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

Friday, 31 July 2015

"The Chimera Sanction" by Andre K Baby

Pope Clement XXI is kidnapped from the Vatican; Thierry Dulac from Interpol is called in to investigate.

This is a fast-paced thriller with the usual detective hero (weakness = hates flying; strengths include beautiful girlfriend, familiarity with good food and good wine and an extensive knowledge of trivia including the specifications of military helicopters etc; he also has a catchphrase 'Just pissing great' which is unsubtly used). There is also a sinister villain with a link to the medieval Cathars. The major switch happens at about 55% of the way through; the final major twist at a rather early 85%.

There is a lot of dialogue, frequently with attribution (he said etc) and sometimes different people speak in the same paragraph. As a result I was occasionally unsure who had said what.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

"How nature works" by Per Bak

This book is subtitled The Science of Self-Organized Criticality and explains the new discipline of Complexity Theory, the the process making it distinct from Chaos Theory.

Per Bak is a critical (pun not intended) researcher in this field, having been one of the first to devise the famous sandpile experiments in which grains of sand are dropped one by one onto a pile of sand and the size of the subsequent avalanches recorded. From here to theoretical models of ridiculous simplicity modelled on desk top computers which provide results which closely match phenomena as diverse as:

  • The distribution of earthquake size
  • The distributions of extinctions within the fossil record
  • Learning
  • Economics
  • Traffic jams

The suggestion is that many systems evolve into a position of 'Self Organized Criticality'. At this point small external events will trigger adjustments of the system, some of which will be unnoticeably small and some of which will be enormous. Key insights are:

  • That you do not need to postulate an external trigger for a catastrophe, systems such as the world's ecosystem or a the world's stock markets are always on the edge of catastrophe anyway so that a very small trigger can create a massive landslide (but normally doesn't, of course)
  • That these systems are very large so that you need to consider the entire ecosystem of the world (which might include the atmosphere - life creates oxygen - and the oceans and the landscape) or the entire geological system of the world (earthquakes and plate tectonics etc) or the economics systems of the world or an entire brain etc
  • That these systems may be hierarchical such that complex astrophysical systems give rise to complex geological systems which give rise to complex biological systems (eg life) which give rise to complex ecological systems etc etc.

This was a fascinating book, mostly very readable, which gives insight into this fascinating new science. A slight criticism is that the bibliography appears quite selective and some of the researchers mentioned in the text do not appear, making it difficult to access their original work.

July 2015; 198 pages

Other books covering this interesting topic include:

Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:

  • The Wisdom of Crowds 
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
  • Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
  • Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

"The Cinderella Killer" by Simon Brett

This is a Charles Paris mystery, a whodunnit based around a slightly seedy acting world. In this version, Charles is playing pantomime in Eastbourne. He is way down the bill, of course; the stars are soap actors, ex-soap actors and an American actor from a world-wide comedy series. The director is obsessed with choreography, one of the Dames is a traditionalist while the other is an ex-soap star who can't act, and Charles is in a double act with an ex-boxer who also can't act. Fortunately for Charles his mind is taken off the impending disaster that is the production when the American is found dead.

Other brilliant characters include the American wife, who hates him and is suing for divorce, a missing dancer (all the dancers smoke) who claims to have known the American when she was called something else, the American's lawyer-cum-agent who will procure anything for his client, and a drug-dealing wannabe-investigative journalist.

Through this Charles quaffs Bells and Merlot and has a night of sex in which the lady is so controlling that he feels like an animated dildo!

Charles Paris mysteries are always high on humour and the plot is good enough to give the reader some opportunity to uncover some of the clues. Great fun. July 2015; 186 pages.

Other Simon Brett mysteries on this blog include:

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

"Blow Back" by Peter May

This is a well told story in the thriller-whodunnit genre and it shows all the hallmarks and possesses all the cliches of that genre.

Enzo Macleod, of mixed Scottish and Italian descent working in France, is investigating a set of cold cases made famous in a book written by the ex-lover of the woman by whom he has had a baby who (the author) has just impregnated his older daughter who is not actually his daughter but is the daughter of his ex-wife and her lover, establishing his credentials as a policeman with a horrendously muddled genealogy.

This particular cold case involves the murder of a three-star Michelin chef. Enzo goes to live in the hotel (after placing his younger daughter undercover as an apprentice chef) which gives him ample opportunity to demonstrate his remarkable palate for wines and his own cooking ability.

Another character is the attractive lady gendarme with whom Enzo has an affair and who enables him to show off his knowledge of forensics.

So Enzo is your typical master sleuth, able to fill pages with detail to show off the author's research in an effort to make the whole story seem believable. It's a shame that he himself, the main character, is too good to be true.

There's quite a lot of action: Enzo is shot at twice and his daughter is taken hostage but a surprising dearth of clues. Solving the puzzle is not a major priority for the author.

It is quick and easy to read but it isn't a patch on the other Peter May book I have reviewed on this blog which is Lewis Man.

July 2015; 352 pages

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

"The man within" by Graham Greene

Andrews is running through the woods at night, fleeing the revenge of the smugglers he has betrayed. Se stumbles into Elizabeth's house. He falls in love with her and she persuades him to go to Lewes as a witness in the trial of the smugglers. Consequences ensue.

This was Greene's first novel and it already has his hallmarks: formal dialogue in which the protagonists circle around one another and the issues, and the great moral issues as played out in the lives of ordinary people. For a 21 year old it is brilliant although he later refined his style by making more sparing use of inner monologue. But Andrews thinks he is a coward (he was bullied by his father and the gang of smugglers) and it takes the girl to convince him that he does brave things.

Not Greene's best but still a very good book. July 2015; 221 pages

Other Greene's reviewed in this blog:

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

"The origin of evil" by Ellery Queen

A standard Ellery Queen mystery set, this time, in Hollywood but with the usual suspects:

  • A domineering bully of a man, a captain of industry
  • His wife, the luscious blonde, who makes Ellery and every man go weak at the knees
  • A sinister servant
  • A young girl and a young boy who are destined to fall in love
  • A cop to do the donkey work

The theme is that some crazed killer, bent on revenge, is stalking the businessman leaving cryptic clues (Aristophanes enters at one point). Names come into it as well. We have to swallow some pretty big flies: there is no record of either the businessman or his partner twenty years previously, they have no past; the servant has no past either having been found wandering the streets with amnesia; no-one knows the parentage of the young girl who was a foundling etc.

In the end Ellery solves it of course. Of all the clues that are swimming around, only one is really used. And there is a twist at the end.

Standard hokum. July 2015; 296 pages

Other Ellery Queen novels I have reviewed on this blog are:

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

"Katherine Swynford" by Alison Weir

Kathryn Swynford was a penniless orphan from Hainault in modern-day Belgium who was brought up at the court of Edward III (his wife was from Hainault) and became the mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the richest and most powerful of the King's sons. Her husband's son by his first wife usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II, and founded the Lancaster dynasty leading to Henry V and Henry VI. Other John of Gaunt children became the ancestors of other European royal families inclduing the Spanish and the Portuguese. But the children Kathryn had out of wedlock with John of Gaunt, who were later legitimised by the marriage and Act of Parliament, became the Beauforts who were the ancestors of the Tudors and the Stuarts and thus today's royal family. Furthermore, Kathryn's sister married Geoffrey Chaucer. So Kathryn stands at a pivotal moment in English history. She survived the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt and lived to become (Step)Mother of the King.

And she seems to have been a thoroughly nice woman too! She was beautiful, she was well-educated and intelligent and she certainly knew how to bring up children. Sounds like my wonderful wife!

On the whole this is a well-written book. I was amazed that so many facts could be gleaned from so long ago, mostly from records of grants, from charters and from household accounts. In many cases the facts are suppositions (if someone receives wine as a gift they must be still alive, when they stop drawing their annuity they must have died) but the reconstruction is impressive. But. It does slow down the narrative when we are told exactly what the evidence is for each piece of the jigsaw. I almost wanted a slimmer narrative backed up by copious footnotes that I could have skipped. But that is not the fashion with biographies today.

Almost my favourite bit was the genealogical tables at the back which proved very useful.

Other books on this blog linked to this period include:

Worth reading. July 2015; 282 pages

Friday, 3 July 2015

"Witch wood" by John Buchan

Having read Huntingtower I was prepared to find that Buchan was better than the thriller writer of The Thirty Nine Steps and Prester John that I remembered from my youth but I was not prepared for this. It is a very good book indeed.

It is set in Scotland during the War of the Three Kingdoms and much of the dialogue is in broad lowland Scots which is a challenge. Nevertheless I found myself getting by in it quite comfortably and it was only about two-thirds of the way through that I discovered the glossary in the back!

David Sempril returns to the village where he grew up as the Minister of the Presbyterian Kirk, a rather hell fire and damnation puritanical sect fixed firmly on a retributive God from the Old Testament. He has high hopes of fulfilment in his new role. But on the edges of his parish lurks the Black Wood. Despite the warnings of his housekeeper, the brilliantly characterised Isobel (Buchan describes her "charity seasoned with maledictions") and others, he travels through the wood to rush to the bedside of a dying parishioner. Suddenly the mood turns sombre: "It was as if he had stripped and dived into a stagnant pool." It grows cold and dark as the pines close in. "He recited a psalm, but his voice, for usual notably full and mellow, seemed not to carry a yard." He hears owls and moths flap into his face. His horse shies. Its "flanks were damp with sweat." He is too late. His parishioner has died before he arrives.

And from this begins his descent. That night he meets some soldiers in the woods and guides them to the local laird's house where he encounters a beautiful girl. Later he discovers that these soldiers are Montrose and two of his men, on their way to fight the armies of the Kirk. Then the winter sets in and he is busy rushing around his village trying to keep the poor folk alive. Towards the end of the winter a lot of babies are born out of wedlock; many of them are born dead. Something strange is going on. And then ...

By chance he meets the girl again in a beautiful part of the wood that she calls Paradise. Shortly after that, trying to find the same place after dark, he blunders into the Black Wood and gets lost. Again terror rises. And he stumbles across a coven of witches celebrating a black mass.

Armed with the wrath of the Kirk, he decides to expose the hypocritical parishioners who are selling their souls to the devil. He is repeatedly advised to let things be, by Isobel, by villagers and by his elder priests. But he is determined to prosecute the Satanists. He seeks to spy on their next Black Mass and collects evidence against them. This he lays before the elders of the Kirk, despite being again warned (by them) to let things lie. Then, half way through the book, a simple act of charity puts him on the wrong side of the Law of the Kirk.

There is still so much to come, so much of it inevitable as his life spirals into despair. He is censured. Plague arrives at the village. And finally, when everything has gone wrong, there is a confrontation with the Arch Priest of Satan.

Stunning descriptions, brilliant characters, and a wonderful plot, perfectly paced: this book has it all. It is a classic tragedy of an innocent struggling against the evil of the world. The monolithic Kirk, a religion with no charity, and the dark forces of Satan which seem to be able to destroy at will, are the Scylla and Charybdis between which David is unable to navigate.

Read it! July 2015; 301 pages

Books by John Buchan reviewed in this blog:
  • My very favourite: a historical novel set in Scotland which proved that Buchan really could write: Witch Wood
  • Weird plot, terribly un-PC but with some wonderful characters, a laugh aloud speech, and a real feel for the joys of hunting: John Macnab
  • Well written but with the most ridiculously bonkers plot and some horrible classism, racism and anti-semitism: The Three Hostages 
  • A wonderful description of the Scottish countryside and some fantastic characters and some brilliant counterpointing: Huntingtower
  • Greenmantle: another bonkers plot with weak characters set during the First World War