About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 25 December 2014

"Brunelleschi's Dome" by Ross King

This is the story of the biggest dome in the world, the dome on the Duomo (the 'House of God', the cathedral) in Florence and the man who built it, without internal scaffolding, defying all expectations and critics, when no one knew how it could be built.

My wonderful wife, Steph, and I went to Florence this year; above is my picture of the Duomo showing Brunelleschi's dome. Now that I have read the book I want to go back to see it again; now I understand what is so incredible about the construction. Mind you, now that I understand more about the unorthodox details of the construction and I know how heavy just the lantern on top of the dome is, I am not sure I want to clamber up into the roof space and stare out from the lantern at the rooftops of Florence. Scary!

There is a lot in the book that I didn't properly understand. There were a lot of technical challenges to overcome. Just hoisting massive blocks of stone to the required height was difficult with the technology of the day (the main system was powered by an ox trudging round and round and there was a complicated system of gears including a type of clutch so that stuff could also be lowered while the ox trudged in the same direction). It was difficult to understand how the mason's could reach the overhanging bricks they were building. The problem with a dome or an arch is that it isn't really stable until the keystone is put in at the end; this is why arches are usually built on top of a wooden construction which is then taken away when the arch is finished. Brunelleschi didn't do this (it would have taken too long to source all that wood). How did they build it without it falling down? The other problem is that a dome converts the downward weight of the roof into an outwards thrust which is usually countered using buttresses. Brunelleschi used no buttresses. Instead he used circular rings of stone like coopers use iron staves around barrels. I still didn't really understand.

Not only does the book fascinate with the details of the unprecedented construction but it also has brilliant vignettes of Florentine life. There is a wonderful story about Brunelleschi playing a practical joke on a carpenter to convince him that he had swapped identity for 24 hours with someone else. The bemused carpenter ended up leaving Florence and making his fortune in Hungary. Time and again, King provided wonderful details and I wanted to know how he could find out so much about a time so long ago. 

In every way this book was brilliant. This year I have also read Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper which was also excellent. These two books are both among my top five non-fiction for 2014 and I shall definitely seek out more by this brilliant author.

December 2014; 167 pages

I have now also read the wonderful and brilliant The Judgement of Paris: as the Second Empire dies in the chaos of the Franco-Prussian war, the Siege of Paris and the Commune of Paris, Impressionism is born: Meissonier, Manet, Monet and many more.

Monday, 22 December 2014

"The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole

Pretending to be the translation of an Italian story from the time of the crusades, The Castle of Otranto is a classic gothic horror story, complete with castle, a secret underground passage, a giant, long-lost noblemen, a holy friar, a curse and even a skeleton dressed as a monk. Starting ludicrously with Manfred's only son and heir being dashed to pieces by a giant helmet whilst crossing the castle courtyard on the way to his wedding, the tension mounts and the realistic passages, especially the wonderfully comic maid Bianca, so that by the end one forgives the dream-like element.

There were lots of Shakespearean overtones. The complicated love situations, pitting aristocratic arranged matches against love at first sight, together with the meddling 'holy' friar, reminded me of Romeo and Juliet while there are clear tributes to Hamlet and Macbeth. The clowning of the rustics is also a Shakespearean touch.

The silliest part of the story is the one in which best friends Matilda and Isabella both lust after Theodore, the clean cut young peasant. There is the chance of a significant amount of dramatic tension but Walpole throws it away after two pages when Isabella agrees to resign her hopes to her friend. Neither of them suggest that Theodore might want a say in the matter!

The whole idea of a suitor being good enough because he was born a nobleman even though he is a peasant (actually worse, he is a vagrant) is daft to our modern ears but they believed in it them. Blood will out. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is a story based on this premise.

It was interesting to read the long passages of dialogue in which the characters take turns to speak with no quotation marks and no separation of different voices into separate paragraphs. Bianca has brilliant dialogue; the others are too much like one another.

There is indeed very little characterisation. The noble princesses and Theodore and noble and pure and insipid. Bianca is brilliant. Father Jerome and Lord Frederic are weak. The only decent character, in a role tailor made for Alan Rickman, is the evil Manfred whose wicked designs are frustrated at every turn to his obvious impatience and frustration.

The sins of the father are visited upon the children.

It may be a silly story but it gave birth to a genre. December 2014; 115 pages

It is strange that this classic Gothic story, written in 1764, was based in Italy whilst The Monk (1796) was based in Spain. Gothic is supposed to be Germanic. In fact, both books are ways of bashing Roman Catholicism.

Other books with Castle in the title include:

Thursday, 18 December 2014

"A Question of Belief" by Donna Leon

An Italian-based police procedural murder mystery set in Venice. Commisario Brunetti is that rarity among detectives, a happily married cop. His wife, daughter of a Count, is a university lecturer on English Literature and the Commisario reads Marcus Aurelius and Tacitus. In the August heat wave, dreaming of going with his family to the still-snowy mountains where he will have to wear a cardigan, he investigates his Inspector's aunt who is busily paying huge sums of money to a fraudulent faith healer and a civil servant who seems to be involved in making the wheels of justice run even slower for a really cheap rent on his palatial Venetian apartment. Then the civil servant is brutally murdered.

Beautifully written, with great regard for local geography and local characters and a clear feeling for the ambiguous way in which Italians view the law, Leon's novel is utterly routed in the drama of the everyday.

December 2014; 262 pages

Our iceberg is melting" by John Kotter

This is a fable about a colony of penguins who discover that their iceberg is melting. They have to decide what to do next. The purpose of the story is to illustrate the eight necessary steps in change management.

(It is probably just as well that the story isn't about how to deal with global climate change because the penguins' solution is to move to another iceberg and it seems unlikely that hmans will be able to move to another planet some time soon.)

There are setbacks and barriers along the way but the five strong team of Louis, Head Penguin; Alice, pushiest penguin Fred, young creative genius the Professor; and Buddy, hunkiest penguin succeed over the nay-sayers led by Nono.

It's cure and it's a fable and it illustrates how to approach a change.
December 2014; 137 pages

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

"Smoke" by Ivan Turgenev

Waiting to meet his fiancée in Baden-Baden, Grigory Mikhailovich Litvinov encounters his first love, Irina, a woman who abandoned him because she was poor and she had a financially better offer. The two of them fall back in love. But this means that Litvinov must betray his fiancee. And after all, can he trust Irina this time after what she did last time?

An interesting short story which perhaps suffers from being extended even to this barely more than a novella length.

And it is difficult to read a book where almost every page has a foreign phrase or obscure reference which can only be understood by looking up the notes at the back. It certainly disrupts the flow!

Good but nothing to compare with Fathers and Sons

December 2014; 184 pages

Sunday, 14 December 2014

"Blood at the Bookies" by Simon Brett

This is a classic whodunnit by Simon Brett who has also authored the Charles Paris theatricality themed murder mysteries.

Two very different single ladies, plump holistic masseuse and therapist Jude and self-reliant retired Home Office civil servant Carole, are neighbours in the murder-infested town of Fethering on the south coast. Jude, who likes a bit of a flutter, is in the town bookies when polish immigrant Tadeusz comes in, looks around and leaves. She notices blood and follows him in time to catch his dying word: Fifi.

Jude and Carole, once the latter has recovered from flu, investigate. The wonderful cast of characters includes racist ex-stand-up-comedian-turned-pub-landlord Ted, racist ex-Carthusian estate agent Ewan and his downtrodden son Hamish and gorgeous singing daughter Sophia, Zosia, the sister of Tadeusz, ex-bookie 'Perfectly' Frank, gambling addict Mel, and serial adulterer Drama lecturer Andy.

A thoroughly enjoyable and well-written puzzle which I guessed well before the end but which had sufficient twists to keep me wondering whether I was right.

I'd love to read more of this series.

I have now read: The Corpse on the Court and Bones Under the Beach Hut which also star Carole and Jude, and some of the Charles Paris theatrical whodunnits such as A Decent Interval.  And the prolific Brett has also written a series in which murder mystery meets P G Wodehouse in outrageously extravagant style: Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera.

December 2014; 339 pages

Friday, 12 December 2014

"The Victim" by Saul Bellow

Asa Leventhal works as a journalist on a trade paper in just post-war New York. It is very hot. His wife is away, helping her mother to move house. He get a call from his brother's wife (his brother is working away) about her very sick son and he has to trek across the city to help. Then, in the park, he meets a man he knew years ago who explains that Asa ruined his life.

The dialogue reminds me of Beckett, it is stilted and sometimes you get the feeling that neither character is actually talking to the other but rather that they are both rehearsing their own anxieties. But the matter-of-fact way in which the stranger, Albee, insinuates himself into Leventhal's life, trading on Leventhal's guilt and good will, and the way in which this relationship changes the way that Leventhal acts to others, making him paranoid and angry, is like a Pinter play. Add in the nightmarish quality of the setting, New York in a heat wave, full of dark and shadows, but at the same time rooted in mundane reality, everyday and banal, is pure Kafka.

An Anerican classic. December 2014; 264 pages

Saturday, 6 December 2014

"Martin Chuzzlewit" by Charles Dickens

The sixth of the 15 novels of Dickens and the last of the early series, Martin Chuzzlewit had disappointing sales for a novelist who had burst on the scene with Pickwick and Oliver Twist. Martin Chuzzlewit, rather like Nicholas Nickleby, is a picaresque novel. The moral message is that money taints. Old Martin, grandfather of the eponymous hero, is rich and all his relatives are jockeying to become heir to his fortune. As a result he despises them and does not know whom to trust. So he has brought up an orphan who knows she will inherit nothing and who is his disinterested companion; when he discovers that she and Martin are in love he suspects his grandson of trying to worm his own way into the will and so he cuts him off without a penny. So Martin goes off to find his fortune in America.

The portrait of America, eternally boasting of their freedom whilst glorying in slavery (Chuzzlewit was written in 1843, almost twenty years before the American Civil War), and full of gluttons and sharks who will do their very best to fleece every one they can, must have damned Dickens in the USA. There is only one good American who eventually lends Martin the money he needs to escape back to England.

In terms of the book, the sojourn in America is a good chance for Dickens to be at his most bitingly sarcastic but does nothing to feed the plot except to bring Martin to his lowest point and, upon redemption, to rid him of his selfishness. As a consequence, Dickens has to keep the action moving back and forth across the Atlantic so that the main focus of the story becomes the behaviour of Jonas Chuzzlewit, nephew to old Martin, who comes into his own inheritance when his own father dies, marries, becomes a wife-batterer, and then falls in with a fraudulent insurance company.

In many ways this novel is classic Dickens. There are tremendous descriptive passages which can go on for pages with metaphor upon extended metaphor. These really slow the action down, especially in the vulnerable early part of the book. Later on there are some utterly cringing declarations of love and purity. Dickens really couldn't see a pudding without over-egging it. And he really couldn't do 'show don't tell'. We know from page one that Pecksniff is a hypocrite because Dickens tells us. And of course Pecksniff has no redeeming features. We know straight away that Tom Pinch is a saint because Dickens tells us. And Tom has no faults. Even the characters who change, Martin and Mercy, scarcely change. And you have to feel sorry for Charity not just because her marital ambitions are multiply thwarted but because Dickens so clearly revels in thios, seeing it as just punishment for her crime which is basically being Pecksniff's daughter. The other daughter, Mercy, also comes off worst.

So the book is full of the faults of Dickens. But it is also full of his strengths. There are some brilliant characters:

  • Pecksniff himself, the self-righteous hypocrite who is so brilliantly adept at always being found accidentally in possession of the moral high ground.
  • Mark Tapley, a bit of a clone of Sam Weller, who is irrepressibly jolly and so decides that in order to gain moral credit he has to put himself into the worst possible situation so that his natural optimism is tested in as hot a furnace as possible.
  • Sairey Gamp, the alcoholic nurse, who holds monologues of breathtaking brilliance which purport to be dialogues between herself and 'Mrs Harris' but which always show Sairey herself in the best possible light.
  • Mercy (Merry) Pecksniff who persuades Jonas to court her by the stratagem of always putting him down and calling him 'that fright'.
  • Bailey Junior, a bit of a bit part, but one of the cheeky young cockney boys in whom Dickens excelled.
  • Montague Tigg, the shady financier.
  • Jonas Chuzzlewit, a baddy in the Alan Rickman mould, whose downfall is a rather neat piece of irony.

But there are others who are there merely to help get the lead characters out of difficult situations and to resolve the story. Old Martin and John Westlock are the most obvious.

If there is one thing I would learn from this novel it is the comic brilliance of Mrs Gamp.

Huge. Could be cut down to 300 pages without missing much. But plenty of fun and some great Dickensian characters and dialogue. December 2014; 837 pages.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"The clashing rocks" by Ian Serraillier

This is a retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. They brave adventures to sail to Colchis in the Black Sea (the first Greek fleet to enter the Black Sea through the eponymous clashing rocks) to recapture the famous Golden Fleece. But they need the help of witch Medea who falls in love with Jason and requires him to mary her as the price of her help. But part of her help involves the murder of her brother. Later when Jason is safely back home Medea poisons his uncle the King which revolts the people and means that Jason and Medea need to flee. Finally in exile Medea kills two of Jason's children and leaves him.

Which is perhaps the most distressing story in the whole of the Greek pantheon (although the Oresteiad) is perhaps as dark.

It was simply told by Serraillier. He added very little although there were little touches to add reality to such things as Medea's love and the way ordinary people reacted to the tale. But it is still mostly a bald myth.

Monday, 24 November 2014

"Carrie's War" by Nina Bawden

Widowed Carrie takes her children back to the Welsh village where she lived as a wartime evacuee. The first chapter contains a classic teaser in which we learn that Carrie did something awful, the worst thing she ever did. The second chapter then goes back to her arrival with her brother as evacuees.

We meet mean Mr Evans the grocer who is very chapel and strict and his sister Louise who is scared of him and of her own shadow. Things are grim until Carrie and Nick are sent to get a Christmas goose from the farm owns by the estranged sister of Mr Evans. There they meet Hepzibah the cook and Mister Johnny who is a little slow and fellow evacuee Albert Sandwich. This is a magical world with scary creatures in it and enchanting creatures. Carrie is easily able to mix up bad and good; she is ruled by her impulsive heart and her perceptions are usually wrong. In contrast ten year old Nick is wise beyond his years.

The final chapter reverts back to the present but the magic hasn't finished.

A classic kids story with a beautiful construction and some wonderfully three dimensional characters.

November 2014; 159 pages

Sunday, 23 November 2014

"Lila" by Robert M Pirsig

I first read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my second year as an undergraduate at Cambridge; I was studying the History of Philosophy of Science so it was perfect timing. I found the book unbelievably brilliant. It is about a narrator on a motorcycle trip with his son Chris, travelling across America. As he travels he remembers his past life as a person he calls Phaedrus who was a lecturer and  student at University, a period which led to his discovery of a new concept in philosophy and to his nervous breakdown. The concept is Quality. When we look at a work of Art, he argues, we can see whether it has Quality or not. This Quality does not reside in the Object but in our Subjective response to it; at the same time it cannot be purely Subjective because there is a wide inter-personal agreement as to what great Art is. Therefore Quality is found in the interaction between a Subject and an Object.

Now in Lila, Phaedrus is a famous author who is sailing a boat from the Great Lakes to Florida. He picks up Lila in a bar; they have sex and she joins him on his journey. But his friend Richard Rigel, who knew Lila in the past, warns him to keep away and asks, in an attack on Phaedrus and his book, whether Lila has Quality. Yes, replies Phaedrus, but he then spends most of the next few days, sailing down to New York with Lila, whether she does or not.  This then leads him to develop his Metaphysics of Quality.

Sequels can rarely live up to the original. Zen and the Art is probably my favourite book ever so Lila didn't really have a chance. After the initial shiver up my spine when I encountered the magic name Phaedrus on the third page, I realised that there was a certain amount of sameness: a journey across America while the narrator spouts philosophy. While the concept of Quality was liberating the development of the Metaphysics of Quality seemed rather laboured and sometimes a little silly.

However, there are passages in the book where the story takes over, and there was genuine dramatic tension here. Furthermore, there were innumerable insights along the way which made the philosophy full of sparkles even if it did not convince as a system. Regrettably the end was rather weak (whilst the end of Zen and the Art is stunning).

A good book, worth reading for the philosophical insight, but it was inevitably unable to live up to the magic promise of its progenitor.

November 2014; 443 pages

Sunday, 9 November 2014

"The Lambs of London" by Peter Ackroyd

Some of Ackroyd's books are wonderful (Hawksmoor and his biographies of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens); I struggle with others. This novel avoids the time shifting and mysticism of The House of Doctor Dee and tells a straightforward tale (based on historical fact) ) of literary forgery; a theme he has previously covered in Chatterton. William Henry Ireland, to please his bookseller father, 'discovers' papers in Shakespeare's hand including fragments of poetry, a love letter to Anne Hathaway complete with a lock of hair, and a missing play, Vortigern. As he grows bolder, the doubts about the authenticity of his forgeries grows; Ackroyd provides some beautifully subtle dialogue which hints the the speaker has doubts while never making it obvious.

This story is interwoven with the equally true story of Mary Lamb who lives with brother Charles and, stifled by the limits imposed upon her by her mother, goes mad.

So the theme of the book is the irrational responses of children to the expectations created by their parents: R. D. Laing would have loved the argument.

The book is carefully written. Mary's father suffers from dementia and makes comments from time to time which sometimes seem to be full of wisdom but this reader was always unsure whether or not they referred to the action of the novel, or the subtext, or neither. This left me somewhat unsettled which was probably eactly what the author intended. There were occasions when he seemed to quote from other books that had not been written at the time of the action, so this was even more interesting. Mary's mother is wonderful for inserting the mundane into dialogue ("Tizzy! More hot water.") which keeps conversations from getting too serious, makes them seem more realistic and emphasises her role as the guardian of the everyday which is exactly what is driving Mary mad. And when Actor-Manager Sheridan turns up he is the model of a thespian, a practitioner, sir, of the sacred art which belongs to the muses Thalia and Melpomene.

This was an easy to read and very enjoyable entertainment. November 2014; 216 pages

Books by Peter Ackroyd reviewed in this blog:
Historical fiction


Friday, 7 November 2014

"Therese Raquin" by Emile Zola

I saw the play of Therese Raquin recently at Malvern Theatre with the inimitable Alison Steadman as the older Madame Raquin. The play was brilliant, bringing alive the characters: Mme Raquin domineering, first turning Camille into a weak-willed invalid whose attempts at being a man lead to spiteful bullying and insisting that wild-child Therese marries him. The affair between Laurent and Therese is inevitable. The bit parts were also well done, particularly the stupid and insensitive Grivet.

In the play there are moments of sheer horror as the ghost of Camille rises from the bed and marches in and out of the room.

I was sceptical how the book would do the haunting scenes, given that Zola was an exponent of realism. And he carries it off! Everything is, or could be, in the imagination of the two murderers. Indeed, the book is a deep analysis of the psychology of two people who conceive of killing, who carry it out and who are then tormented by their guilt. Their uncontrollable passion for having sex with one another disappears as soon as Camille is dead. By the end, when they are married, they tear one another to pieces. He batters her and she sleeps around.

This book has the usual overwriting of the Victorians and is always inches away from melodrama. But it is compelling and its characters are believable. It chronicles the step by step degradation this is the consequence of sin. And Zola was an atheist!

Superb. November 2014; 194 pages

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

"Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev

This delightful book starts with Arkady taking his hero, nihilist medical student Bazanov, home to meet his doting father who has a small estate where the serfs have recently been freed and are supposed to pay rent. Once home, Arkady discovers that he has a baby half-brother: his father has impregnated a servant girl who is scandalously living in the house but they are not yet married. Bazanov pursues his scientific hobbies, mostly dissecting frogs, and angers Arkady's elegant ex-roue uncle with his politics. After a while the pair go to visit friends and stay with widow Anna and her sister Katya. Bazanov falls in love with Anna who rejects him and they go off to Bazanov's equally doting father. Bazanov hates being back at home: he is embarrassed by his parents although his father is always telling his mother to cool her ardour for the boy. So they go back to Arkady's house.

This is a brilliant book. The characters come alive through their dialogue: I particularly loved Bazanov who spouts his nihilist rubbish and scarcely takes a breath. It is especially brilliant because no character is quite what it seems. The contradictions within Bazanov's philosophy are clear from the start, sometimes subtly inherent in what he says and sometimes pointed out by one of the other characters, especially the devoted disciple Arkady who ends up getting quite fed up with his friend. But other characters have quirks. Uncle Piotr is the ultimate bachelor, elegant and polite, but he once trailed round Europe with his lover. Arkady's rather wimpish Papa has a new child. Arkady's love affair with Katya is a matter of slow and gentle discovery; Arkady is at first in love with Anna and it is only gradually, without him being aware (though the reader is) that his easy friendship with Katya blossoms into something more. His hesitant proposal is a masterpiece.

This is a brilliant book and really short (for a Russian novel!) and easy to read. A fabulous master-class in the art of writing characters.

November 2014; 224 pages

Thursday, 30 October 2014

"The Last Tycoon" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is the last and unfinished novel by FSF and it is a sympathetic portrait of movie mogul Monroe Stahr who is the chief executive of a paternalistic film studio in Hollywood. Stahr is hard working and focussed on churning out a new movie every eight days but at the same time he is dedicated to developing talent and developing this new art form. By accident, during an earthquake, Stahr meets a woman who looks exactly like his late wife: they embark on a romantic love affair even though she is about to get married.

The book is narrated by Celia, the daughter of Stahr's partner in the studio, who has a crush on Stahr and wants to make love to him while he just sees her as his partner's daughter. It swings in and out of the first person. Stahr is portrayed as compellingly human behind the move facade.

One particular feature of the book, which is a first draft and includes some errors and inconsistencies, is the way Fitzgerald wove real movie actors and film people in and out of the story. This gives the book extra verisimilitude.

Fitzgerald is very touching when he takes Stahr and Kathleen and moves them from strangers to lovers. The dialogue hints at unknown back stories which will inevitably complicate their romance. What they do is normal, yet they are moving closer together, yet there is nothing inevitable about what happens until the final moments. This was beautifully and delicately handled.

But my favourite scene is the one where Stahr is teaching a writer how to write for the movies and I imagine this must have been based on a personal experience of Fitzgerald's. Stahr diagnoses that the reason that the writer is disaffected is that he somehow sees movie scripting as unworthy because he sees movies as being mass-produced assembly-line creations which own everything to cliche and nothing to art. The writer wants to have melodrama everywhere. Stahr then paints a word picture of a movie scene:

"Suppose you're in your office .... A pretty stenographer that you've seen before comes into the room and you watch her - idly. She doesn't see you, though you're very close to her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table .... She has two dimes and a nickel - and a cardboard match box. She leaves the nickel on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and puts them inside. There is one match by the matchbox and she starts to light it kneeling by the stove. You notice that there's a stiff wind blowing in the window - but just then your telephone rings. The girls picks it up, says hello - listens - and says deliberately into the phone, 'I've never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.' ....

What a start to a story. Proof that movies can be as great an art form as novels. Later in the book the writer, who still feels this is all beneath him, is taken by Stahr into a meeting where the writing teams on another movie have got stuck and he starts to sort it out.

I loved this book! (Although the synopsis of what Fitzgerald planned for the rest of it made me shout out: "No, that isn't how this develops!"

Fitzgerald also wrote The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night.

October 2014; 169 pages

Monday, 27 October 2014

"Frenchman's Creek" by Daphne Du Maurier

If you're going to write slushy romantic fiction, write well and write hard. This is the ultimate. Set during the Restoration (romantic enough already!) this is the tale of a headstrong lady escaping from her husband to live on her Cornish estate. She encounters a French (of course) pirate and she falls in love. But the local gentility  are searching for the pirate and the noose is tightening.

Classic and very enjoyable. October 2014; 253 pages

Saturday, 25 October 2014

"The Lady of the Camellias" by Alexandre Dumas (fils)

Marguerite is a courtesan. Every day she carries a bouquet of Camellias. Twenty five days of the month they are white, five days they are red. She goes to the theatre and mixes with Dukes and Counts. She lives a high lifestyle funded by her lovers. Then she meets Armand.

And falls in love. But he isn't rich. He cannot keep he in the style to which she is accustomed. At first she continues with her life and he tries to rationalise it that it is like having an affair with a married woman; he has to accept that she sleeps with other men. But their love is strong so they retire to the countryside and set up house together. Secretly she sells her horses and pawns her jewels so that they can afford to live. Armand assigns the income from the inheritance he got from his mother to Marguerite. Armand's father is not best pleased.

The books starts slowly at first with the framing story of the narrator who attends the auction of the dead courtesan's possessions and then meets Armand. Armand then tells the narrator his story. So it starts slowly twice over because after the auction and the mystery of finding Armand we have to go through the slow build up of Armand's meeting Marguerite and falling in love. But once they have set up house together and we know that they cannot live happily ever after because of her past, because of his poverty, because of her extravagance, because of his father; because of all of these pressures the tale then moves inexorably to its doomed outcome. In this part it becomes very compelling indeed.

Written by the son of the man who wrote the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, this book became the inspiration for Verdi's opera La Traviata.

Brilliant. October 2014; 206 pages

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"Maurice" by E M Forster

Maurice is from the suburbs, from the upper middle classes (dead daddy was a stockbroker), not very bright but very snobbish. He's also gay. This book, written in 1914 but not published until after Forster's death in 1970 (three years after homosexuality was legalised) follows him through Cambridge where his initial passion for the rather more intelligent (and upper class) Clive turns into a three year unconsummated love affair, into a physical relationship with a servant. Lust for the lower classes leads to such self-disgust that he seeks medical advice to cure him of his inversion. Will he accept his true nature or will he live a life of self-denial?

What I especially loved about this book, apart from the usual light touch prose and dialogue at which Forster excels (as in Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Passage to India, and Howards End), is the way the characters leap out of their stereotypes. I love the utterly unsympathetic character of Maurice with his stupidity, his suburbanity, and his petty tyrannies over his mother and sisters. I love the servant Alec who, after their initial encounter, tries to lure Maurice back and when that fails (Maurice fears blackmail) threatens him thus realising Maurice's fears. The two of them are beastly to one another and this leads directly to (one presumes) a night of wild passion. Forster knows human beings so well that he can make the reader see their motivations underneath their contradictions.

Even as I was thoroughly disliking the nasty Maurice I was hoping that he would be true to himself and find fulfilment. This is how good Forster is.

October 2014; 218 pages

Sunday, 19 October 2014

"Intimacy" by Hanif Kureishi

Jay, an author, has decided to leave his wife and his two sons in the morning. This is the story of the night before.

Why is he leaving? He has been having an affair with another woman but she has left him. One of his friends is happily married and condemns Jay's plans. One of his friends is unhappily separated from his wife and this has caused one of his sons serious psychological damage. Jay loves his little sons. They love him and trust him absolutely. He knows that what he is planning will hurt them.

I was shouting at the book: don't be a fool. Don't leave.

The long night moved remorselessly on to the dreaded conclusion.

Sometimes I found this book so hard to read. It is so honest, so intimate, so searingly sad that I wanted to hide it where I could never find it again. It was a trauma to read it.

Stunning writing.

October 2014; 155 pages

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

"Capital" by John Lanchester

This book chronicles a year in the live of some of the people who live in, or are connected to, Pepys Road, a London street where the property prices dwarf anything that anyone can actually earn.

There is the Pakistani shopkeeper, his wife and children and his two Moslem brothers who are expecting a visit from their formidable mother. There is the city banker who needs a Christmas bonus of a million pounds to make ends meet because of the extravagance of his wife and the lifestyle they have evolved; they help to pay for a Hungarian nanny and a Polish builder. There is the old lady who is feeling unwell, her daughter and her grandson who is a famously anonymous artist. There is the million pound new soccer signing from Senegal, a seventeen year old wizard and his dad. And there is the Zimbabwean asylum seeker who has an illegal job as a traffic warden.

The plot revolves around the delivery of postcards saying 'We want what you have' and the consequences. As such it is a trivial plot device; I was much more interested in the details of the lives of the characters which were quite enough to carry the story on their own.

The author explicitly tells you back story and thoughts of each character; there are no surprises. This was 'tell, don't show' with a vengeance. And yet it very quickly got me engrossed in the stories. I really wanted to know what happened next. There weren't many surprises, but in each case there was plot development and many characters developed too. It was simply written but it worked very well.

Beware assistants!

This was a three part BBC TV series in November to December 2015.

A good read. October 2014; 577 pages.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" by Charles Dickens

This is the last and unfinished novel by Charles Dickens and the only disappointing thing bout it is that it is unfinished. Although there are moments of classic Dickens sentiment and he has a deplorable tendency to tell you the innermost thoughts of some of his characters, the book stands up with a strong plot and some wonderful characters:

  • John Jasper the opium-smoking choir master and uncle of Edwin
  • Twins Helena and Neville Landless, the latter being the prime suspect for the murder of Edwin, if indeed he has been murdered
  • Edwin's guardian Mr Grewgious, living a lonely bachelor life in Chambers
  • The pompous Mayor of Cloisterham, Mr Sapsea, who can't even write an epitaph to his wife without boasting about himself
  • Opium seller Princess Puffer
  • The Philanthropist and bully Mr Honeythunder
  • Detective Dick Datchery
  • Ex sailor Mr Tartar who befriends Neville and Rosa and was Mr Crisparkle's fag at school; his house is ship-shape and Bristol fashion
  • Durdles the stonemason who rather likes a drop of liquor
  • Deputy the urchin who is employed by Durdles to throw stones at him is he sees him out after 10PM and thus drive him home
  • Combative landlady Billickin

It is a brilliant start and I would love to see it completed.

October 2014; 304 pages

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"Reengineering the corporation" by Michael Hammer and James Champy

This supposed classic, updated in 2001, is rather disappointing. Its big idea is that businesses processes that are broke need fixing (sometimes even before they are recognisedly broke). But the fixing cannot be little incremental tweaks, it must be radical.

The way in which their success stories have reengineered has been (a) to move away from the fracturing of tasks that characterised the Adam Smith division of labour and Henry Ford's assembly line production and (b) to use information technology. The authors are at pains to point out that the use of IT by itself will not revolutionise businesses but it is equally clear that none of the proposals they make could succeed without IT.

Another idea is that they have to consider customer satisfaction because nowadays customers demand almost personalised choice.

They also point out that a company is people. However, many of their success stories involve sometimes significant down-sizing. They get angry about workers resisting change suggesting that many businesses cannot survive without their radical reengineering proposals but they fail to see that the workers facing redundancy may prefer a few more years of staggering on before the business goes bust to immediate dismissal.

I did like their characterisation of a hierarchy as being inherently resistant to change: "For an idea to win acceptance, everyone along the way must say yes, but killing an idea requires only one no."

One of their solutions relies on the fact, probably true, that the vast majority of customer requests are effectively the same so that a small number of standardised processes can cope with them. In other words, a process triage can divert 95% of tasks to be done quickly by cheap less trained staff using standard templates or scripts and then send the remaining 5% to the specialists. Therefore part of reengineering involves creating standard process templates for workers to use.

I liked the following quote: "To understand what is being changed a team needs insiders; but to change it, a team needs a disruptive elements. These are the outsiders."

Another idea they include is benchmarking. In fact they have included a lot of ideas all of which I have encountered elsewhere. But they claim that only when all these ideas are put together in the reengineering package will years achieve the radical improvements they are touting.

I was confused by this quote on page 195. "There is no guesswork or subjectivity involved in deciding these rewards [performance pay bonuses]. They are based on subjective measures."

Overall this book contained a few ideas I had met before packaged together. There was a lot of padding. In particular the three new chapters which are detailed case studies of three companies. These were unnecessary but without them I guess they couldn't have sold another book.

September 2014; 246 pages.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

"Howards End" by E. M. Forster

EMF combines feather-light Jane Austen style drawing room comedy with a biting social commentary in a driving plot which travels inexorably towards tragedy.

The Schlegels are two sisters and a brother of independent means whose essentially frivolous lives are redeemed by a clear understanding that they are privileged and that the underprivileged who support them lead lives of struggle. Sometimes clumsily, but always with the best intentions, they try to better the lot of the poor.

They interact with the Wilcoxes. Mr Wilcox is a businessman whose fortune comes from West Africa. As a self-made man he is convinced that those who have not made it are poor through their own failures. He uses and abuses the people who work for him and his son, George, does so even more. Only his wife, who is the old money owner of Howards End, is a spiritual Schlegel.

The doom of the Wilcoxes is sealed when, in a family conference after Mrs Wilcox has died, jointly decide that her wish to leave Howards End to Margaret Schlegel should not be honoured since it has no force in law.

But then Mr Wilcox decides to marry Margaret.

Mr Wilcox is, for me, the most fascinating character. Despite being, on the surface, the brutalist Mr Moneybags he marries, twice, women who represent the good sense of upper middle class England, rooted in its soil. He may scare his children, dominate his women and fight against the quiet rural life but at the same time he marries Margaret, possibly from guilt, and at the end he retires quite gracefully.

But all the characters are great from Leonard Bast, a clerk who seeks a spiritual life in books by Ruskin which tell him how to appreciate beauty, to Mrs Bast, the buxom earth goddess he has married against the wishes of his parents, to rash Helen and sensible Margaret, the Schlegel sisters acting out Austen's Dashwood sisters into potentially rash marriages, to George's wife who is so concerned about money.

But where Forster is particularly brilliant is the way he juxtaposes lines to highlight his social commentary. After Helen has inadvertently stolen Mr Bast's umbrella and he has come to her house to retrieve it she hunts through an assortment of similarly purloined brollies and opens one to see if it belongs to Mr Bast: '"What about this umbrella?" She opened it. "No, it's all gone along the seams. It must be mine." But it was not.' And Mrs Munt, Margaret's aunt declares that  "Germans are too thorough" a few lines before '"Of course I regard you Schlegels as ... English to the backbone."'

A brilliant book by the brilliiant author of the brilliant Where Angels Fear to Tread and the even more brilliant A Room With a View and the courageous Maurice.

Brilliant. September 2014; 340 pages

"Jamrach's Menagerie" by Carol Birch

Jaffy, an eight year old boy, encounters an escaped tiger on the Ratcliffe Highway and subsequently becomes employed by Mr Jamrach to look after the animals in his rather exotic per shop. This leads to him going to sea with his best friend Tim and animal hunter Dan Rymer in search of a Dragon from the South China Seas. Adventures and horrors ensue. This last section of the book seems to draw on the real story of the whaling ship Essex as recounted in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.

This was well-written with a real feel for character, dialogue and setting. Jaffy is a lovely character, a dirt-poor Londoner with two jobs at eight years old and not a trace of 'poor me': this is the way life (and death) is and he explains it clearly. The supporting characters are also brilliantly drawn and I particularly loved the way that the ship's crew, more than a dozen, were characterised up to the limit of Jaffy himself knowing them: after one has died Jaffy bemoans the fact that he didn't know him well enough. I adored the careful blend of innocence and knowingness that makes up Jaffy, who is a virgin for most of the book but a pipe smoker from almost page one.

But I was confused by the plot construction. On the one hand I understand that if you are telling someone's life it isn't likely to be a straightforward journey. On the other hand: why was it called 'Jamrach's Menagerie' when that forms a relatively small part of the plot? Is this a metaphor? Are the members of the crew of the ship like the animals captured and confined in Mr Jamrach's pet shop? And is the encounter with the tiger another metaphor, perhaps for the jaws of death? And why the dragon?

And the pace was interesting too. I read quite slowly at first. I was more than half way through before I really wanted to know what happened in the end. And the first part of the book is wide ranging with a lot of incident and different characters and conversations but the last part of the book is much more intense with a lot more soliloquy. I was impressed that the writing was good enough to keep me going in this last bit although it was there that I was reading fast and perhaps missing some of the nuances.

A bit of a rag bag in construction but beautifully written. September 2014; 344 pages

This book was nominated for the 2011 Booker along with Pigeon English but they both lost out to A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

"Open" by David Price

This immensely readable book starts with the author having a heart attack!

In many ways it follows the 'industry standard'. Price has a vision of the future of education which he wants to share with us. It is an education transformed by the practices which have transformed (part of) the business world since the massive disruption to the ecosystem known as the internet revolution. He outlines this vision by giving examples (mostly from the business world because education hasn't really been transformed yet) in which visionaries have transformed their industries. Many of these examples have been mentioned in similar books: an example is the development of Post-It notes by 3M. Price then distils the lessons to be learned from these examples into general principles: Share, be Open, be Free, and Trust. The major difference between Price's book and others such as 'The World is Flat' is that Price then applies these rules to the world of education.

But this is a cracking good read which uses its evidence base to entertain whilst providing 'eureka moment' insights and making you think. Not bad!

Price begins with a compelling analysis of the post-internet world. The knowledge economy has rather blown up in our faces: more graduates means that the laws of supply and demand have driven the monetary value of knowledge down as evidenced by  freelance auction sites such as elance.com. He looks at 'open' systems such as the Philosophy in Pubs movement and ‘open source learning’.

He indicts formal learning in traditional education settings. He rehearses the dichotomy of transmissive learning versus constructive learning and suggests that apprenticeships and internships offer blends between the didactic and experiential. Bravely, he asserts that: "We should be in no doubt that businesses, schools and colleges that continue with ‘command and control’ as their dominant forms of leadership and intellectual property strategies are facing extinction, possibly within five to ten years." He wants to see collaborative learning as the dominant model in schools: "If collaboration is a headache for learning in the workplace, it’s hard to know where to start with schools. First, most schools don’t call it ‘sharing’ anyway – they call it ‘cheating’."

Price seeks a new model for education which he calls the Global Learning Commons whose characteristics are participation, passion, purpose.

The six imperatives of the Global Learning Commons are:

  • "Do it yourself [eg Linux, wikipedia]
  • Do it now [eg Just in time learning]
  • Do it with friends 
  • Do unto others
  • Do it for fun [eg foldit, a video game which helps scientists work out protein folding in viruses]
  • Do it for the world to see" [eg that food blog from the scottish kid]

He considers 'Just in time' learning: "learning is most powerful when the learner acquires a piece of
information to solve an immediate problem.... there’s a reason why you get the airline safety briefing when the engines are running, and you’re buckled-up, and not when you’re booking your ticket."

He has some great one-liners (some are above):

  • Over-testing is like "a gardener pulling up a plant by its roots so that he could see how well it was growing. If a love of learning were a human right (and I contend that it should be) our courts would be overflowing with abuse of rights claims from our young." [OK, that was a two-liner.]
  • "Learning doesn’t really work as a spectator sport, as any disengaged school kid will confirm."

I have one or two quibbles:

  • I would contend that the anti-authority revolution started long before the world wide web, perhaps beginning with the growth of universal state education (even if it is too formal). As Steven Pinker has suggested in The Better Angels of Our Nature, literacy enables people to read and therefore to become exposed to ideas and, especially in novels, to start to see the world through the point of view of someone else. 
  • Surely the example of the BRICs in Chapter One emphasise the need to develop a better knowledge economy even though an inevitable consequence is that the monetary value of knowledge will reduce as supply outstrips demand.
  • The 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité' motto was coined before 1835.
I was a little disappointed that the evidence base was a little narrow and relied heavily on the old favourites such as wikipedia, Google and 3M.

But on the whole this is a brilliantly readable and thought-provoking book. September 2014; 152 pages

Sunday, 14 September 2014

"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H. P. Lovecraft

This horror novella was a significant improvement on At The Mountains of Madness.

Charles Dexter Ward has just disappeared from a lunatic asylum after an interview with his family doctor which has left the doctor reeling from unimaginable horrors. The story is told to explain this.

Charles is researching into his family tree. He discovers an ancestor, Joseph Curwen, who was involved in strange experiments and nefarious goings on in just-pre-revolutionary Boston. We learn more about what happened then; it becomes clear that Curwen is conjuring up spirits.

As we move back to Ward, the boy's behaviour becomes stranger. There are mysterious happenings in local graveyards. There are strange noises from his attic room. At last he is moved into an asylum. The good family doctor goes to his house and discovers a secret passage; in the catacombs beneath are unnameable horrors and magic incantations. The doctor somehow escapes with his life (we never find out how) and the secret passage is mysteriously sealed up.

Ready for the final confrontation in the asylum...

A good horror yarn which actually made me close the curtains against the darkness outside.

September 2014; 159 pages

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

"At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P.Lovecraft

Lovecraft is one of the formative influences on later horror. His style is in transition from the long-windedness of the Victorians towards the brevity of his contemporary H. G. Wells.

This book tells of an Antarctic expedition which discovers traces of a lost civilization in an awesomely high mountain range. It has all the classic Atlantean elements: the highly intelligent Old Ones become decadent and are finally overwhelmed by a combination of the harsh elements and Shoggoth beasts that they have genetically engineered to be their slaves. The narrator, a polar scientist, describes his investigation of the lost city of the Old Ones in which he and his partner discover far more than any scientists could do in less than 24 hours, mostly from what must be a great number of highly detailed sculptures left by the Old Ones. It is all a bit far-fetched.

There is a fantastic amount of description about the lost city which serves virtually no plot purpose. The entire plot could be summarised ina few pages. The rest is just padding.

For horror effect, Lovecraft relies on his own failure to describe things. Heights and distances are 'immeasurable'. Horrors are 'nameless'; numbers 'incalculable', reality 'ineluctable', odours are 'unknown'. This is a clever technique but he uses it so much that it becomes almost a parody of itself.

He also refers back to his imaginary world repeatedly. Thus he references the Necronomicon, written by the Mad Arab, again and again. Not subtle!

I suspect this book was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket which ends in a strangely warm Antarctic with a tribe of hostile men.

Even at short novella length this dragged. September 2014; 139 pages

Friday, 5 September 2014

"Last Exit to Brooklyn" by Hubert Selby Jr

Banned as obscene in British courts in 1967, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a stream of consciousness style collection of interlinked stories about poor people in Brooklyn. Each story is introduced with a Biblical quotation. Then the action gets going. In long paragraphs in which people think or talk or argue and using many phonetically spelt words such as krist and fukim, Selby captures the rhythms and the styles of his characters.

And what characters they are. We start with a scene at the Greeks which ends when the boys go out and beat up a sailor from the naval base. Then we discover Georgette. 'She' is a fairy addicted to benzedrine. After getting cut in the cross fire of a Harry and Vinnie knife throwing competition she is sent to the place she dreads most, her home, where her brother tells her off for being a fairy, and then she sneaks out and goes to a gin and benzedrine fuelled party with other fairies and ends up sucking Vinnie's cock, Vinnie being her ex-prison rough trade boyfriend.

Tralala is a young girl who discovers that she can get money by being laid by drunken sailors and then stealing their money when they pass out. She enjoys this and enjoys the sex but she becomes addicted to this way of life and ends up a pathetic tart being gang-banged by by the boys from the Greeks.

Harry is shop steward at an engineering works and causes a great deal of trouble. The management engineer a strike hoping to get rid of him. He finds purpose in the strike although at the same time he discovers a strange attraction for cross-dressing gay men. His role in the strike enables him to spend big, charging it to expenses at the corrupt union. But when the strike ends his life outside drag bars has lost its meaning and his boyfriend throws him over because he can't lavish money on her so he ends up pathetic and beaten up.

Finally there is a 'coda' which explores a number of interlinked lives at the Housing Project. The men are useless, mostly out of work but unwilling to help their wives at home and with the kids, the women are long-suffering, taking a great deal of abuse for the sake of their husband's hard cock at the end of the day. The children just suffer. No life is happy, even the slightly more couth ones.

This is a depressing nightmare vision of life in America's underclass. But it is brilliantly written.

Difficult to read but fantastic. September 2014; 240 pages

Sunday, 31 August 2014

"Boris Godunov" by Ian Grey

This is a narrative biography of Boris Godunov, first minister to Ivan the Terrible and his son Feodor, who was then elected tsar (1598 - 1605) when the Rurikid dynasty came to an end, and was toppled by the first False Dmitri at the start of the Time of Troubles.

This is history as narrative. The tale is very simply told. Many of the principal events have been turned into legend and shrouded in mystery:
Ivan the Terrible kills his eldest son; Boris is badly wounded trying to protect the tsarevich
Feodor's brother Dmitry dies, having stabbed himself during an epileptic seizure or was he assassinated on the orders of Boris or did he escape?
Was the false Dmitry really Dmitry or an ex-monk called Grigory?
Did Boris die naturally or was he poisoned by his enemies?
Nevertheless, Grey gives them a little consideration and then plumps for the common sense explanation.

So this is biography as it used to be and it seems rather bald. Most of it is about Ivan the Terrible and the reign of Feodor and although you can argue that Boris was chief minister during both of these reigns and therefore a very important person, there isn't much actually about him. Less than a third of the book is spent on Boris's reign. I rather felt that Grey wasted an opportunity.

August 2014; 179 pages; nice, short chapters

Sunday, 24 August 2014

"The Player on the Other Side" by Ellery Queen

Four members of the York family live in York Square. Mysterious letters are sent by 'Y' to Walt the handyman giving him precise instructions which result in the death of the Yorks, one by one. Before each death a card is sent to the victim with a mysterious letter printed on it. Who is killing the Yorks and why and can he (or she) be stopped before the next murder?

A classic Ellery Queen whodunnit, contrived and formulaic with superficial characterisation but with a hint of other worldiness that distinguishes it from the standard whodunnit puzzle.

August 2014; 309 pages

Friday, 22 August 2014

"Heartstone" by C.J.Sansom

Matthew Shardlake, hunchbacked lawyer, investigates crimes in the England of Henry VIII. In this book he travels into Hampshire to find out whether a young orphan is being cheated of his inheritance by the man who has bought his wardship. At the same time he tries to discover why Ellen has been committed to Bedlam despite there being no certificate of lunacy: what is the secret buried in her past? All this is set to the background of preparations for Henry VIII's final war against France: the French fleet is off Portsmouth and there are rumours of invasion. The book climaxes with Shardlake on board the Mary Rose as the capsizes.

This is written with all the verve that characterises Sansom's Shardlake series (also see entries on Dissolution and Dark Fire). He is exceptional on describing scenes though sometimes I thought there was a little too much incidental detail in this book and not enough concentration on the plot: the journey down to Hampshire with the company of archers, for example, took several chapters and could have been axed without disruption to the narrative.

Monday, 18 August 2014

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Stephen Inwood

This is the biography of Robert Hooke. Lisa Jardine has also written a rather shorter and slightly more readable biography. Inwood's work is remarkable in that it is so comprehensive . It gives a compelling picture of a man who was driven to dabble in everything and, as a result, completed little.

Robert Hooke needed to earn his living in an era of remarkable scientists. Paying his way through Oxford, he became an assistant to Robert Boyle, building and maintaining the air pumps which led Boyle to Boyle's Law. He became involved with a group of natural philosophers in Oxford and then moved with them to London to become one of the founding members of the Royal Society. Needing an income he became their 'curator' which meant that he had to arrange weekly scientific demonstrations. His remarkable mechanical ability and the all-encompassing nature of his interests meant that he was the mainstay of Royal Society meetings; it may be argued that without Hooke the Society would have fallen away (although the equally remarkable Oldenburg who kept an incredible correspondence going with scientists all over Europe as well as publishing the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, mostly at his own expense, was also a key member).

Hooke was a little bit secretive and always on the look out for a little more money, especially since many of his regular sources of income such as the Gresham College lecture fees and his RS salary were often not paid! Much of what he demonstrated to RS members was unfinished, much of his theoretical work consisted of speculations, often published as anagrams of Latin phrases. As a result he got a reputation for always saying that he could improve on someone else's work (but often failing to deliver because of the pressure of time) or claiming that he had thought of something first. The classic situation was in his priority dispute with Newton over the inverse square law of gravitation. Inwood supplies evidence to suggest that Hooke's hints and suggestions helped Newton (a) think in terms of centripetal forces rather than centrifugal forces and (b) realise that the circular motion of the planets was caused by a combination of their inertia, seeking to continue in a straight line and the centripetal force of gravity. Hooke always claimed that he, rather than Newton, invented the inverse square idea. His early work shows that he was thinking of an inversely proportional force and that it was only later that he became convinced (and loudly tried to convince others) that, like light, gravity obeyed an inverse square relationship. However, by the time he got to this point Newton had almost certainly come to the same idea independently. Importantly, Hooke, the mechanical genius, did not have the mathematical ability to back up his inverse square speculation and he certainly did not have the leisure (or perhaps the ability to concentrate) to devote the two years of focussed effort that Newton put into his magnum opus, the Principia.

Hooke's glories were many. Apart from speculations which covered, in particular, mountain building and evolution (he was by no means afraid of religious unorthodoxy) he is famous for Hooke's Law, for his masterpiece Micrographia, andd for his architecture and surveying work in association with Christopher Wren to help rebuild London after the great fire (there is also a suggestion that he invented the sash window).

This biography is an exhaustive account of a great scientist whose many triumphs deserve to be better known.

Monday, 11 August 2014

"50 Art ideas you really need to know" by Susie Hodge

This is another book in the '... ideas you really need to know series'. I have found these of mixed value. Some of them have been brilliant, others tedious

My main problem with this title is that it doesn't deliver, for me, what it says in the title. These are 50 art movements, which I think are separate from ideas, and there is an extraordinary emphasis on art movements since 1900. Impressionism, for example, is idea 19 in a chronologically arranged book. I felt that I did not 'really need to know' the intricate details of Colour Field painting and Mexican Mural art; many of these merited a line or at best a paragraph under the heading of Modern art rather than the two page spread each received. In this way of doing things Minmalism, which seems to have lasted a truly minimal seven years, receives the same space as the Early Renaissance (170 years) or Byzantine art (over a thousand years).

I wanted a book that went into art ideas. My needs were best met by the glossary. Why not a two page spread on Perspective, or Chiaroscuro, or Sfumato, or Oil painting? Actually Perspective and Oil painting don't even get into the glossary!

I felt I earnt little of value from this book. August 2014; 203 pages

Thursday, 7 August 2014

"Strip Jack" by Ian Rankin

An early Inspector Rebus. So far I have only read stories from later in the career of this Edinburgh detective (eg Standing in another man's grave, and The naming of the dead). In these he is weary and cynical, a heavy drinker with a sidekick called DS Siobhan Clarke. But in the early books he is a wise-cracking young man. He drinks but it isn't a theme. He has a girlfriend although he is not sure whether he wants a long term relationship or not. He and all his colleagues keep themselves going with a variety of dreadful puns. There is more idealism than cynicism.

It would be interesting to see where the two versions of Rebus join.

This classic police procedural whodunnit starts with a bang: the police raid a brothel and find an MP; the papers have been tipped off. Then the MP's wife is discovered dead. Suspicion falls on the small group of friends who grew up together including the wife of a film star, a mad murderer locked in an asylum, a second-hand bookseller and the owner of a haulage firm.

Best line of the book: "He didn't make waves exactly, but by Christ he splashed like hell."

A tightly plotted whodunnit which kept me interested throughout. August 2014; 279 pages

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

"Dark fire" by C. J. Sansom

This is the second of Sansom's Shardlake novels; it follows Dissolution.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer practising in Tudor London. He has to defend a young girl accused of pushing her half brother down a well. To gain time on this case, he agrees to investigate an alchemist who claims to have discovered the secrets behind Greek Fire, a flame that burns on water and could be used in naval battles. Murders follow.

This is a fun romp through the London to the background of Henry VIII's marriage problems with Ann of Cleves and the impending fall of Shardlake's boss, Thomas Cromwell. The best character is the bully-boy side-kick, Jack Barak, a grown-up street urchin of Jewish descent. Hunchbacked Shardlake is also interesting but the other characters do not convince. The plot is not the tightest example of the whodunnit genre but it certainly keeps you reading along. The scenery is interesting and there is a thriller element. But the puzzle fails to convince.

OK. I'll read the next one!

August 2014; 576 pages

Also see reviews of other Shardlake novels Dissolution and Heartstone.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

"The ways of the world" by Robert Goddard

I used to be a massive Robert Goddard fan. His tightly constructed novels usually featured a whodunnit element based on something that had happened a long time n the past. But recently he seems to be missing his form. I have been disappointed to some extent with Fault Line, Blood Count, Long Time Coming, and Found Wanting.

This book is set in Paris in 1919 but all events are more or less contemporary to that. Fearless WWI flying ace James 'Max' Maxted searches for the reasons for his diplomat father's murder in the context of the Versailles Conference that would shape Europe in between the wars. There are intrigues relating to a Russian monarchist group, a stolen box of Chinese secrets, a French traitor and a German masterspy. Somewhere in this mix is a set of Sumerian seals and an Arab cat burglar nicknamed Le Singe.

Despite such promising ingredients this fails to create a classic Goddard dish. The hero  is far from the usual down-at-heel reluctant protagonist of most of Goddard's fiction. Rather, he is an ersatz James Bond who never really becomes interesting. And none of the mysteries deliver. By the end of the book I was unconvinced that the accepted reason for Sir Henry Maxted's death was the real reason, I had no idea why Le Singe was doing what he was doing, I was sure the Sumerian seals must have some part to play but they hadn't, the French traitor hadn't been adequately explored at all, and the Russian monarchist group and the box of Chinese secrets were similarly left dangling. In short, very few of the ends had been tied up satisfactorily.

Ah, but, this is the first of a trilogy of novels. Perhaps these threads (why 'Farngold') will be  picked up in the next book. Maybe, but I'm not sure if I can be bothered to read it.

August 2014; 525 pages

Friday, 1 August 2014

"How Proust can change your life" by Alain de Botton

This is a quirky self-help book from the French philosopher. It is based on Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, a long-winded novel in seven volumes which is one of those 'works of genius' which very few people have actually read. I haven't. Yet.

De Botton's nine essays in this book include 'How to take your time' and 'How to read for yourself'; he bases each theme on Proust's life and work. For example, in 'How to suffer successfully' de Botton points out that Proust was a long-term invalid, perhaps a hypochondriac, who used his hyper-sensitivity to empathise with and understand his characters. We all suffer, says de Botton, we all have our little aches or disappointments, we all have moments of regret or loss. The secret is to be sufficiently sensitive to our suffering, not to let it incapacitate us but to use it to gain insight into our common humanity.

In 'How to open your eyes' de Botton describes how Proust uses an imaginary impressionist to show his narrator that you can see beauty in everyday modern objects as well as in traditional romantic things. De Botton  doesn't deny that some things may be ugly, or we may perceive some things as more beautiful than others but, he says. if we have preconceptions as to what is beautiful we will wear blinkers and our lives will be more limited than they need to be.

This is a beautiful little book with a lot of important philosophy. It also shows how Proust writer characters in depth (though at the expense of brevity!). I must read the master work sometime.

Alain de Botton has also written the brilliant Religion for Atheists.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

"How to teach Quantum Physics to your dog" by Chad Orzel

A research scientist explains the basic principles of quantum physics to Emmy, a dog more concerned with chasing bunnies and evil squirrels.

I did some physics for my degree (which was before some of the stuff in this book was discovered) and I have taught A-level Physics for many years so I understand some of the basic principles. Nevertheless, Orzel gave me a better understanding of the Uncertainty Principle (certainly better than Michael Frayn's who confuses Uncertainty and Chaos Theory in his book The Human Touch) and its necessary consequences: zero-point energy, quantum tunnelling and virtual particles. He also writes very clearly about the difference between the Copenhagen and the Many-Worlds interpretations of the Schroedinger's Cat problem. I'm not sure I was convinced by the Quantum Zeno effect; I'm not sure I understood it properly. I might have to read through this section again. I certainly failed to understand how Bell's Theorem proves that Quantum Theory is a non-local model and how that in turn leads to quantum teleportation; I vaguely understood that quantum teleportation transmits states not particles but I got completely lost as to what this meant.

So I basically got the stuff I understood a bit before and failed to properly grasp the stuff that was new to me. That means that this is not the best explained Physics book I have ever read although, to be fair, it must be the most ambitious. It's like one of those Olympic dives where you have to assess both degree of difficulty and success in carrying out the dive. I guess this means it gets high but not perfect marks.

The dog? The dog helps in the way that ad breaks help in difficult documentaries. The dog gave my brain a chance to make a cup of mental tea and rest a while before coming back to full exertions. Lots of ads are funnier though.

July 2014; 265 pages

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

"Dissolution" by C.J.Samson

Matthew Shardlake is sent by Thomas Cromwell to the Monastery of St Donatus on the Sussex coastal marshes to investigate the murder of another royal servant. Hump-backed Shardlake and his good-looking sidekicj Mark Poer enter a corrupted monastic world in which every cardinal sin is on display. One monk is gay, lusting after Mark, another is a Christianized Moor from Spain, another is a harsh disciplinarian. More crimes ensue. Who is the murderer?

This is a classic whodunnit, like a mountain stream: twisting, fast-paced, and sparkling (although a little shallow). Homage is paid to Eco's Name of the Rose (the monastic library contains a copy of a lost work by Aristotle although it is a fake) and Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles (the murderers attempt to escape across the marshes) but it stands on its own and there is a nice twist at the end.

July 2014; 439 pages

Also see later books in the Shardlake series: Dark Fire and Heartstone.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

"The Naming of the Dead" by Ian Rankin

Inspector John Rebus and sidekick DS Siobhan Clarke seek a serial killer after the possessions of three victims of unsolved murders turn up near Gleneagles on the eve of the G8 Summit there in July 2005.

The week of the G8 Summit was momentous. Scotland was under siege from 'Make Poverty History' marchers and the anarchists and rioters who went with it. Siobhan's parents are on the march and Siobhan suffers from the split loyalties between police trying to keep order and the protesters, especially when her mother is hit over the head while demonstrating. Was it a rogue policeman? Throughout this multi-layered novel the thin divide between goodies and baddies is shown to be blurred: Rebus has often crossed this line before but will Siobhan? Is the charismatic local councillor a good guy or does he run the gang of local hooligans and is he angling to replace gangster Ger Cafferty as Edinburgh's Mr Big?Is the Special Branch detective who repeatedly impedes the investigation doing this for good 'security' reasons or is he in the pocket of an Arms dealer? Have the undercover cops gone native?

As well as G8, protests and rock concerts, this is the week in which London won the 2012 Olympics. The next day came the London 7/7 tube and bus bombings. This fantastic book, so much more than a genre whodunnit, weaves all these together in a general question about morality today. It has a strong plot which kept me reading, a large cast of brilliant multi-faceted characters and as many layers as an oil painting.

July 2014; 515 pages

Monday, 28 July 2014

"The Policeman and the brothel" by Theodore Dalrymple

In Victorian Jersey the amateur police force had to deal with a cluster of 3 murders in 3 months, the last being the fatal stabbing of a volunteer policeman by a brothel 'madam'. Dalrymple probes into this crime wave.

Except this is scarcely forensic history. rather, these events provide a springboard for Dalrymple to muse, somewhat at random, about the efficacy of the death penalty, police corruption then and now, morality and the press, and whatever else takes his fancy.

What else is he to do? There is no mystery about the crimes, no element of 'who really dunnit?'. The culprits are obvious. There is some investigation as to whether one of the murderers was insane within the meaning of the law but little else. There is an attempt, eventually, to trace what happened to those transported for life. But there is not enough material here to base a book. It should have been a pamphlet. Instead, Dalrymple pads it out with his political views. He also quotes newspaper articles verbatim and court transcripts verbatim to give himself many extra pages.

The book should have been (less than) half the length.

July 2014; 215 pages

Sunday, 20 July 2014

"The King is Dead" by Ellery Queen

This is a strange combination of a thriller with a classic locked room whodunnit mystery.

Ellery and his dad, Inspector Queen of NYPD, travel to a mysterious island where arms dealer 'King' Kane (Cain) Bendigo and his brothers Judah (Judas) and Abel rule a heavily militarised kingdom, an atomic scientist is kept in captivity and assorted world leaders are bribed. Heavy overtones of James Bond plots such as Dr No or You Only Live Twice, the megalomaniac rich man seeking to take over the world with his own private army in a mysterious location. This book was written in 1952.

The crime, the attempted assassination of the King, takes place in a sealed room in which only he and his wife are present. At exactly the same moment, Judah, heavily guarded by Ellery, raises an empty pistol and fires in the appropriate direction. Abel and other potential suspects are with Inspector Queen outside the door of the sealed room. No weapon is found in the room.

An impossible crime? Ellery delves into the King's background to find the truth.

Very easy to read (virtually one sitting although I could have put it down with little problem had I not been seeking to switch off my brain) and a classic puzzle. But the situation requires a greater suspension of disbelief than I could manage. Minimal characterisation, despite an attempt to provide a psychological motive to the killers.

June 2014; 294 pages

Saturday, 19 July 2014

"Peter Abelard" by Helen Waddell

This novel is based on the true-life story of Peter Abelard, a Scholastic philosopher who became famous as a rabble rousing teacher in the early 12th Century, then famous as the lover of Heloise and, after being castrated by Heloise's outraged family, again famous as a heretic forced to burn his book and finally famous again as a scholar and teacher. Some cv.

This novel was first published in 1933. It faithfully reflects that rather gentler age. There are no graphics details, the conversation of many characters breaks off into quotations and snippets of poetry (as presumably the academics of the 1930s did, and the pace of the book is gentle and refined.

It is an interesting book but of its period and therefore rather dated and somewhat slow.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

"Catherine the Great & Potemkin" by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This was a magnificent book.

The title is deceptive. This is a biography of Potemkin. Catherine II of Russia was his lover and his monarch and his political ally and a crucial part of his life but this book is about him and she is important background.

Potemkin was minor nobility but highly intelligent, giant in stature, extraordinarily handsome (they called him Alcibiades at school, presumably more for his physical beauty than at that time for his generalship), and extrememly energetic. He therefore stood out (literally). As a young guardsman he caught the eye of the new Empress who had succeeded her husband (first in a coup, then after having him murdered) and became her 'favourite'. Even after their affair ended (she had many lovers) he worked with her to annex lands from Poland and from Turkey; it is Potemkin who made the Crimea Russian.

But what marks this book out as an epic is the extraordinarily romantic nature of the tale. It starts with his death: the dying Prince asks to be taken out by his Cossacks into the countryside and 'dies on grass having lived on gold' as an eyewitness allegedly said. But it includes a secret marriage between Potemkin and Catherine, a vast chorus of lovers, many of them his nieces, a Cossack rebellion led by a Pretender and the most extraordinary cast of characters.

Walk on parts are accorded to Napoleon (who may have tried to enlist as a young soldier in Potemkin's armies), John Howard of prison reform (and Bedford) fame, George Psalmanazar, Casanova, the allegedly 2000 year old Comte de Saint-Germain, and Count Cagliostro, the quack and charlatan who later became involved in the Diamond Necklace affair which damaged the reputation of Marie Antoinette. There are also John Paul Jones, the father of the US Navy , who also fought for Potemkin, Francisco de Miranda who fought with Bolivar to liberate Venezuela, the wonderful Duchess of Kingston, a good time girl who got rich quick from marrying into nobility and then toured European palaces, scandalously and a crew of assorted noblewomen of dubious origins who were no better than the should have been (although even the true bred aristocracy seemed to have no compunction about hopping into bed with either Potemkin or Catherine and cuckolding their complacent spouses; the Countess of Bruce had a reputation as the lady who tried out Catherine's later favourites although once Catherine caught her in flagrante with Catherine's current boyfriend). A key colleague of Potemkin's was his engineer Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy, the philosopher.

I particularly loved Joseph II, Kaiser of Austro-Hungary, who travelled through Russia under the oncognito Comte de Falkenstein. He called himself 'first clerk of the state' and loved to travel with only one or two companions and bed down on a military mattress in a flea-bitten roadside inn. There weren't many in Russia so Potemkin turned mansions along the route into taverns, a sort of echo of the plot of She Stoops to Conquer that had been first performed seven years previously.

I absolutely loved this big book. It is big and occasionally heavy but the verve of the narrative and the dash of these wonderful characters make it every bit as good a read as the author's brilliant Young Stalin and incomparably better than his Jerusalem.

Must be read! July 2014; 557 words

Sunday, 22 June 2014

"The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith

This is the second Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith who is better known as J K Rowling. It is better than The Cuckoo's Calling, which was good. This is a very good detective novel indeed.

The usual cast of characters are here, resolving their issues with one another and with their partners. Private Eye Strike investigates a missing author who he soon finds murdered in horrific circumstances which appear strikingly similar to the ending of his latest unpublished novel which appears to viciously attack a wide section of London's literary world. Every chapter heading has quotes from Jacobean tragedies and a one-legged detective limping painfully around a snow-bound London in pursuit of a crazed killer seems to fit the bill perfectly.

Despite the flamboyance of the scenery, Galbraith keeps reality firmly in mind. I started wincing every time Strike's prosthesis rubbed or he had to limp down a snow-covered street concentrating hard on not slipping. When he interrogates a witness over lunch he worries about the size of the bill; he tries taking the tube rather than taxis despite his damaged knee. Locations are accurately described, from exclusive clubs to pubs to tower blocks. Characters are sympathetically portrayed: they function in the plot but each one has a set of strengths and weaknesses and longings and disgusts.

Whodunnit? Clues are scattered through the narrative with care, red herrings are equally dispersed. I nearly got it.

Well written and a real page turner; I didn't really want to go to bed last night. June 2014; 455 pages

Also read Strike #3 Career of Evil

Thursday, 19 June 2014

"Willie Watson" by Frank Garrick

This is "a biography of England's most successful double international" who won 4 caps for England's Soccer team and 23 caps for England's cricket team and who must be the only person ever to have been to a soccer World Cup finals (although he never played because England were sent home after the first round) and on an Ashes tour of Australia.

I found the endless sporting statistics a little mind-numbing (I am not a great fan of sports) but I was intrigued by the picture Garrick built up of the life of a professional sportsman before the era of big money. Willie Watson combined professional soccer (mostly for Sunderland) in the winter with professional cricket (mostly for Yorkshire) in the summer; both clubs were very understanding when seasons overlapped and when international duties called. But he also ran a sports' outfitters business with his brother and a chicken farm with his wife. He was miffed when his World Cup tour netted him only £60 when a season playing cricket for Yorkshire would have earned him £300. His biggest source of income was a Yorkshire benefit season.

It was also interesting to learn about life at the bottom. Willie Watson rarely brought luck to his teams. Sunderland tended to bumble around the lower half of the First Division (now the Premiership) and Yorkshire around the lower half of the County Championship. When he moved to Leicestershire they had a spell at the bottom of the Championship; when he became a football manager of Halifax Town they had to apply for re-election to the league. Whilst he played soccer for England the team suffered its most humiliating 1-0 defeat to USA in Rio and his test cricket career was mostly draws and losses. His greatest achievements were gritty defences of losing positions, scoring incredibly slowly but staying at the wicket. Moreover, the clubs he played for had repeated financial crises. There was little glamour in this sporting superstar's career.

The book is well written and, despite the parade of depressing results, mostly held my interest. I would have liked to know a little it more about his life away from the pitch but I imagine that sporting fans would not. Although I had never heard of Willie Watson before, there are a huge number of sporting giants in this book from Stanley Matthews to Ian Botham. So, if you are interested in the history of soccer or cricket, I recommend this book.

June 2014; 229 pages

Sunday, 15 June 2014

"The Farm" by Tom Rob Smith

This is a new book by the author of the Leo Demidov trilogy: Child 44, The Secret Speech, and Agent 6.

Daniel's parents have retired to a remote farm in Sweden. One day his father phones him claiming that his mother is mentally ill. Then his mother arrives in London, claiming that his father is a co-conspirator in a series of unspecified crimes. Then his father arrives in London in pursuit. Daniel must listen to his mother's story, consider her evidence and decide whether to believe her and go to the police, or to believe his father and take his mother to a mental hospital.

This is a brilliant conception. Daniel's mother slowly narrates the chain of events that led her to her conclusions. This keeps you reading because of the many hints of dreadful things. Many of the things that happened to Daniel's mum (Tilde) in her summer on the farm are humdrum and even the way she interprets them is modest. It is sometimes difficult to see how such wild theories are being built of such mundane evidence. And how is it all connected with the events that led Tilde to run away from her Swedish farm and father back in 1963?

This has all the potential of being a brilliant story and the author tells it well. But the characters are insufficiently realised (much mention is made of Daniel's partner Mark and the hidden gay relationship but not a lot is made out of it) and the sense of menace struggles with the ordinary character of what is being described. This might turn into a brilliant film because the intensity of the narrative frame being in a hotel room in Docklands but the book fails to pull it off. Even the climax is a disappointment.

Because of the claustrophobia inherent in Daniel's dilemma, choosing between a possibly mad mother and a possibly criminal father, I wanted a story with the intensity of grand opera. It rather wimped out on that.

June 2014; 351 pages