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review 2018-06-04 10:14
4/5: Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Hard Times - Charles Dickens,Kate Flint

Thomas Gradgrind has a principle in life: Facts and cold logic are all that matters. There’s no room for imagination or anything that can’t be defined or measured. He expects the small school he runs to adhere to that principle, and expects the same of his own two children, Louisa and Tom. After all, what go wrong with the solid logical base of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (Or the one)”…?

Dicken’s tenth novel, published in 1854, has a very different feel to most of his other work. For a start, it’s very short for a Dickens novel. The chapters are shorter and the pacing faster as a result, and he doesn’t linger or pad scenes out.

Part of that may be the setting: Dickens isn’t in his beloved London for this one, but a fictional Northern England town called “Coketown”. He can’t fix the geography with real examples, so he goes for metaphor and simile. The pistons of the mills are described as working up and down like “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”, for example.

This was another story written as a serial, and it shows early on: Dickens quickly abandons his opening plot line of the school and his master and moves on to getting Gradgrind’s children grown up and married, which is when the story kicks in.

Louisa is married in a loveless union to Gradgrind’s best friend, Bounderby. And what else could it be, but loveless? The young woman has had imagination and love pounded out of her and replaced with cold facts since the day she started school. Her slacker of a brother encourages her to marry Bounderby so he can have an easy life (Tom works for Bounderby, and knows Bounderby will ease up on him to keep his sister happy).

Louisa is briefly seduced by an interloper, and fascinated by his lifestyle, but backs away. Instead, she confronts her father with the results of her cold education: His grand experiment has broken her ability to love, to feel anything for anyone. Shocked that the rigid rules of his life have done this to his daughter, Gradgrind recants.

In the meantime, Tom the slacker has run up some gambling debts and frames a local man for a robbery. He flees, but is captured by one of the former pupils of Gradgrind. In the best scene in the book, Gradgrind pleads with the pupil to let Tom go, but has his Utilitarianism is thrown back at him with brutal efficiency: The needs of the community outweigh Gradgrind’s wishes, after all.

The story wasn’t what I was expecting from Dickens. His tone is almost conversational at the start of the book; it felt more personal than his usual removed narrative voice. The novel is short, which helps the story move along, and the shift of location to a fictional town meant that he didn’t spend pages on padding descriptions.

Refreshingly for Dickens, Louisa felt like a real character and a not just a simpering and melodramatic female. Tom actually felt less well developed and more two-dimensional.

I liked the exploration of Utilitarianism, and I loved the way it was thrown back against Gradgrind, who thought it was wonderful…until he was the one and not the many.

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review 2018-05-28 17:44
A Dark Noir Sci-Fi Satire!
Thrilling Times - Robert Rubenstein

Thrilling Times combines a dark noir detective piece with a psychological drama replete with elements of literary and political satire; and while the effort sometimes proves a challenge to neatly categorize for genre-specific marketing purposes, it cultivates a dark sense of entertainment and angst.


On the surface, this is the story of a detective recovering from electro-shock therapy who is on a mission to find the girl who landed him in trouble. However, this is no light pursuit. Thrilling Times presents graphic metaphorical sexual scenes, violence, a talented female photographer's penchant for depicting realistic terror in her 'galleries of the gruesome', and evolving relationships between men, women, and those who would obtain power over one another.


All this is woven into a complex backdrop of social inspection and accusation, the creation of masterpieces of depravity, terror and horror, and sizzling scenes designed to agitate reader sensibilities as they follow a murky, complex world and characters who can barely navigate their lives; much less each other.


Hidden within the overlay of a detective piece are a series of literary and social reflections that force readers to wade through scenarios of depravity and dark characters in survival mode to navigate the trajectories of love and its high price.


There are characters willing to die for love and possession as well as moments of passion intertwined with graphic displays of depravity, juxtaposed with sweet scenes that each demonstrate Robert Rubenstein's prowess at crafting metaphor and analysis.


The language is as much a draw in the story line as its characters and their special purposes, immersing readers in a mercurial adventure story that moves from political jest and social inspection to the dilemma of the personal with an 'everyman' lost in illusions surrounding the pursuit of love and connections.


From the two-sided nature of modern culture to the setting of post-apocalyptic America and its fractured society, Thrilling Times continually challenges its readers with thought-provoking clashes of reason, psyche, and social and political structure. It is especially recommended for literary audiences who like their stories steeped in metaphorical yet explicit sexual encounters tempered with satiric and pointed observations of social and individual condition. Thrilling times, indeed!

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review 2018-05-06 23:53
Podcast #97 is up!
 The Life and Times of Mary, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland: Power Play - Catherine Layton

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Catherine Layton about her biography of Mary Mitchell, the second wife of the third duke of Sutherland. Enjoy!

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text 2018-04-21 17:51
Reading progress update: I've read 44%.
Interesting Times (Discworld, #17) - Terry Pratchett


Rincewind, Cohen, and the Luggage are back!  YAY!


Discussion amongst old (one's in a wheelchair) marauding barbarians who are a bit too old to be marauding anymore,  about what happens if they get caught while breaking into the Forbidden City and are sentenced to being hung, drawn, and quartered:


" I believe it's a punishment similar to hanging, drawing and quartering...."

"How are you drawn then?"

"I think your innards are cut out and shown to you."

"What for?" 

"I don't really know.  To see if you recognize them, I suppose."

"What...like,  'Yep, that's my kidney, yep, that's my breakfast'?"


Couple paragraphs later:


"How are you hung?"




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review 2018-04-14 14:29
MICHELANGELO by William E Wallace
Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times - William E. Wallace

TITLE:  Michelangelo:  The Artist, The Man, and His Times


AUTHOR:  William E. Wallace




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  978-1-107-67369-4



From the blurb:

"Michelangelo is universally recognized to be one of the greatest artists of all time. In this vividly written biography, William E. Wallace offers a substantially new view of the artist. Not only a supremely gifted sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, Michelangelo was also an aristocrat who firmly believed in the ancient and noble origins of his family. The belief in his patrician status fueled his lifelong ambition to improve his family's financial situation and to raise the social standing of artists. Michelangelo's ambitions are evident in his writing, dress, and comportment, as well as in his ability to befriend, influence, and occasionally say "no" to popes, kings, and princes. Written from the words of Michelangelo and his contemporaries, this biography not only tells his own stories but also brings to life the culture and society of Renaissance Florence and Rome. Not since Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy has there been such a compelling and human portrayal of this remarkable yet credible human individual."


In this informative and fast paced biography of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.  We learn about his life, his family, his relationships with other artists and patrons, his friends, some of the politics occuring in Rome and Florence during his lifetime, and something of his projects and poetry. Wallace has reserarched his subject extensively and makes use of (and quotes) many of Michelangelo's personal letters.  However, Wallace doesn't not elaborate on any methods or techniques Michelangelo made use of during his many projects.  I would also have liked more detail on how Michelangelo dealt with all his commissions, assistants and actualy physicaly work.


The book includes 10 colour photographs of Michelangelo's works, but it would have been more helpful if the author had included photos of all the works discussed in the book so the reader could see what he was talking about.  The book also includes a list of all the popes during Michelangelo's lifetime, as well as a "cast of principle characters" which is useful since a great many people have the same first name.


This biography is accessible, informative and makes a good introduction to the subject.




-Brunelleschi's Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King


-Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King




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