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Bob Ventos "Bob Ventos" (UK)

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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Wordsworth Classics)
The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Wordsworth Classics)
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Dullest Ever Book About A Secret Agent, 21 April 2014
This has such a promising title but is such a dull read. The bomb-plot (or so it seemed to me) is pedestrian in idea, execution and presentation. The police do nothing clever in their detection, since the bomber has his address sewn in his coat. The twists, such as they are, are either telegraphed or credibility-straining (the time-jumps, I guess, attempt to disguise how plodding and linear the narrative actually is). Pace-wise, we typically get: a long paragraph telling us everything about a character. Then several long paragraphs of backstory about another character. Then some reported speech between them about a third character, and then backstory about that character. If we’re lucky, finally, some direct speech either embroidered with repetitions and explanations (‘”Theoretically. Theoretically only, on foreign territory; abroad only by a fiction,” said the Assistant Commissioner, alluding to the character of Embassies, which are supposed to be part and parcel of the country to which they belong.’) or abruptly veering to melodrama (“If he comes in kill me—kill me, Tom.”).

But perhaps it shouldn’t be judged as a thriller but as a literary novel. Leave aside its arch and misanthropic tone; the seeming pointlessness of many sections (the Italian restaurant?); how we often get told what we already know (‘beheld Winnie, his wife’); that scenes go on too long (passim) and that the point about the sheer ordinariness of terrorists (“Did you turn off the gas downstairs?”) is emphasised well beyond any necessary tediousness. But so many sentences are stuffed with adjectives: ‘the least flicker of an innocent self-laudatory smile invested his round face with an infantile expression.’ So many are broken-backed: ‘In that characteristic attitude, pathetic in his grotesque and incurable obesity which he had to drag like a galley slave’s bullet to the end of his days, the Assistant Commissioner of Police beheld the ticket-of-leave apostle filling a privileged arm-chair within the screen.’ Many of the five-star reviewers here describe this style as ‘difficult’ or ‘dense’. But could it be that this book is just (gasp) poorly-written? And (gasp again) somewhat over-rated?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 3, 2016 12:24 AM GMT


The Beginner's Goodbye
The Beginner's Goodbye
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Stages of Grief and Recovery, 21 April 2014
This review is from: The Beginner's Goodbye (Paperback)
Aaron lives in a small American town and works in a small publishing company who produce a series of how-to books whose titles all begin with ‘The Beginner’s…’ (A bit like the ‘for Dummies’ series.) One day his wife is killed in a freak accident. This undramatic but quite moving book details the succeeding phases of his grief – at one point he even imagines his wife has ‘returned’ – until he manages to move on and even to consider finding someone else. The process makes him re-evaluate his relationship and his role in it – the small things like his occasional grumpiness and unwillingness to communicate – so that he’ll do better next time.


The Glimpses Of The Moon (VMC)
The Glimpses Of The Moon (VMC)
by Edith Wharton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Romantic Spongers, 21 April 2014
Nick and Susie are relatively poor compared to all their super-rich friends. Nick mostly does without, while Susie sponges off them dextrously. They fall in love and get married but, realising that they both really need to have wealthier spouses, agree to have a year’s honeymoon first and then go after the money. From here the plot arc is as predictable as a Hollywood romcom. They fall out, both almost catch wealthy partners, and finally realise that love is more important than money and get back together. There are glamorous settings (Como, Venice, Paris, Rouen), satire and high emotion, although I struggled with Nick and Susie’s supposedly high-minded scruples, which focus only on sexual peccadilloes rather than (say) the dodgy sources of their friends’ money, and so rather undercut the satire elsewhere. This may not be Edith Wharton’s best, but it’s still entertaining in a light way.


The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
by Sinclair McKay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Hidden Heroes of WWII, 14 April 2014
Tells the story of the now-famous codebreaking centre from just before WWII to its closure in the late forties, with a couple of ending chapters on ‘the years of silence’ and the opening of Bletchley Park as a museum. It covers the administration nightmares as the centre mushroomed; the personality conflicts within the site and the resource ones with the Government; the social side, with clubs, bike rides, amdram and romance; the mechanics of codebreaking and computer-building (without becoming technical); the mix of class and gender in the Park and its informal, non-military, ‘university-like’ feel; the exhausting shift-system and billeting in the neighbouring pre-Milton Keynes villages; visits by the famous; what was owed to Polish and French codebreakers; and the brilliance (and oddities) of many of the cryptographers, especially Turing. It was interesting to read the valiant story of WWII from this unusual perspective. The isolation of Britain in 1940 came through very clearly, and the endless home-front difficulties around food, clothes, travel and safety. The book makes a convincing case for the overwhelming importance of codebreaking in the war effort, and the skills of the staff, albeit assisted by occasional poor coding discipline on the German side (using real names, failing to change the code settings and general overconfidence in the uncrackability of the Enigma machines). Finally it considers the keeping of the secret and its human costs (how would it look nowadays to have six blank years on your CV? What if your loved ones blamed you for ‘doing nothing’ in the war, and you were unable to enlighten them?). For a person like me quite ignorant of all this, it provided an excellent introduction.


The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley
by Patricia Highsmith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Identity Thief, Identity Murderer, 14 April 2014
New Yorker Tom Ripley is poor, intelligent and easily bored – and to keep life spiced he likes to take risks even or especially if they involve illegality. But he also has a sense of honour, and when he’s conning a shipbuilding magnate into paying him a free trip to Italy, he does try to fufill his task: to persuade the magnate’s son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return home. Dickie is Tom’s age, and even looks like him. He likes being a painter in (somewhere like) Amalfi (this is the 50s) and isn’t going to go home. Tom moves in with him (platonically) and they hang out together and with Dickie’s non-girlfriend Madge. Eventually Dickie, spoilt rich boy that he is, starts to tire of Tom. However, Tom has meanwhile started to want Dickie’s life – really want it – and murders him and takes his identity. Fortunately he is a brilliant mimic, and talented liar – but even so it’s a very dangerous game, albeit one that makes him feel more alive as he continually ups the stakes…

Tom Ripley is a superbly deep character; the plot spins around dramatically; the settings (Campania, Rome, the Riviera, Venice) are beautiful; the 50s satire is biting (Dickie’s family and friends think he’s in a gay relationship with Tom – but can’t bring themselves to say so); and the tension really builds. This was a great read.


The French Thing - a novel
The French Thing - a novel
by Chris Keil
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars You’d better watch out - there may be dogs about, 5 April 2014
I read this after being blown away by ‘Flirting at the Funeral’ and looking for something by the same author. It’s a got a highly unusual setting: sheep-farmers and exporters in rural Wales in the 90s at the time of the live-exports demonstrations. The sheep-farmers’ lives and attitudes in particular are very convincingly and quite sympathically portrayed; I was fascinated as it’s a subject-matter that goes right back to (say) Hesiod and Theocritus but gets so rarely represented in modern literature (I suppose there were Hughes’ ‘Moortown Diary’ cattle-farming poems in the 70s). One of the demonstrators, a student, starts a relationship with one of the (married) farm/export workers, to the disapproval of both sides in the simmering conflict, a disapproval that intensifies as it grows. The ending felt a bit abrupt and the prose hasn’t quite got the luminous beauty of ‘Flirting’ (this is his first novel, apparently), but still worth a read.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 31, 2015 6:59 PM GMT


The Europeans (Aziloth Books)
The Europeans (Aziloth Books)
by Henry James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.15

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull lives represented in all their dullness, 5 April 2014
New England, 1870s. Siblings Eugenia and Felix – American, but brought up in Europe - come back to their family in the U.S. after Eugenia’s separation from her aristocratic husband. Their wealthy cousins, the Wentworths, welcome them as a novelty, and give them a nearby house to live in. Cousin Gertrude is being courted by local clergyman Mr Brand, with whom her sister Charlotte is secretly in love. But Bohemian, happy-go-lucky Felix falls in love with Gertrude instead, and tells Mr Brand that it’s Charlotte who actually loves him. Meanwhile, family friend Robert Acton falls for Eugenia, but she turns him down.

There were a few funny scenes, especially between Felix and his straight-laced uncle, but the total lack of action wore on me after a while. They all do nothing, day after day, but visit each others’ houses for tea and dinner. No wonder none of them ever has anything interesting to say. There’s lots of echo-dialogue (‘Always.’ ‘Always?’) and people look at each other, and people ‘flush’, and everything’s incredibly buttoned up, and I struggled to find empathy for their narrow, parasitical, inactive world. And people falling in love with their cousins – isn’t that a little bit undesirable, not to say icky? I know that Jane Austen can make great books out of this kind of unpromising material – I suppose the feebleness of imitations like this underlines her brilliant achievement?


Leaving the Atocha Station
Leaving the Atocha Station
by Ben Lerner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Self-portait in a Madird Notebook, 5 April 2014
Adam, American, early-twenties, is in Madrid on a Fulbright (or similar) scholarship in 2004. He’s hyper-sensitive (which he manages with pills and dope) and has a creative and questioning intelligence, which unfortunately warps into self-absorption and misanthropy. Initially lonely, he is inexplicably taken up by a wealthy, glamorous and radical set of friends, who take him to cool parties and invite him to perform his poetry at prestigious readings. His two friends Isabel and Teresa are both very understanding of his oddities, and he ought to be having a great time, but remains jealous, picky and callous. The tension built as I waited for him to commit some final outrageously nasty act (but spoiler: he doesn’t – he even mellows a little finally, for a moderately happy ending).

The shy-young-genius Bildingsroman stuff, the thin plotting, the artistic milieu and the city-wandering felt a bit neo-modernist. The unreliable narrating and the included poems and photos felt a bit post-modernist. I liked the funny descriptions of misunderstanding a foreign language, and of the strange ways people act in the presence of Art, and of Adam’s interior hysteria in his relationships.


Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
by Elizabeth Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An English Old Age, 15 Mar. 2014
It’s the late sixties. Laura Palfrey spent most of her life abroad with her husband, and he has now died, and she’s too unwell and old to live alone, and not badly off, so she books into a genteel London hotel as a long-term resident. There are half a dozen other old people there in the same position, but rather than help and comfort each other, they mostly keep up appearances, and act competitively over visits from family and days out. Mrs Palfrey’s own grandson never comes to see her, but one day she falls over and is helped by a young man who lives locally, who later comes to eat at the hotel at her invitation and pretends to be her grandson. But will she be found out?

This is a comic but also rather sad story of old age and the decline of family support. The sixties, and Englishness, as usual from Elizabeth Taylor’s perspective are dreary, lonely and grim. It sounds like it should be awful and dull, but actually it’s terrific.


Extraordinary Women
Extraordinary Women
by Sir Compton Mackenzie
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Everyone Falls For Rosalba, 15 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Extraordinary Women (Paperback)
Aurora (‘Rory’) is in love with Rosalba, but so is every other woman (and some men) in Capri during and after WWI. And anyone who isn’t in love with Rosalba will feel the irresistible force of her attention until they are. Some characters from Mackenzie’s earlier ‘Vestal Fire’ reappear, but there’s less description of Capri this time, and more concentration on the merry-go-round of romances among a group of (mostly) women who are wealthy enough to have nothing better to do but fall in love, and who are mostly more attracted to other women than to men. Janet is snobbish and distant, Lulu young and fierce, Olimpia intellectual and hellenic, Cleo artistic and passionate - and Rory loyal and devoted – but they all get caught up in the whirl of dinners, parties and competition for each other’s company. It’s light and comic and good-humoured, with some sad undercurrents; but it's also one of those books where you (well, I) become intensely frustrated with the protagonist's worthless obsession, and just want them to snap out of it. It has quotes from Sappho in Greek (and untranslated) at the head of each chapter, as if claiming to be high-brow, but maybe that's just a 20s thing?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 12, 2015 6:24 PM BST


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