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Donaldo "Book lover" (Manchester, England)

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The Hidden Man
The Hidden Man
by Charles Cumming
Edition: Paperback

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A decent contemporary thriller, 12 July 2007
This review is from: The Hidden Man (Paperback)
I don't think this is a great thriller, but there's enough about it to make it worth the while. The plot is relatively straightforward - an ageing MI6 officer, after years of absence, decides to patch up relations with his two now grown-up sons. One is involved in the running and promotion of a super-club, the other is an artist who lives with a mismatched flirtatious journalist wife. The MI6 officer is killed early on in the book, and the two brothers are left to find out who killed him, why, and who he actually was. The plot then changes as Russian gangsters get involved with the super-club.

I've read Charles Cummings first book, A Spy by Nature, and I was very impressed by the author's promise. This book feels more polished than A Spy by Nature, and though I don't think it's the finished article just yet, there is enough here to convince me that A Spy by Nature was no one-off. Charles Cumming excels in understanding the murky, cold world of espionage. What he understands even better though is betrayal, guilt and greed. The relationships between the characters in the novel are expertly written - the relationships between the artist brother and his flirtatious wife is reminiscent in the authors subtle observation of the relationships between George Smiley and his adulterous wife in Le Carre's novels - the artist cannot be sure his wife is having an affair, the tension slowly burning throughout the book. Tension is something else Charles does very well - there are some brilliantly written scenes in the book allowing it to build up. At the start of the book the artist is invited to meet his father at the Savoy. His father does this in the calculation that the setting will discourage his son from a confrontational situation, and you can sense the frustration and anger of the son building as he senses this manipulation.

There are criticisms, of course. It is a little slow at points for a thriller. I think it drags a little after the father dies because you expect the rest of it to be about the sons finding out about their father, which it isn't really. They find out more about him, but it's almost like a sub-plot - the main plot becomes the problem with the Russian gangsters and their increasing involvement in the super-club. I think it would have worked better the other way round - the gangsters as the sub-plot. It keeps the book plot focused.

Despite the problems, I can't ignore the fact that this is another very promising work. This is a good contemporary thriller. I think it's only a matter of time before Charles Cumming writes a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Talented Mr Ripley, The Quiet American. He's just not quite there yet.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Two-Disc Special Edition)[DVD] (2006)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Two-Disc Special Edition)[DVD] (2006)
Dvd ~ Cillian Murphy
Price: £6.19

19 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 29 Jun. 2007
I've just finished watching the film about five minutes ago, and I am very disappointed at such a lost opportunity to tell an interesting story with clarity and reflection. There were parts of this film that were maddiningly one sided and simpistic. It was just as well there were a couple of genuinly interesting moments in the film, otherwise this would literally have been the Irish Braveheart.

Ken Loach has very partisan politics, but sometimes this doesn't really matter. I recently watched Land and Freedom, and thought it was excellent. Given that both this film and Land of Freedom are fairly similar in terms of subject matter, I took time to think why I disliked this film so much over Land and Freedom. I think it's because the Spanish Civil War is something almost obscure nowadays, so simply having a film about it is an interesting. Whereas there can't be many British or Irish out there who don't know a few details about the struggle in Ireland. Being partisan about siding with the republicans in the Spanish Civil War is not going to cause quite as much fuss as siding with the republicans in the Irish struggle. Basically, we expect a film with a degree of complexity, because Britain and Ireland have lived with this conflict for many, many years. The British shouldn't have been in Ireland, and this is not exactly a shattering observation, and any reasonable person would accept this. But I don't think that everyone from Thurso to Penzance who was sent to Ireland at that time suddenly became some blood-crazed, sadistic loon, as Ken Loach will have it.

Land and Freedom was a film which very well dissected the conflicts within the Spanish republican movement, giving the opposing sides a fair chance to state their position in the film. In this film though, it's the radical republicans that are correct the whole way through the film - those who agreed to peace with Britain are deemed sell-outs, and aren't really given an opportunity to state their position fairly, or even attempt to understand them. They are just wrong, end of. Little attempt is made to understand the other position throughout the film. Rather than write off the views of the peace-makers and the British as just 'wrong', wouldn't it have been a far more interesting film if we understood their positions, even if we don't neccesarily agree with them? We can only truly get to grips with a point of view if we present the argument at it's strongest.

There are only two scenes in the film where arguments are fleshed out fairly - one is the very well done republican court room scene, where there is a dispute over a loan repayment. The court decides that an old lady need not pay back her loan to a money lender because she cannot afford it - and this judgement is applauded by the radicals. The IRA leaders, however, point out the money lender helps them get arms, without which they cannot fight a war. Finally - some ambiguity - finally, Ken Loach doesn't claim to have all the correct answers.

This subject deserves a much, much better film.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 11, 2008 4:06 PM BST

Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome
Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome
by Carlo D'Este
Edition: Paperback

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good, 27 Jun. 2007
Carol D'este is one of the most interesting, reflective and sympathetic military historians writing today. This is a very good assessment of the mistakes made by Allied forces in trying to break through the Gothic line, resulting in the aborted Anzio landings, and the disastrous battles of Monte Cassino.

The author lays most of the blame for failure at the feet of British Field Marshall Alexander and American General Mark Clark, though many others had a hand in it, including Churchill. But it's the first two who take the bulk of the blame. Alexander comes across as the quintessential gentleman, but a bit of an intellectual lightweight, and devoid of any particular strategic ideas. He didn't put his put down when his decisions were questioned, particularly in relation to Mark Clark. Whilst his diplomatic skills were admittedly essential in dealing with a multi-national force, someone more decisive was needed.

The author also spends much time helping to clear the reputation of Lucas, the American general in command of the Anzio landing forces. Again and again, we see that Lucas could not have succeeded - his force was far too small to do much than hold the beach-head, particularly against the tactically flexible German forces. Anzio was too far away from the main allied line to be supported by it.

Mark Clark comes off worse, though. An unlikeable and extremely vain man, his actions at Anzio and Monte Cassino showed him at his worst. The author roundly condemns Clark for his actions towards the end of the offensive - rather than encircle and crush the German 10th Army, he sped off to Rome to arrange photo shoots and press conferences.

One of the more interesting analyses the author does is of British-American tensions within the allied command. He does an excellent job of putting the attitudes in context. The British were over-cautious partly because of years of defeat at the hand of German forces, partly because British troops were tightly drilled - making them excellent defensive troops, though not so good going forward and using their initiative - but also because Britain had a limited pool of manpower, and could not afford losses. They thought the Americans over-confident, and thought the defeat at Kasserine Pass and the struggle at Salerno did much to justify this. The Americans on the other hand embraced the German doctrine of blitzkrieg, encouraged initiative in their men, and thought the British sluggish and reluctant to press the attack. Of course, there were many commanders on both sides who were astute enough to recognise the merits and limitations of each other's forces, and the author gives space for them in this book. Though strangely enough it often seemed the mid level Corps or Divisional generals who were this reflective, rather than the commanders at the top.

This is an excellent account of the battles at Anzio and Cassino, and a great example of bad planning, decision making, and management in war.

The K&D Sessions
The K&D Sessions
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £15.18

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, 15 Jun. 2007
This review is from: The K&D Sessions (Audio CD)
K&D are best known for making smooth, funky, dubbed, smoked-out club mixes. Their published work is rare, and as with this album, completely seminal. These guys are the absolute masters, and their musical instincts are second to none. When I mean instincts, I mean not only knowing which tunes to pick and what order to put them in, but also how to re-engineer each tune so it flows smoothly into the next re-engineered tune. It's hard to describe this album as a `mix' in the conventional sense. Most mix albums take good tunes and put them in a particular order. K& D assimilate them. Some tunes on this album are changed almost beyond recognition, some are just tinkered with. Some tunes I really didn't like are re-engineered into something beautiful. For example - I've never been the biggest fan of Lamb, but K&D's remix of Trans fatty Acid is a moment of real beauty.

What you end up with is an astonishing and painstakingly crafted mix. There are hardly any other artists I can think of who have come up with something this good. Thievery Corporation did a good DJ Kicks mix, but I haven't liked much else of their other stuff. Possibly the only other electronic artist I can think of with better musical instincts is Four Tet.

Buy this for anyone, I promise you they will love it.

After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism)
After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism)
by Emmanuel Todd
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting stuff for the open minded, 8 Jun. 2007
5 stars is for an excellent piece of work, even though I don't neccesarily agree with all his conclusions. The basic thesis is that America is economically weak, and this weakness is causing it to behave irrationally, with consequences for the rest of the world.

He puts forward a convincing case for America's weakness. It may have a high GDP, but it has an enormous trade deficit. The trade deficit is made up through investment by businesses in other countries investing in America. The logic behind this is that America is the strongest military power in the world, so your money will be physically safe in that sense, and that the govt have very low taxes, so your investments wont cost you much at all. This is all fine and well, the author states, but in terms of economic power, America is a huge white elephant. The American govt has very little money to use, and it is this lack of money that is causing the near 3rd world poverty the lower classes in America live in (e.g., total lack of funds or resources to help New Orleans).

The comaprison the author makes is with Russia, a country with a low GDP, but one that has a very healthy trade balance. Russia has money to spend abroad if it wants, whereas America does not. And at the end of the day, money buys you influence. The best example of this is the Marshall Plan after WW2, where America was able to dole out billions to its allies to help rebuild their countries. Today, America cannot even afford to rebuild Iraq. The only significant tool the American govt has is its military, so it uses that instead. Using Russia as an example again, Russia grants loans to former Soviet states, states who get nothing from America, save some troops.

Importantly, the author torpedoes the idea that America has bases around the world to protect it's economic interests, i.e. the Middle East. In actuality, America only gets a small proportion of its oil from the Middle East (some 20%), and the loss of this it could probably make up from elsewhere. The author states the whole 'oil war' thing is an illusion: America is not messing around in the middle east becfause it wants the oil, it is messing around because this is a symptom of a failing power.

On this last point though, I feel the author fails to make his case. America has been a fairly placid country since the end of the Cold War, right up until 09/11. Military interventions by America were few and far between, and were never as obviously self-serving as the war in Iraq today. The actions today have something more to do with the current administration than any sense of 'imperial malaise'.

There is a lot of other stuff that he mentions along the way, some of which you can poke holes a mile wide in. For example, talks a lot about 'family structure' as being an econmic influence in some societies. It probably is a factor, but there isn't enough evidence in this book to convinve me of that fact. His analysis of the EU is wrong - the EU is a very powerful economic body, with positive trade balances, healthy GDP, strong goverment. But he neglects to mention that Europe is rapidly ageing, which will reduce growth, and that the political squabling makes Europe enert politically.

From reading some of the reviews, some seem to think he is a Euro-leftie. Well, I think if he is a Euro-leftie, this says more about America than it does about Europe. I think his book is a fairly balanced view of America. There have been far more critical works recently. There is also some who seem obsessed with the idea of GDP as a measure of the quality of life in society - well, it is and it isn't. GDP tells you how much money one society generates at that time. But it doesn't tell you how it is distributed. Furthermore, the author does not deny American GDP is high, but he states this is not a measure of how powerful a country is, and that is what this book is about - America power. The American govt takes a very small slice of the GDP. And if you want power, you got to have money.

Land And Freedom [DVD] [1995]
Land And Freedom [DVD] [1995]
Dvd ~ Ian Hart

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Ken Loach film in ages, 1 Jun. 2007
I have quite an ambivalent attitude to much of Ken Loach's work. Some of his films, like Kes, are superb. He's not a director known for his technical strengths, rather it is that he is such an independent force that makes most of his films worth watching. Very few directors today produce interesting political films, particularly political films about sometimes-obscure lost causes. He often gets very good performance out of his actors. But I often found most of his films oddly unsatisfying - partly the very partisan nature of them, but often you got the impression that the script could do with a little more focus. Sometimes they lack dramatic tension, but sometimes this is an asset.

I can happily report that this is his best film in a long time. The plot is fairly straightforward - a young unemployed communist from Liverpool decides to join the Republican struggle against the Fascists in Spain. When he arrives there, he joins POUM, one of the Republican associated forces. It follows him as he falls in, out, and in again with his comrades, their battles both internal and external within the Republican movement, and finally to the Republicans being subsumed by the growing Communist International Brigade as supplied and supported by the Soviet Union.

The political tensions within the Republican movement are very well explored a number of times through the film. There is one scene in particular which explores them expertly. A newly liberated village meets to discuss with the POUM fighters how to organise their village to fight the Fascists. Most of the villagers and some of the POUM fighters support collectivisation of the land. One villager opposes it, preferring to work his own land. He is backed by a pragmatically minded American POUM fighter, who points out that powerful liberal democracies such as the US, UK and France are reluctant to back the Republicans because of their communist/socialist rhetoric, and collectivisation would alienate them further. Importantly, these countries would provide arms, which POUM sorely lacks. At the heart of the discussion is a debate as to whether the revolution can be carried forward at the same time as fighting the war, or whether the war needs to be fought first. The village votes overwhelmingly to collectivise. But it demonstrates very well the divisions in the heart of the Republican movement.

In short, this is a very interesting film about an often-overlooked period of history.

300 (2 Disc Special Edition) [2007] [DVD]
300 (2 Disc Special Edition) [2007] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Gerard Butler
Price: £2.74

7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Er....., 22 May 2007
This is definitely your film if you like slow motion violence, men shouting defiantly at each other, and seeing lots and lots of muscles on display. If you love all these things dearly, then you can't go better than watching 300. It aims to be somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Gladiator, but with all the moral complexity of a Steven Seagal film.

The whole film looks very impressive, much like that other comic book adaptation, Sin City. But as with Sin City, asking actors to portray comic book characters may look visually impressive, but I think I'd actually prefer if they had employed some graphic artists instead of actors. A comic book is something that is great to look at, and required some imagination on the part of the reader. A good film has to be far more than visually impressive

If you want something with some depth or historical accuracy, then don't bother. The only two historically correct things in the entire film were;

1. There was a battle
2. It was between the Spartans and the Persian Empire

Everything else about the film is absolute nonsense. I don't think that the film was really aimed at history graduates like me, but there are some bits of the film that are so obviously completely wrong, such as the Spartans declaring their love of `freedom'. The Spartans enslaved an entire people (the Helots) to work their land whils they fought for war - and interesting interpretation of the idea of 'freedom'. Most Spartan men were of course, homosexual. This being a manly men's film, this latter point is neatly skipped over.

There simply isn't any depth at all. The characters are, well, comic book, and barely two-dimensional. The violence is oddly boring as well - very stylised and stop-motion. There isn't really any plot - it just seems to be one endless battle, with barely a subplot for variety. Really, there isn't much of an excuse for this. You could use some history to flesh it out a bit - maybe covering more on the sheer bizarreness of Spartan society (which oddly seems to have been overlooked). There was also a novel written a few years ago by Micheal Curtis Ford on the same battle called Gates of Fire, and it was a cracker. This film betrays an astonishing lack of imagination as far as the script and characters are concerned.

I think the problem with this film is that it never allows you to really enjoy it in the same way that a film like The Thirteenth Warrior, or A Knight's Tale did. These films took their historical liberties, but it made it enjoyable and fun. This is just violent nonsense. I have read some accounts in the press as this film being political - I'm sorry, it's too dumb to be that.

The Thinker's Guide to God
The Thinker's Guide to God
by Peter Vardy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth getting, 15 May 2007
Firstly, the good points. This is as accessible a work as I have ever read about philosophy and theology. Difficult concepts are very well explained and demonstrated, and theories linked together. I consider myself reasonably well read, but until I read this book there was many philosophical concepts I barely understood, and some I was entirely ignorant of. It covers the full spectrum of issues surrounding the idea of God - What do we mean by `God', arguments for/against existence, his attributes, effects of scientific discovery on our understanding of God, miracles and spirituality, etc. In short, it's pretty comprehensive. Had Richard Dawkins read a couple of small chapters in this book, he could have saved his blushes on a few occasions. Conversely, I doubt many churchgoers are aware 10% of what is in this book. In fact, you could probably say that about 99% of all people are completely unaware of even some of the basic concepts noted in this book (though that hasn't stopped people having strong opinions on them!). Considering this largely ignored subject area, the writers do an excellent job or explaining most of the issues in a clear and memorable fashion.

Onto the bad points. Though occasionally Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and a couple of other religions are mentioned throughout the book, it's mostly about Christianity. I would personally liked a little more about the other religions. A couple of the chapters are pretty mind numbing, though this may well be because some of the issues are so dry that even the best explanations cannot shed any light on them. The chapter on the Attributes of God for example, is so dull I couldn't stop myself skimming over it. Maybe it is simply impossible, however, to have an interesting discussion on the subject.

I think if you are interested in the subject, and are looking for a place to start, I can't think of a better book to introduce you to the relevant issues better than this one

Transparent Things
Transparent Things
Offered by swankers3
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy this now!, 20 April 2007
This review is from: Transparent Things (Audio CD)
If you are serious at all about liking inovative electro-pop then you have to buy this. They have been compared to The Happy Mondays, Air, Neu, Hot Chip etc, and it's not just the sound - F&M are really that good. I'd probably put them in a similar category to the likes of that other overlooked indie electro-pop outfit, Superthriller, or the more famous Hot Chip, but I have to say that good as these two bands are, this is even better. It's a crime that F&M haven't had more press coverage, and bands as poor as Sh*t Disco do. It's just the luck of the draw I guess.

The two obvious singles, if there is any, are probably Collarbone and In One Ear & Out The Other. It's these two tracks that bear most relation the the Happy Mondays - it's not just the laid back, effortless funky beat, but the lyrics are sharp too. They even slip effortlessly into a bit of French on Photocopier.

I think this is the best thing I have heard since CSS, at least as smart and funky, but it being three blokes from Brighton, probably less sexy. Expect to hear it soon on television advertisment near you.

Sovereign: 3 (The Shardlake Series)
Sovereign: 3 (The Shardlake Series)
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Paperback

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cracker, 17 April 2007
The book centres around the Great Progress to the North of England during King Henry VIII reign, and the activities of Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer. Ostensibly it's a bit of a murder mystery, but it's the detail, setting and characters that ring true; and the complex religious, political and class divisions. You can tell the author's PHD in history has come in handy. The other qualifications the author has (he was a former solicitor) also come in handy with the main character, who is a lawyer. This allows a fascinating insight into the world of medieval law.

It's a real page-turner, and though some parts of the murder mystery are a little predictable, there are enough unexpected twists and turns to hold your attention. Basically, I can't really fault this book. This is the most engrossing and rewarding historical novel I have read in years, possibly the best I have read since Julian Rathbone's The Last English King. The temptation when writing historical novels is often to write a swashbuckler gore-fest; something overly tongue-in-cheek; or a mystery. This sort of falls into the last category, but the research of the Tudor period is so meticulous that there isn't a sentence that rings false. I'll be reading the other CJ Sansom novels now - and if they are as half as good as this one, I won't be disappointed.

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