver a first person narrative, but this time I was not convinced. Serena gives us her history articulately but with all the passion of a cv. She records her emotions but somehow is unable to convey them in more than mere words.

I felt no whirl in any of her relationships - with Jeremy, with Tony, with Max or with Tom - despite her professions and her descriptions of their lovemaking. Consequently, none of these characters lived for me. With the exception of Tony, I found it difficult even to get a handle on how old or young they were, relying on contextual evidence as a reminder of what I was meant to imagine. Max is a cardboard career civil servant - his drunken but apparently sincere declaration of love for Serena (a significant development in the story) left me as cold as he is. Tom, according to what Serena tells us, is attractive, desirable and sensuous, but I could only take her word for it - I did not 'feel' Tom at all, which is a major drawback in appreciating the central relationship, the spindle upon which the story is meant to turn.

Essentially, I didn't care enough either about the plot or the relationships to engage fully with this novel. McEwan blows into life several small flames of action, using some of them as a torch to lead us down wrong tunnels, but that merely frustrates, and the one main flame is too weak to create a real conflagration. Of course the story is competently written and there is some of the old McEwan art to admire, but that ain't enough for a modern author of whom (like Tom Haley in the novel) much is expected. This book, like its central characters, lacks real substance and fails to capture heart or mind.


Barry Lyndon
Barry Lyndon
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertainment in the company of a rogue, 6 Sept. 2012
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This review is from: Barry Lyndon (Kindle Edition)
This satire of manners is narrated by the eponymous 'hero', though only he gives himself that epithet. Barry Lyndon is possibly the most unreliable narrator in English literature, and there is a great deal of entertainment to be had in contrasting his version of characters and events with the truth that peeps out through the pages. It is good fun to be shown aspects of eighteenth century high society with all its hypocrisy and foibles in the company of a (largely) lovable scoundrel, though his relentless boasting does occasionally become tedious. I learned a lot about fashionable society and its dirty linen, laughed a lot at Lyndon's cock-eyed self-image (as delusive as Don Quixote's), and even felt a tinge of sadness at his demise, however deserved.

Reviewer David Williams blogs regularly as Writer in the North.


Call of the Wild & White Fang: AND White Fang (Wordsworth Classics)
Call of the Wild & White Fang: AND White Fang (Wordsworth Classics)
by Jack London
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An exciting combination, 10 Aug. 2012
I found it interesting to compare what might be described as the 'dog wolf' novels of Jack London collected here. There was something slightly more anthropomorphic about 'Call of the Wild' and certainly more emphasis on the bond between Buck and his various human owners (especially his last owner John Thornton). The climax of this novel, where Buck finally answers the 'call' and joins the wild wolves, anticipates the 'White Fang' story which is darker and closer to nature.

Despite stylistic faults in both novels, I would say that the writing is richer in 'White Fang' (if ponderous on occasion) but some of the set-piece incidents in 'Call of the Wild' - such as Thornton's wager that Buck could singlehandedly break out a thousand pound sled load and pull it one hundred yards - are as exciting as I remember them as a boy reader.

In 'White Fang' the later chapters in particular are too obviously allegorical and predictable - but it is equally rugged, energetic and thrilling. London excels at seeing the world through the dog wolf's eyes, and he also manages the difficult and necessary task of shifting the narrative viewpoint occasionally to move the story along at critical points.

With both books he is least successful with his human portrayals, especially the dialogue which reads as if it has been written on cardboard with too thick a pen, but he is entirely at home in the Yukon where it stands on the cusp between traditional existence and 'civilisation' in the trail of the gold rush. His evocation of the animal and human struggles in these harsh surroundings - with very survival constantly under threat - is supremely vivid and vital, inked as it were in blood.

Reviewer David Williams blogs regularly as Writer in the North.


Call of the wild
Call of the wild

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thrilling read for all ages, 10 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Call of the wild (Kindle Edition)
I followed up my recent reading of 'White Fang' with rereading of this earlier Jack London novel, and they made an interesting comparison. There was something slightly more anthropomorphic about 'Call of the Wild' and certainly more emphasis on the bond between Buck and his various human owners (especially his last owner John Thornton). The climax of this novel, where Buck finally answers the 'call' and joins the wild wolves, anticipates the 'White Fang' story which is darker and closer to nature. I would say that the writing is richer and more mature in 'White Fang' but some of the set-piece incidents here - such as Thornton's wager that Buck could singlehandedly break out a thousand pound sled load and pull it one hundred yards - are as exciting as I remember them as a boy reader.

Reviewer David Williams blogs regularly as Writer in the North.


White Fang
White Fang
Price: £0.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling and evocative, 27 July 2012
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This review is from: White Fang (Kindle Edition)
Though I responded with boyish enthusiasm to 'The Call of the Wild' many years ago and it re-echoes in memory, I had not read 'White Fang' or any of London's other books until now. I don't think 'White Fang' quite compares with its companion novel stylistically - the later chapters in particular are too obviously allegorical and predictable - but it is equally rugged, energetic and thrilling. London excels at seeing the world through the dog wolf's eyes, and he also manages the difficult and necessary task of shifting the narrative viewpoint occasionally to move the story along at critical points. He is least successful with his human portrayals, especially the dialogue which reads as if it has been written on cardboard with too thick a pen, but he is entirely at home in the Yukon where it stands on the cusp between traditional existence and 'civilisation' in the trail of the gold rush. His evocation of the animal and human struggles in these harsh surroundings - with very survival constantly under threat - is supremely vivid and vital, inked as it were in blood.

Reviewer David Williams writes a regular blog as Writer in the North.


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