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Richard

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England, cake and guilt.

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

Reviewed: 17-05-20

Written in 1943 this is an espionage thriller set in a London during the Blitz. It satisfies most as a piece of highly-honed period styling, being a take on the late Surrealism so trendy at the time. Thus, the protagonist's tragic quest through shabby reality is set in a theatre of dream and memory. I enjoyed this fusion of pulp mystery thriller and self-conscious artiness.

The clean modernity of Greene's prose lifts the artificiality of an ornate plot clear of the sort kitschy commercial surrealism which second-raters of the time seemed prone to. You can easily imagine it as a vehicle for Hitchcock to have adapted cinematically, being full of quirky characters and scenic details and shot-through with angsty atmosphere.

However, striking though it is as a piece of pop style, as a thriller with pretentions to literary substance it doesn't quite convince. I find the artificiality of the far-fetched plot makes the deeper underlying themes of spiritual quest in a nihilistic world seem a bit contrived and pretentious. The author's constantly trying to go for a sophisticated polish which comes off as a sort of sales pitch for a dark personal consciousness. In short, the fit isn't invisible enough to achieve the ambition. You get the sneaking impression that Greene is grooving on the blackness of Greeneland a little too much to be the truly classy adult entertainment he's aiming at.

I don't know where critics place the book in the author's oeuvre, but I'd guess it's not rated as being even in the same division as his later stuff.

But if you're up for a bit of slick period pop, go for it.

Faux Lit 101.

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

Reviewed: 27-02-20

This is my first go at an Umberto Eco novel and I suspect it will be my last. Why? It's 14 hours of a meticulously structured story centring on the cunning machinations of an ingeniously conceived villain. All scholarly construction, it's patently artificial and totally devoid of soul or authentic literary panache.

Instead we get a Postmodernist take on an old fashion 19c super baddie, a sophisticated forger spinning a web of intrigue and misdirection who is used as a vehicle for a scholarly tongue-in-cheek concoction of major themes from the second half of 19c European history. The villain's skewed obsession with Jesuits, Republicans, Freemasons and, above all, Anti-Semitism put him at the centre of a European web of political intrigue which sees him connecting with historical figures such as Garibaldi, Freud, Dreufus and participating in the the unification of Italy and the paris Commune. Usually as an agent for various powerful secret services or subterrainian societies.

This scholarly historical romping is quite good fun for a while but as it twists and turns hour after hour, the endless smoke and mirrors pall once we realise that for all it's ingenuity, the central character's complexity is essentially vacuous. Who he really is turns out to be an emotionally uncompelling fictional device as bogus as the documents he concocts. He exists only to push the book's subtext: history is unreliable since the truth about what has happened is entirely dependent the interpretation of documentation. The Prague Cemetery of the title is our super forger's masterpiece: a report of a completely fantasised piece of historical misdirection. A lurid gothic scene designed to disseminate the anti-sementic propaganda he lives for.

In a post script Eco tells us that incredible though it seems, everything is based upon authentic historical accounts and most characters were actual figures or composites. Big deal smarty pants. It's all in the telling. I want a novel to move me and leave me thinking. If this one's anything to go by, I suspect Eco can only manage tricks of ornate scholarly artifice. That's no substitute for Art.

But if you're happy with a fancy whodunnit type entertainment slipping you a Micky Finn of cultural pretention, this might be your ride. Fourteen hours is a long trip though, with a professor at the wheel.

Trout in the Kool-aid

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

Reviewed: 25-11-19

Read this years ago, loved it and went on to check out other books by Brautigan. Some better than others but never less than engaging and always beautifully written. I'm yet to read a better Brautigan than this one though.

Given the highly poetic quality of his prose, I was curious to hear how it transferred from page to air. I find it loses a little because the mental space between word and image he plays within is so visual that the shape of the language on the page is a significant absence in the audiobook version. That said, the music of the narrative comes across nicely enough to compensate pretty well.

What a remarkably original voice. A new consciousness brought to fiction. No wonder he seemed to be for the 60s what Kerouac had been for the previous decade. Of course it goes upstream and down but forget the idea that this is stream-of-consciousness stuff or a quirky variant of literary surrealism. Neither is it clunky cut-up. Influences yes, but this is a brilliantly composed work of fiction. Free and fresh as sun in a jar.

For me, the novel has all the depth and grace of The great Gatsby and is as perfectly a reflection of the America of its decade as Fitzgerald's masterpiece remains for the Twenties. I think its fluid, facetted perspective is more original though.

An advantage of this audiobook edition is that it contains an excellent forward by Billy Collins in praise of a stone classic. He got to read the manuscript in San Francisco back in '65 two years before publication and puts its counter-cultural impact in context.

If you are new to Brautigan my advice would be to start here. Forget the hype and just relax. Keep an open vista, settle back and enjoy the look and feel of the ride. Pretty soon you may well find yourself admiring the exquisite detailing, plush finish and lighter-than-helium heaviosity of this lovely trout.

Then you may want to experience the hard-copy. Accept no substitute for the feel of the look of the words.

Do Tory Droids dream of cyber babes?

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

Reviewed: 25-03-18

Somewhere along the line I got the idea that Peter F. Hamilton was one of the most promising of the current generation of SF. Clearly publisher's hype. I've now deleted the others by him I had put into my wish list.

Why on earth is this guy rated?

Hamilton writes two dimensional characters in flat, functional prose. He clearly has no pretensions to literary glory. Don't hope for another running mate for J. G. Ballard or Will Self here. The likes of them are consigned to a galaxy far, far away. Back here on grubby earth we have a Pro clearly focussed on designing a commercial genre monster.

Judging from this novel, all Hamilton's creative energy goes into constructing an imaginative scenario through which to run some sort of Games Generation modular set of characters. It's all cinematic pictures and cheap thrills in the pulp tradition. Adolescent escapism for squaddies and bedroom-bound seventeen year olds; Little Englanders to a boy.

Speaking of squaddies, the central character Greg Mandel is ex-Military turned detective. The plot is a standard detective story dressed-up like cyber tech fantasy. So it's all kit description and action sequences out of a bad war novel. These are interspersed with babe-action and musings on Mandel's half-baked, right-wing, rugged individual political philosophy.

But the poor chap is only reacting the fictional cultural context that has produced him. He is, of course, the familiar diamond geezer, action hero. He goes everywhere commando. And his busty bird, Brazilian.

Mandel's hired by an uber-Tory technocrat multi-billionaire (a throw back the ye olde Victorian Capitalist Hero stereotype beloved of Thatcherites) to help him re-build a crushed England brought low by climate change, credit crash and a disastrous Second Reformation.

Standing-in for the oppressive Round Heads we have the PSP. They are a hard-core Maoist style party whose disastrous policies, corruption and incompetence have reduced tropical England to a semi-functioning agrarian society (shades of Cambodia under Pol Pot).

Greg's against 'em. It's personal.

The Neo-Conservatives have booted them out though and are re-building the economy with Mandel's client leading their free-booting charge. But the shining path to a fully functioning Capitalist Future is blocked by a PSP gone underground. They are foiling the big man's schemes to construct a permanent recovery (via endless Trickle-Down one supposes) and to re-establish themselves. Now read-on.

To say more would be a spoiler, but you get the idea.

The best thing about the novel is the way in which this fantasy future Blighty is laid out. Hamilton-vision is quite good fun in this respect. I also enjoyed the tech-enhanced ESP powers enjoyed by Mandel and his ex-Mindstar unit chums. A core narrative device centres on the fusion of human consciousness and cyber reality enjoyed by central characters.

The advantage of this is that it helps the reader get a sense of the technological dominance of the possible future Hamilton asks us to enter. A lot of the key action is computer-bound.
In the hands of a more talented writer (capable of conveying philosophical depth and sensual subtlety for instance) this synthetic consciousness might really have been taken us somewhere interesting and possibly insightful, even. You know, like good SF aspires to.

Forget it here though. This essentially is a miss-mash, rehash of pre-existing SF tropes with a crude political subtext I found increasingly tiresome. The climax even features a big explosion. Behind the technological smoke and mirrors there isn't much originality.

I can see cinema producers taking options and bringing in good writers to improve the plot and character interaction to shape it up into a glossy franchise. It's potentially a good commercial vehicle for a mass audience conditioned by over thirty years of Neo Liberal economic culture.

Personally I've no further interest in checking out anything else by this author when there is so much good stuff filling the bookshops these days. I don't know if he's actually as Tory as his writing suggests or if maybe the following parts of the Greg Mandel Trilogy will do a twist and we find our boy toughing-it-out between a political rock and a harder place. Don't care.

This novel has it's imaginative strengths, is a fun ride in places and it's professionally tight but Hamilton's fiction reads like blatant, aesthetically tacky, cultural propaganda dreamt up by some party spin-doctor.

Toby Longworth's reading is quite funny in places. Mandel is like Sean Bean. He can't do a Lincolnshire accent but I loved the way he voiced the PSP Leader as Tony Blair. Good job. No messing.


3 people found this helpful

Frustrating read.

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

Reviewed: 06-12-17

Is there anything you would change about this book?

The mismatch between the reader's performance style and the text.

While this is not a contender for a contemporary classic of nature writing, (John Lewis-Stempel is ok but no polished, prose stylist) the first person perspective is an engaging landsman's account based upon diary entries and is full of little treasures.

Unfortunately David Thorpe is miscast. His rather emphatic, workmanly rendition sounds like a youthful townie rather than the mature countryman writing about deep connection to place and regional context. There's a prevailing sense of tonal inauthenticity throughout I found difficult to ignore.

I suspect a modest authorial lyricism is also somewhat submerged by this reading. I'm not looking for a Hovis voice-over, but the soul of Mr. Lewis Stempel is that of an authentic contemporary son of the soil, and his account balances unsentimental truth with an admiration for the visionary perspective offered by predecessors picking up pen as plough. So there's a gentle grace to it which has been somewhat downplayed in this particular audio version. Pity.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Meadowland?

At one point the author is obliged to reap the field using a scythe. The spirit of the experience is beautifully captured I thought.

Would you be willing to try another one of David Thorpe’s performances?

Yes, but only if I thought the type of book was compatible with his style.

Was Meadowland worth the listening time?

Certainly.

Any additional comments?

Fans of this sort of stuff would probably be better off reading the book for themselves.

1 person found this helpful

Late-Fifties American beauty.

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

Reviewed: 12-08-14

What did you like most about The Wapshot Chronicle?

What a pleasure to be told a story in prose so beautifully clear, subtle and strong. Nothing forced or flashy. No literary gimmickry. And no narrative fat. Cheever's background as a short story writer shows in every line of this lovely, superbly-crafted novel. His aesthetic sensibility as a stylist is as sound as his eye is perceptive.

In this tale centring on a group of characters related to the Wapshot family, the author delivers a perfectly judged and imaginatively constructed evocation of place, character, and period. A terrific antidote to the nostalgic cinematic vision we are familiar with.

Perfectly paced, with deftness and masterly precision we are presented through multiple view-points, a complex variety of interior experiences of characters grounded in a community which, in lesser hands, might so easily have turned into a ponderous family saga, the arty subtext of which would be to present a profound portrait of a national character. For sure, this is certainly another serious shot at 'The Great American Novel', but (lucky us) it's also light and graceful, full of unexpected narrative entertainments which hook us effortlessly on a trip of emotional depth-charges. The delight and pathos have an authenticity. Nothing vaguely gimmicky or soapy about this family drama. Mr. Cheever doesn't do banal, or 'ordinary' apparently.

This is a striking, authentically original voice which suckers us into buying story as truth. And very entertaining to listen to. Easy.

What did you like best about this story?

The original pictures painted; the insights offered by them.

There's an emotional truth at the core of every character. The skill and subtlety of the Cheever's characterisation is a rare treat. Authentic artistry. I thought the examination of sexuality was particularly interesting and well handled. Very perceptive. I couldn't be more impressed.

The scope of Cheever's imagination is really impressive. His' struck struck me as a drinker's unflinching gaze looking upon an America of fascinating, telling details. The story is shot through with a gently melancholic poetry which I associate with that generation. It's a wonderfully visual depiction of late-50s America which constantly places us in a variety of narrative scenarios at once familiar and yet unexpected. Very fresh and cliche-free, it's re-informed my take on that time and the notion of American soul. This has much to do with Cheever's personal combination of sensitivity, humour, deep seriousness and grace. And love for his subject, of course.

Which character – as performed by Joe Barrett – was your favourite?

Joe Barrett's performance was uniformly excellent across a very wide variety of character types -- all compelling literary creations. The performance reminded me how very much I prefer American audio books to be voiced by American readers and European by Europeans (or do I mean Brits?).

Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I did laugh out loud in places, smiled very frequently and had a lump in my throat at the end. More often though I was simply transported by the sombre, soulful beauty of much of the story. And refreshed by some ravishing turn in the lines.

Any additional comments?

Ignore the naysayers, This book is highly-rated by the literary types with good reason. It's first rate.

Only the second novel I've 'read' by John Cheever, I'm now a solid fan. Going to eat-up those short stories, I'm sure.

A light-weight, mildly interesting memoir.

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

Reviewed: 31-07-14

What disappointed you about Coming Up Trumps: A Memoir?

The author participated in interesting times and in socially privileged position offering a rare perspective. I had hoped for an entertaining, insightful social and political account. Unfortunately, she has chosen to write as if composing an amusing after-dinner extended speech. Or maybe an fantasy interview with Parky playing to the Tory gallery. Loads of anecdotes designed to project herself as a fun-loving, spirited, gutsy woman with the right stuff (quality will out, sort-of-thing is the implication) all designed to amuse rather than illuminate the milieu she's a product of.

Consequently, although you gain fleeting snapshots of a fascinating bygone society, the impression gained is of skimming across the surface. Very little insight into the personal assumptions which informed her veiw-point (personal and political) is given. You are left having to read-between the lines. I found this frustrating as an historical account and a suspiciously-guarded self-appraisal which I suppose should only be anticipated from a politician.

What was most disappointing about Jean Trumpington’s story?

I was left with the impression that this was the life of a natural networker launched from episode to episode by dint of the elevated privileged set she moved in. That could have been riveting stuff in which the transition from pre-war deb to Thatcherite politician illuminated a Britain in radical transition. It doesn't.

I hate what the Right has done to my country since the war, so I would be genuinely interested to hear how this particular Tory creature was formed. But this memoir gives nothing away. Instead it's a life of ultimately less-than-rivetting incident which began to bore me by the quarter-way mark. Worse, the false self-effacment implicit in the jolly tone and constant referencing of the author's gusto, became really wearing, pretty fast for me.

Jean Trumpington's obviously a capable woman, however at the end of her memoir I'm left feeling little-the-wiser about the true nature of her personal trip through life. I felt this book was ultimately window-dressing. Probably calculated to make her a few bob and help build her media image (she likes appearing on TV she says). I suppose it could easily have been ghosted as type of celeb-tome.

Have you listened to any of Sarah Badel’s other performances? How does this one compare?

No. I thought her performance here was spot-on, though. I think she got it pitch-perfect.

You didn’t love this book--but did it have any redeeming qualities?

Yes. Although you don't get a truly detailed, insightful view of the author's milieu, pre- and post-war) it really was a different world which is tremendously interesting and entertaining to look back on now --particularly when glimpsed from the personal, first-hand perspective of a life being lived off-camera so-to-speak. I particularly enjoyed the Paris episode immediately after the war and the New York scene in the 50s. Memoirs like this one are full of valuable snap-shots of the past. I think a lot of readers will enjoy and value this aspect of the book. Tantalising but frustratingly un-fleshed-out though these details may be.

Any additional comments?

It beats me why another Audible reviewer I read found this book/life inspirational. Perhaps they were both female and Tory? My guess is that the natural readership for this book would be conservative women of a certain age. They would probably be more appreciative of the social/domestic life dominating the first half of the book. The 'ascent' from the domestic to the political arena charted would doubtless appeal too. And they would probably be more receptive to the relentlessly chipper tone, I found wearing.

1 person found this helpful

A live one.

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

Reviewed: 24-10-13

What made the experience of listening to Captain Beefheart's 'Trout Mask Replica' (33 1/3 Series) the most enjoyable?

Whether you are a fan of the good Captain's music or not, this, his most celebrated LP certainly makes for one of the worthiest subjects of this series of books. The making of the album is an extraordinary tale of a spectacularly iconoclastic artist imposing his vision upon us and his long, long suffering collaborators.

It's a story of far more intrinsic interest than the majority of those behind the creation of music LPs --so much so that I suspect that this is one instance where you don't even need to be terribly familiar with the actual music in order to enjoy the book. Don Van Vliet was a truly remarkable character emerging out of an extraordinary cultural milieu (late 60s California) and the way the period is tangentially evoked is a big part of the pleasure to be had here.

What did you like best about this story?

As an historical overview, this is a pretty fair-handed and well-informed one. It touches all the key bases and doesn't overly pander to the posturing fandom often associated with the Zappa/Beefheart crowd. Although the author's devotion does slip into hyperbolic overdrive from time to time (you probably won't agree with some of his 'insights'), it's not as excessive as too often tends to be the case for my taste in the 33 1/3 series (and rock writing generally).

Importantly, the band's vital collaborative contribution to the music is emphasised and Beefheart's image as cult hero and central creative force behind TMR isn't permitted to unfairly overshadow the others.

Having said that, be warned that this is very much the American school of rock journalistic essay mode of writing. It's a bit poe-faced and self-consciously a contribution to positioning of Rock at the heart of cultural discourse sort of thing. The author is serious Zappa fan, after all.

As cultural commentator, though Kevin Courrier is at pains to bring out the influence of the visual arts on Beefheart's approach to music (particularly Dada and Abstract Expressionism), this rather obvious point isn't really gone into terribly insightfully I thought. In fact I felt the positioning of the album as important cultural artefact was a bit tenuous. Here it's individuality is more convincingly stressed in terms of the Rock context specifically rather the general one. But the thesis presented is not as pretentious as this may make it sound and the main thing is that basically the book is a cracking story: a fun-filled trip well told.

Who might you have cast as narrator instead of Andy Caploe?

On the down side I have to say that I hated Andy Caploe's 'actorly' approach to the narration. I would have much preferred a more neutral reader. Anyone who didn't try to evoke the distinctive speaking manner of the likes of Beefheart and Zappa would have been better. When he's not performing characters like it was a novel, Mr. Caploe sounds like an ernest nerdy American fan, ponderously chewing up the text.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

This overly mannered delivery is distracting. And hard work until you get used to it. I felt it made the thing impossible to listen to in a single listening. But to be fair, the content is so rich that it would be a bit much to manage in one go anyway.

For what it's worth: one old Floyd fan's opinion.

Overall
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 14-08-12

This account gives a lot of info on the band circa '67 as background to the songs and making of the album, which was new to me. It's packed with interesting details about the conditions that shaped the album. It also corrects a few misconceptions put about in recent years re: Syd. It's best at giving a picture of the living conditions he wrote, performed and recorded in and the band's early time in London.

Indeed, the album as a band creation is brought out well. Though, as the chief songwriter, Syd obviously dominated the final creative product, often accounts give the impression that this is really a Syd Barrett album supported by the Pink Floyd. Here the end result is shown to very much be a group effort --so that's a good re-balanced perspective brought to bear.

The book is not so good at talking about Syd's individual response to acid and how different the band's take on psych was as a result. Though obviously Syd's acid use is addressed (how could it not be), my impression is that the author was seemingly disinterested in playing that up for some reason. Maybe he thought it had been done to death. Whatever, he plays down the acid casualty aspect and talking about the characteristics of LSD25 and it's influence on the music --as if it was obvious and a hackneyed topic. Doing such a thing well is difficult of course but failure to do so in this case is to miss addressing the nitty gritty central issue: the album as a manifestation of psychedelic consciousness. It's not enough to just talk about style and cultural context. Consequently no really meaningful comparison with other forms of contemporaneous psychedelic music emerges. I would say that's a disappointment. But basically, as a pretty detailed stab at the band's early history, this a good one.

Not a definitive in-depth account then, but most definitely a worthwhile and welcome take on this enduringly fabulous album.

1 person found this helpful

A balanced but dull take on Tull's gem.

Overall
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 31-07-12

This is a pretty decent stab at a conventional academic analytical deconstruction of this old favourite. As such it's a clear, rational, track-by-track dissection and a pretty balanced descriptive assessment --although the closing argument for these songs transcending their period seems somewhat forced to me. Doubtless such an exercise has value in itself but it's a bit like experiencing a lecture at Rock School. Consequently I found it became ponderous to listen to in a single sitting.

Fans hoping to find a rich wealth of period colour and insights into of the band's experience recording the album will be disappointed. Details of the sessions are largely absent as are band stories etc. No meaningful attempt is made to evoke the stylistic character of the rock of the period or to place the band's central and innovative contribution to Prog at the time. Some historical context is sketched-in but only to specifically illuminate the author's interpretation of theme and content.

There is nothing to convey the sense of what struck most fans as so fresh and exciting about Tull's style and what made them feel so pertinent, original and timely. Any young rock fan hoping to catch something of the vibe of that period and what it felt like to be their age back then listening to Tull, will find precious little insight in this somewhat dry essay.

Although the fair-minded assessment is informative in purely musicological terms, it gets a bit plodding in places and fails to adequately convey the rich, atmospheric flavour of the album and how that reflected it's historical context. This for me was a major disappointment.

3 people found this helpful