All words in red denote a link which when clicked should open up another window.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Mortality by Christopher Hitchins.

Published by Atlantic Books

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥♥

In a scene from my all time favourite film, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Woody starts to recount those things that make life worth living. I have played this game with friends many times over the years. My list of things that make life worth living is; (family and friends are a given), Woody Allen of course, the film Manhattan, Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway, Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of StJohn on the Cross’, Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, Morecambe and Wise, Peacock Butterflies, David Hockney’s ‘A BiggerSplash’, Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, The Edinburgh Book Festival, David Sylvian, Philip Glass etc. Over the years there have been a few additions. Christopher Hitchens became one of those additions.
I have been putting off the reading of Mortality for sometime knowing full well the subject matter contained within its pages; not only the last words of a superlative orator and writer but details of his horrendous illness, oesophageal cancer. My cowardice probably also stems from the knowledge that I am less than ten years away from the age that Christopher Hitchens died, 62.
As to be expected the writing is not self-piteous, there is no element of self-aggrandizement in any of its 106 pages. Mr Hitchens style of writing makes one want to go around pulping every pencil, drain every pen and smash ones keyboard knowing that you will probably never write as well as he did. However, I am sure Christopher Hitchens would want you to buy new pencils, refill those pens and repair that keyboard and attempt to equal or better his writing.
In ‘Mortality’, as to be expected, religion rears its ugly head in the form of monotheists letting Mr Hitchens know that he deserves to die, that God has struck him down in vengeance. Christopher Hitchens in his usual pithy and direct manner surmised that God was rather mundane and routine in his vengeance to give him oesophageal cancer which was highly likely to occur anyway due to his heavy smoking.
My honorific review can never fully convey the extent of how wonderful the book is without falling into the quicksand of cliché. So, I will simply end this review with a direct and succinct command: READ THIS BOOK!

First Line - "I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death."

Memorable Line - "It's normally agreed that the question 'How are you?' doesn't put on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, 'A bit early to say.'

Number of pages - 106
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None 
genre - Autobiography

Friday, 15 November 2013

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

Published by Penguin Classics

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥

This book is, by all accounts, Aphra Behn’s most famous work. She wrote erotic poetry and plays but this ‘novel’ is why her name lives on in the 21st century. I placed the word novel in inverted commas as academics and scholars still argue to this day as to whether it can be described as a novel. More importantly was it the first novel in English?
                Many of the afore-mentioned scholars and academics will argue that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was the first novel and the English writer is often referred to as the ‘father of the novel’. However, it could, and has been, argued that Oroonoko was written in a novelistic form but personally I believe it comes under the heading of ‘novella’. The sound of hairs being split can be heard all around the country.
                The story is fundamentally about the African prince Oroonoko (a mis-spelling of the river Orinoco) and his wife Imoinda. Both are captured separately by the British and brought to Surinam as slaves. Oroonoko could be cruelly interpreted as a simple romance story with its theme of boy meets girl, love at first sight, boy loses girl and then boy finds girl. However, for today’s audience the story has become secondary to the themes of colonialism, racism and the innovative writing style of Aphra Behn.
                Aphra Behn is credited not only with developing the pioneering female narrative but for addressing the inequality between men and women in the seventeenth century. Black people are not the only slaves in the book, women are also shackled by the mores of the day. Oroonoko is seen as one the literature’s first abolitionist expositions. It’s portrayal of racism and slavery is credited with aiding the cause for the abolitionists.
                The racism and depiction of slavery make Oroonoko an uncomfortable read. However, coupled with the horrific descriptions of the deaths of Imoinda and Oroonoko the book becomes not only an uncomfortable read but disturbing one. However, when you re-read Oroonoko you realise how theatrical, fantastic and unrealistic many of the scenes in the book are: his killing of the tigers, his encounter with the electric eel and in particular Oroonoko’s death which has him being slowly hacked to death while he passively continues to smoke only, “at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped, and he gave up the ghost.”
                Aphra Behn’s theatrical past is writ large throughout the book and ironically it is mostly due to Thomas Southerne’s stage adaption of Oroonoko after Behn’s death that the story became celebrated and has continued to be re-read, reinterpreted and used as a rallying point by anti colonialists, abolitionists and feminists throughout the last 400 years.
                But, of course, one must put the book into context. It was written by a woman at a time when women were subjugated to man’s laws and rules. The seventeenth century was a time when women were seen as no better than the servants who worked in their household. What is more remarkable about Aphra Behn was that she was able to make a living from her writing. However, it should be remembered that many women in Britain had writings published during the seventeenth century but those names are now only remembered by academics and those studying English Literature (as I am); Lady Mary Chudleigh, Lady Jane Cavendish and Katherine Philips to name but a few.  
                Is this book read by anyone outside of the academic world? No, is the short answer. Sadly, its relevance is only to those who are using it for study purposes be that at school, university or as part of a thesis or book. I believe if it stopped being used a study tool at seats of learning then the book would cease to be published. Hopefully, that day never comes.
                Let me leave you with words from the greatest woman writer that ever lived, Virginia Woolf,

“All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds... Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.”

Number of Pages - 99 (this includes Chronology, Introduction and notes)
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Literature

                Below is an reading from Aphra Behn’s book, Oroonoko.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Crowned Heads by Thomas Tryon

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥

I would consider myself a knowledgeable film fan but I have to admit to not being aware of Thomas Tryon's career as an actor or for that matter as a writer.
Crowned Heads is a book of four (there are five but the final story is a kind of footnote to the first story, Fedora) novellas all linked by Hollywood. Each story appears to be loosely based on a Hollywood star though in researching this matter I could only find information pertaining to two of the stories. One of the stories appears to based on the actor Clifton Webb and another on the silent actor Roman Navarro.
My personal favourite of the stories is Fedora, the story of an ageing actress. This particular story was turned into a film directed by the wonderful Billy Wilder, (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment).
The stories are well told and all have a sense of the seedy, noirish underbelly of Tinseltown. One comes away from reading the book feeling rather dirty, sordid and in need of the light of the day. This is not a criticism. These feelings are due to the wonderful style of writing that Thomas Tyron has executed in the book. When one is reading the novellas one mentally envisions the films of Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Edward Dmytryk.
This is not the kind of books I normally read but I am happy to write that I was very pleasantly surprised by The Crowned Heads. The book achieves what most authors may hope for; that readers seek out their back catalogue.

Number of Pages - 401
Sex Scenes - Yes
Profanity - None
Genre - Drama

This review was based on an advanced copy via

Adventures with the Wife in Space: Living With Doctor Who by Neil Perryman

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥♥

Neil Perryman persuades his wife to watch every episode of Doctor Who. From the earliest episode with William Hartnell playing the original Doctor Who up to and including the final episode of Sylvester McCoy’s incarnation as the Doctor in 1989 when the show was quietly cancelled by the BBC.
Mr Perryman records his wife’s opinion on each episode and having created a blog, (, relates his wife’s reaction to the world.
Though I am a Doctor Who fan, though certainly not an obsessive, I didn’t believe I was going to enjoy this book as much as I did. This pessimism was due mostly to my having read previous books based on blogs and being astounded by their blandness.
However, Mr Perryman has written a very funny, literally laugh out loud, book that deserves to be read by more than just Doctor Who fans. Anyone who is a fan of shows like Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galatica, Star Wars, Firefly etc will be very aware of the author’s situation at being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t share their obsession. No matter what tricks or ploys one tries. No matter how many times you explain the merits of the Star Trek TNG episode, ‘Remember Me’ or the allegorical nature of the excellent Battlestar Galactica series your partner refuses to take part in your life’s obsession. But, the author succeeds where so many have failed and over a period of two and half years he and his wife sit down every night to bond over an episode of Doctor Who.
Unlike so many other books based on blogs Mr Perryman hasn’t simply transferred the blog verbatim onto the printed page. He writes about his earliest memories of Doctor Who and the effect this had on the rest of his life. His wife, Sue, also writes a very funny chapter on her first encounter with the author and the subsequent events that led to them to getting married.

This book is a thoroughly entertaining read which made this reader wish that he had been aware of the blog while Sue and Neil were watching the Doctor Who episodes. However, this book more than makes up for that disappointment and I look forward to their next series watching escapade; as long as it’s not Crossroads.

Number of Pages - 304
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Autobiography

This review was based on an advanced copy via

The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold by Ian Hamilton

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥♥

“The present book is an attempt to animate certain key moments, or turning points, in Arnold’s passage from the poetic life to the prose of his later years.”

The above is a very honest statement quoted from the book’s preface. Ian Hamilton is not trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes by suggesting that his book is the complete and definitive life of Matthew Arnold.
This stamp of honesty is ingrained throughout the book, within his style of writing, his objectiveness and his refraining from turning the biography into a hagiography.
Ian Hamilton has created a remarkable piece of work. It is made even more remarkable as it appears Arnold did not leave behind a bounty of diaries, letters etc from which a biography could be constructed.  
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson, Arnold has all but been forgotten, his poetry no longer fashionable, consigned to be a poet only enjoyed by scholars.
While Arnold’s poetry never had the emotional charge of Wordsworth or the introspective humanity of Tennyson, it did have a grace and a force of nature. While the poetry of his contemporaries had all the beauty and style of a supermodel, Arnold’s poetry was the beauty of the soul, the person within not the external superficial beauty that one could tire of looking at.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Dover Beach

Ian Hamilton does a great service to the memory of Matthew Arnold with his insightful, intelligent and penetrating analysis of Arnold’s verse. Hamilton shows us the development of Arnold’s poetry and as such puts that work in context biographically and historically.
If there is one thing that a biography of a poet’s life should try to attain is to have the reader want to read or reread the poetry of the biographer’s subject.
Arnold turned his back on the world of poetry to concentrate on prose during the last twenty or so years of this life. The nineteenth century and beyond was a poorer place because of this decision.

“He thrust his gift in prison till it died”  W.H. Auden.

Number of Pages - 256
Sex Scenes - None
Profanity - None
Genre - Biography

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland.

Book Review Score (out of five)    ♥♥♥♥♥

While I make my way through the next book in the list of The Women's Prize for Fiction here is a review of a book I received from NetGalley in advance of publication.

John Sutherland, author of A Little History of Literature, takes us by the hand and leads us safely through the deep, heavily wooded forest that is the written word.  As the author states in his introduction to the book, “…literature is not a little thing. There is hugely more of it than any of us will read in a lifetime.” Thankfully the author utilises a path constructed of wonderful books that make the journey a very pleasant affair.
During the author’s journey we encounter the likes of Homer, Chaucer, the Metaphysical Poets, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, the Romantic Poets, Kipling, Woolf and many others. John Sutherland finds the time to stop and tell us stories about 'Theatre in the Street', 'Who ‘owns’ literature', 'The King James Bible' and 'Literature and the Censor'. It may be ‘a little history’ but the book is 284 pages long.
As with any book that crams a long history of any subject, and particularly literature, into relatively few pages there will be many people debating as to who should have been included within the author’s pages. Personally, I believe the omission of the poet Stevie Smith when discussing the the ‘voice of pain’ as an oversight. Ted Hughes believed that at the bottom of the inner most spirit of poetry is a ‘voice of pain’. Included in this discussion is the poets John Berryman, Anne Sexton. Both of these poets committed suicide and in their poetry they ‘signalled the act’. Stevie Smith is also a member of the suicide club that is very peculiar to poets. Personally, I believe her poetry is head and shoulders above that of John Berrymans and at least on a par with that of Anne Sexton.
I could take umbrage with Mr Sutherland over his decision not to mention or acknowledge the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.E. Cummings. However, it would be small minded and churlish to dislike a book of this kind for not mentioning some of my favourite writers. John Sutherland’s, if I can borrow a film metaphor, cutting room floor will be covered in the blood of writers who had to be chopped from the book due to lack of space and time.
John Sutherland has written this book in his own inimitable style; witty, erudite and unpatronizing. Like so many of John Sutherland’s other books, ‘Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives’ and ‘Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers’ to name but a few, he manages to write in an informative, adroit, compelling manner that never becomes tedious or pedagogic in style.

 I will leave the last word to the author: “This little history is not a manual but advice along the lines of, you may find this valuable, because many others have, but at the end of the day you must decide for yourself.”

Number of Pages - 294
Sex Scenes - None.
Profanity - None
Genre - Non-Fiction.

This review was based on an advanced copy via