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Sheenagh Pugh "Sheenagh Pugh" (Shetland)
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Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
by Dr Neil MacGregor
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A world brought brilliantly alive, 24 Nov. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This book is both the most information, and the most fun, I have had all year. I missed the BBC radio series on which it was based, so it was all new to me. Basically, it takes 20 objects that were current in Shakespeare's time and place, from a fork dropped in the theatre, through plague proclamations, Henry V's armour and a model ship, to the hapless designs for a union flag commissioned by King James, and uses these objects to illuminate the plays. All the way through, I was muttering "why did I never think of that before?" Reading or seeing the plays in isolation from their context, one can easily forget that, for instance, Shakespeare was 16 when Francis Drake circumnavigated the world and that this had generated a fashion for maps and globes that makes the name of his most famous theatre seem a lot more topical and relevant than we might have thought.

The book is full of fascinating and useful information (eg the price of admission to the theatre, one penny, which was the same as the price of admission to see Henry V's armour in Westminster Abbey). And the fact that theatre performances and afternoon church services both began at 2pm, which explains a lot of church hostility to the theatre. It is also, having been co-produced by BBC Radio and the British Museum as well as the publisher, Allen Lane, full of fascinating and beautifully produced illustrations of the objects in question. Strangely enough, I didn't find the human eye in a reliquary anywhere near as moving as Henry's battered, shabby shield or the fancy fork engraved with its careless owner's initials, A.N.

Paradoxically, the firmness with which the book locates Shakespeare in his own time and place merely emphasises his universal, timeless relevance, with which the last chapter is rather movingly concerned. This book is beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated (the 20 objects are only the start of it) but above all, the text is intelligent, thoughtful and penetrating, giving a genuinely novel and informative angle on the plays. Let's never forget that it came about as a result of a radio series by one of the very few broadcasters that would have undertaken such a project. The BBC is as much of a cultural asset to our time as Shakespeare was to his; we'd surely miss this kind of enterprise if we didn't have Auntie.


The Rough Guide to Wales
The Rough Guide to Wales
by Catherine Le Nevez
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not a lot of change, 21 Nov. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's always hard to review a wide-ranging guide so I'll say at the start that I am basing this on the two places I know really well: Cardiff and Carmarthen, and using what the book has to say on these as a guide to its general quality. One general thing I will say, though: I can't see that the Guide has changed much in this edition - maybe not enough to justify buying it if you already have the last one. Now, granted, Snowdonia won't have altered much, but Cardiff has, and I don't think the guide has kept up well with its very speedy recent development. Its recommendations for eating strike me as meagre and outdated, for a start, and there's little sense of how buzzing the city currently is.

As for Carmarthen, another place that's changed a lot lately, the guide is dismissive, suggesting the place has little for tourists and that they should stay elsewhere. Well, it's true there are not many specific Things To See, but that isn't all a place is about. Carmarthen has excellent shopping (even a Nomads outlet, which is far from usual in Wales), good transport connections and is a tidy, pleasant little town which would actually make a very good base to explore West Wales from. And what you want in a base isn't necessarily lots of attractions, but a relaxing, pleasant atmosphere.

As usual, the guide is good on transport links and has all the basic information you would need to tour the country. But if you still have the last edition, I wouldn't rush to get this one.


A History of the World in Twelve Maps
A History of the World in Twelve Maps
by Jerry Brotton
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The way we see it, 18 Nov. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is an absolutely fascinating book. It costs £30 in the shops, and if I'd had to buy it, rather than getting it free via Vine, I might have thought twice, but I'd have been wrong - it's worth every penny. The price is down to the intricate, high-quality illustrations, essential in a book about how people have chosen to illustrate the world.

From the start, he stresses how maps have agendas; very few are just diagrams of where A lies in relation to B, and even then, the mere choice of A and B implies a measure of importance attached to them, as opposed to C and D. The Hereford mappamundi is, in terms of geography, laughably inaccurate even for its time, because the mapmaker was far more interested in the next world; it was for him an expression of the supremacy of Christianity (and possibly also of his dead and slightly disgraced patron, a fascinating side-issue). Map agendas can include empire, discovery, politics and several others - though the Greeks like Ptolemy, for all their Graeco-centric world view, did come at it from a scientific viewpoint which is truly impressive over the centuries.

The author is an academic and the book is serious and closely argued, but it is not written in any sort of impenetrable jargon; it is readable and always very informative. One of its best aspects is its awareness of the intellectual world beyond Europe: both Arabic and Far Eastern mapmakers figure heavily. If I wanted to carp, I would point out that the centre of an egg is the "yolk" not the "yoke" and that both author and proof-reader should have spotted this repeated typo! But I spotted no others and this is a seriously impressive volume.


01: The Obsidian Mirror (Shakespeare Quartet)
01: The Obsidian Mirror (Shakespeare Quartet)
by Catherine Fisher
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As gripping as a cold winter, 27 Oct. 2012
Catherine Fisher's many fans will be delighted to hear that her latest, "The Obsidian Mirror", is the start of a sequence. Fisher works differently, I think, in standalone books and sequences. The standalones, like "Crown of Acorns", "Darkhenge" and "Corbenic", tend to focus on some deep-seated trauma in the young protagonist's mind; he or she will, via the medium of fantasy, find some way of living with reality. The journey is essentially a foray through an individual mind. In the sequences, Fisher can show her immense craft at world-building (as in the two Incarceron novels, where a misguided attempt to halt change and development has resulted in a world of fake surfaces and hidden realities rather like a film set). In these sequences, though the protagonist will still have his/her own issues to work out, there is also a whole universe of equally fascinating minor characters with their own journeys, sometimes parallel, sometimes interlocking. They are already emerging here as they did in "The Book of the Crow", her last work on this scale, and I'm already particularly invested in Molly, a Victorian street urchin of immense character and resourcefulness of whom we shall surely see more in the next volume.

The workings of time have always been a fascination of Fisher's; in "Corbenic", Cal gets off at the wrong station and finds himself in Arthurian times, while in "Crown of Acorns" three stories, from different times in history, run parallel. But this is the first book of hers I recall in which the possible mechanics of time travel have played any part. The mirror of the title is a way of travelling in time, and both a man, Venn, and a boy, Jake, are trying to use it for personal ends, while another character, from a different time, is trying to destroy it for altruistic reasons. At least, that's how things seem now; anyone acquainted with Fisher's ability to produce plot twists that are both credible and surprising will be wary of coming to any definite conclusion on motives for some time yet.

Another Fisher signature which I am personally delighted to see reappearing is her fascination with cold. Anyone who recalls the gripping imaginative prose of the Snow-Walker trilogy will be happy to find themselves back in the depths of winter, and these descriptions are among the most memorable passages in the book: the moon "a silver fingernail through the branches", the snow that "fell in slow diagonals, twirling out of the dark". One of the most striking moments is when the wood-dwellers emerge:

The Shee were flocking from the wood. They carried bells and chimes, many beat drums and the deep throbbing rhythm made starlings rise from the trees and call to each other across the sky. The snow had stopped falling; now it lay deep and still and the clouds were clearing. High above, like a dust of diamonds on black velvet, the stars were coming out, sherds and slivers of brilliance, eerie over the frozen Wood and the blue-white hummocks of the lawns.

As usual, the narrative impulse was so strong that I devoured the thing in a ridiculous hurry and will need to re-read. But I'm already completely hooked. The sequence is currently set to comprise hopefully four books, possibly three. The more the better, I say.


200 Super Soups: Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook
200 Super Soups: Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook
by Sara Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent resource, 13 Sept. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This does very much what it says on the tin. The pictures are lovely, the instructions clear and there are some very tempting recipes. Even the print size, for once, is easy to read, and the paper is good, sturdy quality, important in a kitchen book that gets a lot of use. My only cavil is the organisation, into sections like "speedy soups", "winter warmers", "something special", "around the world" and others. In the first place, several soups could fit into two or even three of these. I think a more sensible way to organise would have been in terms of ingredients - vegetarian, meat-based, fish-based etc. But this is a minor point against a very good resource. It doesn't expect you to have a stockpot on the go and is good at suggesting alternative ingredients, so the recipes are very versatile. Very cheap, for the quality.


Vodafone Smart II Pay As You Go Handset - Grey
Vodafone Smart II Pay As You Go Handset - Grey
Offered by Technomobiles
Price: £49.42

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good choice for a beginner, 6 Sept. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
(This review comes courtesy of my daughter, since though she may be a Luddite, I'm more stone age when it comes to hi-tech stuff).

I'm a bit of a luddite when it comes to mobile `phone technology and this is the first smartphone I've had the chance to play around with, so I don't have a context in which to place it - I've no idea how it compares to other budget models or more expensive packages. But as a first smartphone for someone who doesn't regularly use a mobile, I find this handset well suited to my needs. It feels like a good solid build (albeit with a weird two-piece backpiece that seems more complicated than necessary). The screen offers good visibility indoors, but is hard to use in strong sunlight. It does pick up a fair few fingerprints, but they're only visible when viewing at an angle.

Even as a complete novice I'm finding the various functions quite easy to get to grips with. It does everything I'd expect it to do and countless things I don't need it to. The camera, for example, is far from amazing (though perfectly adequate for casual use), but I don't mind because I have a camera. I'm primarily using it to browse the net in wifi hotspots, and it's doing the job perfectly well and at a decent speed. I'm still learning the `phone's various shortcuts but I find it pretty easy to navigate, if I'm patient about zooming and scrolling. I'm in an area with very patchy mobile coverage, but Vodafone's signal is by far the best of the bunch.

I do find the touchscreen keyboard a little awkward to use, though I'm improving with practice - it does tend to select letters to either side of the one I'm aiming for (less so when I remember to turn it on its side). I don't know whether or not that's down to my clumsiness, but I doubt it'd be a good choice for anyone with reduced manual dexterity (though it does offer swype and vocal input options as well, at least for some functions - I've yet to discover how to reliably activate them).

I understand from reading other reviews that some users have found the battery life disappointing, even on standby: I seldom leave the `phone on standby for long periods (as I'm not an enthusiastic mobile user I tend to turn it on only when I know I'm expecting a call or want to make one) or use it to browse the internet for more than 10-20 minutes at a time, so for me the battery life isn't an issue, but that's something to consider if you're more than a casual mobile user.

So while one ought to bear in mind that I'm a) inexperienced and b) still overexcited by the very notion of free wifi via a mobile, I'm more than happy with this `phone. I didn't pay for it as it was received through Amazon Vine and if I were going to buy a budget PaYG smartphone (with my current level of usage I'd not consider a contract) I'd definitely shop around, but I think this model is pretty good value and well suited to my needs.


Albert of Adelaide
Albert of Adelaide
by Howard L. Anderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a journey I'll do again, 5 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Albert of Adelaide (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I couldn't resist trying this novel because of the quirky blurb, but I was slightly worried that, as so often happens with quirky blurbs, it would turn out to be the best thing about the book, and sure enough, it did.

Just to make clear what it isn't, because it would be possible to be unintentionally misled by the blurb into thinking this was (a) a comedy romp or (b) aimed at children. It is neither; it's a quite serious adult fantasy novel whose main characters are Australian marsupials who wear clothes, carry guns and eat tinned sardines, among many other things. Now there's no reason this can't work, in theory; you suspend your disbelief and accept that fantasy universes have different rules. Talking, clothed mules work for Magnus Mills in "Explorers of the New Century"; a platypus on a quest, accompanied by an arsonist wombat and encountering a Tasmanian Devil who is clearly an avatar of Conrad's Kurtz from "Heart of Darkness" could work here. But it didn't, for me. This is partly because the writing style itself is rather flat and over-explanatory - at one point he spends a paragraph explaining that Albert can't go into town because his face is on a wanted poster, a fact so blindingly obvious that it had never even occurred to me to question why someone else goes instead.

The other reason is that, when writing a fantasy, it is necessary to be very well acquainted with the reality in which it is grounded, which I don't think he is. He's an American who has never set foot in Australia; this alone needn't prevent his depictions of it from convincing, but they don't really come alive for me. More seriously, he doesn't seem at all well informed about the nature of modern zoos in advanced countries, nor indeed about animal nature in some respects. His notion that Albert would hate routine is wrong, for instance; most animals in the wild have a pretty predictable daily routine, centring on food, shelter and the finding of a mate; they don't seek variety for its own sake. As for his imagined depiction of Albert's life in a zoo which, given the constraints of the book, can only be Adelaide, it's frankly ludicrous and if I ran that respected institution, which is far more concerned with conservation than exhibition, I'd be contemplating legal action. The zoo itself doesn't even house any platypus; they can be seen at a special wildlife sanctuary that bears no resemblance to the uncaring prison described in the book. Does this matter in a fictional work? I think it does; fantasy needs to be grounded in its own reality and this glaring inaccuracy threw me out from the start. Another way in which it fails, in my view, to create its own internally consistent reality is the difficulty, throughout, of visualising whether the animals are meant to be walking on two or four feet.

What the book's actually about, I'm still unsure; it is a quest-novel about getting back to an imagined state of innocence and I don't think the nods to "Heart of Darkness" can be accidental; indeed I'm not sure he doesn't want us to see the dingoes as representative in some way of Aborigines, while the kangaroos and wallabies are a representation of the European population - a dodgy tactic, if so. But to me it doesn't feel well enough imagined or researched. I'm also livid about an elementary grammatical error that happens twice in the book, once on the last page: "Albert lay Jack on a blanket". NOOOO! Albert LAID Jack on a blanket: "Lay" is the present tense of the transitive verb to lay, ie to put down, and the past tense of the intransitive verb to lie, ie to recline. I lie on a bed; I lay on a bed. I lay something down; I laid something down. This is junior-school stuff; if the author didn't know it, the editor at the publishing house damn well should have done.

An interesting concept, but a fantasy, for me, that never really took off or convinced.


Lightning Beneath the Sea
Lightning Beneath the Sea
by Grahame Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great command, just loosen up a bit, 11 July 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the first poetry collection in English by a writer who is already noted for both poetry and prose in Welsh. Some of the poems in it were composed in English, some first composed in Welsh and then translated by the poet.

There's a poem in it called "Sweet Peas" , which I want to discuss in some detail, not only because I like it very much but because it completely avoids certain dangers he doesn't wholly avoid elsewhere. It is an iambic conversation-poem in the manner of Robert Frost, quite deliberately, since it deals with a packet of seeds bought at Frost's house in Vermont and replanted in Wales, so far without success. The one detail I would alter about this poem is the way it's set out on the page. Where a line begins in voice, I don't think it needs indenting, and where the voice changes mid-line I would drop the line and indent the next beyond it (as indeed Frost does). I'd give a demo, if only Amazon allowed indentation...

But other than that, this poem strikes me as a triumph. It is iambic in that ambling conversational Frost style that seems so natural as to be unnoticeable, and its underlying intent is similarly understated. It shows without obtrusively telling, as when the man suggests reasons for the seeds' failure:

"Maybe they just don't travel very well.
Perhaps the earth is colder over here."
She doesn't answer. On the greenhouse door
the paint has blistered in last summer's sun.

There is a strong implication that what is really not flourishing is the relationship, but this is never made explicit, even at the end:

"We'll leave them here and if they come, they come."
A cloud has stepped between us and the light.
We close the door to keep the warmth inside.
"Another week, perhaps..."
"Perhaps", she says.

The sombre mood of this poem, with its doubtful hint of last-chances at the end, seems to me beautifully done, and the technique is handled as surely as the emotion -is indeed part of what creates it. The iambic pentameter suits both the poem's mood and the Frost-homage, and the openness of the ending reflects an assurance that trusts the reader to experience the poem without being guided by signposts.

There are other poems here that do this - "Quarry" and "Goodbye", among them, have the same preservation of mystery, the sense that not all the back-story has been spelled out, or needs to be. In others, I think he does tell too much. The first two verses of "Remembrance of Things Past" are plain unnecessary, the sort of preliminary explanation one might put in a reading, or indeed a lecture; the poem would work far better if it started at verse 3. More often, I think his last lines seek to close things off too tidily; you can sometimes see them striving to make a point. "Hoodie", until the end, is tense and sharply observed:

his shadowed cheeks unlined
but somehow not because he was not old
but more as though he had been young too long,
like for a lifetime, for eternity.

But the end,

His hand comes up, as if on puppet strings,
and mine goes out and takes it, and we're one.

feels like an attempt at a Meaningful Moment that doesn't come off. It isn't really earned for a start; the gesture comes out of nowhere and feels unconvincing.

As is clear from the quotes above, Davies has a real flair for coining sharp, pithy phrases that get to the nub of the matter. He is a thoughtful, meditative, serious poet and well worth reading. What I think he most needs to be is less tidy. Peter Finch's description of these poems as "the meeting of form with freedom" is only sometimes true;. Sometimes the prevalence, not to mention the regularity, of Davies's favoured iambic pentameter becomes oppressive. This is especially so in his villanelles, the tidiest form in the world and potentially the deadest - the end is, after all, predetermined from the first three lines on. I must admit villanelles seldom work for me unless the poet subverts them somehow - "Song for Samhain" does it to some extent by varying the line length, but mostly his use of this form is nothing if not conventional. He is really skilled with form, but I would like to see him use it more as Paul Muldoon and Paul Henry do, with their disguised sestinas and variant rondeaux that you only notice on a second or third reading.

This is a good, interesting collection, but I think there will be a better yet to come from this poet, one which manages not to look as if it's trying quite so hard.When it does work, his formal command and pithy pay-off lines can be superb, nowhere more so than in "Transmitter Stations":

Imagine what it must be like to work
in one of these. The gate locked shut behind,
the solitude - not loneliness - the shifts,
the cups of tea to mark the passing hours;
inside, electric warmth, outside, the wind.
And all the time, sending your message out.
Ideal, really, when you think of it.


Tony Robinson's Weird World of Wonders! Romans (Sir Tony Robinson's Weird World of Wonders)
Tony Robinson's Weird World of Wonders! Romans (Sir Tony Robinson's Weird World of Wonders)
by Sir Tony Robinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Eheu, Antoni!, 19 May 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Damn, I like Tony Robinson and I wanted to like this book, which seems to be one of the first in a series of history books written for children. I applaud the idea, which is to make history, the world's most fascinating subject, interesting to children, but I think it could have been a lot better done.

There are loads of graphics, pictures, insets, text boxes etc, clearly with the aim of making it look as little like a book, and as much like a website, as possible. I can see the thinking behind that, but in order to make it work, you need a large format, and colour printing. This has been done on the cheap, in a small-format paperback with no colour, and the result is pages that manage to look both dull and cluttered.

As for the text, it is in many places overly joky; Horrible Histories with more facts, and I think it falls between two audiences - children old and intelligent enough to have a genuine interest in history will find the relentless jokiness patronising, while younger ones who might respond to the jokes will find the information a bit overwhelming. There is a lot of text, some of it informative, but though I recognise that it needs to be kept simple, sometimes this is overdone to the point of being misleading - eg on slaves buying their freedom; "this was pretty difficult though, because slaves weren't paid anything". Well... they were allowed to make money in various ways, and though their earnings technically belonged to their master, by tradition they were allowed to keep at least some (the "peculium"), which they could indeed save toward their freedom; it wasn't as rare a process as that quote would lead one to think.

i don't want to be entirely negative; there really is a lot of information here and the basic purpose of the series is a vital one. But the publisher needs to show a bit of faith in the concept and spend more money on the formatting, while the author needs to have more faith in his ability to keep children's interest without inserting a joke every second sentence.


On the Cold Coasts
On the Cold Coasts
by Vilborg Davidsdottir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lost in translation, indeed., 5 May 2012
This review is from: On the Cold Coasts (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a translation of a novel set in 14th-century Iceland, an interesting place and period, but I began to worry when the cliches started piling up in the first few pages - in the blink of an eye, pale and wan, the kiss of death, in her mind's eye - all within two pages. What I don't know for sure is whether to blame this on the author or the translator. Similarly, calling girls "wenches" might be the translator reflecting deliberate but ill-advised archaism on the writer's part.

But certain things are undoubtedly the translator's fault. She has lived in English-speaking countries but English is clearly not her native language and I don't think any literary translator can work into a non-native tongue; the idiom just isn't natural to them. No native speaker would repeatedly refer to rowdy sailors as "ribalds", an adjective-derived noun I have never seen or heard used in English. ("Rowdies", now, would have been OK.) Nor would a native speaker construct the remarkable phrase "the bishop had taken along with him a sympatic entourage" - yes, that's sympatic not sympathetic. It means he was accompanied by his fellow-countrymen, but that's the trouble; native English speakers frequently need a translation of this translation.

I'd have to blame the author, though, for my dissatisfaction with the story's structure. There are two narrative arcs, one concerning the changing relationship between Ragna, the book's protagonist, and her lover Thorkell, the other concerning Ragna's half-English son Michael and his search for his paternal heritage. The second is never resolved, it just peters out at the end of the novel, while the first seems to be resolved very suddenly and not entirely convincingly.

There are some good things about this book; the characters convince and the story of Ragna and Thorkell is interesting in itself, as is the background of Iceland's diplomatic and ecclesiastical history. But in the end it isn't the story that matters in a novel, it's the way you tell it, and in this case, translate it.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 30, 2012 10:33 AM BST


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