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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Prestige by Christopher Priest (FP: 1995) [360pp] 

Andrew Westly always seemed to get the strange ones – the stories that often led nowhere and always ended up buried deep in the paper. This time he was investigating stories of a cult leader who had apparently appeared at a conference despite being in prison in the US. But it only got weirder from there. Lady Katherine Angier had quite a story to tell even if it wasn’t the one he expected to hear. The tale dated back to the turn of the century when two feuding stage magicians attempted to out-do each other in being the talk of the town and retaining top billing in their theatre appearances. Always looking for a trick or spectacle that the other couldn’t possibly replicate, until one, Kate’s ancestor went further than anyone thought possible – but at great personal cost. The other magician, Andrew’s ancestor, recognised he had finally been defeated but left a legacy that Andrew had been struggling with since he was adopted many years before. He has always imagined that he was a twin, separated from his brother but still connected somehow. Unfortunately for him, he was going to find out the truth that very night... 

I remember enjoying the 2006 movie adaptation by Christopher Nolan starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johanssen. Although the core of the book is largely the same, the wrapping, narrative thrust and conclusion are all very, very different. The main story is told in a series of flashbacks and diary entries of both magicians, so we periodically get the same story from both sides (which does nothing for the speed of the narrative) resulting in interesting and sometimes annoying “echoes”. Even without these distractions and diversions the story is often a slow one as both magicians perfect their trade and begin to compete with each other. It might have been that I have limited knowledge and a lack of interest in 19th/early 20th century popular theatre, but I didn’t exactly find this page turning stuff. This was odd as I’m a fan of the author and have read 7 of his novels previously and have enjoyed all of them – and often very much so. This is one reason why I hesitate to regard this as a bad book. It’s possible of course that the author simply dropped the ball here or that the story simply didn’t appeal to me – unlike the others – but I do wonder if it wasn’t just me. I mean, the story itself was interesting with a scientific ‘twist’ that might have been more intriguing if I hadn’t already seen the movie. So, in this case, the prestige – the WOW effect of the trick – was already known, although it's somewhat different in the book that the film. Maybe that’s the reason – the surprise simply wasn’t surprising. On the other hand, the author did take his merry time getting there so there was that. I think what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t enjoy this much, although other people may do so. It hasn’t put me off the author (a score of 7-1 isn’t bad!) and you’ll be seeing his name again here no doubt. Reasonable.  

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Monday, March 20, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Nanny State Made me – In Search of a Better Britain/A Story of Britain and How to Save It by Stuart Maconie (FP: 2020) [281pp] 

I picked this up for several reasons in addition to the standard ‘Buy one get one Half price’ deal: It was about the Welfare State, it was written by someone I’m aware of and haven’t read anything by him before and it was (by and large) about the North or at the very least from a Northern perspective. Although initially it took me a while to settle into this rather rambling narrative at times, I ended up liking it quite a bit. I’d heard the author talk several times on TV (he worked/works for the BBC), so I actually ‘heard’ him chat away in his own voice in my head as I read along – and ‘chat’ was definitely the word here. 

Part history of, and indeed love letter to, the Welfare State (although in nothing like the detail of my previous book on the subject naturally), part polemic against those who opposed its founding and are even now trying to dismantle it and part autobiography, this was an interesting look into the impact the Welfare State had on also all of us growing up in Britain. Very early on the author makes a very valid (and funny) point. Those in positions of power who disparage the Welfare State by calling it a ‘Nanny State’ are the only ones who HAD nannies – unlike the rest of us. It is, I think, a telling argument. It is only our ‘betters’ who generally oppose a system that is meant to alleviate the conditions that prevailed before its arrival in the late 1940’s - poverty, ill health, ignorance and poor-quality housing. Using his own life story growing up in the North of England – primarily in Wigan, a mere 7 miles where I was coming of age around the same time – as well as fellow beneficiaries of Welfare provision (from schools, libraries, doctors and public parks) this was a very personal ‘take’ on the making of modern Britain. Naturally, given the state of things, this is not simply a tale of good news, a tale of community over greed or a tale of civil society over wealth inequality. It is also a defence of the provision of welfare in all its aspects in an environment where such a provision is under attack as never before, from library closures, privatisation of bus services, ‘redevelopment’ of public parks, the lack of social housing, and the chronic underfunding of so many of the services so many rely on. 

Reading through this rambling but often entertaining (with laugh out loud moments) narrative, I was struck time and again by the close correspondences with my own life. The author was born 18 months after and 11 miles further east than me. He spent his formative years in and around Wigan – only 7 miles away where I lived ages 10-23 – and even taught (briefly) in Skelmersdale College only 2 years after I left with good enough A Levels to attend University. So, we almost met (as he taught Sociology – a subject I took at the College). Weird! Inevitably this was, in many ways, a cosy comfortable read being focused (mostly) on life in the North of England in the years I lived there. Interesting and informative on many levels and full of interesting insights and people this is a great piece of social history. Definitely recommended to anyone who wants to understand how the Welfare State works at the ‘coalface’ and what its loss would mean to so many. More from this author to come I think!

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Saturday, March 18, 2023

(The Lack of) Women Authors 

Prompted by a recent post over at Stephen’s place (Reading Freely) I began wondering just how many female authors I’ve been reading over the last 10 years. I had a pretty good idea that it’d be fairly low – I'd estimate about 20-25% of the total – but surprised myself that even the few authors I did read tended to only have a single book reviewed here. But, so as not to have a (actually not that) long list of such ‘one-offs’ I thought I’d only list authors that have managed to snag my interest more than once. Some of the usual/expected suspects are there but one – Alison Weir – is notable by her absence. I only have a single recorded read of hers in the last 10 years! Amazing! Anyway, this is the list from 4th March 2013: 

Philippa Gregory         

Suzanne Collins 3  

Juliet Nicolson

Agatha Christie

Veronica Roth         

Amanda Hemingway     

Mary Beard         

Alice Roberts         

Helen Rappaport         

So, not exactly an impressive list after TEN years! Inevitably, going through my reviews it become very clear that not only have I read many more male authors, but I’ve also tended to read many more books by those authors too. I’ll post something on that in the next few weeks. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve a 50/50 split between male/female authors for a host of reasons, but I’ll see if I can reduce the distance between them a little going forward. It’ll be interesting (for me anyway!) to see where I stand in a year's time.