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Trevor Coote (Tahiti, French Polynesia)

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The Northern Clemency
The Northern Clemency
by Philip Hensher
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Little lives on a grand scale, 10 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Northern Clemency (Paperback)
Philip Hensher tugs back the curtains of England's smug and manicured suburbia and gives us an extended peek into the cocooned lives of two lower middle-class families as intense social and economic change swirls unseen around them. Bernie Sellers has left a bland South London suburb and decanted his wife Alice, gangly son Francis and hormonal teenage daughter Sandra to a posh location on the edge of the Peak District in prosperous west Sheffield. On the other side of the road is the Glover family who are in the midst of a domestic crisis. Bored housewife Katherine Glover has taken a job in a florist's run by the odd Nick and quickly becomes infatuated much to the consternation of estate agent husband Malcolm. Meanwhile their spoilt offspring - snake-obsessed Tim, girl-obsessed Daniel and plain Jane - have the seeds of their disparate futures unexpectedly sown. We then follow the Glovers and the Sellers - and others - over three decades of rapidly changing English social history.
The Northern Clemency is a conventional novel about a conventional subject. It is very long and incredibly detailed on the minutiae of the daily lives of ordinary people during the last quarter of the twentieth century. If anything, there is too much detail. For example, when we learn of Malcolm Glover's passion for the English Civil War we don't really need to join him on the Moors for a juvenile recreation of the Battle of Naseby, and there are other gratuitous sections which serve no obvious role in the plot. The author is plainly very comfortable within his suburban milieu but he, and his characters, are less convincing when stepping into the wider world, notably industrial east Sheffield, though it would be nigh on impossible to produce a work about 1980s Sheffield without at least a passing reference to the miners' strike which first exploded there. In the end, though, this novel is less about historical events and more about families and how they cope with the rollercoaster of life along a bumpy road of conflicting ideals, ambitions and motivations, and the inevitable secrets, suspicions and misunderstandings that arise when different sexes and generations pass their lives under the same roof. Little lives on a grand scale, generally interesting, often fun and occasionally gripping, but not to be taken too seriously.


Ecological Genetics
Ecological Genetics
by E.B. Ford
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The invaluable role of robust, long-term fieldwork, 4 Nov. 2009
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This review is from: Ecological Genetics (Hardcover)
Despite the author's distasteful misogyny and the posthumous suspicion over some of his data, E B Ford can lay claim to being the inventor of the term which describes the area of biological research that investigates the adjustments and adaptations of wild populations to their environment. Although he was not the only researcher to be involved in this field it was he who communicated it to a wider audience within the scientific community. Ecological genetics during his period of research had been largely an English enterprise stemming from that country's tradition of natural history fieldwork, emphasising the role of natural selection as an explanation of the extraordinary variation seen within populations. In America there had been much simultaneous laboratory-based genetic research, focusing on Drophosila fruit flies, which had led researchers to a different conclusion; that genetic variation in populations has arisen largely as a result of mutations of neutral or near neutral effects. In this view natural selection played little part. Sewell Wright was the principal proponent of this theory.
Somewhat tainted by criticisms of other researchers bordering on the personal (`He would have been wiser to discard his views when he himself found them leading to conclusions contrary to the facts of nature') and some extravagant use of language (`...it is deplorable that such events [climatic effects] have hardly ever been studied by the techniques of ecological genetics,'), Ecological Genetics is nevertheless a meticulous, Darwinian style compilation of evidence for the role of natural selection as an explanation of the extraordinary phenomena seen in natural populations. This work summarises much of the ecological field research which had taken place in the first half of the twentieth century, studies which had been revolutionised by the formation of mark-recapture techniques and greatly aided by a working definition of polymorphism. There is a strong bias towards Lepidoptera as that had been Ford's principal study group but fruit flies, land snails and wild flowers all figure prominently in discussions of ecology and the genetic mechanisms that underpin the maintenance of polymorphism, plant heterostyly, mimicry and industrial melanism.
It was the field of ecological genetics which confirmed as reality the previously held possibility of two distinct races arising without isolation (sympatric evolution), past or present (sometimes leading to speciation). The real value of this book lies, though, not in the clarification of ecological genetic theory and modes of evolution but in demonstrating the invaluable role that robust, long-term fieldwork has played in elucidating these theories and needs to play in all contemporary conservation programmes, a fact often obscured today by the advent of automated DNA sequencing, modelling software and endless endangered species lists.


Underworld
Underworld
by Don DeLillo
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A dizzying journey through Cold War paranoia, 4 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Underworld (Paperback)
Don Dellilo's monumental opus sweeps over you in a tidal wave of dark and unsettling detail in a fragmented odyssey through the underbelly of America during the Cold War years. It begins at a historic baseball game in 1951 where a young black boy Cotter Martin snatches the ball from the winning strike at the moment when the Soviet Union was conducting its first nuclear tests to kick start the Cold War. The ball is a loose thread that runs throughout the novel as it changes hands. The story then picks up in the 1990s with the latest owner Nick Shay and works backward through time (which is how we see history in our lifetime, anyway). The plot and principal characters get buried beneath the multitudes that people the 800-plus pages: Sister Edgar saving the souls of the damaged and derelict of South Bronx, teenage graffiti artist Moonman 157 risking his life to tag the Subway trains, and the lone, sulking Texas Highway Killer. All the defining paranoid Cold War events are here - McCarthy, Cuba Missiles Crisis, Kennedy Assassinations, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate - and some of the characters that shaped the political and cultural scene of the era make personal appearances: J Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, Lenny Bruce. We scurry around in the Bronx and Harlem, drift to Texas, and then journey to nuclear plants in Arizona and bunkers in Kazakhstan to try and grasp the reality of the whole insane programme. It is a dizzying journey.
In the end, though, it is a work simply too expansive and too formidable to detail in a summary book review, and the sheer scale of the undertaking makes it a difficult read at times with long, long sections of incomprehensible consequence. Underworld is magnificently and fiercely written but requires stamina and persistence and will not be to everybody's taste. As a caveat (but not a criticism), it is essentially an American journey despite the parallel nuclear fears elsewhere, and some British readers may feel a little bemused or excluded.


Norwegian Wood
Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The narrator and his friends are too self-centred to generate much sympathy for their existential struggles, 27 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Norwegian Wood (Paperback)
On arrival by plane in Hamburg Toru Watanabe has a Proustian recollection of his first love Naoko, precipitated by the Beatles' Norwegian Wood, her favourite song. His mind immediately drifts back to his student days in Tokyo 20 years earlier in the late 1960s and for the rest of this fairly mainstream novel we are treated to an autobiographically-flavoured recreation of the turmoil of his adolescence. Toru first narrates the story of his love for the troubled Naoko, who had been the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki until he committed suicide at 17, and then for the vibrant Midori, while searching for a wider meaning of life, largely through casual sex, alcohol and some pretty aimless wanderings.
I am not familiar with the works of Murukami and therefore cannot say whether or not Norwegian Wood is representative of his works. Although nicely written (in translation, at least), the narrator and his friends are too self-centred as individuals to generate much sympathy for their existential struggles. Maybe this doesn't matter too much because adolescents are self-obsessed, anyway, but it is not surprising that there are so many suicides. Toru reflects continually on life without appearing to be interested in its complexity and his boredom at times tends to be contagious for the reader. Even the student turbulence that swirls around him is mentioned only as an irritating side event and does not interest him. Although the human relationships are well-handled there is a strong, macho emphasis on sex and especially on that of women's apparent willingness to sacrifice their own pleasures in their altruistic desire to satisfy those of men. Unconvincing, I felt. And as a period piece Norwegian Wood relies too heavily on 1960s pop songs as historical signposts. If it wasn't for the names of places, Norwegian Wood could be set almost anywhere. Not bad, but nothing special.


The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Philip Roth at his fulminating best, 18 Oct. 2009
Historical what ifs provide ideal fodder for exercising the imagination of authors. One of the most popular must surely be `what if the isolationists had won out in America during the Second World War?' In his fulminating alternative historical novel The Plot Against America, heavyweight scribe Philip Roth recreates a pre-war political landscape in which aviation pilot and all-American hero Charles A Lindburgh, a vociferous opponent of intervention into `Europe's war', is elected president, ousting incumbent Franklyn D Roosevelt. Lindbergh, riding on a wave of unprecedented popularity, especially in the Christian heartlands, signs a friendship pact with Adolf Hitler which ensures that America remains at peace while the rest of the world implodes.
However, life for the Roth family of Newark will never be the same again. The Plot is a disturbing and moving account of how politics can tear apart families, communities and individuals. For the Jews of America a cordial agreement with the Nazis is anything but welcome as the brutality and oppression against their folk in Germany unfurls in newspapers across the world. Young Philip Roth is bludgeoned by his father's relentless diatribes against Lindbergh's anti-Semitism and his ominous predictions about the fate of the Jews under the current administration. His adopted son Alvin is equally enraged and heads for Canada to take up arms and fight against the Nazis. However, older son Sandy has been seduced by the new directives advocating and aiding the assimilation of Jews into the American way of life and is sent to a farm in Kentucky. Bit by bit these incentives to Americanise (eventually by means of dispersal) - the latest being the benignly entitled Homestead 42 organised by the Office of American Absorption - become more sinister, a kind of anti-Semitism by stealth. Yet, despite these fears there are still Jews who voluntary collaborate with the regime, ridiculing families like the Roths as `Ghetto Jews' incapable of forward, modern thinking. As the situation deteriorates and Jews begin to flee to Canada the Roth family and their world is torn apart by a series of tragedies.
The jury is still out as to the true depths of Lindbergh's anti-Semitism, whether he was an out and out Nazi sympathiser or just a `dinner-party' anti-Semite. Philip Roth has no doubt. Of course, The Plot Against America is inflammatory - Roth is a combative writer - but it is fiction. It is wrong to accuse the author of being anti-gentile because not only is he too intelligent for that but he has himself been accused of Jewish anti-Semitism in the past. It is, anyway, at heart a novel about growing up in unstable times. A frightened, sensitive solitary individual, Philip watches his family's world disintegrate, barely knowing who to believe as the arguments rage around him and the situation plunges into the abyss. It is a book written with breathless ferocity sprinkled with lacerating Jewish humour, and is so magnificent and epic in its scope, so terrifyingly convincing in its authenticity and so moving in its details that it can be forgiven for almost any of its faults. But you have to be a Philip Roth fan to agree with me.


A Distant Shore
A Distant Shore
by Caryl Phillips
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.71

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The story of two isolated individuals and a country in transition, 9 Oct. 2009
This review is from: A Distant Shore (Paperback)
The author has put his heart and soul into this work and his sincerity shines through every page. It is a story of two desolate individuals - a ship-wrecked, middle-aged Englishwoman and a polite and private young African man - who have arrived in the same bland English village at the same time but via different routes in life. They are both there to `lick their wounds'. It is also the story of a country, the `broken Britain' of political rhetoric, a country in transition, trying to adjust to social upheaval, an experience to which it is barely accustomed.
Dorothy has wasted much of her adult life on a loveless marriage and then followed up this failure with two ill-advised affairs, one of which has ended her career. Now, in desolation, she has isolated herself in a smart cul-de-sac in a new development in the town of her birth. Her neighbour, Solomon, is the local handyman who passes the days doing odd jobs and washing his car. Solomon is African, unusual in this particular neighbourhood, and an attribute which makes him both conspicuous and unwelcome. To Dorothy he is a polite and friendly man and a friendship based on mutual respect develops between them. But Solomon is reticent to discuss his past. Not the author, though, as Solomon's story unfolds in all its harrowing detail. This novel reminds us (indigenous Europeans) graphically that many migrants come to Europe from corrupt and lawless lands with the hope of rebuilding shattered lives. As distant relatives (by virtue of being human), the least they can expect is a smile and a greeting.
A Distant Shore is lucidly written, nicely paced and is very sympathetic towards the plight of its suffering protagonists. However, though I recognise within the pages the drab uniformity and casual rudeness of modern England I am less convinced by the remorseless hostility and arbitrary brutality depicted. That said, Caryl Phillips's compassionate work is highly recommended, but be warned that it is relentlessly sombre and pessimistic.


The Blue Flower
The Blue Flower
by Penelope Fitzgerald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A simple story told with elegance and intelligence, 6 Oct. 2009
This review is from: The Blue Flower (Paperback)
How does she do it? asks A S Byatt in her review of this delightful work. Well, I for one don't know. Somehow Penelope Fitzgerald managed to take simple stories and deliver them so elegantly and intelligently, and with such unpretentious facility, that the reader becomes enchanted and captivated. These are the qualities of a modern day Jane Austen. In this concise historical novel she fictionalises the early life of the brilliant Friedrich von Hardenberg - before he becomes the renowned German Romantic poet/philosopher Novalis - and his inexplicable love for a rather silly twelve year old girl. It is a tale of deep and sincere love somehow portrayed without any sex scenes, without even a single kiss or description of physical contact. What novelist today could achieve that?
Unlike the novels of A S Byatt, for example, where the historical details are voluminous, in the Blue Flower they are present but unobtrusive and the reader effortlessly finds him/herself transported to eighteenth-century Saxony. This novel was selected as the `Book of the Year' more often that any other in 1995, including by A S Byatt herself and Doris Lessing; praise indeed. Sadly, Penelope Fitzgerald died in 2000, five years after its publication. I can safely recommend this book to anyone, whether they are literary minded or prefer populist works.


Chance n/e (Oxford World's Classics)
Chance n/e (Oxford World's Classics)
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Confusing and verbose narrative: Conrad past his best, 28 Sept. 2009
It is paradoxical that Conrad's most successful work at the time of its publishing should also be the least satisfactory of his major works. Narrated largely by Conrad's alter ego Marlow it is the story of young Flora de Barral who is torn emotionally between her imprisoned financier father (who bears a strong resemblance to Trollope's Augustus Melmotte) and Captain Anthony, the respected brother of her Feminist guardian Mrs Fyne. Written during the suffragette era Conrad attempts to address directly the issue of feminism but the prejudices of the time (Victorian/Edwardian) and his origins (Polish) act as impediments to his impartiality. Though I feel that it is a judgment based on today's standards to describe Marlow's narrative as misogynistic, it does at times make uncomfortable reading: `...Mrs Fyne did not want women to be women. Her theory was that they should turn themselves into unscrupulous sexless nuisances'. As such it acts as unwitting historical testimony to male attitudes of Conrad's background at that time.
Ostensibly a tale of doomed love Chance is an overlong and confusing nested narrative that nevertheless is a four-star work because it is a fine story written in a beautiful, dignified English that has long since been abandoned for a prose that is dull and functional or pompous and overblown. If you are a Conrad fan like me and you wish to `complete the set' then it is an interesting diversion for that great author, though, not surprisingly, the best passages are on board The Ferndale. If you are new to Conrad then I don't recommend this as a starter. Instead go for any of his well-known works which are all readily available.


Star of the Sea
Star of the Sea
by Joseph O'Connor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem of a historical novel weaved around the lives of refugees from the Irish potato famine, 10 Sept. 2009
This review is from: Star of the Sea (Paperback)
A bad historical novel can be a dispiriting experience, akin to watching a `historical' drama featuring Charlton Heston or Ernest Borgnine. In the hands of a craftsman like A S Byatt or Patrick O'Brian, though, it can be richly rewarding. Here, Joseph O'Connor has penned a gem of a historical novel, taking the Irish potato famine as its central subject and weaving a terrific story around the event by focusing on the lives of a small group of disparate individuals on board one of the thousands of vessels haemorrhaging out of Ireland and heading for America to escape the horror. All are refugees of one form or another. Conditions on the boat are deplorable as the voyagers die like flies of diseases resulting from overcrowding and lack of hygiene and food. The lives of these individuals - a bankrupt aristocrat landowner and his wife, their maidservant, an American reporter and an Irish revolutionary - are intertwined in ways that even they do not realise. Their stories, from different viewpoints, are related with verve, humour and passion.
The novel is presented in different forms - the captain's log, newspaper articles, verbatim accounts of conversations, surgeon's case notes, revolutionary ballads and assorted other documents. Written in slightly archaic but beautiful prose, it is a delight to read and, not as some reviewers believe, especially difficult. Meticulously researched, we read of starvation, adultery, syphilis, bankruptcy, murder and more in this almost picaresque novel as we share a sense of outrage at events that, in the end, could have been alleviated, if not avoided. And there are some outstanding exchanges between adversaries, notably between aggrieved father and determined son, which give a genuine feel for the inflated senses of obedience, pride and duty of that time which did so much damage to individuals, families and communities, but which mercifully have receded over the decades.
The Irish potato blight famine was Europe's greatest human catastrophe of the nineteenth century and its legacy reverberates today. The fact that it occurred on the doorstep of the world's most powerful and prosperous empire, which just four year's later was to celebrate its fantastic wealth and influence in the Great Exhibition of 1851, make it all the more unforgivable. And it is not totally distant history because it happened just a short while before the birth of my great-grandmother and she was still alive when I was born! Joseph O'Connor has achieved something very difficult: an even-handed account, which manages to be at once both moving and entertaining. This is historical fiction at its best.


Evolution on Islands (Linguistics; 11)
Evolution on Islands (Linguistics; 11)
by Peter R. Grant
Edition: Paperback
Price: £60.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As testing grounds for evolution islands remain the classic models for scientists investigating evolutionary processes, 2 Sept. 2009
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Islands are convenient models for scientists investigating evolutionary processes because they are testing grounds for evolution. And now, as the world's species and populations become increasingly fragmented and/or isolated as a result of human activity, information gleaned from evolutionary studies on islands will be vital in informing conservation and management decisions. However, it may come as a surprise to some that in evolutionary biology the term `island' is used to describe any area or patch of habitat that has become geographically isolated and not just volcanic land formations over oceanic hotspots or fragments cut off from continents due to fluctuating sea levels. So, alongside chapters on the intriguing evolutionary radiations of the Hawaiian (Drosophila, lobeliads, honeycreepers) and the Caribbean (anoline lizards) Islands, there are others considering the speciation of rock-dwelling cichlids in Lake Tanganyika and vegetational islands in the Amazon Basin. As a result of this flexibility island evolution remains one of biology's most enduring paradigms.
This extremely varied and comprehensive volume was just about the first to focus exclusively on the evolutionary processes that occur on islands. It consists of a series of chapters (most published elsewhere but modified for this book)) authored by the leading experts in the field and is aimed at fellow biologists. Some of the concepts are intellectually challenging, even for those working in the evolutionary arena, as is evidenced by the number of controversies that have arisen through misinterpretation or misunderstanding. A number of the chapters are contradictory and old debates about the relative importance of genetic drift versus directional selection in island species formation continue to be heatedly discussed, while new disputes such as the role and importance of the founder effect in speciation arise. Despite the temptation for the more mathematically minded theoreticians, pages of differential equations and Greek symbols are excluded from this book. For those laymen who have genuine interest in evolutionary biology a good knowledge of the terminology is required, as well as an awareness of the history of the subject and the main contributors, notably Darwin and Wallace in the nineteenth century and Sewell Wright and Ernst Mayr in the twentieth. Two volumes that would go some way to aiding those with limited knowledge would be John Maynard Smith's standard text Evolutionary Genetics, and the largely non-evolutionary The Theory of Island Biogeography by MacArthur and Wilson.
Since this volume was published there has been an explosion in molecular data and the generation of phylogenetic trees due to the automation of DNA sequencing. This information had contributed greatly to our understanding of historical and genetic processes but there is a caveat. As one group of authors points out in their chapter, these data can be misleading and lead to discordance between morphological and molecular data. This can arise not only as a result of overzealous use or involuntary misapplication but through natural processes such as introgression through hybridization. As such, caution should be exercised when analysing and interpreting molecular data, and it is best used in conjunction with other data. Sadly, there is though still a yawning gap in information from the field and this may now be irreparable as island species are especially vulnerable to extinction through habitat disturbance and destruction, climate change, and the invasion of aggressive, non-discriminatory alien species which constantly arrive due to increasing global traffic.


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