Luminescent

4 10 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

 

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 It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.

Generally avoiding Booker winners until they have had time to cool off I thought I would have a go at this monster while on holiday this year. It really is outstanding. I didn’t think the author would be able to sustain the complicated interplay of stories and timelines but she does so with tremendous skill. Highly recommended.

4.5 stars

 





Blundering

27 09 2014

The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

 

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There are a handful of cock-ups that we remember all too well, from the poll tax to the Millennium Dome. However, the list is longer than most of us realize – and it’s growing. With unrivalled political savvy and a keen sense of irony, distinguished political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe open our eyes to the worst government horror stories and explain why the British political system is quite so prone to appalling mistakes. You will discover why:

• The government wasted up to £20 billion pounds in a failed scheme to update London’s Underground system.

• Tens of thousands of single mothers were left in poverty without financial support from absent fathers.

• Tony Blair committed the NHS to the biggest civilian IT project the world has ever seen, despite knowing next to nothing about computing.

• The Assets Recovery Agency cost far more to run than it ever clawed back from the proceeds of organised crime.

• The Coalition government is at least as blunder-prone as any of its predecessors.

Groupthink, constantly rotating ministers and a weak parliament all contribute to wasted billions and illogical policy. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Informed by years of research and interviews with senior cabinet ministers and civil servants, this razor-sharp diagnosis of flawed government is required reading for every UK citizen. With its spirited prescriptions for more fool-proof policymaking, it will prove to be one of the most important political books of the decade.

The summary above captures neatly this frightening analysis of government failings down the years: the poll tax, Child Support Agency, NHS IT, the Dangerous Dogs Act. Each blunder is examined in detail and, although all are awful, there is recognition of governments’ potential to do good. Interestingly, many of the reasons for failure could apply equally in a university context too.

A really outstanding, scary but ultimately optimistic text and a compelling read.

 

5 star





Interplanetary craft

5 07 2014

War of the Worlds by HG Wells

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“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.” Thus begins one of the most terrifying and morally prescient science fiction novels ever penned. Beginning with a series of strange flashes in the distant night sky, the Martian attack initially causes little concern on Earth. Then the destruction erupts—ten massive aliens roam England and destroy with heat rays everything in their path. Very soon humankind finds itself on the brink of extinction. H. G. Wells raises questions of mortality, man’s place in nature, and the evil lurking in the technological future—questions that remain urgently relevant in the twenty-first century.

It’s been years since I read this and had forgotten quite how enjoyable it is. Whilst these days it might seem a bit odd that Martians would focus their attack on the Home Counties, nevertheless the whole thing works really well and has stood the test of time.

 

stars-3-5





It’s the future

28 06 2014

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

 

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London, 1958: unassuming civil servant Thomas Foley is plucked from his desk at the Central Office of Information and sent on a six-month trip to Brussels. His task: to keep an eye on The Brittania, a brand new pub which will form the heart of the British presence at Expo 58 – the biggest World’s Fair of the century, and the first to be held since the Second World War.
As soon as he arrives at the site, Thomas feels that he has escaped a repressed, backward-looking country and fallen headlong into an era of modernity and optimism. He is equally bewitched by the surreal, gigantic Atomium, which stands at the heart of this brave new world, and by Anneke, the lovely Flemish hostess who meets him off his plane. But Thomas’s new-found sense of freedom comes at a price: the Cold War is at its height, the mischievous Belgians have placed the American and Soviet pavilions right next to each other – and why is he being followed everywhere by two mysterious emissaries of the British Secret Service? Expo 58 may represent a glittering future, both for Europe and for Thomas himself, but he will soon be forced to decide where his public and private loyalties really lie.

 

 

It’s all a bit ‘Our Man in Havana’ in Brussels but no worse for that. Coe has produced another excellent novel about a reserved civil servant who comes alive in the optimistic Expo world.

(And just seen this blog about the Britannia pub which includes some interesting back story.)

four stars





Revolutionary

31 05 2014

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

 

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Georges-Jacques Danton: zealous, energetic and debt-ridden. Maximilien Robespierre: small, diligent and terrified of violence. And Camille Desmoulins: a genius of rhetoric, charming and handsome, yet also erratic and untrustworthy. As these young men, key figures of the French Revolution, taste the addictive delights of power, the darker side of the period’s political ideals is unleashed – and all must face the horror that follows.

Capturing the violence, tragedy, history, and drama of the French Revolution, this novel focuses on the families and loves of three men who led the Revolution–Danton, the orator; Robespierre, the cold rationalist; and Desmoulins, a fellow conspirator.

It’s a big book in every sense with a huge cast of characters and masses of action and detail across the terrain of revolutionary France. Impossible to justice to it in a few words but suffice to say it is a tremendous work – dramatic, fast-paced and exciting with plenty of politics and blood. Highly recommended.

 
stars-4-0._V5268001_





Hot, hot, hot

24 05 2014

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

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It’s July 1976. In London, it hasn’t rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.

 

As usual with O’Farrell it is terrifically well written and flows extremely well. It’s measured and slow paced and the characters are extremely well drawn. However, I struggled in places to maintain enthusiasm although overall would still recommend it even though it is not O’Farrell’s finest.

stars-3-5





Ego trip: Approximation of a playlist §66

11 05 2014

Bands who serve their leaders

You Keep Me Hanging On    Diana Ross & The Supremes
Wonderwall    The Mike Flowers Pops
There she goes, my beautiful world    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Stepping stone    Gene Drayton Unit
Roadrunner    Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers
Battle Of Who Could Care Less    Ben Folds Five
Is this love    Bob Marley & The Wailers
Angel Face    The Glitter Band
Free Fallin’    Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Beat The Beat    Mari Wilson With The Wilsations
Davy’s On The Road Again    Manfred Manns EarthbandI love me
Stand And Deliver    Adam & The Ants
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)    Junior Walker & The All Stars
I Love Rock n Roll    Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick    Ian Dury & The Blockheads
Are you ready to be heartbroken?    Lloyd Cole & the Commotions
Forget Me Not    Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
The Tears of a Clown    Smokey Robinson & The Miracles








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