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Judy Corstjens

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A coming of old age novel

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 21-06-20

I first noticed Lionel Shriver writing in the FT and assumed Lionel was an English man. Then I read her in the Spectator and discovered she was a woman. Then I read this novel and realised that she is American. In every publication and format I have been impressed with her astuteness, perception and wit, but it's been an interesting journey. I have to admit that I would, generally, be more inclined to pick up a novel by an English man than an American woman, which, in this case, would have been a shame.

Lionel is not afraid to break the conventions of modern novels and provide the despairing modern reader with what most people still want from their fiction - credible, intelligent, characters, realistic plot, a bit of action and suspense, and a lot of wry comment on how we are now - a romp through first-world problems as experienced by a long-married 60-something couple.

Narration. Professional, though I felt Buvard tried a bit too hard to give male characters deep gravelly voices. We know a narrator has to inhabit characters of the opposite sex, but there are more subtle approaches and this sounded a bit strained.


2 people found this helpful

Thank you Mr Afzal

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 23-05-20

This book sits alongside 'Do no harm,' 'This is going to hurt' and 'The secret Barrister' (all available from Audible and all well worth listening to). They are all written by successful and experienced professionals who have decided to write about their respective careers - in brain surgery, gynaecology, law - for the edification of the lay reader, for me. I am extremely grateful each time I am let into a new world by this effort at wider communication.

In 1987, after repeated miscarriages of justice, the police lost their role as prosecutors and this responsibility was handed over to an independent service: the Crown Prosecution Service. Mr Afzal joined the CPS in 1991 and had an important role in its development, dealing with a succession of high profile cases - most of which I had vaguely read about in the press.

Narration. Afzal decided to read his own book and it was a great decision. Although I often think a professional reader does a better job, in this case his special accent and delivery added a very human touch to the content. Here we have a boy of Pakistani origins who grew up in Birmingham, moved to London, mixed with lots of posh legal bods, and ended up in Manchester - and it is all there in his multilayered accent. The booming emphasis he gives to his key legal points (very barrister) underscored very faintly by a trace of the Birmingham youf.

A bit patchy

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 30-03-20

I loved Sapiens, and found Homo Deus thought provoking, but here I felt Harari sometimes over-reached. Harari is a historian but in this book he is trying to be sage and philosopher. He has doubled down on his Luddite claim that AI will make large swathes of the population irrelevant and will result in mass unemployment, which is, I suspect, because he doesn't fully appreciate the limits of AI and 'robots'. Two years of very full employment in the leading AI economies since his last book should have given him pause for thought, but apparently not. He then appears to contradict himself when he lectures European states on their attitudes to migrants: he forgets his AI argument and accuses them of wanting to benefit from cheap labour. He also glibly states that '500 million Europeans should be able to accommodate a couple of million immigrants' without recognising that the UK alone has accommodated more than that number in the past 6 years. He represents an odd geographical standpoint, emphasising that he is Israeli and lives in Israel. Thus it is perfectly understandable that he goes on about the fact that the Jewish tribes in Israel really aren't so important (as they think) to the rest of humanity - something the rest of humanity don't really need to be convinced of. And yet he also wants to make sweeping statements about Europe (including Brexit) which he clearly does not understand very well.
Still 4 stars! Well, I quite like reading stuff I disagree with, because I like to argue about it in my head. He has some funny anecdotes: Hocus Pokus is a peasant garbling (or joke) of 'Hoc est Corpus' as said in Latin by priests to turn bread into Christ's body at communion; a sage was asked the meaning of life, he replied, 'The meaning of my life is to help other people...I'm still wondering about the meaning of their lives.' Harari is a lively companion, even when he's being dogmatic, so I would recommend this book even if I'm, personally, now past peak Harari.

An angel rushes in where fools fear to tread

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 25-11-19

Douglas Murray picks up dozens of half-formulated thoughts and ill-defined objections strewn around my brain, puts them into neat piles and labels them for me. Two examples: in the 1970s my grandmother told me she was a feminist and explained what this meant. I immediately agreed that I was a feminist too. Later I sensed that I was no longer a feminist and felt vague unease wrt my late grandma. But Douglas explains that I simply alighted the feminist train once it reached a place that gave me the opportunities, the freedom and respect that I needed to live a happy and fulfilled life. The feminist train then (to use DM’s analogy) picked up speed and steamed on to other destinations and obsessions that had nothing to do with the aspirations of my Grandma.
Forgiveness. I’ve always somewhat taken the view that ‘forgiveness is for wimps’. Not being a religious person I don’t think anyone has ever presented me the logical case for forgiveness. DM put this right. We are forced to live in action. We do not always understand all the consequences of our actions, we may also act rashly or emotionally, but we can never undo an action. This implies that unless we want to be paralysed into inaction we must have the possibility of forgiveness to release us from regretted actions. As in business dealings we need contract law to bind us, but we also need bankruptcy laws to release us and forgive debts if things do go badly wrong. Hmm, I may have been rather harsh to a few people.

Narration. Douglas has a terribly posh voice, but I love it. Every perfectly articulated syllable.

18 people found this helpful

Temple Grandin is a wonderful person...

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 29-10-19

...with unique insights into what it is like to be an animal. My relationship with my 13 year old dog has improved since reading, and I didn't think it was possible for our relationship still to get deeper after all these years.
Grandin also helped me work out how I feel about eating meat, and what I should do in the future.

1 person found this helpful

Implausible to just plain silly

Overall
1 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
1 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-06-19

When I was about 4 years old I was told we would soon have machines that could do the washing up. I visualised a robot standing at the kitchen sink, metal arms plunged into the suds. When we eventually acquired a dishwasher I realised how perfectly naive I had been and I was also impressed how well the box that was 'not a robot at all' cleaned the dishes. To my amazement, Ian McEwan has fallen into this same trap.

The truth is that nobody is ever going to build a robot like Adam, the hero of this book. Adam is totally all-purpose, indeed he is an exact copy of a better-than-normal man (not quite a perfect copy, of course, as there wouldn't be any story if he was totally indistinguishable from a human). But it is clearly an error to imagine that anyone will or would go to the huge expense of creating a machine that is very-almost-but-just-a-bit-better-than-human. You would never build (perfect, working) genitals into a machine you were going to use for the gardening and vacuuming - you'd have to scrub its delicate fingers before getting into bed with it. Indeed, it is obvious that you would need different types of 'fingers' for these very different tasks. The underlying assumption would have to be that we are the perfect machines - but we clearly are not. We are weak and fragile, and we design machines precisely to do the things we cannot do - e.g. deal with very hot dishwashing water, dig large holes, sew seams in cloth, do millions of calculations at lightening speed. And we never make any effort to give them skin and faces and hair (and a tongue to speak! Does Alexa have a tongue?)

The implausibility and silliness is present from the start but gets progressively worse. I need to give some examples to make my point. The book is set in the early '80s, but the world is different because Alan Turing was not driven to suicide by homo-phobia. OK, I'm quite willing to countenance alternative worlds in a novel if this leads to the author making interesting insights. Yes, it is an interesting thought (though not particularly original) that history is contingent - deeply dependent on random events - everything could have been very different. The narrator (and random Robot-purchaser and owner) says 'Hello' when he spots the ageing but fulfilled (happily married to partner) Alan Turing in a restaurant, then Turing invites him round to tea to hear about Adam and lecture the narrator. But this narrator has to look up the mathematical term 'iff', so he can't know ANYTHING about logic or AI, so why would Turing want to speak to him? The penniless narrator (he spent his entire inheritance of £86k from his mother buying Adam) then discovers that Adam can make him money by playing the stock market. No thought its given to the fact that if Adam's AI can do this, then the person who developed Adam's AI would have already sold this AI to banks, well before it got implanted in sex dolls. Also, McEwan explains Adam's Stockmarket success in terms of speed - very fast typing on Charles's personal computer and internet link. Is it possible that McEwan has heard of ultra-fast trading but hasn't a clue what it really involves? Just so silly I don't know how to describe it. The unemployment rate has 'soared' to 16% (and sometimes 24%) because of AI. No explanation of how this happened - it is taken as read that the reader is also a luddite. It is taken as read that if a car factory produces more cars with fewer people the workers will be permanently unemployed.

Charles ends up braining Adam to cover up a crime, unaware that Adam backs himself up to a remote computer. Dah!

Honestly, if this book was written by an unknown author it would not get published.

Narration is fine.



Interesting

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-05-19

Certainly thought provoking, with interesting ideas on the limits of predictability and our overconfidence, and where that overconfidence springs from. I think I am a bit disappointed that it won't really make me into a better forecaster - only more cautious of what is possible.

Makes you quite angry

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 22-04-19

It is rather depressing and angry-making hearing how western lawyers and bankers, particularly here in London, help kleptocrats and dictators the world over move and then spend their stolen and extorted cash. How you can buy citizenship from a range of compliant countries, from tiny islands trying to make a buck once cast off into impecunious independence, to paid up members of the EU - or go one better and buy diplomatic immunity by becoming a diplomat of some tin-pot state. The USA made some progress breaking the banking secrecy laws of Switzerland - but then refused to reciprocate with the rest of the world, and now offers tax havens on-shore in the US for non-US citizens. Oliver Bullough is a naturally witty and sunny person, and his writing reflects this joyful personality, somewhat countering what would be a rather sombre subject.

Narration : Bullough reads his own book and is not a professional actor. However, he gives it a jolly good try and his enthusiasm and natural wit carry it off, making the delivery very personal and enjoyable.

11 people found this helpful

Entertaining but ultimately disappointing

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-03-19

This is a rollicking comedy-thriller with no pretensions to literary style or taste, and I'm rather surprised that it got such good reviews. It takes place in Brussels, and its main topic is the EU warts and all. Actually, warts is about all. The civil servants, think tanks etc are all about being a waste of time and money. The main strand in the plot is the idea to organise a celebration of 60 years since the Treaty of Rome (1957-2017) to improve the image of the Commission in the eyes of the people of Europe, and the culture section of the commission plump for a party at Auschwitz, which ultimately gets cancelled.

Culturally, it is interesting (for me) to read a book by a contemporary Austrian author. I couldn't believe how continuously it referred to WW2. Every character was either the son of resistance fighters, collaborators, or Nazi sympathisers, or, of course, one of the few camp survivors still alive. The only English character (I think there was only one) is a Boris-type ginger haired toff. A rather unflattering stereotype of the Brits.

The book is topical, obviously, but it is not informative. The only argument put forward in defence of the EU is 'Never Again.' Because of Auschwitz, we must have the EU to prevent any recurrence. This argument is put forward as an assertion. No effort to explain why there can never be another 'European civil war' once we have the EU as a forum to jaw-jaw.

But my main reason for rating this book quite poorly is the plot - or rather lack of plot. The book starts with an assassination in a hotel. We are told that the wrong person was assassinated, but not who they are or who the real target was. We are told that NATO has hushed the whole business up. An honest, very tall, Belgian police officer, son of two generations of resistance fighters, with terminal cancer, gets cued up to become a rogue investigator. Then he kind of gets bored with it and we never hear any more about the murder or NATO plot. There is a pig loose in Brussels who, in a very neat introductory chapter, is spotted by each of the key characters on that same one evening of the hotel murder. The pig motif runs through the novel (pig farmers lobbying the EU powers etc.) but at the end of the book we never learn where this pig came from - we are left hanging on a number of somewhat fantastical sub-plots. I really don't think authors should be allowed to do that.

So. Ultimately a bit silly, but entertaining and witty along the way.

Narration. Professional quality.

1 person found this helpful

Informative and timely

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-03-19

I bought this book because I have noticed Isabel Hardman as a balanced and sane voice on programs such as Andrew Marr and Question Time.

Hardman does not disappoint with this sane and balanced view of the weaknesses of our political system. Indeed, the flaws are so many and so deep it seems amazing that we have (so far) staggered on as well as we have. Hardman points out how the barriers to entry to elected office are so great that the majority of candidates come from a narrow self-selecting group that is not representative of the population and not particularly well-qualified or well-equipped for the powers they take on. Then MPs are given very little training, guidance or feedback on the job. Instead they are faced with distractions (acting as social workers for their constituents) and misaligned incentives (mostly to unthinkingly back the legislation proposed by their executive). They are relatively underpaid and frequently abused on social media. The House of Lords may not be ideal, but it currently serves as the only serious body scrutinising badly considered legislation that can be positively toxic in its effects. Abolish with care! Hardman has a few tentative suggestions for improvements, but it is clear that reform will be slow and hard, and may not happen at all. Another book without a happy ending.

Narration. Hardman is used to public speaking, but she does not quite have the skills of a professional audio-book narrator. She commits the sin of putting on an accent (often vaguely northern) for quotations. Character voices are fine for bedtime stories with the kids but, please, not in non-fiction.

7 people found this helpful