Review: Watching War Films With My Dad – Al Murray

Al Murray Watching War Films With My DadAl Murray is better known as a comedian whose alter ego, The Pub Landlord is frequently seen on television and in stadia and concert halls around the country.  The Pub Landlord is xenophobic, right-wing, ribald and bombastic but audiences should not assume that Al Murray is anything like his comic creation in real-life.  With his Oxford M.A. in modern history and his occasional television appearances as himself, Al Murray comes across as a cultured and thoughtful person who almost seems caged by the success of The Pub Landlord (but no doubt a very lucrative imprisonment!).  What he really thinks of his audiences I can’t imagine, for many of them go to his shows precisely because they agree, at least in part, with the views of Al’s comic alter ego.

With his new book Watching War Films With My Dad, (October 2013), the real Al Murray fascinates with a series of essays, travelogues and biographical pieces largely based around the theme of the Second World War.  I was expecting to find this book amusing, but was taken aback by the sheer depth of knowledge Al Murray has on modern history and the extent to which he produces new thinking on some well-trodden historical events (his section on the battle for Arnhem Bridge, subject of the film A Bridge Too Far is particularly good).  I was very impressed and will probably go over many of the passages again, particularly when I next visit Normandy, the scene of the D-Day landings.

Not that the whole book is serious in intent – far from it.  While Al’s theme is loosely based around the topic of war films, the book often digresses in to random essays which he wrote often while on the road, in moments snatched while waiting in hotel rooms to go off to a performance.  I particularly enjoyed his chapter on making Airfix kits, a boyhood hobby which I shared with Al, spending many happy hours painting and assembling plastic model aeroplanes (the secret was to paint most of the pieces first but few people had the patience to do this, preferring to stick all the bits together then mess it all up with botched paint job).

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Amazon’s list of 100 books to read in a lifetime

Amazon’s editors have chosen 100 books you’ve really got to read. and followed it up on GoodReads where you can add your own and vote all the choices up and down.  There are some strange choices in it and I wonder if Amazon haven’t allowed marketing matters to have a great deal of influence in their choices – for one thing, the books seem to have to be currently available  in print and Kindle, and there is a surprising shortage of books in the public domain from sites like Project Gutenberg (Don Quixote for example).  That’s what you expect from a book-seller I suppose. On the whole I prefer Peter Boxall’s collection of 1001 books.

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Review: Jawbone Lake – Ray Robinson

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Jawbone Lake is set in Derbyshire, the home of the English Peak District, a place of rugged scenery, small towns and villages and a feeling of remoteness from the large cities which surround it.  You could summarise it by saying that it’s about a young man discovering that his deceased father was not what everyone had thought him to be.  But along the way we have a fine thriller, a psychological study of a young woman who is reluctantly involved in the plot and brilliant word pictures of life at the blunt end of “poverty Britain”.

Joe Arms is called back from his wealthy life in London by his mother when his father’s Land Rover crashes into the ice of a frozen lake.  His father (“CJ”) is missing, presumed dead, but the police are bewildered as to the circumstances of the accident.  Was another car involved?  Did anyone see the accident?

The story moves to Rabbit, a young woman who works in an ice-cream factory and who was standing by the side of the lake when the accident happened.  Rabbit has enough on her plate following the cot-death of her baby son and she runs from the scene, having seen another car at the scene and a man with a “dark shape silhouetted in his hand”.

The story moves between Joe and Rabbit throughout the book.  Joe as searches for the truth about his father during visits to Spain and Hastings on the Sussex coast (where CJ began his career).  Rabbit on the other hand goes to work as normal, but soon realises that someone is looking for her with a view to making sure that there is no chance that she will tell the police of what she saw on the fateful night.

Rabbit is a fascinating character and we learn about her yearning for her lost baby, her monotonous life in the factory and her life with her Auntie Cass and friends Kate and Frankie.   The book is as much about Rabbit as it is about Joe, but the two stories are skilfully inter-twined making for a varied read.

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Review: In The Light of the Morning – Tim Pears

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Whenever a new novel by Tim Pears appears I always get hold of it as soon as I can.  Ever since his 1993 novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves I have never failed to be impressed by the quality of his writing and the inventiveness of his story lines.  I have only reviewed a couple of his books on this site, the last one being Landed, but if I had the time I would revisit In a Land of Plenty and A Revolution of the Sun and add to the many glowing reviews of these fine novels.

In In The Light of the Morning Tim Pears has turned his mind to the Second World War, and in particular the battles in the Balkans where the Nazi invasion of former-Yugoslavia was sternly resisted by bands of Partisans.  I have tried to give a flavour of the book in this article without spoiling it for anyone who eventually reads it.

The book opens in the early summer, 1944 with three British soldiers flying over Slovenia about to be dropped by parachute into a forest; their task to bring aid and assistance to the many Yugoslavian Partisans who are defending the eastern part of their country against the invading Germans.  Lieutenant Tom Friedman is our focus – a young academic, convinced of the vital nature of his task, but already missing his book-lined rooms and the quiet life of Oxford.

Tom is accompanied by a belligerent Major, Jack Farwell who has taken an instant dislike to Tom, “I’m sure you don’t like me any more than I like you. . . you’re not a man’s man . . . you don’t say enough, that must be what it is”.  Their other companion is a far more amenable radio operator, Corporal Sid Dixon, a  farm-worker from Devon who has become a master of the airwaves.

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Review: Barcelona Shadows – Marc Pastor

marc pastorPushkin Press can always be relied upon to produce interesting and high quality books and I was pleased to receive Barcelona Shadows from them as a review copy.   My praise of this book is nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t pay for it – I reject many books that come my way, but this one is really good.

In the early part of the last century, Barcelona was horrified by the crimes of a the real-life Enriqueta Marti, a child murderer and procuress.  The city’s population had been swollen by wave after wave of peasants and working class people, together with soldiers returning from the Moroccan Wars.  Atrocious slums developed and the lack of employment meant that everyone was trying to scrape a living by whatever means they had at their disposal.

Among this maelstrom of poverty and desperation, Enriquesta Marti began to horrify the population with a series of child abductions and murders, the full of extent of which only became known when she was discovered and arrested.  It is possible that she was the most prolific murderer every active in Spain, so many were the remnants of small bodies found in her apartment and other properties.  The final tally of her murders is now unlikely ever to be known.

Marc Pastor, a Catalan writer and also a professional crime scene investigator, has written a novel based on the short period leading up to the arrest of Enriqueta Marti. Amazingly, he finds a way of doing this which does not terrify the reader with the gruesomeness of the crimes, by focusing on a policemen, Moisès Corvo who is investigating the disappearances, along with his sidekick Malsano.  Despite the seriousness of their quest, Corvo and Malsano keep up a nice flow of scurrilous banter going as they travel around the dark places of the city.   Corvo is a well drawn character who would have the making of a fine fictional detective if Mark Pastor felt inclined to write another novel set in Barcelona.  We read a lot about his back story, his child-less marriage and his disappointed wife. He has a profound world-weariness but his detective work keeps him going, along with relationships with women of the night and a never-empty bottle on the table.
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Top 15 Most Depressing Books

While I am still busy working away on building a website for a charity, I don’t want to totally ignore this blog, so here is a link to a rather good guide in the Daily Telegraph to the top 15 Most Depressing Books.  You may not agree with the choices, but it’s a well executed article and the comments from readers are fun too.

I think 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade is probably the worst with, “its repetitive catalogue of violent abuse – the defilements, the disfigurements – will turn your stomach”.  Whether Jude the Obscure should be in the list I’m not sure – I thought it was pretty good myself.  And surely Sebald’s Austerlitz should win the prize for THE most depressing read (although I feature it as one of my best ever books with a perhaps overlong article here).

The charity website seems to be taking me ages to build.  I’ve created 35 pages, but with a workers in Britain, Peru and Tanzania who all need to see the drafts and make comments, the logistics of getting approvals for all the items are not that simple.  It’s very rewarding work though and I’ve learned huge amounts about some quite tekkie topics like PHP scripts, sliding photo panels and cascading style sheets.  I think I’ve got another month or so’s work yet, but hope to publish a couple of book reviews in the next fortnight.

Down on the South Coast we’ve had some pretty stormy weather lately but there have been some good days between the gales and here are a couple of photos taken from the beaches near here (they’re watermarked Green Explorer because that’s my username on a photo-sharing site).

Newhaven from Tide Mills beach

Newhaven from Tide Mills beach

 

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Dredging the channel into Newhaven Port so that the French ferries can come in

I hope everyone is enjoying life and reading lots of good books.  Having just finished quite a serious new book by Tim Pears, I’m now having a great time with Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole – The Prostrate  Years which is very funny indeed.

Review: Entry Island – Peter May

9781782062202I’ve never read a book by Peter May before but have heard such enthusiastic opinions of his writing that I thought I would try his latest novel, Entry Island.  Peter May’s most successful books take place in his native Scotland (although he has a series about a Chinese detective).  For Entry Island however, Peter May crosses the Atlantic to Canada where he links a classic murder mystery with an account of the Scottish Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th century, during which local populations were forcibly exiled to a new life in the Americas.

The story takes place in two locations.  In the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence a murder has taken place – a wealthy businessman has been knifed to death, the only witness being his wife who is also covered in blood and soon becomes the prime suspect.  Two hundred years earlier we read of the forced clearances in the Scottish Outer Hebridean islands and the impact on one man in particular who flees to the Magdalen Islands, initiating a series of events which hold the key to the current murder.

The two stories run alongside each other and readers can see the gradual converging of events without realising quite how they are going to come together.  The denouement when it comes is as satisfying as you might expect and left me full of admiration for Peter May’s skills as a writer with great skills in managing such a complex, multi-threaded plot.

As is often the case in books like this we have a highly dysfunctional detective in the person of Sime Mackenzie.  Sime has had a series of difficult relationships and has recently suffered a broken marriage.  He works in Montreal as an investigator and is surprised when he is called to his Captain’s office one day to be told that he is to join a team to investigate and apparently open and shut murder case on Île d’Entrée, an island in a small archipelago 850 miles away.  Much to Sime’s dismay, the Captain tells him that the crime scene investigator is his ex-wife Marie-Ange, with whom he now has a very painful relationship.

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Review: Sycamore Row – John Grisham

syc rowI apologise to my readers once again for the infrequency of my posts at the moment.  When I took on the job of creating a website for a charity I hadn’t really taken on board the size of the task, and while I’m really enjoying doing it, my book reviewing has taken a hit while I spend an hour or so every day working with Serif WebPlus to create the new website.

While I’m here, I’d like to wish all my contacts a very happy Christmas.  I hope you get the books you want and that you find plenty of time to read them.

I’ve not read a John Grisham novel for a very long time but was tempted by his new book Sycamore Row which is a sequel to his very first book published in 1989, A Time to Kill.  In the first novel we see young attorney Jake Brignance defending Carl Lee Hailey, who has murdered two white racists who have raped and terribly injured his ten-year old daughter.  Jake takes on Carl Lee’s defence but as a result, the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan pursue a vendetta against him, leading to Jake being shot at and his house and property torched.  A Time to Kill made John Grisham’s name as a crime writer unafraid to tackle the most inflammatory topics and he has had a hugely successful career as a result, publishing about 30 best-selling novels.

It has taken John Grisham 25 years to return to Ford County but the events described in it happened only three years on from those in A Time to Kill.  Let’s set the scene by quoting an article in the Washington Post which describes Ford County perfectly:

The little town is surrounded by rural enclaves, woods and farmland, acreage that shelters poor farmers but is also coveted by shady developers. The streets of Clanton are lined on one side with the mansions of old white landowners and on the other with the modest homes of African-Americans who have lived there as long as the gouging landowners. It’s a microcosm of America — at least of those citizens who haven’t run off to the anonymity of big-city life and all the daydreams of urban success.

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Book Aid International

Once again at this time of year I would like to promote Book Aid International who increase access to books and support literacy, education and development in sub-Saharan Africa.  Book Aid operate a Reverse Book Club – you subscribe, they give the books to someone else!

I find it hard to conceive of a classroom without books but Book Aid sends books to countries where over 50% of primary school pupils learn in classrooms where there isn’t a single book.

They have just issued a video of their work during 2013 which makes for inspiring viewing.

Review: The Jewish Candidate – David Crossland

jewish candidateBeing a subscriber to the daily English-language news review from German magazine Der Spiegel I was delighted to hear that one of their writers, David Crosland, had published a novel tackling the topic of the Neo-Nazi movement in Germany, The Jewish Candidate. Although this book may seem a little implausible (the rise of a new “Hitler” type character in modern Germany), anyone who reads Der Spiegel regularly will know that the Neo-Nazi movement has significant support in Germany, particularly in the East and is a constant concern to the authorities (see for example this article in Der Spiegel, Germany’s Risky Push to Outlaw Far Right Party).

Crosland’s book covers an election campaign in Germany, in which Rudolf Gutman, a German Jew is standing for election to the post of Chancellor. Standing against him is Hermann von Tietjen who uses a full set of “dirty tricks” to oppose Gutman. von Tietjen’s main enemy is the Muslim minority in Germany and he uses various tactics to whip up hatred for the Muslim minority and also to threaten the Jewish Gutman.

The story is told by Frank Carver, a British reporter who is covering the electtion campaign for the fictitious London Chronicle. Carver gets into various scrapes as he infiltrates neo-Nazi meetings and confronts the leaders of the movement. Before long he finds himself racing against time to foil a dreadful plot which could see von Tietjen massively increase his support.

My only quibble about the book is that David Crosland is not the greatest of writers. The book is “racy” but lacks style, and I found myself thinking that top writers like Philip Kerr, Gerald Seymour and Alan Furst would have made a better job of it. At times the sense of improbability was a little too great for me and I found myself in two minds whether to give up on it. However, the topicality of the story and the forward movement kept me going until the end.  If I was to award three stars to the book, that would be cruel, but four gives seems rather too high because, although writer has a highly imaginative approach, the rather sensationalist writing style lets him down.  One thing for sure, it would make a fantastic film.


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I’d like to be able to write two articles a week as I have done over the last five or six years, but free time seems to have evaporated from my life over the last few months.  It’s my own fault: after 30+ years working in the I.T industry, I still find myself fascinated by technology and when the opportunity came along to design a new website for a charity as a volunteer, I jumped at it, not quite realising how much work was involved.  I find that I can do most of the work in the mornings between 7.30 and 9.30 (I don’t need a lot of sleep), but this of course is the time I devoted to this book blog.  Never mind, this won’t go on forever and I hope that by about February I’ll have finished most of the web design work and will be able to come back to more regular book-reviewing.

The charity is Kiya Survivors, a charity founded by the remarkable Suzy Butler and now expanding rapidly in its work of helping Peruvian children with learning disabilities and autism.  Their current website is on it’s last legs and is frequently down – you might be able to see it here but I wouldn’t guarantee it.


Something else which has taken up my time is the arrival of two new grand-sons, one from my daughter and one from my son’s wife.  It’s been a joy to get involved in their tiny lives.

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