Book review entries

May 13, 2007

The Blair Bitch Project

Blair's Premiership
2 out of 5 stars

In news about as shocking as a typical My Family punchline, Tony Blair resigned on Thursday, opening the floodgates for the media to pore over his ten years of office and deliver versions of his legacy in handy souvenir pullouts. One wonders what the newspapers have up their sleeves for when he actually goes on June 27th. For what it’s worth, here’s my purely subjective take on his premiership.

Say what you like about Blair, he’s a fantastic politician. He made Labour electable again, but was it worth it? If I take my awkward question to mean was he good for the Labour Party, then probably not. For all the things he’s done to disillusion me, I have a grudging respect for him – sure he’s a shit, but he’s a charismatic shit.

It’s difficult to doubt his good intentions, but even his successes may not be so unequivocal.
- The minimum wage and low unemployment. The least he could do; I reckon more of the workforce is in the informal sector, employed by agencies, with low job security and no prospects, than when he came to power.
- Northern Ireland. There’s finally a power-sharing executive that might just work, but how big was Tony’s role in it since Good Friday?
- Solid economic growth and low inflation. Thanks to the independent Bank of England.
- Action on climate change. To me, this has only taken off since An Inconvenient Truth came out.
- Debt relief and development. What’s actually happened since Gleneagles?

To be fair, crime rates and NHS waiting lists have fallen, though you wouldn’t know it from press coverage.

Anything positive is outweighed by:
- Privatising anything with a pulse with a more-Thatcherite-than-Thatcher zealotry.
- Privatisation by the back door in the form of PFI, which, last time I checked, is still pretty discredited (The Guardian).
- Contracting out public service management to consultants who fuck things up so they can get paid again to sort their own mess out.
- Tuition fees.
- Top-up fees, though they are more redistributive than the Tories’ HE policies.
- Oh, and Iraq: selling out the country’s foreign policy and diplomatic power, starting an unwinnable war on false pretences, and eroding any moral high ground over Islamic extremists by undermining the rule of law and civil liberties.

Two out of five is generous.

The other day I realised that I agree with very little Labour have legislated on in the past few years. So I’m looking forward to Gordon Brown’s inevitable premiership and the new direction he’ll take the party. Apart from expecting “more of the same” I don’t understand the unremitting flak he’s been coming under for the past year. For God’s sake, Gordon’s hero is Bobby Kennedy – the greatest President America never had! They’re all just ants at a picnic.

That said, unlike the jubilant but naive 13-year-old on the morning of May 2 1997, I’m bracing myself for disappointment.

January 12, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

Book front cover
Da Vinci Code, The
3 out of 5 stars

I know it's very cool these days to say The Da Vinci Code is shit* (Salman Rushdie led the charge), but guess what, I'm going to take one of my traditional fair and balanced (but nonetheless wry) looks at Dan Brown's controversial bestseller.

That's right, it means I've read it. Obviously, I didn't particularly want to give the obscenely wealthy heretic any more money so I did the only honourable thing and borrowed it from Auntie Rona, then read it in about a week.

The verdict? Well firstly, I read it in about a week; not normally an indicator of a good book seeing as I've been reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude, one of the most critically respected pieces of modern literature, for going on 2 months now. But then the former's supposed to be a page-turner, whereas the latter is a 'classic'. And it does the job. The book, as well as famously revealing shocking alleged secrets of the Catholic Church, is a gripping, fast-paced thriller. The problem with this is that Brown uses most of the cliches associated with the genre: the only trait which makes our hero, American symbology professor Robert 'Indiana' Langdon, a two-dimensional character is his childhood fear of enclosed spaces; and obviously, he gets framed for murder; oh, and did you know that British food is shit?

However, this isn't so bad when you factor in the Code of the title. Brown gives you clues to the puzzles which fall across Langdon and his inevitably attractive French companion Sophie's path, so when you solve them before the protangonists, it makes you feel well clever. I have to admit sometimes I missed the clues and realised that Brown had outwitted me when all was revealed. This wasn't bad either as the book would be shit if there were no surprises. Mind, I was kicking myself when I missed the major twist at the start of what will be the last act when the film is made: it involves possibly the greatest cliche of all time. That is the only clue I give.

To be fair to Brown, his book is very clever. I'd be proud if I came up with it. However, what I'd do differently if I then had to go and write it is read the first draft before sending it to my publisher. Dan clearly didn't. The prose is terrible. It's as if he typed it with a sledgehammer and his withholding of crucial information in order to effect an episode cliffhanger is horribly unsubtle. He keeps using phrases like "Langdon cringed" at very unfortunate moments, prompting my thought, "Yeah, you're not the only one, Rob." There are many mentions of the book Langdon himself has written; every time, I imagined how much more elegant his writing would be. Oh, and that's another thing: all the italics! For fuck's sake, you're not writing a blog, mate.

Surprisingly, I have little to say about the religious controversy. The book has undergone many debunkings, by churchies and secularies. The main problem seems to be the near-universal belief in academic circles that the whole Priory of Sion stuff was a hoax. The book has got me interested in the Church's history regardless, and it's good to see that it's sparked debate.

Dan Brown's fighting lawsuits against two people whose research he (allegedly) plagiarised. I suggest to the makers of Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars that they make it three. Those of you familiar with both it and the book will know exactly what I'm talking about.

The film's due out in May, with Tom Hanks playing George Stobbart Robert Langdon and Amelie playing Sophie Neveu. I'm disappointed that they've got Paul Bettany playing Silas, the albino monk; anyone with an ounce of sense would have given the part to Mel Smith.

I'm disappointed I didn't read the book earlier; I have two great, though late, spoof ideas. If I'd still been at Warwick, I would've so written The Van De Linde Code, a thriller set on campus where two students unlock the secret of the Library Holy Grail. I not only missed that chance but the chance of catching the publishers' 2005 stocking-filler season with my so-zeitgeist-it-hurts hip-hop/yoof-speak version, Da Da Vinci Code. Middle England would've lapped it up.

*Yet it also seems very cool these days to say "I know it's very cool these days to say x is shit, but..."

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