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Tom Doyle

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Walking the Himalayas: An adventure of survival and endurance
Walking the Himalayas: An adventure of survival and endurance
by Levison Wood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Himalayas... on the edge, 22 Jan. 2017
I wasn't sure what to expect with Walking the Himalayas, having neither read Levison Wood's Walking the Nile nor seen either accompanying television series. But I was gripped after a few pages by the vivid flashback introduction that describes his backpacking days in Pokhara in 2001, when Maoists riot in the streets as he huddles in an internet cafe. This well-written start sets the tone for the tales of derring-do to come as Wood embarks from Afghanistan to Bhutan via Pakistan, India and Nepal. A series of snapshots of the Himalayas accumulates as Wood, taking many chances including following a perilous trail in Kashmir with his friend Ash (they are lucky to survive), and almost dying in Nepal in a horrific car crash in which Wood shatters an arm. Unlike some travel writers who believe they can simply observe and move on without talking to locals, Wood is always on the lookout for interesting encounters (including one with the Dalai Lama). Obviously there is an element of: what is happening as far as filming is concerned? And the after the Pokhara flashback he takes rather a long time to leave his home in Fulham. But the well told stories from his intriguing route, with its many beautiful landscapes and dangerous creatures (close encounters are had with cobras and tigers), have a down to earth quality mixed with a wry sense of humour that wins you over, taking you to places you can't fly on Ryanair and most people simply would not be brave enough to go.

Golden Hill
Golden Hill
by Francis Spufford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Golden thrills, 6 Jan. 2017
This review is from: Golden Hill (Paperback)
Having just failed to finish the awful, turgid Booker Prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Golden Hill came as pleasurably light relief. Its depiction of Manhattan in the 18th century is evocative and rich in detail: the gossipy coffee shops, the sauna bathing houses, the madness of bonfire night, the cobbled lanes, the winter cold, the cliquey society led by the governor of NYC, the treatment of slaves, the ironic obsession with the concept of "liberty" despite the kowtowing to the king (a prelude to events to come a little later on; this is obviously set before the War of Independence). With a population of about 5,000 and most people on the make, privacy does not really exist in the fledgling metropolis so it is realistic that the arrival of a mysterious wealthy stranger would get tongues wagging. The story rather wobbles and meanders and sometimes slows to such a sedate pace that you wish Spufford would just get on with it - but then it lurches back into life as the protagonist finds himself in yet another predicament. It's a peculiar tale - with a weird, jolting ending - that captures an intriguing period in New York City.

by Elizabeth Bruce
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.34

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not sold, 17 Dec. 2016
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This series of riffs on living in a ghetto in LA does not hold together. The 'humour' consists of what feels like in-jokes (most of them not particularly funny). The bus sequences and doughnut shop debates are especially tedious. I persevered imagining that this Booker winner was about to open up into a good read. It didn't. This is the first Booker winner I've failed to finish. I recently read an article in The Times by various writers on their favourite books of 2016. Not one selected The Sellout (which says a lot).

Treasured Island: A Book Lover's Tour of Britain
Treasured Island: A Book Lover's Tour of Britain
by AA Publishing
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.61

5.0 out of 5 stars Barrett's love of British literature takes him on a gentle, 9 Jun. 2016
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Britain has a lot of literary attractions and places you can visit that are connected to writers. Frank Barrett estimates there are more than 100, many maintained by the National Trust, which Barrett believes has "largely replaced the Church of England in the role of caring for the soul of the nation".

In this entertaining and informative book, Barrett - the long-standing travel editor of the Mail on Sunday - sets out to visit as many as he can on a whistle stop tour of Britain that takes him from the West Country and Cornwall (Betjeman, Coleridge, Woolf and William Blake) up to Scotland to see Burns Cottage, Jura (where Orwell wrote 1984; you can rent the very cottage in which he stayed while failing to recuperate from TB), and Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands.

The shape of Unst is believed to have been taken up by Robert Louis Stevenson in his classic Treasure Island. Barrett's title obviously derives from this. His fascination with the book stems from his childhood in which he had a (much condensed) 20-minute EP audio version of Stevenson's work. Hence lines such as "the black spot!" and "them that'll die will be the lucky ones..." became part of his "family parlance". A kindly uncle later gave him a copy of the book.

Barrett's love of British literature takes him on a gentle, meandering tour to see the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth in the Pennines, Jane Austen's home in Chawton in Hampshire, the Charles Dickens museum in Broadstairs in Kent (Dickens is believed to have written parts of Bleak House in the seaside town), Hull (for its Larkin connection), Leeds (for its connection to Keith Waterhouse, whom Barrett knew), London (where he particularly enjoys seeing Samuel Johnson's house off Fleet Street), Laugharne in Wales (where he pops into the Boathouse where Dylan Thomas based himself, while spending much time in the bar of nearby Brown's Hotel)... and many other literary spots.

He does not aim to be comprehensive (there is the excellent Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland for that). His intention is to offer an account of the various attractions - museums and places rooted in authors' pasts - as he sees them.

This adds charm and there is an honestly about the descriptions - particularly when he is critical of how some attractions are run. I especially enjoyed his bust up with the uptight staff at the Bronte Parsonage, who seem to consider Barrett some kind of security threat because he possesses a camera.

In his concluding chapter Barrett comments: "A few of Britain's literary attractions are run as totalitarian regimes, apparently inspired by Honecker-era Communist East Germany". Which is perhaps over-egging it a bit, but those who have visited such places know what he means. Maybe - given that tourism is just about all that Britain has left in terms of "industry" - it's about time that British holiday spots began to adopt the American "have a nice day" attitude, Barrett muses.

This is a good read with lots of practical ideas for trips and pen portraits of writers and the locales that inspired their works.

by J.G. Ballard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving up in the world, 13 April 2016
This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)
It would be easy to attack this book, to say it's unrealistic, that the characters do not feel rounded, and that not a great deal happens. To do so, however, would be missing the point.

As populations boom and cities grow across the globe people inevitably live closer together. Close proximity and rear window moments (as Hitchcock captured so well) are the stuff of existence from inner city housing estates in Chicago and London to slums in South Africa and shanty towns in Brazil.

What happens when a lot of people are shoved into a small space? What happens, in particular, if people decide that this is the way they want to live out of choice? (Though for most in the real world, choice does not come into it).

Step forward Ballard and this ideas-based book, first published in 1975 - at a time when tower blocks were shooting up in cities worldwide to help solve overpopulation. High-Rise teases out the effects that this environment (the inhuman tower block) has on the humans within it.

Regimentation and the disconnect with life on the ground spins into alcohol and drug addiction, amoral sexuality, random violence, chronic status anxiety and curiously impersonal behaviour. As Ballard puts it: "A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressure of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere."

Ballard obviously takes this to extremes to drive home his points - and one senses a mischievous humour as he lets life in the tower unravel. He's clearly having fun when he's writing this, as well as pointing two fingers at governments of the day who thought this system of human organisation was the way forward.

It has since proven not to be, yet as the world's population continues to soar, closer living - often in such blocks - is a fact of life. Just think of the pressures of life in London or New York. Move into the suburbs or beyond for something close to "normality" - a house with a garden - and you are then faced with whacking commuter transport costs. So the choice to live in the city in an apartment - especially those pitched as offering a somehow "sophisticated" lifestyle - is tempting.

And, yes, some people are selecting apartment living even when other options are available. The tower block has an allure - a packaged 'personality' (delivered on the signing of the mortgage paper). Welcome to your yuppie apartment... you're moving up in the world (literally).

Ballard is not - as he said in interviews - interested in characterisation. He is interested in social situations and the psychological effects of those situations on people.

As he does with a different set of circumstances in The Drowned World, his dystopian vision of a flooded planet once the ice caps have melted, Ballard plays with these ideas - how the environment affects psychologies.

Ballard is a master of this. High-Rise delivers.

Make Me: (Jack Reacher 20)
Make Me: (Jack Reacher 20)
by Lee Child
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Make me... want to read on, 13 April 2016
I've enjoyed other Lee Child books but this one seemed formulaic, predictable, plodding and unlikely.

You are certain from pretty early on that's there's going to be the denouement that eventually comes (without giving that away, though it would not be giving away much).

You do not really believe in the relationship between Reacher and Chang (strangers who are too suddenly in it together).

The journalist would not have a bottomless pit of funds to throw at a peculiar potential story brought to him by mavericks (papers are run on a shoestring).

Even in quiet parts of rural America it's impossible to believe that quite such lawlessness could exist.

The writing style in which numbers are regularly used to aid description begins quickly to jar ("she was quiet for a long moment, five or six seconds", counting the number of blocks in Mother's Rest, a man sitting at a register in a shop having "about two feet of room, which wasn't enough", "waiting alone in the gloom... five more minutes", an "angled hatch at forty-five degrees", "if a car needs to travel fifteen miles in fifteen minutes, how fast must it go?"). Numbers are used too often as a descriptive device.

The question of what Mother's Rest means - repeatedly asked - is, frankly, boring

The book, as others have observed, begins very slowly, and then not a lot happens.

Yes, the basic idea is interesting - the evil at the core of this "thriller" - but the substance of the book is thin gruel indeed.

Not a very good book.

Price: £6.31

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a great album because it is experimental and imaginative, 26 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Blackstar (Audio CD)
I bought and listened to this on the Saturday before Bowie's death; which was announced two days later.

It's a great album because it is experimental and imaginative, heartfelt and makes you sit up and think. Much has been written about its reference to dying - foreshadowing what was to come so soon - but there are tracks such as Sue and Girl Loves Me that stand alone as stories and interesting/arresting music that does not dwell on darkness.

I enjoyed the mix of jazz, pop and occasional bursts of sped-up jungle music-style beats, but it's the thoughtfulness of the writing and composition that stands out.

My favourite track was the last one - I Can't Give Everything Away - with lyrics as enigmatic as the musician who sang them.

Night Thoughts
Night Thoughts
Offered by uniqueplace-uk
Price: £10.60

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it. This has to be the album of ..., 19 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Night Thoughts (Audio CD)
Loved it. This has to be the album of the year... better even, dare I say it, than Bowie.

Haunting, melancholic, uplifting, honest, tantalising and alive with 'what might have been' and, sometimes, 'what might still be'.

My favourite track: 'What I'm Trying To Tell You'... a song that begins 'I don't know the meaning of much, I don't know the right expressions, I don't have too much intuition or too many credentials...' great stuff... And the whole album is good: buy it, you won't be disappointed.

NISBET AND TRAFALGAR: 'One of Britain's most original authors'  Times Literary Supplement Whitbread First Novel Award James Tait Black Award
NISBET AND TRAFALGAR: 'One of Britain's most original authors' Times Literary Supplement Whitbread First Novel Award James Tait Black Award
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Trafalgar and Lord Nelson from Josiah Nisbet's view - colourful, gritty, amusing, 19 Mar. 2016
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This is a rumbustious roller-coaster of a read that follows the ups and downs (more often downs) of Josiah Nisbet, Lord Nelson's stepson, as imagined by Sid Smith, a former winner of both the James Tait Black award and the Whitbread first novel award.

Nisbet has fallen out with his stepfather over the latter's romantic attachment to Lady Hamilton. This affair had, of course, famously left his mother Fanny Nelson in the lurch. Nelson had met his wife, whose first husband had died early leaving her with a child, while in Nevis in the Caribbean.

Relations have obviously soured between Fanny and the vice admiral, and Nisbet takes the side of his mother, as Smith points out in the foreword to "Nisbet and Trafalgar" when he recounts Nelson's 40th birthday gala in Naples in 1798, where Josiah is said to have been escorted out of the room after pointing at Lady Hamilton and bellowing: "That woman is ruining that man."

Smith cleverly tells the story of Nisbet, who has been sidelined by Lord Nelson after being given many early chances in life within the navy - nepotism working much to his advantage. However by the time the tale begins he and Lord Nelson, while still on talking terms, are estranged... and Nisbet's naval opportunities are much reduced.

So are his finances. Nisbet has become a peripheral figure known principally by others for his family connection to Lord Nelson, who is much loved by the nation at large for his successes on the high seas (in particular during the Battle of the Nile; Nelson had already lost his right arm and demonstrated his great bravery in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife). He finds himself moping about in London, attempting to raise a pound or two here and there with hustles involving fake gold chains. He is ranked a captain, but is only just clinging on to his weakening connections to the navy.

During such a down period Nisbet is signed up to take charge of a ship, The Dolphin, which is sent on patrols of the Channel - and it is from here that Smith's story begins, eventually leading Nisbet to the heat of the Battle of Trafalgar.

There are many twists and turns. Nisbet is not lucky. Nor is he liked. People realise that he and Lord Nelson, the nation's hero, do not get on - and they do not like him for it. They also recognise that his position is clearly down to pulling family strings; his skills as a seaman are much doubted. Between bouts at sea he finds himself down on his uppers, escaping creditors, drinking too much and chasing women who would prefer not to be chased by a penniless much-ridiculed wannabe.

Nisbet, as Smith portrays him, is not a sympathetic character; nor does Smith intend him to be. This adds an honesty to the writing. Nisbet and Trafalgar's strength also comes from the examination of Nisbet's unusual relationship with his stepfather alongside the descriptions of the seedier side of late 18th and early 19th century London. The use of colloquial language brings an earthy richness to the story (sometimes perhaps falling into dialogue as we might imagine it in films with plenty of "that dog Napoleon" and talk of rascally "French frogs"). At sea, the nautical terminology adds verisimilitude, and the ship names are historically correct (as far as I know).

There's a great deal upon which to chew. The book teeters on the brink of brilliance - the start is a touch slow - but it offers a colourful, down-to-earth, alternative insight into a much written about period of English history. Persevere and you are rewarded with an original, memorable, at times amusing, tale.

by Michel Houellebecq
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.20

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars with his tedious obsession with Huysmans, 11 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Submission (Hardcover)
Interesting idea - the rise of mainstream Muslim parties and the knock-on effect on western society (in France) - but the protagonist, with his tedious obsession with Huysmans, a 19th-century novelist, and his strange relationships with younger women and penchant for escorts is annoying.

It's the type of book that JG Ballard would have crafted beautifully, creating a furtive tension and explaining the breakdown of law and order and sudden societal changes (for example universities closing down) so they make sense... not just letting events happen and expecting the reader to accept great leaps in logic and get on with the book.

The sell-out by some academics - happily going into arranged marriages and pocketing Middle Eastern oil state salaries in return for accepting the new status quo/converting - is interesting.

But the academic rambling of the protagonist, Francois, gets in the way of what might have been a captivating tale.

Others here have said that this is a good idea for a book that's been wasted by Houellebecq and I tend to agree.

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