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V. G. Harwood "V G Harwood" (Derbyshire)

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The Sorrows of Young Werther (Classics)
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Classics)
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Classic tale of unrequited love, 25 May 2016
"all we are doing is to paint our prison walls with colourful figures and bright views" pp. 30-1

This is a classic story of unrequited love ending in the suicide of the unrequited lover (Werther). First published 1774, this short novel would inspire poets like Charlotte Smith and many others to create Werther-esque heroes and write sonnets in his name. It is beautifully written and a joy to read,although one does get the impression that Werther is not just disappointed in love, but disappointed in everything. He has a job (he hates it); he finds a girl he likes (she's already met someone else); he has friends and family who care about him (they're not enough) - even to the point when he envies the poor lunatic (as Charlotte Smith would later do in her most famous sonnet) because he has no reason.

I really recommend this book - Werther is a selfish, self-obsessed nuisance to Lotte - but it makes for wonderful reading.


Titanic
Titanic
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars For fans of sea-related disasters, 13 May 2016
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This review is from: Titanic (Kindle Edition)
This is a quick, easy read, setting out the action of the maiden (and final as it turned out) voyage of the Titanic. I got the free Kindle edition but the paperback edition is so much better as it includes lots of lovely photographs. This is an interesting read - it's an old book and there's a lot in here that isn't strictly politically correct (Young's attitude to the loss of life in third-class and amongst the stokers of the ship is revelatory about class attitudes of the time). The statistics about how many died from each class are also quite revealing. However, it's interesting and if you are a fan of the Poseidon Adventure (or, like my husband, like to watch the film "Titanic" "from when it sinks"), you'll like this book.


Lord Chesterfield's Letters (Oxford World's Classics)
Lord Chesterfield's Letters (Oxford World's Classics)
by Lord Chesterfield
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating insights., 13 May 2016
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"The ways are generally crooked and full of turnings, sometimes strewed with flowers, sometimes choked up with briars; rotten ground and deep pits frequently lie concealed under a smooth and pleasing surface; all the paths are slippery, and every slip is dangerous." (p. 143) This is from just one of the letters of advice Lord Chesterfield sent to his illegitimate son, Philip Stanhope. Writing to him from when he was 7 years old, these letters are full of instructions in order to make this son a better person and a successful politician ("My object is to have you fit to live; which, if you are not, I do not desire that you should live at all."

As you can imagine, the "advice" in these letters (from this statesmen and politician who - like most statesmen and politicians - was as bent as a nine bob note) deal mainly with how to read mankind, how to get one over the next person, how to get what you want by dissembling and flattery, and how to treat women (who are, after all, according to this chap "just children of a larger growth").

When one reads the letters and charts Chesterfield's relationship with his son through them, one gets the sense that this poor lad must have literally dreaded the postman arriving. Whilst reading them, my overriding sensation was one of relief that my own father is a retired tax inspector (and not Lord Chesterfield). Chesterfield, during the early years of his son's life, alternately cajoles and threatens him into shape - wanting, it soon becomes clear, the impossible from the poor lad ("I fear the want of that amiable and engaging je ne sÁais quoi"). Indeed, from the excellent introductory notes to this book, the poor boy did not enjoy that "engaging je ne scais quoi"). By all accounts, he was awkward and shy (or possibly just terrified of making a false step - his father had spies EVERYWHERE watching his every move). His son married in secret and spent most of his life trying to live as an ordinary chap. His maiden speech as a politician was a disaster. And this is where it gets interesting; because as everyone else was condemning him for this, at this point in time, Chesterfield defends him. His letter, consoling him over this disastrous speech, is almost kind. Then there is the relationship with his grandsons (when he finds out he has them that is - after his own son's death). He clearly dotes on them - not such a bad chap then?

I really recommend reading these letters for the fascinating insight into familial relationships of the upper-classes in the eighteenth-century; and also to make your own mind up about the relationship between this cold-hearted (?) man and his son.


Man without a Heart
Man without a Heart
by Roberta Leigh
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A book with a heart, 4 May 2016
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This review is from: Man without a Heart (Paperback)
I stumbled across this one by accident. I don’t normally read many other Mills & Boon authors apart from Penny Jordan, but once I happened across this one, I thought I’d give it a go. I’m so glad I did. I think Roberta Leigh might be one of my new all-time favourite authors for Mills and Boon.

This is the story of Andrea (a working class girl), who lives with her working class mum and her Uncle who is a union man. This is 1976, so we’re right in the heartland of industrial politics here, and the author makes sure we know it. When her Uncle is humiliated for his policies of moderation within his own union (“This was the era of the revolutionary”) on television by Maxwell Lane, Andrea sets out to get her own back on the man himself and ends up working for him as his research assistant. Her revenge never really gets off the ground because (as it’s a Mills and Boon) she unfortunately ends up in love with him. Still, she has a good go at trying to find his weak spot before realising that revenge is utterly unworthy of a romantic heroine and giving it up as a bad job. By that time, we, as readers, are fully aware that Max’s real weak spot is Andrea, and all she has to do to make him suffer is move house without leaving a forwarding address.

This is a wonderful product of its time. The author emphasises the vast gap between rich and poor in society at the time. Whilst Andrea’s mother is darning the sheets because she can’t afford new ones and having to go next door to watch TV because ‘they’ve got colour’, Max’s immigrant housekeeper can’t afford to buy flowers, Max and his ilk are living it up at fashionable Mayfair ‘discotheques’ (1970s...) and the Savoy. Consider the following : “She was still simmering with emotion when she entered the flat and her mother, always quick to know when she was upset, switched on the electric kettle and made her a cup of tea.

The working class panacea, Andrea thought bitterly, and remembered Max offering her champagne. She took a quick swallow of hot tea and spluttered.” (p. 141).

During the story itself, there is a third party (Catherine) who also fancies Max (there’s usually a love rival in these novels to pep things up). Catherine, we are told, has come from some grim Northumberland village ‘oop North’ from a working class family. However, she has married money and promptly forgotten her roots, so the reader knows immediately that she is not worthy of Max. Only Andrea, who is unashamed of the tiny flat she lives in with her view over the London rooftops, deserves to win the hero’s heart.

And if the reader happens to miss these social criticisms on the part of the author (too busy looking at the romance) the author starts to spell it out by having the main character voice the criticisms aloud:

“They were in a fashionable Mayfair restaurant filled with fashionable Mayfair people and a sprinkling of visiting foreigners, [...]

‘It’s amazing how much money there is around,’ Andrea said without thinking. ‘Some families don’t earn in a week what two people could spend here on one meal!” (p. 75)

The romance is done well as well. Sometimes, in Jordan’s work, the characters have very little to say to each other. However, Andrea and Max actually have interesting conversations. She is a fantastic heroine and fully worthy of her good fortune when she wins the hero’s heart (and access to his bank account). Similarly, Max changes too, becoming (like most Mills and Boon heroes) a better (less-sexist) man through his love for the unassuming heroine.

A classic of the genre – do not miss this one if you are fan of these romances.


The Girl with Glass Feet
The Girl with Glass Feet
Price: £5.69

4.0 out of 5 stars A Land of Magic and Romance, 3 May 2016
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This is a slightly odd fairy tale/magic realism/romance which definitely has charm and is very engaging. The main character in the book, in my opinion, is the setting: St. Hauda's land. From the very beginning the reader realises that they are in a new landscape: a space of magic (where one look from a creature can turn you snow white), or something in the atmosphere can transform your feet into glass (cinderella-style) and where there are tiny flying moth-cows. The characters in the book: Midas (who seems to have autism), Ida (the girl with the glass feet), who he falls in love with and who 'saves' him somehow, the obnoxious bullying Carl and Midas's equally obnoxious father are all well-written and vividly drawn.

As a fairy tale, it's, because whereas in the land of fairy tales you normally know where you stand (and can fairly confidently expect a happy ending) here the certainty is not at all there. We, as readers, are literally in a foreign land. The unexpected is part of its charm.

I also liked the rendering of the romance in the novel. There was a lot about the economy of romance in this: what the characters owe each other because of their emotions for each other and how they demonstrate this. Romance is something you wouldn't normally apply an economy too (in traditional thought), but it seems to me to be a fairly persistent feature of a lot of romantic novels (from 18th century Romances to Mills & Boons). This novel shows that aspect of the rendering of a literary romantic relationship (in my opinion). Definitely worth a look if you like this kind of thing.


Zone One
Zone One
by Colson Whitehead
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not sure that Literary Zombies work, 3 May 2016
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This review is from: Zone One (Paperback)
I love a good zombie book, so when this one was recommended to me (at an academic conference of all places) as being a literary take on the genre, I thought I'd give it a try.

I've got to say, after reading it I'm not at all sure that the "literary zombie" works. The first section read as overwritten with far too much description. In fact, this continues throughout the novel (why use one word when eighty will do?) and as a result it gets hard to follow where in the narrative you are with the main character, Mark Spitz. There's an awful lot of introspection/how he got where he was which is mingled with the main action and it can sometimes be hard to follow the train of thought.

That said, after the first third (where I nearly gave up), I started to get it a bit more. This, it seemed to me, is a satire on how we live now (like zombies) - it's all too easy to see yourself as one of the stragglers that Mark Spitz is clearing up. I loved the idea that Mark Spitz had the feeling that optimism (hope for the returning world) would destroy the human race. (At the same academic conference where this was recommended to me, the notion of "cruel optimism" was discussed - the feeling that things will get better when they never do and never will which undoes people).

This was okay as a book - I had to read it in one sitting or I would have given up completely and also lost my thread. It's not the best zombie book I've ever read, but it is a thoughtful one.


Island Of The Dawn (Mills & Boon Modern)
Island Of The Dawn (Mills & Boon Modern)
Price: £2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Classic 1982 offering from Jordan, 16 April 2016
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One of my favourite years for Penny Jordan’s writing, and, she doesn’t fail to provide lots of interesting material for study in this offering.

In this one, ‘Chloe’ goes on holiday with her friend ‘Derek’ from Accounts. Unfortunately for naive Chloe, Derek was thinking that they might be ‘friends with benefits’ on this holiday and after a row when she tells him this wasn’t at all what she has in mind, Derek goes home, abandoning Chloe on a Greek island without her passport or any of her travellers’ cheques (Derek’s taken them with him, the cad).

As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Chloe has been married before (to the owner of a Greek shipping empire – which is fortunate, as there may be a chance she can cadge a lift home, but then turns out to be unfortunate as the Greek shipping magnate effectively kidnaps Chloe and holds her prisoner on ‘Eos’ ‘the Island of the Dawn’ of the title). ‘Leon’, the husband, then tells Chloe that he’s not letting her go until she’s given him a son. The story slowly emerges that Chloe left Leon (despite still being in love with him) after she was told by Leon’s deranged half-sister that they were having an incestuous affair. Of course, any sensible person would have checked the facts of this before abandoning their marriage, but not Chloe. She just hotfoots it back to England leaving Leon behind.

There then follows much heartfelt angst on the part of the heroine who still believes that Leon has unnatural feelings for his sister. The turning point in the text comes when Leon and Chloe leave the island and go out on his yacht, escaping the sister, and managing to turn the tide of fortune for their romance (although it’s not all plain sailing – if you’ll pardon the pun).

There are several things going on in the novel – first off, romantic heroines normally head to an island to escape the pollution and corrupting forces of society in order achieve their destiny. However, Jordan turns the literary tables in this novel and has to remove her heroine from the island (and out into the open ocean) before the romance can flourish. The theme of escapism is perfect, because this novel is all about that – Jordan in a clever moment even has the heroine envy her husband’s yacht (before she realises it is his): ‘A subdued mushroom glow illumined a cabin far more luxuriously appointed than any bedroom Chloe had ever seen in her life, and despite her shock she was still awed enough to register peach silk curtains matching the beautiful embroidered bedspread and stylish fitted furniture of a type she had only ever glimpsed enviously in prestige glossy magazines.’ (Loc. 1222). Being as ‘glossy magazines’ was precisely the method used by Jordan for her research and the fact that a lot of M&B readers would be reading the novel for precisely this type of glamour, this is a clever twist indeed. Chloe, with her husband’s yacht, is being awarded precisely the type of escapism the readers of these books demanded in the wealth and luxury he is able to provide for her. It is (in my opinion) a Shklovskyan moment of defamiliarisation and baring the device on the part of the author.

Jordan also subverts the romance in this novel by her judicious use of gardens. In many romantic novels (including Jordan’s 1998 ‘One Night in His Arms’) gardens are used as female spaces for the woman to be courted and loved as she desires. It’s where she takes control of the romance, and finds that the hero loves her after all. However, in this one, despite the hero wanting to walk with the heroine in the garden, she refuses to go with him; even lying to him to get out of it (the old ‘I’ve got a headache’ excuse). Similarly, the half-sister refuses her would-be lover by refusing to be romanced in the garden. As readers, we never get to see the garden (as we do in Jordan’s other novels) which is a prime indicator of the failed nature of the romance in this instance.

Further, we, as readers, are kept guessing right up to the end about the true emotions of the slightly forbidding character of ‘Leon’. Even in an unguarded moment, we are not permitted to see how things will go. Consider the following, as Leon, unobserved, watches Chloe sleep: ‘He watched the sleeping, vulnerable figure before him for several seconds, an unreadable expression on his face,...’ Even we don’t get to see his emotions (although, of course, it’s a Mills and Boon, so we do really know how he feels about her).

There are some great moments in the book which show that it was written in a hurry (I think Jordan wrote something like 9 novels for M&B in 1982, so she was really banging them out). For instance, Leon terrifies Chloe with the following: ‘Leon had already explaining [sic] that the yacht was an oceangoing vessel, capable of swift speed and complete with all the latest radar and technological devices. Chloe had shivered a little when he had described to her the fate suffered by some friends of his off Bermuda the previous summer. Their vessel had been hijacked and they had been cast adrift in an inflatable dinghy, from which they had been lucky to be rescued twelve hours later.
The authorities had been laconic in the face of their fear and anger. Such incidents were commonplace, and the stolen vessels were used for drug smuggling, and Leon’s friends had been told that they were lucky to be alive; many other people had been killed, or left to die slowly of thirst and starvation. Seeing Chloe shiver, Leon assured her that nothing similar was likely to happen to them.’ (Loc 1482). If it’s not going to happen, why tell her then? He tells her a similar horror story about a string of pearls he gives to her which are surely cursed by the fact that four people DIED diving for them, which would surely put anyone off wearing them (but not Chloe! She’s made of sterner stuff than that). In normal circumstances, you’d think that the boat hijack thing has been purposely introduced by the author to hint that this is probably what’s going to happen to Chloe, thus permitting the hero to rescue her and her to acknowledge his love for him (a familiar Jordan device, although she is just as likely to use a spider in the bath which the heroine requires saviour from as a boat hijacker). However, in this instance, there’s no time for a convenient kidnapper/pirate to turn up and Chloe has to make do with getting a bit wet in a storm instead during their return sailing trip.

Similarly, in a fantastic editorial error, during the same storm on board the yacht, Chloe dons a pair of jeans and a ‘serviceable blouse’ only to return from deck wearing a ‘thin dress’ which has got soaked through because she didn’t have anything warm to wear. Careless errors like this happen all the time in Jordan’s work, mainly because, like a lot of romantic novelists (18th century author Charlotte Smith springs to mind) she’s writing in a hurry probably because she needs the money.

The other great thing about this is that the hero is utterly convinced that Chloe is some kind of genius. He keeps calling her ‘clever Chloe’. Now I don’t know how any of Chloe’s story strikes anyone else, but ‘Clever Chloe’ is not how I’d describe her. ‘Credulous Chloe’ maybe (after swallowing that unlikely tale about the half-sister romance and abandoning the husband she loves because of it...)

Well, it’s a Mills and Boon, and all will come good in the end. Leon even admits his mistakes (he is a better person for acknowledging the love the heroine, as in all Mills and Boon books):

‘When Marisa told me you had only married me for my wealth I think I lost my mind for a short time. She deceived us both too easily, perhaps because neither of us had let the other see deep into our hearts.’

Admitting their mistakes, they also admit their love for each other, and go off to spend the rest of their happy lives, being fabulously wealthy and just fabulous together on Eos. The Universe has reasserted itself, and all’s right with the romantic world. Definitely a classic offering from Jordan. One of my favourites since I read the one where the heroine nearly got eaten by a giant octopus.


The Daysman
The Daysman
by Stanley Middleton
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Ancient Mariner Syndrome, 15 April 2016
This review is from: The Daysman (Paperback)
How I came to read this book is a bit of a story in itself. I bought it years ago in a second hand book shop that used to be on Glossop Road in Sheffield (I think it's a pizza place now). I'd never heard of the author, but thought that it looked okay. I then proceeded to put it in a cupboard with all the other books I've liked the look of and completely forgot about it until we bought some new bookshelves and got all the books out of the cupboard. I then picked it up at random one day and it fell open on chapter 9 which commences "Richardson spent the Easter holidays on Anglesey with his family"; which, is where I'd just spent the Easter holidays with my family. This is a book, I thought, which is finally asserting its unobtrusive presence and demanding I read it; so I did.

After a story like that, you'd expect the actual reading of the book to be a life-changing experience somehow. It wasn't. It's just an average, well-written, nothing out of the ordinary book (in which, to be fair, not much happens) which I quite enjoyed reading, but it certainly wasn't a life-changing experience.

The book details a short period in the life of John Richardson, headmaster of a high-achieving secondary school, and the various people who ask him for advice throughout his days. Lots of people ask him for advice (sometimes for reasons I couldn't quite fathom - I certainly wouldn't want the advice of a pompous headmaster if my husband left me or started beating me). At the end of the book there is a character who is a headmaster of a primary school and who has his school burnt down. This man says that he has 'ancient mariner syndrome' - he has to tell his story to anyone who will listen. However, I believe it is Richardson who seems to attract folks who feel compelled to tell their story to him.

The conversations in the book are engaging (although I got a bit sick of the constant advice-giving by the end. I wonder if the author did too, as at the very end of the book the woman who has been chief in demanding advice from Richardson suddenly turns on him, calling him a "pompous prick" and telling him to "F off". It struck me as a moment when the author had just had enough of his pompous high-achieving character.

As a book/story, it's a strange one - I wouldn't say it wasn't worth reading. I wouldn't say it was worth reading either. You will quite happily be able to live your life without Richardson and his advice, that's for sure.


All My Friends are Superheroes
All My Friends are Superheroes
Price: £3.79

4.0 out of 5 stars We are all superheroes, 9 April 2016
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I knew nothing about this author before reading this work and so genuinely believed that this was a superhero novel (to which I am particularly partial). However, this is more subtle than that - this short novella details the 'superheroics' of ordinary folks - where their superhero power is based on the one thing they can do better than any 0ther person. Since most people can do something better than other people, by this definition, we are all superheroes (and all special). And, of course, this is true - we are all different and special in one way or another.

Similarly, the problems encountered by Tom (who has suddenly become invisible to his wife "Perf" (the Perfectionist), are problems likely encountered by all married couples at one stage or another. At some point, you get so used to each other that you start taking each other for granted and stop seeing each other properly.

I liked this book - it was thoughtful and easy to read.


Able
Able
Price: £2.17

5.0 out of 5 stars A Window into another World, 3 April 2016
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This review is from: Able (Kindle Edition)
This was a kind of gritty, realistic, (and better for it) "Me Before You" and covers a brief period in the life of a young man with cerebral palsy who has always been looked after by his Father. When his Dad is involved in an accident and can no longer care for him, he has to recruit a carer. The carer is a troubled young woman who requires as much care as the man himself (not all disabilities can be seen, and this is a novel which conveys very strongly the message that you cannot trust appearances) and how their mutual caring makes them stronger people.

I really enjoyed reading the book. Unlike Jojo Moyes rendering of a disabled hero, the reader gets a true sense of this novel being a window into another world (and one which you couldn't possibly get unless you really knew what you were talking about - research is not enough). There was a real immediacy to the text as well, which I just loved. When Dan buys Jess a surprise birthday present, he refuses to reveal to the reader what it is until Jess has seen it herself (this is a striking literary device which places the reader in the same situation as the character, in having to wait to find out. I thought this was terribly clever). The relationships were also rendered beautifully with a clarity which is lacking in a lot of novels. It wasn't just the romance part of it, but also the true strength of feeling between father and son which is depicted in this text. It was heartwarming.

There are some uncomfortable scenes (some which make for uncomfortable reading - such as how does a disabled man take a wee...) but it's all part of that "window into another world" and so is probably very necessary to the book. I really recommend this book - it's fantastic.


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