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John Moseley (Portsmouth, UK)

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The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin Modern Classics)
by George Orwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Our greatest ever writer?, 1 Jan. 2014
The Road to Wigan Pier is a book of two halves. The first is a visceral look at working class life in the mining towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 1930s. The second is a rather long-winded polemical exposition of the virtues and future of Socialism and related subjects.

The first half of the book shows a key feature of Orwell's brilliance, which is the ability to describe the most mundane, filthy, demoralising activities and preoccupations of life with absorbing clarity. No other writer in the English language can touch Orwell's powers of description, especially of the drudgery and hopelessness of life for the downtrodden and demoralised.

However, Orwell also has a habit of indulging himself in his own preoccupations - the future of Socialism, the threat of Fascism and the issue of class. In a world where Fascism is dead and notions of class are antiquated, these appear redundant concerns. They are issues which, by any standards, Orwell flogs to death and then some. They nearly corrupt his greatest work, 1984, in which the Inner Party official O'Brien gives an interminable explanation of the virtues of the state vs the individual. Orwell, writing autobiographically in The Road to Wigan Pier, apparently falls into the same trap. His editor, Victor Gollanz, felt compelled to write an apologetic foreword to the original edition, begging forgiveness of his over-zealous author, for fear of upsetting the his book club readership.

And yet there is something universal about the way Orwell writes, even about Socialism and class, that makes him just as relevant today. For example, on p.158 Orwell says; `Even the middle classes, for the first time, are feeling the pinch. They have not known actual hunger yet, but more and more of them find themselves floundering in a sort of deadly net of frustration in which it is harder and harder to persuade yourself that you are either happy, useful or active.' Orwell then goes on to explain his fear for a `menacing future.' `Presently there may be coming God knows what horrors - horrors of which, in this sheltered isle, we have not even a traditional knowledge.' In one fell swoop, Orwell has identified the roots of social dislocation, the collapse of community and the advent of extremist terror campaigns.

In his introduction, Richard Hoggart cleverly explains the mechanics by which Orwell achieves his effects i.e. his use of extreme adjectives, adverbs and nouns, his gently persuasive use of second person narrative, his beguiling use of simple sentences etc. But in the end, it is the visionary nature of Orwell's writing, which includes identifying the seeds of discontent in the working and middle classes, which makes him one of our most perceptive and engaging writers.


Trouble with Lichen: Classic Science Fiction
Trouble with Lichen: Classic Science Fiction
by John Wyndham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Far from Wyndham's best work..., 27 Dec. 2013
Really disappointing. I'm a great fan of John Wyndham, but Trouble with Lichen is ponderous and lacks any kind of narrative impetus to drive the story forward. The resolution is limp at best, and there is a kind of high-minded tone that is really off-putting. Wyndham was at his best when he introduced extraordinary events into ordinary people's lives. The fact that the central character is a brilliant scientist from a well-to-do background does not suit Wyndham's style of writing. The `extraordinary event' also lacks the necessary drama to really grab the attention and push the story along. Wyndham's best works are The Chrysalids, Chocky and The Kraken Wakes, with better subject matter more skilfully handled.


Cannery Row (Penguin Modern Classics)
Cannery Row (Penguin Modern Classics)
by John Steinbeck
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative reportage, 27 Dec. 2013
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Cannery Row is Steinbeck's vivid homage to his native California, based upon the coagulant pools of life that form around the costal canning factories of Monterrey Bay. Cannery Row is inhabited by a colourful cast of bawdy, down-at-heel ne'er-do-well's who lurch between a succession of broken dreams and unrealised ambitions. Unfortunately, Cannery Row sits in that category of critically acclaimed works of a brilliant writer which fall a long way short of his very best work. Steinbeck experimented with new forms of writing having become dissatisfied with the novel, but this pastiche of Californian life, expertly drawn as it is, still lacks the cohesion and narrative impetus of his other short-form work, such as the play-novella Of Mice and Men. Ultimately, we do not care enough about Cannery Row's cast of characters to make it anything more than a sort of imaginative reportage.


Refugee Boy
Refugee Boy
by Benjamin Zephaniah
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good to teach, not so good to read, 29 Aug. 2013
This review is from: Refugee Boy (Paperback)
I have a problem with books like this. It's a common mistake I encountered a lot when I worked as a publishing editor. The issue is when an author fails to understand and resolve the difference the market and the readership. The market is who buys the book; the readership is who reads it. If they are out of alignment, the resulting book is often uneven in tone because it is pitched at two different groups at once. Refugee Boy is written for the schools market, and as an English teacher myself, it raises lots of interesting issues about immigration, human rights, multiculturalism and social responsibility that my students can debate and discuss at length. It is effectively a textbook, and serves the same purpose as a provoking media article, as opposed to being a noteworthy piece of fiction. For example, some of the phraseology is lacking in naturalism e.g. when Alem's father describes himself as a `pan-Africanist' in a letter to his twelve-year-old son. The character development is also extremely disjointed in places - Alem's friend Robert rapidly evolves from playground luddite to intellectual free-thinker and political reformer in order to support the exploration of the themes of immigration and social justice.
I have no problem generally with issues-led books, but having raised a number of important issues, Zephaniah has literally no idea how to end the novel, so the resolution, involving a double tragedy, is extremely contrived and lacking in plausibility. A much better example of an issues-led book where audience matches readership is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
If you are a teacher of English you can do a lot with this book, particularly as many of the contentions raised are dubious to say the least, e.g. that the political asylum process in the UK, which is in fact one of the most liberal and inclusive in Europe, is unnecessarily draconian. As a meritorious piece of fiction in its own right, however, Refugee Boy, has some fundamental shortcomings.


Hothouse (Penguin Modern Classics)
Hothouse (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Brian Aldiss
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How science fiction should be written, 24 Aug. 2013
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I stumbled across this book whilst scanning the Penguin Modern Classics catalogue. It is a tale set in the immeasurable future when predatory vegetation has taken over the world and man has reverted to a primitive, tree-dwelling existence. It is a fantastically imaginative work, which was apparently received rather sniffily in some quarters because of the improbability of certain story elements, such as the earth and moon being in stationary orbit and connected by huge webs traversed by giant vegetable spiders. As Neil Gaiman says in his Introduction, such criticism is like saying the Beatles wrote songs that are three minutes long and have repeated choruses - it misses the point. Science fiction should be fantastical. Hothouse has the disorientating other-worldliness shared by works such as William Golding's The Inheritors. If that's your thing, Hothouse is highly recommended.


Chocky
Chocky
by John Wyndham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Captures the anxiety of the Cold War period, 16 Aug. 2013
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This review is from: Chocky (Paperback)
There is something really compelling about John Wyndham's writing. By no stretch of the imagination can it be called great writing; I think it is more to do with the way he captures the Cold War angst of the 1950s and 1960s around invasion, war and the uncertainty of continued human existence in the face of a nebulous, ill-defined but ever-present threat. It hangs in the air throughout his writing like an unspoken thought, and is perhaps his defining theme. In Chocky, the author deploys this theme in much the same way as he does with many of his novels; using a familiar suburban setting to tap into our most deep-seated anxities. Chocky is an alien presence who chooses eleven-year-old Matthew to communicate with about the possible re-colonization of the Earth by his species. Wyndham's greatest trick is perhaps to convince his reader that they are not reading science fiction at all, but a perfectly plausible account of a future, alternate reality. It is perhaps this skill, shared by George Orwell in 1984 or Orson Wells' chilling original radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, that sets Wyndham apart as a writer who deserves our sustained attention.


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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The curse of the Booker Prize..., 16 Aug. 2013
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I like Margaret Atwood’s writing (some of her short stories are excellent), but her novels often fall well short of the heights set by The Handmaid’s Tale. The Year of the Flood wasn’t great, and The Blind Assassin is another effort which disappoints. In fact, it is typical of a Booker Prize Winner – it is overlong, it lacks any real narrative pace and the labyrinthine plotting is at the expense of a compelling story. The Blind Assassin has been described as a ‘russian doll’ of a book, which reflects its structure as a story within a story within a story within a story. It is a character-led tale, but unfortunately we care little enough for the characters within to read on with any real sense of urgency. For me, the Booker Prize often rewards cleverness of plotting and authorial standing over great story-telling and this is sadly yet another example of that. Very disappointing.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 24, 2016 1:33 PM GMT


The Wizard of Oz (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Penguin Threads)
The Wizard of Oz (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Penguin Threads)
by L. Frank Baum
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Can be read on two levels, 15 July 2013
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This edition is from the Penguin Threads series, which is an extension of the Penguin Deluxe Classics series. As I’ve said in previous reviews, these are sumptuous editions which greatly enhance the reading experience. The cover for this edition is essentially a piece of embroidery, first drawn, then hand-stitched and finally ‘sculpt embossed’. The result is stunning.

The Wizard of Oz (or ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ as it was originally titled) is one of those books, like Frankenstein or Dracula, which is integral to our cultural experience, transformed through film interpretation and misinterpretation so that our understanding bears little resemblance to the original, and of which few people have actually read the original. The need to ‘see for myself’ was therefore my main motivation for reading it. The narrative is heavily influenced by oral myth, fable, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the work of the likes of Hans Christian Andersen. It is essentially a simple story of a young American girl, Dorothy, who is swept off to a strange and unsettling land, where she faces trials of character and tests of perception before confronting the not-so mystical Wizard of Oz before returning to her own land. Oz, as is explained in the Introduction, is the embodiment of Baum’s vision for a socialist Utopian society where there is little or no war or hunger, avarice or greed and no need for money. Much like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it can be read on two levels; either as an entertaining children’s story filled with an almost inexhaustible cast of incredible and fantastical characters, or it can be read for its sub-textual commentary and indictment of American and capitalist society.

Little did I know before reading The Wizard of Oz, that Baum in fact wrote 14 Oz novels over the course of 20 years. So, if you love Oz and all that it represents, there are plenty more Oz stories to get your teeth into.


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let Bill Bryson be your guide..., 26 April 2013
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As a Brit, I found Down Under infinitely less threatening and much more enjoyable than Notes on a Small Island (see separate review); the latter which is nonetheless great itself. While Bryson is on your home patch, there is always that anxiety that he is going to trash some icon or way of life that you hold dear. However, when Bryson switches his attention to our Antipodean cousins, all of that angst immediately dissipates, and you can sit back and enjoy his particular talent for finding nuanced little stories in among the detritus of life and bringing them to life with his sparkling and witty prose.
Bryson is very definitely upper middle class but it is that ability to be Everyman; see what we all see and yet articulate it in a way we cannot; that makes his writing so successful. Bryson dishes out praise and derision in roughly equal measure, so that he comes across as neither overly effusive or curmudgeonly, but it often both, sometimes within the space of a sentence or two. I doubt Bryson would top anyone's list of people to be stuck in a lift with, and yet you can't help hanging on his every word and ascribing it the status of the gospel truth. You almost don't feel like you don't need to go and see the Sydney Opera House or journey through the Outback, because Bryson has told you all you need to know. It's a very smart trick to be able to pull off, and no one does it better than him.


Bill Bryson Notes from a Small Island 1996
Bill Bryson Notes from a Small Island 1996
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining stroll around Britain in a comfortable pair of shoes, 3 Feb. 2013
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Bill Bryson's affectionate tour of the UK has much that is good about it. He clearly has a fondness for our sceptred isle that makes him a warm, engaging and reliable narrator. Bryson is clearly happiest spending time in middle England, be it wandering enraptured around Windsor's magnificent royal parks or admiring the Victorian building facades of a market town in Lincolnshire. Scotland gets short shrift in terms of both his length of visit and much of what he has to say about it, although if he genuinely expected Aberdeen to be nice, he has only himself to blame. The chapter on Blackpool is, in places, laugh-out-loud funny. The chapter on Milton Keynes is genuinely depressing but that's not Bryson's fault - the new town is the kind of cancerous sore on the landscape that would have Prince Charles frothing at the mouth; and rightly so.

Bryson makes himself out to be a man of simple pleasures, although you lose track of the times he says `I checked myself, guiltily, into yet another splendid Georgian hotel.' At times his Notes read more like an extended City break than an attempt to really get under the skin of our magnificent country. If an attraction or site of interest is more than 300 yards from the town centre, Bryson huffs and puffs his way there with all the reluctance of a resentful teenager. Cornwall is shamefully ignored, and I don't remember Bryson once trying to uncover the really wild side of Britain, with its amazing wildlife and variety of landscape and habitat. He does some walking, but in a very middle-class, taxi fare at-the-ready kind of way. He's certainly no Bilbo Baggins. But of course Bryson can't do everything and go everywhere, and we must accept that. The fact that someone finally bothered to take a tour of modern Britain and recount what they say is to be applauded.

My only real criticism is his i.e. that Britain's towns and cities are often homogenized beyond having any individual character. This coming from a Yank who occasionally yearns for the featureless McSuburbs of home is difficult to take. Besides which, if that is true, then who but the Americans are to blame for their corrupting influence on communities and individuality worldwide? People in cube farms shouldn't throw burger wrappers! Despite this major flaw, Notes From a Small Island is an entertaining stroll around Britain in a very comfortable pair of shoes.


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