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Paolo (Toronto)

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Half-Blood Blues: A Novel
Half-Blood Blues: A Novel
by Esi Edugyan
Edition: Paperback
65 used & new from CDN$ 0.04

59 of 60 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The death of jazz at the dawn of Nazism, Sept. 8 2011
This is a story of the death of jazz at the dawn of Nazism in Germany. The name 'Half-Blood Blues' takes its inspiration from the book's hero and a jazz legend in the making Hieronymous 'Hiero' Falk is just nineteen when he starts playing with the 'Hot Time Swingers' alongside Charles 'Chip Jones and Sidney 'Sid' Griffiths, the narrator of the tale. The son of a German woman and a French African brought in to marshal the Rheinland after that part of Germany was ceded to France after the Treaty of Versailles. Hiero is a half-breed or 'mischling'.

The story is set both in the 1940s in Berlin and Paris as the Trio try to stay one step ahead of Hitler's ever advancing army but also in the 1990s in a newly reunited Germany at a concert in Hiero's honour. At the heart of the story is the secret Sid harbours as to how Hiero's fate was sealed.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book and it starts slowly but it is a tale that draws you in. Literary takes on music rarely seem to work but Edugyan is able to render the atmosphere of 1940s jazz, the language of the trio and banter between them feels authentic. The plot is a little weak to sustain the length and the potentially most interesting of the characters, Hiero, is the least well developed but by the end of the book they seem like minor complaints as is the rather random and quite pointless inclusion of Louis Armstrong who makes an appearance. A more major complaint on my behalf is that the list price for this trade paperback is $24.95 which seems like daylight robbery especially since the text is littered with typos and printing errors; if you're going to charge that much then at least earn it with some better proofreading. However I shall not hold the publisher's problems against the author.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb
The Testament of Jessie Lamb
by Jane Rogers
Edition: Paperback
16 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This dystopian novel doesn't quite cut the mustard., Sept. 5 2011
This is one of the more unlikely picks for the Booker prize longlist, published by a small publishing house in the highlands Scotland and extraordinarily difficult to purchase if you live in North America where this particular book has no distribution deal. Set not far in to the future a virus has spread affecting the entire world's population, some sort of cross between Aids and CJD, the effects of which are that any woman who gets pregnant soon develops a rather unfortunate Swiss cheese effect on her brain and dies before the infant can come to term.

In what could be described as a cross between Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' and Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' the novel is told by the eponymous sixteen year old Jessie Lamb, in part as a remembrance of events past and in part first person narrative of Jessie, locked up by her geneticist father for her decision to volunteer to be a 'sleeping beauty': a sacrificial lamb who accepts an unaffected frozen embryo and is put into a coma giving just enough time for proper gestation.

The book details a world falling apart millions of women perish and world faces the prospect of no new human life on the planet. Society fractures as religious, feminist, youth and animal rights groups try to force their agenda through ever more militant methods. It is a world in which future prospects are gloomy and any solutions no matter how extreme are considered.

As I mentioned above, this isn't typical Booker territory and you would be hard pushed to find anyone who would contend that this is one of the thirteen best eligible books of this year. The structure of the book is unfortunate as it essentially tells you how the book will end right from the beginning, the characters of Jessie's parents are poorly developed and the mood of the novel is unfalteringly dire, okay the last criticism could well be used against any dystopian literature. It is an interesting concept for a book but I'm afraid it's just not quite good enough for Booker material and I can't see it making the short list.

A Cupboard Full of Coats
A Cupboard Full of Coats
by Yvvette Edwards
Edition: Paperback
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Silly names but a pretty decent effort, Aug. 24 2011
Fourteen years ago Jinx witnesses the horrific murder of her mother in their flat in the Pemsbury Estate in Hackney, London. It's an event that will blight her future relationship with her future husband and child and force her into semi-obscurity, feeling most comfortable with the cadavers she tends at the mausoleum where she works.

One evening Lemon, an old friend of her mothers, turns up unannounced with news to break. But there's more, and over an weekend of alcohol, music and sumptuous Montserratian cuisine they revisit the events that led up to the fateful night.

Although set in and around my old stomping grounds in London around Hackney Downs and Dalston Kingsland I did not expect to like this book. For a start it is littered with ridiculous name: Jinx, Lemon and Red, names which proffer and unnecessary distraction. However as the book went on I found myself wanting to know where it was going and even enjoying the process. The descriptions of the male characters, especially Berris and Lemon are well developed and harken back to a timeless sense of style, and the descriptions of the food had me salivating.

It isn't in conventional booker territory so I would be surprised to see it going through to the shortlist but for a first time effort by Yvette Edwards, it isn't half bad.

Jamrach's Menagerie
Jamrach's Menagerie
by Carol Birch
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 21.77
10 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An evocative tale of disaster on the high seas, Aug. 20 2011
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
Set in 1857 Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy, a poor but happy child who wanders the streets of the East End of London, through the mire and the open sewers bare footed without the least concern. When one day he encounters a tiger newly escaped from its captivity he brazenly walks up to pet its nose only to end up in the tiger's mouth. His rescue comes in the form of the eponymous Jamrach, an exotic animal dealer who leaps atop the creature and forces its jaws apart. Jamrach's menagerie is a place of wonder filled with Tasmanian devils, all kinds of birds and primates and Jaffy takes a job there where he encounters Jamrach's assistant Tim Linver and Dan Rymer, the salty sea dog/animal tracker responsible for collecting some of Jamrach's more exotic products.

When one day a Mr Fledge comes in and asks that he be supplied a dragon (most likely a Komodo Dragon) Jaffy, Tim and Dan join the crew of one of Mr Fledge's whale boats and set out towards the South Seas in pursuit of their quarry. What follows is a somewhat harrowing tale of torture, starvation and whole lot of pain as things go from terrible to worse in a story partly inspired by the true tale of the Essex (a story which also partly inspired another infamous book of whaling ships, Moby Dick).

It is an intentionally difficult book to read as the author tries to put you into the mindset of the protagonists as they go through some pretty extreme torment and the result is that some chapters go by a great deal slower than the rest (reading a chapter about the doldrums is liable to send one into them oneself). It is a very evocative book and as Jaffy, Tim and Dan suffer, I could feel their pain.

The book is far from perfect. Some of the characters aren't developed well enough such as Skip whose madness is just accepted but never questioned or explained, or Tim who becomes incredibly two-dimensioned once they set foot aboard the whaling ship. Also the ending is a little too rose-coloured as things at last come together in an ending Disney would be proud of. However, these are comparatively minor complaints and I wouldn't be surprised to see this making the Booker Prize shortlist.

London: The Biography
London: The Biography
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 25.69
58 used & new from CDN$ 0.77

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Falls foul of Ackroyd's pomposity, Aug. 13 2011
This review is from: London: The Biography (Paperback)
After Peter Ackroyd finished writing this 800 page monster he suffered a heart attack and for Peter this was something quite appropriate of London as a city, an angry and violent place; a place that kills (although I might suggest that his portly stature belies a different truth). This is a history book without chronology which rather than following a standard narrative (Romans, Normans, Plague, Fire, Queen Vic, Empire and Blitz) is more a series of essays on London as Theatre, Crime and Punishment, Mobocracy and Violence etc... As disconnected as that sounds there are themes that penetrate the essays: London's innate theatricality or the continuities that exist and have throughout the centuries. Camberwell, for instance, as the home of disquiet was invaded by Wat Tyler during the peasants revolt, that the Chartist movement grew up there, that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were welcomed there first on their return from Botany Bay, that a revolutionary press was founded upon the green by the likes of Elanor Marx and that during his stay this press was used frequently by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that in the 90s the communist daily the Morning Star had its offices in the area and that now it is inhabited by the magazine for the homeless and unemployed, the Big Issue.

I've learnt some interesting details about events and people some of which leave me wondering how there has never been a film about them. The story of Jack Sheppherd is one such story. He was a criminal hero of london held at the infamous Newgate Prison which once stood where the Old Bailey stands today and who gained notoriety by escaping from confinement six times using his skills gained as a carpenter's apprentice.

The first time he was arrested he escaped within three hours by cutting open the roof and lowering himself to the ground using the sheets from his bed as a rope. The second time he was pinioned with links and fetters and managed to saw through the fetters, cut an iron restraint and bored through a wooden bar nine inches thick. While out he was recaptured by the notorious criminal taker Jonathan Wild and sentenced to death. Somehow he managed to smuggle in a spike with which he managed to carve an opening in the wall and with the help of friends on the outside was dragged out through it disappearing into the crowds of the Bartholemew Fair. Once again he was recaptured and brought back to Newgate and he was removed to the 'stone castle', chained to the floor, legs secured with irons and hands cuffed and kept under surveillance. Somehow he managed to slip out of the cuffs, loose a link from the chains on his legs, squeeze his body through the chains and then with a nail broke the locks of five doors on the way to his escape. During his freedom he stole some money, bought a suit and hired a coach and following on with the theme of London theatricality, drove the coach right through the front gates of Newgate Prison. This time he was recaptured within two weeks and sentenced to be hanged within the week. Sheppherd had one more escape planned but the pocket knife with which he wished to cut his noose was found upon his body and on the 16th November 1724 he was finally executed. It's a fantastic story with so much intrigue and showmanship, would be a wonderful film, I'm sure Johnny Depp's available.

Now for the confession, I didn't like this book. Peter Ackroyd's pretension strikes you from the off with the title 'The Biography' as if stating its place as the definitive book on London which it certainly is not. There is so much that annoys me, first is that he is a popular historian but his sources are of other popular historians (I can't count the number of times that Jenny Uglow is quoted for instance), there is little evidence of any actual academic historiography in view and in fact the book feels like an aggregation of other people's work. Quite often he uses literature when he's seeking to make a point which also annoys, I'm quite happy with quotations from literature but if you're trying to make a point about a characteristic of London history or people then surely the connections are better made with actual people or events? And speaking of events, some are so horribly glossed over (like the great plague) that you wonder how ever this book could be considered definitive. The interesting facts are too few and far between and the obscure points he makes could be made about any city and its relevance to London appear slim. I really did want to enjoy this book not least because it is about the city I live in and see about me every day but because I was going to be with it for 800 pages however Peter Ackroyd's pomp and arrogance were too much for me too overlook and I am confident that there are far better books on London history to be had out there.

The Invention of the Jewish People
The Invention of the Jewish People
by Shlomo Sand
Edition: Hardcover
9 used & new from CDN$ 20.56

4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but perhaps flawed revisionism, Aug. 13 2011
On May 14th 1948 the British Mandate of Palestine and the Jewish People's Council issued 'The Declarations of the Establishment of the State of Israel'. It reads as follows:

"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the Book of Books.

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept their faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and to hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom'.

This is a history I have never questioned, the people of Judea, later renamed Palestine by the Romans, were forced out of their lands, dispersed and lived in exile of thousands of years before their return and the founding of the state of Israel. Throughout the book Sand attempts to undermine some of the central tenets of Zionism and nationalistic right wing politicians in Israel. He attempts to show that the Jewish people aren't all the racially pure descendants of the Hebrews (the chosen people). That there was never a mass exodus of people during the Roman occupation of Judea, that although modern Judaism isn't quite the proselytizing religion now, the ranks of Jews throughout the middle east and the Mediterranean came (at least in part) through mass conversions and that the present day Palestinians (at least in part) do also descend from the ancient Hebrews who after the Arab invasion converted to Islam to reap the tax benefits.

I am no historian therefore I can't tell you about the veracity of the events as he states and whilst the arguments he makes are interesting there is quite a lot of dramatism and hyperbole in the way he makes them. What is more interesting than the book is perhaps the reception it received. Topping the best-selling lists in Israel when it was first published in Hebrew, it has won prizes in its French translation and it has brought itself a considerable reaction in the English translation. Many academics have questioned the author's credentials to write such a book (a history professor but not of Jewish history) and bloggers have been fiercely divided (the book is either essential reading or the work of a Stalinist anti-semite.

Sand's purpose seems to be twofold, to dispel the idea that Judaism is something more than a religion and to undermine the idea of their divine right to the land of Israel. His sights are firmly set on the Zionism and the right wing politicians of modern Israel. It feels as if he sets up a belief system that perhaps few genuinely follow and creates targets for himself that are easy to knock down. I was uneasy about carrying this book with me daily and the reaction of some being to call Sand an anti-semite make me think I do have reason to have felt that way. I feel that Sand's intentions have been honourable but his execution perhaps flawed. Interesting nonetheless.

The Little Stranger
The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 3.38

3.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps better to wait for the movie, Aug. 13 2011
This review is from: The Little Stranger (Hardcover)
Set in 1948, Dr Faraday is the son of working class stock who one evening is called out to the Hundreds Hall, the seat of the Ayres family, the estate where his mother worked when he was young as a nursemaid. This is just the beginning of his entanglement with the house and its family; Mrs Ayres the widowed matriarch and hangover from Edwardian society, her son Roddie, an injured and limping veteran of the war now master of the estate though not coping with the responsibility and Caroline, the intelligent but plain daughter who is often to be found wandering around the estate with her dog.

Things take a sinister turn as Roddie becomes convinced that he is being visited by a phantom with malicious intent who is leaving dark marks around his room and when the Ayres's dog attacks the young daughter of a nouveau riche family only new to area it begins his descent into what Faraday believes to be a severe nervous disorder.

The book is essentially a story of the end of the Edwardian dynasties and the break up of the estates of the landed gentry that followed the second world war and the election of Clement Atlee's Labour government. It is also a gothic-esque ghost story in the traditions of Edgar Allan Poe however I draw that similarity very loosely as it is at best a pastiche of that story telling. The book reminds me of peristalsis with its slow and steady pace building up a tension that releases itself not with a bang but with a wimper as any dramatic tension is dissolved with a disappointing last 100 pages. Dr Faraday proves an extremely boring narrator and as his affairs become increasingly entangled with those of the Ayres' it's hard to muster the requisite sympathy.

The Making of Modern Britain
The Making of Modern Britain
by Andrew Marr
Edition: Paperback
69 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Great leftist history of the Edwardian and inter-war periods., Aug. 13 2011
Written, as it were, as a prequel to his book and accompanying television series 'A History of Modern Britain' this book charts, as Andrew Marr puts it, England 'from Queen Victoria to V.E. Day'. The books illustrates the rise and fall of Edwardian Britain, the rise of the working classes, chartists, trade unions, suffragettes (and suffragists) and countless other groups. Britain ceased to be a country ruled from grand country estates and power passed to the people and Britain became a true democracy. In the process she underwent the Boer War as well as two World Wars and had approximately eleven different Prime Ministers, the death of the Liberal Party and the birth of the Labour Party.

Except during the world wars when the history is presented in a more linear order, Andrew Marr presents us with a television handy series of scenes or vignettes charting not just the political or military aspects of the history but the social scenes including some great sections on music hall, the birth of the motor industry and the early days of the BBC. When he does the political history Marr has a knack of cutting through to the heart of complicated sets of facts such as the manoeuvres that led to the passing of the Parliament Act ending the power of the House of Lords and propelling Lloyd George into prominence and the machinations that enabled Churchill to come back into the fold as Neville Chamberlain proved an ineffective war leader.

The book is very readable and Andrew Marr shows himself as a revisionist historian showing sympathy with the tactics of oft criticised generals such as Haig and Kitchener (they after all did not know then what we know now...although I'd like to venture that we don't quite know now what they knew then either), praising Chamberlain's preparations for war and criticising Churchill for all that he didn't accomplish trying to show that he was not the steadfast and power hungry man making every decision from the top. His book is also written from quite a leftist perspective, the heroes of the story are no doubt people like Seebohm Rowntree treading the streets of York chronicling dire cases of poverty, the Welsh railwaymen fighting to unionise, the new radicals as Lloyd George and Churchill were (although Churchill's radicalism came with not so much concern for civil liberties and a rampant thirst for risky military adventure) and growth of the Labour movement is lauded, the growth of right reviled.

I recently criticised Peter Ackroyd for using popular historians as sources in a piece of popular history. Andrew Marr goes one step further and quotes from no sources whatsoever and the few endnotes he uses prove utterly useless because no page numbers are given in the notes section. He claims to have done the research entirely by himself and it shows as there are factual errors, and events are glossed over or generalised. Also if you've studied this period of history in any length (and in British schools the wars are covered many times) he presents no surprises. It is a book written to be televised and that tv series is a whole other kettle of fish (his impressions are excruciating). I wanted to dislike this book but Andrew Marr, despite his popularism and bombastic and journalistic style prose, comes across very amiably and it certainly doesn't hurt to be a leftist to read this book.

My Struggle
My Struggle
by Paul Merton
Edition: Paperback
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars I love it despite its glaring faults, Aug. 13 2011
This review is from: My Struggle (Paperback)
As with his much more recent book and accompanying television series on the heroes of silent comedy show Paul Merton has a real interest in the earlier forms of comedy and this book is no different in what is a spoof fictionalised 'autobiographical' account of an East End music hall performer.

Born to theatrical parents, the music hall act Bert and Mary (the Marvellettes) a water stirrer and a cough check girl who surprised a lot of people by marrying very quickly 'the ceremony lasted only eleven seconds', Paul was quite literally shot into fame via a vintage cannon, a rubberised nappy, an overhead smash that would have graced the centre court at Wimbledon and the safe hands of King George V. Baby Paul's early days in Hollywood involved acting in Western's before he could talk and throwing his rattle in a fight with a Sioux Indian. He returns to England in acrimony and life begins a series of ups and downs, entertaining the Germans during the second world war, radio comedy with Peter Sellers, game shows and children's entertainment alongside his faithful hippopotamus. There are of course several murders, a friendship with Prince Charles and a defining relationship with an agent with whom he communicates through the second-hand fridge section of the newspaper 'Dalton's Weekly'.

The jokes start, of course, with the title which needs translation into German for its effect. The book is a very nineties and a very English phenomenon so be prepared for some Bruce Forthsyth and Max Bygraves jokes. It is thoroughly sarcastic and incredibly tongue in cheek and I'd argue that it has also not aged well. There are some passages which made me laugh aloud but as the book goes on you get the feeling that he ran out of enthusiasm with the project and the narrative begins to meander. I am a fan of Paul Merton and his rather unique sense of humor and so have a soft spot for this book but I can't actually contend that it's any good.

I love it despite all its faults:

End Of The Party, The
End Of The Party, The
by Andrew Rawnsley
Edition: Hardcover
19 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting insight into the Blair years, Aug. 13 2011
This review is from: End Of The Party, The (Hardcover)
The Servants of the People published in 2000 chronicled Labour's election and first term in power, this book details everything that has happened since. Rawnsley, political columnist for the Observer, quotes from quite an impressive array of sources as he writes the story of New Labour, 9/11 and the war on terror, the Iraq War and the dodgy dossier that got us there and the financial crisis. It also goes into deep details of the personalities and conflicts between the main protagonists.

Rawnsley comes across as quite Blairite and for him other than when he details the David Kelly affair in which is he quite vitriolic about Blair's involvement, he is portrayed almost as the man who can do no wrong and when things do not turn out as they should, the finger of blame is nearly always pointed at Brown and those in his team who push him into being more extreme than he would be on his own (all of Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Ed Milliband and Damian McBride do not come out of this book looking good). In a chapter entitled 'the long goodbye' he details what he sees as the highlights of TB's 13 years in power:

"generous investment in health and education which reversed years of neglect of the public realm. State-funded childcare was introduced alongside the minimum wage. There was considerable redistribution, mainly the work of Chancellor, from the affluent to the poor. Tax and benefit changes since 1997 broadly raise the incomes of the poorest fifth of society. This was not enough to entirely counteract the global forces which were stretching the inequalities and the super-rich continued to pull away from every one else...he left Britain wealtheir and more diverse, but not much happier than how he found it."

The book received a great deal of press pre-publication for the details of Gordon Brown's temper and the book paints him as palpably mad. He is seen as moody, sulking, petty and violent. The reason, it is made to look, that there was no real challenge to Brown for the Labour leadership is that he crushed any promising talent that might challenge what he viewed as his solemn right to govern Britain. He and his team are shown to continually brief and leak against Blair, the content of his budgets were rarely divulged up to a couple of hours before they were announced when they were already at the printers and he is shown to be the worst micro-manager possible.

The book is far from perfect and you are painfully aware that the author is still working with the people he is writing about and so tries to stay away from making personal judgement. However in an election year and despite whatever economic competence he portrays Brown as having you cannot but arrive at the conclusion that Gordon Brown is insane.

An interesting if not biased account.

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