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Learn German With Stories: Café in Berlin - 10 Short Stories For Beginners
Learn German With Stories: Café in Berlin - 10 Short Stories For Beginners
Price: £1.82

5.0 out of 5 stars Topical, light, educational, 9 July 2014
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This is one of three little books, consisting of 10 short chapters [2-3 pages]. Each tells a little story about Dino, a young man from Sicily, finding his feet in Germany. Avoided is the tiresome dialogue one often encounters in language courses - Frau A asks Herr B what he did for his holidays etc.

These are topical and entertaining, combining common standard words and expressions as well as slang/dialect/popular sayings. Each little tale is simply written and is accompanied by a very extensive vocabulary if required.

Try a sample before you download [though they are as cheap as buttons]. Most suitable for.. well people like Dino - some one who is looking for more than a holiday language and has done say 6 months in an evening class [and paid attention!].

Others in the series are Learn German with Stories: Ferien in Frankfurt - 10 short stories for beginners and Learn German with Stories: Karneval in Köln - 10 Short Stories for Beginners: 3 (Dino lernt Deutsch).

All That is Solid Melts into Air
All That is Solid Melts into Air
Price: £8.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious Nuclear Novel, 8 July 2014
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The novel is set in 1986 in the Soviet Union. The "system" is crumbling. Something then goes badly wrong at a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine. The story has something of a "disaster movie" feel, retailing the fall-out [quite literally] on a small but diverse group of people. A short epilogue reveals the sequelae for some of them after the USSR crashed.

Some of the writing is wonderful - the pages describing the explosion itself have poetic power, an utterly convincing chapter describes the hasty yet belated evacuation of the population of Pripyat. Other sections are unconvincing - a description of cardiac surgery comes straight from a medical textbook.

Characterisations are also patchy. The boys - Artyom and Yevgeni - stand out, absolutely plausible and winning. The "hero", the doctor Grigori, less so. He borrows traits from Ayn Rand's Adam Roark [The Fountainhead and Jack Schaeffer's Shane, but generally bears the imprint of television medics.

The plot is less than sure-footed. Some strands simply fall loose from the weave, and the overall pattern is lost. There is no real climax to anyone's tale.

The impact of Chernobyl, immediate and long-term, is controversial. Darragh McKeon adopts the worse-case scenario position, but this is not held universally. Wikipedia covers this and there are numerous references there. Fukushima has shown that modern capitalist states also struggle with the power of the atom.

The politics were a bit clunky, a bit too heavy. Grigori - "they need to take a hose to the whole Union [SSR]..Fire those in power. Promote talent. Listen to ideas. They need to do these things but never will. The system will never allow it." All the sources are in English, and I am assuming that the author does not speak Russian. This is not Doctor Zhivago.

Utlimately, despite its many strengths, I was left a little disappointed - a strong solid beginning melted into air.

Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris
Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris
Price: £16.02

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeous Gowns of Pure Blood, 20 Jun 2014
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On August 21 1933 a Parisian schoolgirl, Violette Noziere, gave poison to her parents, went on a shopping binge and came home to “discover” their bodies. "Suicide!", she screamed. Her mother was not dead, however. The ruse was unmasked. Violette was charged with murder. So begins this book, the investigation follows and then the trial.

Violette pushed Adolf Hitler off the front pages. Now she is almost unknown. Isabelle Huppert played her in a remarkable film by Claude Chabrol, but that was almost 40 years ago. Because of this I will not disclose the trial’s outcome, as most readers – like myself - would not know. Moreover, this book is, firstly, a well-written “crime history” in the “noir genre”. I do not wish to spoil that.

Sarah Maza has done much more, as you would expect from a noted social historian. She disentangles Noziere family dynamics, locating trauma in the dreams and aspirations of the lower middle classes. She examines public reaction to the crime – misspelt accusations by semi-literate snitches, the ambivalent musings of Simone de Beauvoir, the scurrilous snobbery of Colette [this has to be read!]. The Communist Party became involved, so did German sexologists; Freud was cited and dismissed. The author devotes a lengthy chapter to the Surrealists, who were among the few to defended Violette - "a water lily on a heap of coal".

A France is explored that is bypassed in standard history, which moves from Verdun to Versailles to Vichy. She quotes from contemporary sociology – a strong discipline at the time. She analyses the diverse popular press and the new crime magazine culture. There are photographs from the courtroom; cartoons from the papers are reproduced. She skewers the upper class male culture of “justice” on show in the final trial. Young spirited girls,cramped little apartments, frustrated ambition, mean-minded neighbours - we see the city through Violette's eyes.

It is unlikely that Violette would be treated the same way today. It is likely that she would still command wide publicity – consider here only the case of Amanda Knox. However, reading this book, I could not but think rather of the many black men once young awaiting execution in America, a country whose prisons are filled with the same. Their acts – granted brutal and lethal – are considered only as evil deeds by evil people, as most saw the crime of Violette. They too deserve their sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists. I was a little disappointed that Sarah Maza did not drop her historian persona and say something about her own land and her own land’s justice.

The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery
The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Downton Abbey, 4 Jun 2014
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This Penguin edition on Kindle was titled simply The Secret Rooms. Other editions have promised a gothic tale about a haunted castle, misleading and disappointing some readers and reviewers. Granted, in addition the secrets revealed may not be explosive or even completely surprising. The book provides, though, a compelling picture of the English ruling class in the early 20th century - for ruling class it certainly was.

Originally the author was studying the ploughmen and servants who left the great estates of noble England to fertilise the fields of Flanders in 1914. She was granted unique access to rooms full of documents at Belvoir Castle, the home of the Dukes of Rutland. Her hopes for this treasure trove were dashed when she realised the records for 1915 were missing. Clearly they had been deliberately excised. She set out now to discover why this was done.

A paper trail through documents and document collections throughout England, including war records and tales of lost battles and lost battalions, including hundreds of men from Belvoir who had gone to war in 1914 - the names of all are listed in the book, while their story could not be fully told. Much of the time she was engrossed in the private correspondence of ministers and princes, dukes and generals. Lengthy quotations exasperated and bored some readers, but their own words showed "these people" in their true colours. This was an age when whim of a duchess carried more weight than the lives of a thousand soldiers - and she did not have the face of Helen of Troy. In this year of the centenary of 1914 Secret Rooms is a bitter corrective to the idea of a just war, honourably undertaken and courageously led, with everyone playing their part.

The book is not written as standard historical fare. I wonder if Catherine was aiming at Downton fans - and indeed why not? At times it reads like fiction - our plucky investigator treads warily along the dark and damp passageways of mist shrouded castles to locked rooms and hidden files. This moved the tale along, and Catherine is a pretty good writer.

The Sins of the Father (Vagabonds)
The Sins of the Father (Vagabonds)
Price: £4.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Author In Search of Characters, 23 May 2014
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This is the second of a trilogy of loosely connected novels examining fascism. [A Question Of Loyalties (Canongate classics), Shadows of Empire being the others]. Sins of the Fathers looks at Germany and the Holocaust. The author is interested mainly in political choices and moral consequences. It did not work as a novel. Briefly, the author sacrificed plot, character and dialogue in his desire to pack in "ideas". It is not possible to elaborate without giving some things away so


We find Rudi Schmidt in 1964 living in Argentina. A chance encounter uncovers his true identity - Rudi Kestner, a key operative in the Final Solution. He is kidnapped, brought to Israel, tried and executed. Schmidt/Kestner is based on Adolf Eichmann, who is frequently referenced.

The Eichmann case exercised global opinion in 1961/2. The trial was covered, famously, by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann en Jerusalen / Eichmann in Jerusalem, also referenced in the novel. Many questions were raised. How could so ordinary or even cultured a German as Eichmann organize the killing of so many people? How could he melt so easily into respectability in Latin America? What authority did the state of Israel have to try him? By so closely following Eichmann I do not see what the case of Kestner adds to these discussions at any rate.

This novel does break ground in its consideration of the impact of discovery on Kestner's family then and for decades after - the novel takes us through to the 1980s. Massie is also interested in the motivations of his accusers, compromised themselves in different ways, and the consequences of the trial for them, too. A large cast of characters is brought on.

The central problem for me was the contradiction between the philosophy and the story. The author felt the need to use moral and political philosophy to answer the dilemmas and difficulties presented by Kestner/Eichmann/Hitler. He would not be the first to bring Nietzsche to the table, of course. Nor would he be wrong to do so. However, it is his characters who have to carry this responsibility and his characters are not up to the task.

The most egregious example is Franz, Kestner's son. He is presented to us as a callow, somewhat spoilt and certainly privileged young man. We know he studies engineering, plays rugby and is a bit of a playboy, but is probably going to marry his pretty girlfriend, Becky. When his easy living comes to a thundering stop, Massie has him quoting Shakespeare, Auden , Petronius and Euripides. In Jerusalem, his father's life about to be terminated, he sets himself to learn Hebrew and undertakes a self-imposed regimen of western philosophy. Even the dizzy Becky recognizes obscure quotations from Racine.

This the same Becky whose epitaph could be her final line in the book - "Don't be philosophical. I can't bear it".

The ideas were interesting, but the characters impossible.

The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France
The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France
by Sl Siegfried
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Painting Paris, Painting Parisians, 19 May 2014
Louis Boilly began painting a decade before the fall of the Bastille. He lived until the eve of the revolution of 1848. The work of this prolific artist can be found in galleries and private collections all over the world. In 2010 the Getty paid $5m for Entrance to the Turkish Gardens. Nonetheless, he is not as well-known as contemporaries David and Gericault. This large, lavishly produced monograph is the only account of his life in English. Susan Siegfried is an internationally recognised specialist in this period; she curated the Washington Boilly exhibition of 1995.

Of such a long life there is a lot to say. Throughout he was a canny operator – a real entrepreneur of his undoubted skill and vision. In the late 1820s he abandoned art altogether and took up real estate – wheeling and dealing to considerable effect to provide a legacy for his sons and daughters. The bourgeois family man.

We read how he adapted to 1789. Boilly needed to be as sensitive to the lords of the Terror as to the demands of the market. He survived. After 1795, in the Directory and then through the Napoleonic period to the Restoration, he became the draughtsman of the bourgeois city, the boulevard and urban space. A large body of slightly weird trompe l’oeil work displays a modern interest in the viewer and the spectator. As the book makes clear he was self-consciously a modern cultural creator, but no absinthe or risky dalliances for him.

His most popular canvases display pretty women [one can scarce say anything else], charged with an eroticism deftly untangled by the author. She uses feminist theory to decode glances and gestures in a way that produces an “oh, right I see” rather than “eh?”. In general I learnt a lot about the meaning of his many surviving paintings – sometimes, but only sometimes, with a sense of discomfort. The sexual politics of Boilly and his time have that effect.

At the end what lingers is the seductive attractiveness of his bourgeois heroines in Game of Billiards shown on the cover. More than a game.

Guess The Movie - Full
Guess The Movie - Full
Price: £0.65

2.0 out of 5 stars Popcorn, 14 May 2014
This review is from: Guess The Movie - Full (App)
This app cost me only a few Amazon coins, so that's a point in its favour. The movies to be guessed are pretty much all big Hollywood productions of the last twenty years. The clues take the form of icons. On my Kindle some were too small to identify. The icons take different forms - some are well-known screen-shots, others pictograms. With some even knowing the film well I found the clue obscure. This app is only meant to be diverting at best - it did not really succeed. It soon became boring as I increasingly googled the answers on the internet. A good enough idea, but not well-executed.

Russian painting HD
Russian painting HD
Price: £1.28

5.0 out of 5 stars Russian Art, 10 May 2014
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This review is from: Russian painting HD (App)
A very inexpensive app. There is a wide selection of paintings. Only minimal details are provided - obviously much less than you would get in a gallery - but it is no problem to Google the artist and the work to find out a little bit more. The reproduction quality is excellent on my kindle. You can select by period and genre as well as artist.

Novel Notes
Novel Notes
Price: £0.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Dog-eared Days, 6 May 2014
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This review is from: Novel Notes (Kindle Edition)
Jerome K Jerome was the author of Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog (Penguin Classics), published in 1889, never out of print to this day. It is one of the funniest books ever written. The follow-up, Three Men on the Bummel, has also enjoyed a big following. Aside from his essays and journalism he wrote many other lesser known books, including Novel Notes.

This was free to Kindle. The formatting is not quite right - the chapters do not start on a fresh page, for example - but no big deal. There are two uses of the N-word - should they be deleted?

A better title would have been "Four Men and a Book". The narrator is joined by three friends on a houseboat in their belief that collectively they have a good novel in them, a belief not shared by the narrator's wife, Ethelbertha. This group of chaps are entirely believable and likeable. I could imagine joining them and putting in my two pennorth.

Their efforts to get on with the task are diverted by endless stories, tall tales and reflections on life - as what else would you expect from a group of young men. There is a great deal about dreams, soldiers as unsuitable heroes and husbands, the selfishness of cats, and almost anything else that a group of chaps might have an opinion about. Some anecdotes are very funny - the astute observations on a doll's house, for example, had me in tucks.

Novel Notes is a treasure chest of the telling comment and witty aside There are more serious themes, too - the sadness of life, the emptiness of success. Does it all amount to a philosophy? Well, perhaps not to a philosopher, but to a chap smoking a pipe on a summer evening watching a cat pretend not to be chasing a bird while a dog eyes them up from a passing barge..

With so many tales about animals I thought about Aesop's Fables. Perhaps less so than with Three Men in a Boat I also could see comparisons with Mark Twain - the Thames for the Mississippi. OK maybe not that good, but I intend to find out if Twain ever commented on Jerome and vice-versa.

Throughout he criticises books and their writers, but is even more scornful of critics and reviewers. What I wonder would the author have made of Amazon and the torrent of novels that issue from graduates of creative writing courses, especially - Ah, but I must not.

The Ugly Renaissance
The Ugly Renaissance
Price: £7.65

4.0 out of 5 stars Every Picture Tells a Story, 3 May 2014
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This is an interesting book, with a clumsy and misleading subtitle. The focus is mainly the 15th century and Florence. The beauty of that time and that place concealed much that was ghastly. If we look closely, art meant to deceive can reveal another Renaissance.

We first meet Michelangelo and join him on a stroll through the city – poverty, degradation and disease. We learn that he himself rarely took a bath! The author then asks us to consider who paid the unhygienic artist’s wages, who commissioned the Sistine ceiling and the statue of David. We meet the patrons - depraved popes, bloodthirsty mercenaries, scheming bankers. They all used commissions to advance their respective causes and draw a veil over their sins. Art was propaganda. In a final section Lippi’s Barbadori altarpiece is analysed – for what is not in the painting. We meet the social outsiders – Jews, Muslims, and the peoples newly encountered by the voyages of discovery to Africa and across the great ocean. For them at least, the Renaissance was “a very bad thing”.

Thirty or so paintings are well reproduced. Alexander Lee builds his narrative round the works of art themselves. He also references heavily humanist scholarship of the period. Copious notes show his arguments to be based on modern research from a range of specialist journals, many not in English. I was completely unaware of how much interest there is in this area and how much is being revealed today. The reader would need an expert like the author to summarize and sift so much work.

In an epilogue I think he lets it slip a little. The modern world has all the ugliness of the quattrocento and none of its beauty; contemporary art lies in the gutter, but does not look at the stars – he says. Well ,that’s for discussion at least.

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