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12 Books That Changed the World
12 Books That Changed the World
by Melvyn Bragg
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly readable, 5 Sept. 2007
I'm not a fan of Melvin Bragg. I've always found his TV presenting on the South Bank show to be offputtingly smug and more suited to Pseuds Corner than my living room. So it was that I came to this book with a certain amount of trepidation. I'd seen one episode of the TV series (about the football rules) and was sufficiently surprised that I enjoyed it to be prepared to give the book a go - and I'm glad I did.
It's a personal list of a dozen books that Bragg feels changed the world. He says in the introduction that he's tried to avoid just covering the obvious choices like religion (so we only get the King James Bible, and not the Ko'ran as well, for instance) and instead tried to find a dozen books which cover many different aspects of contemporary society - from football to economics to sexual equality and so on - and then to illustrate how they helped create that society. It's a good list, and is sufficiently broad a topic that it can lead to ' I wouldn't put that book in, I'd've had this book instead' debates, which is always fun.
Bragg shows himself an incisive reviewer of books, offering both an illuminating precis of the content of each, how they came to be written and his judgement on the effects they had. I still don't like his TV persona, but Twelve Books that Changed the World, for it's length, is highly informative and accessible, and may well have inspired me to read more of the list it offers.

Fearless [DVD]
Fearless [DVD]
Dvd ~ Jet Li
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £2.46

5 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 4 Sept. 2007
This review is from: Fearless [DVD] (DVD)
There is a theory that the Chinese film industry is currently at a stage equivalent to Hollywood in the 1930's or 50's - when massive spectacle on the big screen was of primary importance and other, lesser, considerations like plot or acting were of secondary importance. Certainly, the Chinese have put out some stunningly beautiful films lately - Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, for example. All these have been gorgeous to watch but incoherent in plot and Fearless follows this trend. If you look, there is the story in here somewhere of Huo Yuanjia, founder of the Jinwu Sports Federation - a Chinese Wushu school. However, this story is lost amongst plots about scheming European and Japanese businessmen trying to humiliate China whilst twirling their moustaches and claiming that they'll get you, Penelope Pitstop, see if they don't.
Not that I'm saying that there's more ham in this film than a high-quality delicatessen, you understand.
Jet Li's astonishing gymnastic and balletic Taichi and Wushu skills have been showcased before in films like the superlative 'Once upon a Time in China', but here he is jumpcut and wire-fu'd to the point where it is difficult to tell what is actually him and what is SFX meaning that the main reason to watch a kung-fu movie - to gape like a goldfish at the astounding physicality of the leads - is rendered pointless as we never really get to see what they can really do.
If you're looking for Chinese historical epics, there are far, far better out there - the aforementioned 'Once upon a Time in China' is a great example of the breed. Fearless is a weak coda to Jet Li's career, lumbered as it is with weak plot, weak acting, and poorly choreographed wire-fu.
If you're looking for a wonderfully shot film which shows off the Chinese countrywide in beautifully vibrant colours, this is the film for you. If you're looking for a film with good acting, plot and kung-fu choreography, you won't find it here - I recommend Woo-ping Yuen's wonderful 1993 film, 'Iron Monkey' instead.

The Conquest of the Sahara
The Conquest of the Sahara
by Douglas Porch
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.85

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Higly readable, 9 Aug. 2007
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I buy a lot of books purely because they look interesting and I'm incorrigibly curious about subjects I know little or nothing about.
Of course, this means that I read an awful lot of rubbish, but it has the benefit that occasionally I run across something good, like this. A history of the French expansion into the Sahara from early intrepid tourists to later full scale military imperialism, Conquest of the Sahara tells a tale of hubris, Imperialist ambition, national pride and individual ambition.
Accessibly written with a dry sense of humour, Douglas Porch outlines a century of Empire building to no end; each of the reasons for building a French Empire in the Sahara were rebutted at the time, never mind now. A railway to the French holdings in Chad could never happen, there were simply no economic benefits to trade in one of the poorest regions on earth, and ferrying troops south to counter british holdings in Nigeria proved pointless due to a British/French entente against an agressive Germany.
Nevertheless, the French carved out an enormous holding at great personal and economic cost with spuroius or even nonexistant reasons for doing so. It's a fascinating tale.
If this book could be improved it would be with a good editor; a number of times players in this game appear with no background or indication who they are, and several major places do not appear on the map at the front making it occasionally troublesome to keep an eye on what is going on.
A minor quibble, though, in what is a highly accessible and interesting piece of popular history.

by Koji Suzuki
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The law of diminishing returns, 12 July 2007
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This review is from: Loop (Paperback)
Few people would disagree that the first book of this series - Ring - was probably the most influencial creation in horror in the last decade. The idea of undead Sadako Yamamura crawling out of the TV has spawned an entire 'J-Horror' industry, from film, to games to other books to spoofs.
Ring (Ringu) scared the bejeezus out of me, and so I was interested in where Suzuki took the series next. Sadly, it appears that as an author he only had one really good idea. The first sequel (Spiral) was lacklustre at best, and the second (Loop) is downright awful.
The problem is that horror relies upon the unknown to be frightening, and so the more it is explained, the less scary it gets. Spiral went some way to explaining Sadako, and Loop dismisses her astonishing powers with a single throwaway line - completely removing all suspense from the narrative. Instead all we're left with is a book in which all the twists are explained before they happen, which doesn't make for a very effective thriller.
The storyline follows Kauru, a precocious youth who lives in a dysfunctional family. When his father to struck down by a new form of cancer, he goes on a long journey to find the source and cure of the disease. It's here the story explains away all the horror and unexplained of the first two books, and the only surprise is just how dull the explaination is. By turns leaden, knowingly self-referential and trite, the story plods from set piece to set piece, assuming an ignorance of genetics and computing on the part of the reader in order to drive the plot towards to a conclusion which reads less like the cumulation to a wildly influencial horror trilogy, and more like to the script to a 1980's straight-to-video sci-fi movie.

If you're a fan of horror, or the Ring series, this is definitely one to avoid.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 1, 2011 10:37 AM BST

The Devil in Amber: A Lucifer Box Novel (Lucifer Box 2)
The Devil in Amber: A Lucifer Box Novel (Lucifer Box 2)
by Mark Gatiss
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lucifer Box and the Lost Ark, 13 Mar. 2007
The Devil in Amber is a sequel to 2003's "The Vesuvius Club", and in the same way that The Vesuvius Club was a postmodern pastiche of the dandyism, mystery and oddness of late Victorian/ Edwardian Literature such as the Yellow Book and Sherlock Holmes, The Devil in Amber takes Lucifer Box into the two-fisted pulp fiction of the 1930's. Unfortunately, it isn't a very happy meeting of styles.

You see, in "The Devil in Amber" Lucifer Box is a literary creation worthy of Amistead Maupin; an aging lothario, self-deluding and pursuing people twenty years his junior with the desperation of the loveless and old. He's a pathetic creation in the truest meaning of the word pathos - his denial of reality cannot fail to raise the sympathy of the reader. The problem is that he's been dumped into a plot which is a rather tired and obvious re-tread of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", and if you're going to do a plot which George Lucas and Steven Spielberg used first, you have to do something a bit special. "The Devil in Amber" doesn't.

It's all here; villainous Nazis pursuing diabolic power, love and danger on tramp steamers, an ogrish sidekick dispatched more by luck than judgement, all through to the 'things which man was not supposed to know' denouement. The exotic locations of 'Raiders' (Tibet and Egypt) are replaced by the prosaic (Cornwall and Switzerland) and occasional attempts at comic asides (a randy nonagenarian who has the hots for Box, for example) only make an already threadbare narrative all the more unconvincing.

It's a shame. The character of Box could be drawn from life, but the plot could be drawn from the £1.99 bin at Blockbusters. The juxtaposition of the two jars and so neither works - Box would be better trawling the clubs of San Franciso, whilst the plot has been done much better before.

Pig Island
Pig Island
by Mo Hayder
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not terrifying, 1 Feb. 2007
This review is from: Pig Island (Hardcover)
Being stuck at the station waiting for a delayed train, I bought this on the strength of the cover byline - "The most terrifying thriller you'll read this year."

That alone was a good object lesson in never believing front cover advertising, as Pig Island is neither terrifying nor particularly thrilling.

The basic setup - the first quarter or so of the book - is excellent. The narrator, a debunker of the supernatural, visits a religious community on a remote Scottish island with overtones of The Wicker Man. It's plain that beneath the veneer of cheerful contended community that there is something awful going on on the island and I genuinely found this section gripping. However, as the book goes on, first revealing something of what is going on on the island and then moving back to the mainland for an extended drama/chase/hiding sequence, the thrills die away.

Writing a thriller with twists is like performing a magic trick - you have to show the audience what you're doing, but hide the clues so when you reveal the trick, they say "Gosh, that's clever!". Pig Island doesn't really manage that. Instead, it's quite clear for a lot of the book that there's a trick being played on the reader by the author and the only way for the final twist and reveal at the end to work is for the author to cheat and contrive circumstances to fit the story without feeling particularly realistic. The chain of coincidences required to make the plot work just becomes unconvincing towards the end and that reduces the punch which the final reveal should carry. Couple this with an extended and unnecessary subplot about the narrators wife being obsessed with a prominent neurosurgeon (which just feels like padding to make up the page count) and you've got what could have been quite a sleek thriller feeling contrived, bloated and overwritten.

It's a shame. There's a good idea here, and a tremendously atmospheric set up, but the overall plot feels forced and the book carries a sense of disappointment that the potential is never reached.

Empire of Dragons
Empire of Dragons
by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what it promises on the cover, 14 Dec. 2006
This review is from: Empire of Dragons (Paperback)
The idea of a novel exploring an encounter between Rome and China - the two great Empire of the classical world - is a fasncinating one. As the author says, there is evidence of a certain small amount of contact between them and there is almost certainly a place and a market for a 'what if' novel along the lines of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Years of Rice and Salt". However: you should be aware that this is not it.

It starts excellently; the author knows his Roman history and there is a clear sense of time and place in the adventures of a group of Legionnaires captured by the Persians with Emperor Valerian at Edessa in 260AD. This, however, takes more than the first half of the book, as the soldiers are condemned to slavery, escape and end up hooking up with a lost Prince of China. Whereas the first half of the book is a well-studied and interesting piece of writing, when we finally arrive in China we're suddenly in a high-kicking chop-socky spectacular.

The clash of styles is jarring.

The most awful thing is that much of the second half of the book appears to be written with half an eye to the movie rights. As you read, you can hear Hollywood script agents saying "It's high-concept! It's Roman Legions versus Wire-fu Ninjas! It's Gladiator meets Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon!" As an action film, I can see the value - the cash tills will be ringing. As a novel, it jars and doesn't convince. Used as we are to the uncompromising professionalism and stolidity of the Romans, the sudden arrival of (literally) superpowered ninja in a quasi-historical novel breaks suspension of disbelief. It's rare I put a book down without finishing it, but 60 pages from the end I had to make a conscious effort to read the painful deus-ex-machina conclusion.

I'm giving the book three stars because the first half is a good read. The second half is an unconvincing pitch to Hollywood with lead characters plainly modelled in the hope that Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi will be playing them. I like both historical epics and ludicrous kung-fu action adventures - I'm just not sure that they belong in the same book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 14, 2010 7:46 PM BST

Seven Ancient Wonders (Jack West Junior 1)
Seven Ancient Wonders (Jack West Junior 1)
by Matthew Reilly
Edition: Paperback

12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Jaw-droppingly, hilariously, terrible., 10 Nov. 2006
Matthew Reilly came to fame with "Ice Station", a modern-day thriller which teetered on the very edge of believable but never quite managed to plummet into the abyss of comical unreadability.

Happily for all of us, he's tried again and produced a book which is so astoundingly bad that aspiring writers can use it as a 'how not to' guide and the rest of us can entertain guests at parties by reading out choice snippets.

Thousands of years ago, you see, a powerful artefact was broken into pieces and a piece hidden in each of the seven wonders of the ancient world, geography and history notwithstanding. Now it is imperative that this artefact be found and reassembled against an artificial deadline by a group of rough-tough-but-good-hearted mercenaries and special forces types who are pursued by other special forces types who want the artefact for themselves. The Seven Ancient Wonders must be found (those that were lost) or investigated and each one is brimming with traps which have survived thousands of years of wear and tear (a particular favourite is the room full of live, angry crodiles which have been sealed in for almost 2,500 years. I'm not surprised they're so cross - they must be jolly hungry by now). As the clock ticks, adventures and firefights await our good mercenaries wherever they go until a climatic and entirely predictable denouement.

I won't spoil the plot for you by telling you more. In fact, the plot is so bad that I'm not sure I could spoil it even if I sang the 'seven ancient wonders plot song' and handed you an illustrated guide. Suffice to say that this book is wonderfully entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Just not in the way the author intended.

If you're an aspiring author, this book should give you hope because if this can get into print and sell like hot cakes, than anything can.

Offered by marxwax
Price: £6.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Who knew the wild west was so small?, 29 Aug. 2006
This review is from: GUN (PC DVD) (DVD-ROM)
I've avoided the Grand Theft Auto games up until now. Every review I've seen of them has tended to be written by over-excited 14-year olds crowing about how many times they shot innocent bystanders, and that sort of thing really doesn't get me interested these days. However, my inner John Wayne can't resist a good western and so when Gun came out I bought it both for that and to get a view of the GTA game design and structure.

I can't say I'm not disappointed. The storyline of GUN is that you are Jake Colton who saw his father murdered and sets out to find out by whom, and why. So far, so traditional. However, the storyline is incredibly short - if you concentrate upon it then it's perfectly possible to finish the game in a couple of evenings and so to get your money's worth you will take the 'side missions' which range from gambling in the saloon to helping the local rancher, the pony express and the sherriff.

That's right - you'll take time off from your consuming mission of revenge to help a farmer round up his cows, run down some opium dealers, deliver the mail and get a few hands of poker in.

As well as the very short plot line, the game area is pretty titchy as well - a minute or two of riding on your easily stolen but well rendered horse will get you anywhere in the wild west, from the Missouri to Dodge City to Empire - and this leads to the impression that the old west was crammed with outlaws, indians and renegade Confederate soldiers with barely room to move between them, especially when you have to deliver mail to the old mine in one mission, and then go right back there to round up a notorious band of outlaws in the next not ten minutes later.

Grahpically, the game is okay. It has highlights (the horses move as much like real horses as I've ever seen in a game, and the sunsets are beautiful), but in the main it looks like the sturdy old Quake 3 engine and that just means it looks dated. Despite this, there's still a lot of graphic lag and jumpiness - and considering the size of the environments in games like Far Cry which run without a glitch, this just isn't acceptable these days.

Overall, it's just ho-hum. The game passed a couple of evenings well enough, but the replay value is pretty much nil and there's much better out there for your money. Yes, if you like you can gun down innocent bystanders without any consequences, but if you're looking for a long game with interesting challenges, this isn't it.

If you can get it for less than a tenner, GUN is a passable enough way to pass an evening or two. If not, don't bother.

Captain Alatriste: The Adventures of Captain Alatriste (Adventures of Capt Alatriste 1)
Captain Alatriste: The Adventures of Captain Alatriste (Adventures of Capt Alatriste 1)
by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good fun, 22 Aug. 2006
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
It's obvious what has happened here: the author has read a lot of D'Artagnan and Scarlet Pimpernel and found himself wondering "Why doesn't Spain has a swashbuckling hero?" Fortunately, this thought has led to the writing of the Captain Alatriste series which neatly continues the legacy of the classic swashbuckers.

Set in Spain at the start of the reign of Philip the fourth, the series revolves around the titular captain, a veteran of the Spanish/Dutch wars reduced to selling his sword in order to get by. Despite his reduced circumstances the Captain struggles to retain his honour and dignity which, when he gets caught up in the machinations of royal politics, proves very difficult indeed. Alexandre Dumas once said that history was the canvas upon which he painted his pictures, and Perez-Reverte has taken this lesson to heart with the betrothal of Prince (later King) Charles of England and the Infanta of Spain providing a backdrop for sword-fights in darkened alleys, quiet heroism, murder and political double-dealing. Captain Alatriste embodies the serious yet passionate character which the Spanish pride themselves upon, and couples this with the loyalty, honour and skill with a blade required of a period hero.

It's quite good fun for a reader used to the French/English perspective in literature depicting the time to see a different view of the period - the European rivalries of the time being cast in a new light by the Spanish perspective.

Every nation deserves it's own swashbucking heroes in the D'Artagnan mold, and in Captain Alatriste Spain has got one for herself - and not before time.

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