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Michele Roberts "Daughters Of The House" (Virago)

During the 1950s, half-English Léonie and her French mother Madeleine, come to France to stay for the school holidays to stay on the farm that is jointly owned by Madeleine and her sister Antoinette. Léonie and her cousin Thérèse were born just a week apart and are very close. They are best friends, rivals and sometime enemies whose games are haunted by religion, family illness and secrets dating back to the war.

After twenty years as a contemplative nun, Thérèse returns to the farm, now occupied by Léonie and her family. The women are wary of each other, remembering lies told in the past and concerned about whose version of their shared history will be believed.

It certainly is a nice book to read but I found myself having to really get involved with the characters in order to actually become interested. The setting is good - post Second World War France but that was never discussed in great detail. Occasional references to the Jewish people living in the community and relations with German soldiers.

The plot itself is simple, 2 girls who are cousins find out a secret. The chapters (as mentioned) inform on the lifestyle the girls and their respective families live. The writing style is good and Roberts does give you an insight into the relationship between two peers of their age. Pleased this was a short book and one which I wouldn't read again.

At least it completes my reads of 2015.
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Bill Bryson "One Summer: America 1927" ((Doubleday)

It concentrates on the summer of 1927, and seems to imply that the events of this summer changed America for ever. It's the summer that Lindburg flew the Atlantic, then spent the next few months travelling around America in state. The only trouble being that it doesn't progress in a logical order, either entirely chronologically, or thematically.

Your return several times to the matter of baseball - a subject on which I know little and care less - on more than one occasion, and it wasn't always clear how we ended up on the topic. It covers the weather, crime, politics, entertainment, writing and any number of other topics. What it didn't do was clearly define how this year changed America. I suspect you could make that kind of statement about any number of seasons, and put together a book to support the thesis. It was an entertaining enough read, although with Bryson reading I found a number of quirks somewhat annoying. The faux surprise, s indicated by tone and rising pitch, was amusing the first few times, but got wearing after hearing it several times per chapter.Frequently the end of a chapter would leave a fact dangling, wanting to carry on, and yet you'd disappear into another subject entirely, only to return and collect the dangler later. I suspect this reads better to an American than to a Brit. Still, despite the caveat, he is a very entertaining writer.

This is about the third of Mr. Bryson’s books that I have read and let me tell you, it will definitely not be last. He brings these events together in a smooth narrative that is entertaining and informative. Not only does Mr. Bryson write a marvelous glimpse into One Summer of history but narrates it superbly.

I look forward to reading his latest book on the UK that i received from my cousin.
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Andreï Makine "The Woman Who Waited" (Sceptre)

At the risk of appearing too abstract, I feel like I want to compare this small novel to a piece of music, with two distinct movements - melancholic ruminations of an ex-dissident of a crumbled Soviet empire and puzzlement over a woman's unending wait for a soldier who is not coming back. And though the movements repeat themselves in different forms, they never actually feel "repetitive". The merciless, self-deprecating frankness of the protagonist, the culmination of the story that is so unexpected and predictable at the same time... A very good read.
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Simon Elmes "And Now On Radio 4 : A Birthday Celebration of the World's Best Radio Station" (Arrow)

I was bound to enjoy this book, as I'm a big fan of Radio 4 with its variety of factual programmes drama and comedy.

Over the years since I've learnt so much from the station - I get my news, my current affairs, my knowledge and my entertainment from this station. Radio 4 in a way is my window on the world. So, this book gave me a history of the station that accompanies my every day.

Little stories from different presenters (particularly funny are the stories from Charlotte Green, who I've heard get the giggles on a number of memorable occasions), the programmes that have been on but didn't make it, the different controllers and the changes they've made to the running order and the programmes themselves - all add some depth and history to the programmes I listen to.

I've learnt how the schedule has changed substantially since the station began in 1967, how when it began there was a lot of music but much less of it now (for that i go to Radio 3 or internet radio), how the wars in the Falklands and Iraq changed the face of the station (more news), and settling down of the schedule to what I know today.

A highly enjoyable read, and now i have achieved my 75 books this year.
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Keith Topping "Slayer: The Totally Cool Unofficial Guide to Buffy" (Virgin Publishing)

There is a lot of information in this book- each episode from the first three series gets a review about four pages long. It briefly covers the plot and gives an edited cast list.

As well as that we also get the authors own opinions on the shows- which are usually very positive, but at other times can be quite critical.

There are lots of detailed descriptions of what the characters wear, and random quotes from the show. I can't understand the significance of these- after all, if you watch the show you will notice- if you havn't watched the show then it won't make sense.

And the "references" to other films etc seem very desperate - occasional it is so obvious that they are referring to another show, such as "Scooby Doo." Why does Topping feel the need to point that out?
Overall it is packed full of mildly interesting information with surprisingly little actual criticism or commentary on any given episode.

There are better Buffy related books around.
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Oliver Sacks "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" (Picador)

The book is a series of case studies of people with severe psychological problems. This makes it quite scary (many of the stories are ‘so-and-so was normal, and then they just lost any sense of where their own limbs were, or the ability to recognize their wife’ and the conclusion to lots of them is ‘they lived with their condition’) and it feels rather dated in places (hard to tell, because I am not at the cutting edge of current psychological research, but I feel that some of the things he authoritatively tells us are not the way we would frame things now) and also a little uncomfortable (he cares for his patients, but there is a deeply paternalistic tone, and also the book is basically a ‘look at the freaky people’). Strangely religious, or at least with more questions about the soul, and whether people are connected to the meaning of the world, than you would expect from a pop science book nowadays.

The first section centres on losses - some patients suffer from disorders which affect the memory, others have lost the ability to undertake normal motor functions, and some have phantom limbs where amputations have occurred. All of the cases are tragic and yet fascinating in equal measure.

The second part focuses on excesses, looking at specific cases of patients with Tourettes, a patient with sudden lack of inhibition brought on by syphilis contracted 70 years previously, and a man considered a riot to all around him, who confabulates in a hilarious manner yet sadly has no true understanding of self remaining.

In 'Transports', Sacks talks about fascinating cases such as the woman who suddenly starts hearing Irish music continuously for months on end, and has previously inaccessible childhood memories awakened by the music. Perhaps my favourite was the case of the man who, after taking mind-bending drugs, had a super heightened sense of smell for a year, to the point where he could sniff out people like a dog.

The final section, 'The World of the Simple', exemplifies just how amazingly complex the human brain is. In many of the cases cited, despite the patients being scientifically considered retarded with very low IQs, they had amazing cognitive abilities, such as the ability to learn 2,000 operas in their entirety, or to instantaneously perform complex mathematical computations. These heightened abilities of siloed intelligence are juxtaposed with their general neurological limitations, and Sacks explains how many such patients can be 'reached' by vehicles such as music, drama, nature and numbers.

But it was an interesting read – the discussion of when things are pathologist and when they make us who we are was fascinating - and a good book for teaching people the word proprioception (from Latin proprius, meaning "one's own", "individual," and capio, capere, to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement).
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Roland Barthes "A Barthes Reader" (Vintage Books)


This is a book that is worth reading for the introduction by Susan Sontag alone, but that would be a disservice to the excellent group of essays by Roland Barthes.

The essays range from Gide, and Tacitus to Racine, to Garbo , which should provide some idea of the breadth of Barthes' interest and intellect. There are also judicious selections from The Pleasure of the Text and A Lover's Discourse that will leave you wanting more. The penultimate selection is Barthes' "Inaugural Lecture" given at the establishment of the chair of Semiology at the College de France. In it Barthes describes his current age as one of "unlearning" and uses these words to describe this experience, which I believe apply to much of this book: "a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavour as possible."

Another fine collection that i have been dipping into over the last six months.

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Immanuel Kant "Critique Of Pure Reason" (Penguin Modern Classics)

To call Kant "dense" is an understatement on par with saying the same about the core of a neutron star. Kant's critiques are not easy going, but the bright side is that his description of the human condition, an attempt to restore science and knowledge in a world transformed by Newton and Hume, is worth the effort.

The Critique of Pure Reason is a watershed in Western philosophy, rightly likened to Kant's own description of a "Copernican revolution" in thought. The book is Kant's groundwork for knowledge itself: the nature of space and time and logic as preconditions for knowledge, shared among all humans, at the cost of sacrificing metaphysics to the transcendental realm of the "unconditioned". In exchange, we restore free will, morality, and (for those so inclined) God to the world of human existence.

Kant is very much the "lawyer" and the detail-man, and his almost obsessive need to sort human nature into a concrete taxonomy is perhaps the weakest part of the work. Still, Kant's division into the phenomenal and the noumenal, the human and the unconditioned, remains foundational, and to understand Kant's argument here is to understand everything that comes after in the Continental tradition. Even if you disagree with Kant's conclusions, there is a wealth of thought to draw upon, from Kant's conception of human existence to his ideas on "things in themselves", morality, and freedom.

The Critiques are a chore, took a good half a year to read it through, occasionally leaving it for awhile before slogging through again, but the kind of chore that pays off dividends.
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Mike Pattenden "Last Orders at the Liars' Bar : Official Story of the "Beautiful South" (Orion)

This is a well researched and very personal biography of a disparate group. Every member and influence is mentioned, but due to the charm and personality of the front man, it becomes mono-focused, and the chance to see the group behaviour is lost. Which is a shame, as this is a remarkable group of individuals and a very fine group, despite their music in my opinion being a bit bland or twee. More of the group dynamic, I believe, would have made any insights more likely.
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Stevie Smith "Me Again" (Virago)

OK, I'll confess: before I read this book, the only bit of Stevie Smith's work that I had come across was 'Not Waving But Drowning'.

This ignorance did not prevent my forming an opinion upon the lady. This book has shattered all those pre-conceptions. Smith's work is not, as I had expected. avant garde or feminist; rather, it is a rather sad evocation of a bygone era.

Stevie Smith has an ability for which I long; the ability to draw a word picture in few words. I can see why she is respected as an author and this collection of poems,, essays, and criticism is a fine collection of her work.

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Angela Carter "The Magic Toyshop" (Virago)

The Magic Toyshop is a retelling of Bluebeard, when a teenage girl named Melanie becomes imprisoned in her abusive uncle's home. But not imprisoned in the literal or fairy tale sense; this imprisonment is a more pernicious sort, predicated upon power and powerlessness, autonomy and means. And Uncle Philip's household reinforces its own oppression and subjugation to emotional abuse through the fear of what might happen if he is defied. Philip's absent domination of the household's concern re-creates him as more of a narrative force than a real character, against which the household strains and defines itself by.

But the household itself is a digression from the traditional Bluebeard fairy tale. Rather than being kept in isolation, Melanie takes solace in her aunt and in-laws: first because of the emotional bond based on the shared psychology living under Philip, then a stronger bond built upon mutual love and humanity, even in the face of Philip's dehumanizing aggression. The household itself is a subversion of Philip's terror by virtue of its collective strength and mutual encouragement; Philip, on the other hand, in isolation with a hobby of puppetry that surpasses his care and attention for actual fleshly humans, is lacking and weaker in comparison to the bonds that emerge among the rest of the family. A really interesting look at the psychology of fear, and a fascinating retelling of the fairy tale
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Andrew Graham-Dixon "Caravaggio : A Life Sacred and Profane" (Penguin)

A highly enjoyable biography about Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio who lived in an age where painters. writers and composers were of the same social class as prostitutes and servants. It also looks like that he owed the start of his career more to a cardinal's interest in him as a boy toy than his art. Andrew Graham-Dixon makes a good case that Caravaggio's violent life was partly due to his involvement in prostitution and acting as a pimp, dueling with competitors in the streets of Rome.

His cinematic, dramatic art is mirrored in his equally dramatic and violent short life whose scenes merited their own Caravaggio paintings. How would he depict his imprisonment in a cell of the Knights of Malta? Or mortally wounding his opponent in the groin in Rome? Graham-Dixon brings both the stories and discussions of his paintings to the table. Recommended.

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Paul Berman "Terror And Liberalism" (W.W. Norton and Co.)

This is one of the most idiosyncratic, short, but compelling studies of the topic available. This is an original contribution to an overlooked connection between violence and fanaticism, along with an insightful study of terrorists amongst the Islamists. Berman postulates that a war against liberalism, the classical bulwark against barbarism is a century-old battle waged in the world. The Islamists and contemporary liberals are engaged in an ideological conflict against 19th Liberalism.

Berman writes:

[Camus] had noticed a modern impulse to rebel, which had come out of the French Revolution and had very quickly, in the name of an ideal, mutated into a cult of death. And the ideal was always the same, though each movement gave it a different name. It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission. It was submission to the kind of authority that liberal civilization had slowly undermined, and which the new movements wished to reestablish on a novel basis. It was the ideal of the one, instead of the many. The ideal of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement. "Totalitarian" was Mussolini's word; and Mussolini spoke for all.

The death cult infected the French Revolution and found its resurgence with the Western totalitarian death movements of the early 20th Century such as Nazism.

Moreover, Berman notes that the death cult migrated to the Arab Middle East as well. Berman sees Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer executed in 1966, as one of the most important influences on the modern Islamic world.

These suicide bombers are part of a profound pathology within the Arab world, a chiliastic movement, where death is glory.

Also, Berman does not fail to criticise American foreign policy when it's needed (he understands the current administration foreign policy strategy better than most other people); and it does not fail to criticise the failure of liberalism when they happen ("the totalitarian movements arise because of failures in the liberal civilisation"). These people were protesting the very existence of liberalism. These people were fanatics.

A thought provoking book.

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Tracy Thorn "Bedsit Disco Queen : How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star" (Virago)

An utterly delightful memoir by Tracey Thorn, the lead singer of Everything But The Girl. Tracey has always presented an opaque, cool front to the world, letting her song lyrics hint at her life but here she takes us back to the teenager growing up in suburban Hertfordshire, needing to become involved in the post-punk music scene in London but unsure of how to go about it. Gaining some indie success as part of The Marine Girls, Tracey went to study at Hull University and within a few hours of arriving had met fellow-record label artist Ben Watt. They bonded over music and started the band Everything But The Girl (taking the name from a local shop) and were soon gaining mainstream success while still at University.

Tracey shares the successes the band achieved but also the quandary of how to keep both afloat in the never-constant flow of the pop world while staying true to your vision. EBTG had highs, they had lows but more through happenstance than design kept finding opportunities for success. Thorn also shares her offstage life with Ben Watt and the awful experience in the 1990s when Ben was crippled with an illness that left them facing an unknown future.

Warm, involving, insightful and full of humour, Tracey's book is one of the best autobiographies of recent years.

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Richard Appignanesi "Introducing Freud: A Graphic Guide" (Icon Books)

Freud revolutionized the way we think about ourselves. His psychoanalytic terms such as Id, Ego, libido, neurosis and Oedipus Complex have become a familiar part of our everyday vocabulary. But do we know what they really mean?

Freud for Beginners successfully demystifies the facts of Freud's discovery of psychoanalysis. Irreverent and witty but never trivial, the book tells the story of Freud's life and ideas from his upbringing in nineteenth century Vienna, his early medical career and his encounter with cocaine to the gradual evolution of his theories on the unconscious, dreams and sexuality. With its combination of brilliantly clever artwork and incisive text, Freud for Beginners has achieved international success as one of the most entertaining and informative introductions to the father of psychoanalysis.

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Maggie Stiefvater "Shiver"  (Scholastic)

I was dubious about this novel because of all the negative feedback it's received but I'm really glad that I decided to give it a try - it really did speak to me.

The prose is lyrical and deeply evocative. It had the dreamlike feel of a faerie story and was just full of truly beautiful descriptive writing. The story weaves a tragic love story around two teenagers who have (unknowingly) admired each other from afar for six years and finally get a chance to be together when it is too late. Stiefvater's unique werewolves only get to shift so many times before they turn into ordinary wolves for the rest of their lives and Sam knows that his last change is mere months away.

The largest tragedy in this novel is not only that the two lovers know their romance must be fleeting, but because that Sam's transformation marks his loss of self. He knows that his feelings for Grace and every other part of him will be lost forever as soon as he becomes the wolf. The two protagonists are so well written that I felt for them all the more. Grace is a surprisingly strong protagonist for a paranormal romance while Sam is a much more sensitive and poetic soul who complements her wonderfully.

My only real disappointments with this story were that the plot concerning Shelby fades away with no real conclusion (I hope this plays a bigger role in later books) and the fact that some of the secondary cast were not developed enough for my liking. This particularly applies to Olivia, as she was important at the start and end of the novel but escaped all mention in the middle. I really felt that she could have done with a little development in the middle as the ending of her story felt very abrupt. Shades of Twilight perhaps, but a god easy read nonetheless.

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Kate Mosse "The Winter Ghosts" (Orion)

This was a very fast-paced gripping read. I finished it in a couple of days.

Set in the Ariѐge region of France, nearly a decade after the end of the first World War, the main character Freddie - still desperately struggling to come to terms with the death on the battlefields of France of his beloved older brother George - ends up in an isolated village in Haute Vallee of the Pyrenees.

In Nulle it is the Feast of St. Stephen. Freddie is invited to the celebrations and, though still reeling from a near-death car accident and the unsettlingly strange sights and sounds he experienced on his desperate scramble through the dark mountain forests down to the village, he decides to accept. Here, at the antique celebration of the festival he meets the lovely Fabrissa to whom he finds he can bear his soul and unburden his heart of the terrible feelings of loss he has suffered alone now for so many, many years.

The Winter Ghosts purports to be a ghost story and I suppose on the surface it is. However, it is more than that .... the telling of the historic end of the Cathars in southern France. The book is about extreme melancholia: the pain and anguish and constant torment of grief not understood. It is through the horror of Fabrissa’s story that Freddie is transformed. By his experience in Nulle he at last finds the ability to embrace life rather than dwell among those who have died.

I enjoyed reading it for the atmosphere that was created, and the desciptions of post war France, and how people were affected by the war. It is not action packed, but reads quickly and was engrossing , with beautiful writing.
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Timothy Hilton "The Pre-Raphaelites" (Thames & Hudson World Of Art)

Like most of the World of Art Series, it is an all-round good, accessible scholarly tool for the general interest reader and student alike. It deals with the movement chronologically and thematically, and includes many (mostly black and white and a few colour) illustrations.

Most aspects of the movement are covered, but in my opinion, more could be said about the Pre-Raphaelites' transition towards social realism (For instance, barely a page is devoted to Ford Maddox Brown's 'Work', one of the most richly socio-political paintings of the movement).

Also, Hilton can be quite opinionated, especially on the artist as a social revolutionary: commenting on Holman-Hunt's 'The Awakening Conscience', a very controversial painting dealing with the plight of the mistress, he exclaims 'Who can say that paint which does not have the power to please is not impoverished?'

So apart from these caveats i would still recommend this slightly dated book first before delving deeper into this art period, and then if you do delve more, you will have a solid overview.
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Karin Beeler "Investigating Charmed : The Magic Power of TV (Investigating Cult TV)" (i.B. Taurus)

For any fan of the TV series this book is a must, and for readers of cultural studies, postfeminism and media studies this is pitched just right at an academic level for any undergrad to muster.

This book would prove useful for any graduate student studying fantastic texts in contemporary culture, not just television studies. I enjoyed this book a great deal, and it enhanced my enjoyment of the TV series that i love so much, alongside Buffy and Angel of course. The division of chapters and the academic rigor with which the series is approached from various perspectives is purposeful and reflects a confidence and comfort with contemporary theoretical discourses and explorations into how we consume culture, both as viewers and students of literature. Whilst I found the book clever and interesting overall, I was most struck by the section on Feminist Power: Karin Beeler puts forth an intriguing argument for the distinctions between second and third wave feminism in the series, whilst Susan Wolfe gives an excellent (and beautifully written) account of contemporary `girl power' from her own perspective as a second wave feminist. The book weaves a series of intertextual arguments through integrated themes and observations that reflect significant movements in popular culture and television studies today.
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Bret Easton Ellis "American Psycho" (Picador)

Patrick Bateman is a Wall Street yuppie in the late 1980s. He is also a brutal serial killer. There are several recurring themes here (and when I say recurring, I mean it is mentioned at least thirty times): returning video tapes, the Patty Winters Show, deciding where to have dinner, cocaine, all yuppie men are interchangeable and everyone is constantly mistaken for everybody else, women are clueless and needy, tanning, going to the gym, alcohol, decaffeinated espresso (I know - what?), excessive luxury, and brand names, brand names, brand names. And so it goes on ad nauseum.

I cannot stress that last one enough: Bateman describes every single person's outfit by brand name and sometimes even the department store where it was purchased. There are scenes of extremely graphic sex, usually followed by scenes of extremely graphic violence. It all become too tedious and nauseating. Now, there are some amusing bits. I kind of liked the overly dramatic business card comparison. The random chapters of musical critique (Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis & the News, and Genesis) were interesting but I haven't a clue why they were included.

My main issue with this book is that absolutely nothing happens. Seriously: the same thing happens chapter after chapter after chapter and there is no progression of plot, no change in any of the characters. In fact, i gave up reading it half way through. I think he is one sick pathetic puppy. Avoid.


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