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

Monday, June 30, 2014

My Favourite Movies: The Eagle Has Landed

The war is coming to an end and Germany is staring defeat in the face. But what if they could turn things around or at least have a more favourable negotiated peace? What if they could do something so audacious that the Allies would pause and wonder what to do next? What if a small band of determined men could snatch Winston Churchill and spirit him away to Berlin?

That’s the crazy idea that they come up with in the opening few minutes of this classic war movie (I was watching the extended version which added in lots of the missing background investigation that slowed the action down but proved to be quite interesting). Synchronicity did the rest – Churchill visiting a remote area near the coast and Colonel Kurt Steiner (played a little erratically but generally brilliantly by Michael Caine) being available for the duty after being attached to a punishment unit for annoying a SS General. The agents in place to prepare the ground were Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh) and Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) who dreams of a united Ireland and the love interest – not for Caine but for Sutherland - is Molly Prior (Jenny Agutter). In the extended edition their relationship is much better explained and makes a great deal more sense than in the original cinema version even if, yet again, the action is slowed to a crawl in places. But I both digress and get ahead of myself.

For a war film this has surprisingly little combat. The plot is about suspense rather than action. Will the imposters be discovered? What will happen if/when they are? [There was a superb line spoken by one of the very minor characters when – not exactly a spoiler – the apparent Polish troops turn out to be German’s: “More bloody foreigners” he says. That’s just so British – mildly xenophobic and a huge understatement at the same time!] The action (basically one extended small unit combat scene) was very well done as first the inept and well named Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman above) screws up an assault on the now uncovered Germans and Captain Clark (Treat Williams) who ‘knows what he’s doing’ is much more successful. Another great line from Clark “There is no death with honour, just death” all very 70’s I suppose and maybe a comment on Vietnam buried in there I wonder? It did all seem to be about grand plans and futility. From memory it did follow the original Jack Higgins novel very closely – was the novel also a subtle dig at Vietnam? I don’t know and honestly hadn’t really thought about that aspect until right this minute – interesting the things that through my mind when I’m this tired……

Anyway, this is a classic 1970’s British war film with some fine acting, some definite cheesy bits and a pretty good, if rather outlandish, storyline. Caine is great (as almost always) with Sutherland a close second (I wonder if I liked him so much for his irreverence as much as his Irish sympathies – to say nothing of his attraction to Agutter!) All in all this is light, unthinking fun which you should let wash over you on a lazy Saturday afternoon, just as I did. I would recommend the shorter cinema version though. Seeing the extra scenes was interesting but they added very little to the film and I can see why they had originally been edited out.  

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Too cute................
Extreme Life Forms Might be Able to Survive on Eccentric Exoplanets 


Sept. 11, 2012

Astronomers have discovered a veritable rogues' gallery of odd exoplanets -- from scorching hot worlds with molten surfaces to frigid ice balls. And while the hunt continues for the elusive "blue dot" -- a planet with roughly the same characteristics as Earth -- new research reveals that life might actually be able to survive on some of the many exoplanetary oddballs that exist.

"When we're talking about a habitable planet, we're talking about a world where liquid water can exist," said Stephen Kane, a scientist with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "A planet needs to be the right distance from its star -- not too hot and not too cold." Determined by the size and heat of the star, this temperature range is commonly referred to as the "habitable zone" around a star. Kane and fellow Exoplanet Science Institute scientist Dawn Gelino have created a resource called the “Habitable Zone Gallery.” It calculates the size and distance of the habitable zone for each exoplanetary system that has been discovered and shows which exoplanets orbit in this so-called “goldilocks” zone.

But not all exoplanets have Earth-like orbits that remain at a fairly constant distance from their stars. One of the unexpected revelations of planet hunting has been that many planets travel in very oblong, eccentric orbits that vary greatly in distance from their stars. "Planets like these may spend some, but not all of their time in the habitable zone," Kane said. "You might have a world that heats up for brief periods in between long, cold winters, or you might have brief spikes of very hot conditions."

Though planets like these would be very different from Earth, this might not preclude them from being able to support alien life. "Scientists have found microscopic life forms on Earth that can survive all kinds of extreme conditions," Kane said. "Some organisms can basically drop their metabolism to zero to survive very long-lasting, cold conditions. We know that others can withstand very extreme heat conditions if they have a protective layer of rock or water. There have even been studies performed on Earth-based spores, bacteria and lichens, which show they can survive in both harsh environments on Earth and the extreme conditions of space." Kane and Gelino's research suggests that habitable zone around stars might be larger than once thought, and that planets that might be hostile to human life might be the perfect place for extremophiles, like lichens and bacteria, to survive. "Life evolved on Earth at a very early stage in the planet's development, under conditions much harsher than they are today," Kane said.

Kane explained that many life-harboring worlds might not be planets at all, but rather moons of larger, gas-giant planets like Jupiter in our own solar system. "There are lots of giant planets out there, and all of them may have moons, if they are like the giant planets in the solar system," Kane says. "A moon of a planet that is in or spends time in a habitable zone can be habitable itself." As an example, Kane mentioned Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which, despite its thick atmosphere, is far too distant from the sun and too cold for life as we know it to exist on its surface. "If you moved Titan closer in to the sun, it would have lots of water vapor and very favorable conditions for life."

Kane is quick to point out that there are limits to what scientists can presently determine about habitability on already-discovered exoplanets. "It's difficult to really know about a planet when you don't have any knowledge about its atmosphere," he said. For example, both Earth and Venus experience an atmospheric "greenhouse effect" -- but the runaway effect on Venus makes it the hottest place in the solar system. "Without analogues in our own solar system, it's difficult to know precisely what a habitable moon or eccentric planet orbit would look like." Still, the research suggests that habitability might exist in many forms in the galaxy -- not just on planets that look like our own. Kane and Gelino are hard at work determining which already-discovered exoplanets might be candidates for extremophile life or habitable moons. "There are lots of eccentric and gas giant planet discoveries," Kane says. "We may find some surprises out there as we start to determine exactly what we consider habitable."

[I think that we’ve been rather overcautious about ‘habitable zones’ for a while now. Life on Earth has a habit of surprising us with its tenacity to survive and thrive in what we would consider to be very hostile environments, be they too hot, too cold, too dry or too toxic to be the home for more ‘mainstream’ life forms. If the variety and bizarre nature of life on this planet tells us anything it’s that once life gets a hold anywhere it is very difficult to kill no matter what nature throws at it. If it has the ability and the time to adapt then life can cling on – and grow! – in a surprising range of environments well outside what we generally call the ‘habitable zone’. When we do find life out there eventually I think the width of that zone can only increase.]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett (FP: 2010)

It all started simply enough with just another body in the canal. Not exactly an unusual occurrence in that part of town during the early morning shift. As it was close enough to the Industrial district they called in Company Investigator Cyril Hayes – just in case the floater turned out to be another Union guy. There had been quite a few Union guys showing up dead lately as the not so secret conflict between the McNaughton Corporation and the Union heated up. But there was little that Hayes could do. He was much better with the living than the dead. His talent (or his curse depending on your viewpoint) was getting inside the heads of suspects and, within a few hours, becoming their best pals and being allowed into their darkest secret places. He wasn’t really an addict or a drunk though. The alcohol and the opium he used with increasing frequency was just to deaden the voices and the memories, some his own some not, that threatened to push him over the edge. But these days Hayes is operating under a black cloud because an important member of the Corporation he was supposed to be gently questioning to test their loyalty decided to see if he could fly out of a particularly high building. Well, he couldn’t. To keep him in line and to keep tabs on him the Corporation has assigned him a minder, an assistant, a jailer all wrapped up in a keen young woman trying to prove herself to her new employer. As she follows Hayes and reports back on his investigation it becomes obvious that something deeply mysterious is happening at the very heart of McNaughton – much more than the invention of strange machines that have transformed the world, much more than bizarre deaths and even more bizarre ‘sightings’ across the city, much more than the strange whisperings in the night and in the dark places under the city streets. Something is not quite right and Hayes is determined to get to the bottom of things – no matter the consequences for himself or his very powerful employers.

This was a very, very strange book. For over half way I had no real idea what was going on – in a good way. The tone was Noir with an interesting Steampunk overlay (mostly because of the Zeppelins). I had lots of theories to explain the strange happenings and often equally strange executives. One by one I had to abandon them to home in on an explanation – only to be proven wrong. The end, when it came, was odd, interesting and rather intriguing – if somewhat (though only somewhat) of a let-down maybe because it simply wasn’t what I was expecting. The writing was excellent though. Hayes was a great character and the environment he inhabited well drawn being both familiar and hauntingly strange. It certainly had me gripped and continually turning pages to find out exactly what the hell was going on! Although a little overblown in places and, from time to time, a bit too clever for its own good this was still a good strong read that kept me wondering and pondering for most of its 454 pages. Recommended to anyone wanting something very different indeed.    

Monday, June 23, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Architecture of Failure by Douglas Murphy (FP: 2012)

This was rather an odd one. I don’t just mean that it was the edge of my comfort zone but odd in another way. Despite understanding about 80% of the book – the rest being, as far as I could tell, rather esoteric architecture speak with a dollop of post-modern French philosophy thrown in for good measure – I’m still not exactly sure what it was actually about.

The first half of the book was very straight forward and related the rather strange, if now largely forgotten, ‘craze’ in the mid-19th to early 20th century of building huge enclosed spaces for various exhibitions and expositions around the world the earliest (and arguably most famous) being the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace (interestingly a phrase first used as a rather disparaging joke). Although very successful in its own right it was always designed to be a purely temporary affair and was dismantled before it fell out of fashion or favour with the general public. Future ‘crystal palaces’ generally faired far worse as they lost money, sought in vain for a reason to exist and finally collapsed into 3rd rate ruin. The only survivors of this early craze for cast-iron and glass are (rather bizarrely) the classic red British telephone box and, more well known for this sort of thing, the Eiffel Tower which was incredibly scheduled to be demolished after the Paris Exhibition but saved by a public outcry.

OK, that was the easy part – basically 76 pages of architectural and engineering history with a few references to capitalism and the emergence of consumerism (as well as the widespread fear of working class revolution). So far so good. The second part befuddled me somewhat. In it, the author used various architectural philosophical viewpoints to analyse what he had already presented as well as more modern examples of architecture ‘gone wrong’. This is where he lost me. Talk of the ‘cult of the engineer’ I could cope with. Arguments about the meaning of modernity I could follow. When he started debating the differences, strengths and weaknesses of Solutionism, Iconism and Virtualism he left me standing a bit looking like I’d just been slapped in the face with a wet fish. I think I got the gist but I may have missed his point completely. I think what he was saying that much of modern architecture (from the mid-19th century onwards) can be seen as a failure because the human scale had been forgotten. That buildings are designed to ‘solve’ problems that don’t really exist, that often buildings are designed and finally built as prestige projects rather than fulfilling an actual human need. That the wow factor is far more important for the client (or actually the client’s shareholders) than whether the toilets or the lifts work. After all that’s the engineers problem. Added to this is the fact that with Computer Aided Design, not only can a lot of the drudge be taken out of design work it allows the architect to design buildings at the very edge of engineering and materials technology capability – just because he can.

Whilst interesting in many ways – which it was – I can’t say that I enjoyed this short book. It certainly hasn’t put me off reading more art, design or architecture books but I think this may have been too early for me and too theory heavy to really be much of a page turner.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Male Voice

I’ve already mentioned several times that I have a deep attraction for the female voice and that many of my favourite musical artists are female. There’s something about their voices that I find profoundly pleasing. But I do like, indeed love, a number of male voices too. So here they are – in no particular order. As previously if they’re a lead singer in a group (and it isn’t obvious) the group’s name will be in brackets following the singer’s name.

David Draiman (Disturbed)
Mick Jagger
Bryan Ferry
Paul Monahan (Train)
David Sylvian (Japan)
Aaron Lewis (Stained)
Gary Lightbody (Snow Patrol)
Bob Dylan
Gary Numan
Johnny Cash
Lou Reed
Paul Weller
Chris Rea
Lenny Kravitz
Jared Leto (30 Seconds to Mars)
David Bowie
Frank Sinatra
Jon Bon Jovi
Ian Curtis (Joy Division)
Bruce Springsteen
Marc Bolan
Kurt Cobain
John Foxx
Steve Strange (Visage)
Terence Trent D’Arby
Jimi Hendrix
Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)
Thom Yorke (Radiohead)
Freddie Mercury
Neil Young
Marilyn Manson
Leonard Cohen
Mike Hutchence (INXS)
Adam Ant

I’ve inevitably missed people out but the list was getting surprisingly long. I think there’s a nice mix there but then again I have pretty wide tastes in most things so it keeps my listening interesting.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Coronel and The Falklands by Geoffrey Bennett (FP: 1962)

The British Navy Strategy in WW1 was deceptively simple. Concentrate the bulk of the British Forces at Scapa Flow and effectively blockade the German Imperial Navy it its harbours for the duration. With the German Navy neutralised in this way the left over British Forces could protect its merchant fleet as well as the far flung Empire whilst denying the use of the sea to its Enemies and their Allies. Unfortunately Germany knew all too well what the British intended so sent out a significant number of cruisers before war was declared with the express intention of using them as global commerce raiders. Needless to say the object of the British Forces positioned across the globe was to find and destroy these ships before they could do much harm. But the oceans are very large, especially to ships without radar, air reconnaissance and with only primitive short range radio’s. Inevitably a deadly cat and mouse game began as cruiser hunted cruiser. In this game the Germans where at a distinct disadvantage. Out of touch with home base for much of the time they were thrown back on their own initiative and their own resources (often taken from captured shipping or friendly ports as well as a few coal ships dispatched before war broke out). Worse was the lack of repair facilities outside Europe. The Germans relied on stealth, intimidation, luck and an extensive South American spy operation.

The British, meanwhile, held most of the cards (knew this) and had centuries of tradition to prove that the British Navy was practically untouchable anywhere they went. Unfortunately no one seemed to have fully explained this to Vice Admiral Graf von Spee, Commander of the German East Asiatic Squadron. Searching for Spee was Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock leading a rag-tag rather thrown together fleet of cruisers, armed merchantmen and an aging battleship from a by-gone age. Facing him, the Germans crewed state of the art armoured cruisers famed (rightly) for their crew’s efficiency and gunnery. Finally bumping into each other by accident of the Chilean port of Coronel Admiral Cradock decided to engage the enemy despite being outnumbered, outgunned and beset by bad weather. To top off everything else the sun was setting behind his ships nicely highlighting their positions. Seemingly to the Admiralties surprise and dismay the British Force was roundly beaten with heavy losses whilst the German ships took hardly any damage at all. The shock to the British people and especially the Royal Navy was profound. Nothing as disastrous as this had happened for generations. After much soul searching, recriminations, accusations and name calling the British Navy sent out over 30 ships into the area looking for the German squadron and for revenge. It was not long coming.

The nearest base to the action was that on the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Here Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee decided to concentrate his forces prior to sending out ships to search for the enemy in the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Arriving later than expected he ordered all of his ships to rearm, coal and load supplies for the long voyages ahead. Unknown to him and his men aboard the capital ships around him the German Forces had already left the Pacific after been ordered to head for home port. On the way they intended to attack any targets of opportunity that presented themselves – starting with the British outpost on the Falklands.  Seeing the British ships in harbour and quickly engaged by the grounded Battleship, the Germans reversed course and made for the open sea. Unable to pursue until steam had been raised the Admiral did the only thing he could – have breakfast. As they left harbour less than an hour later the Admiral gave the order than every naval man dreams of: General Pursuit! The chase and subsequent exchanges lasted the rest of the day but gradually and inevitably the German ships were caught, engaged and destroyed except for a single light cruiser who managed to escape. So ended the threat from the German squadron though the fighting itself was far from over as the fabled Emden had already been dispatched into the Indian Ocean to cause untold havoc (but that’s another story!)

I bought this book about 40 years ago (I kid you not) and this is the first time I’ve read it from cover to cover. I bought it because I had joined the school War Game Club – I was a Geek even then - and the Battle of Coronel was the first one we ever fought on a table top. It was an interesting challenge to play the British. The trick was to survive long enough (10 simulated hours if memory served) to allow the old Battleship to catch up and beat off the German cruisers! So it was a great deal of fun, with a significant dollop of nostalgia, to finally read the full story of what really happened. Told with great style (and great photographs) this is a masterful study of sea battles largely forgotten in places far, far away. The author shows the courage and heroism displayed on both sides in a gentleman’s war fought with fair, style and not a little charm. It was a type of warfare rapidly going out of style in the killing fields of the Western Front and beyond. A delight to read and much recommended to anyone interesting in this little known aspect of WW1.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Unstoppable

Will (played excellently by Chris Pine) is having a really bad first day on the job. Being the new guy, being young and being related to one of the bosses doesn’t help his integration into the new team of hard living and soon to be unemployed railwaymen in Pennsylvania. On top of that the restraining order put in place by his wife has been extended a further 30 days which means he’ll be sleeping on his brothers couch for a while longer yet. The driver of the train isn’t really helping. With only 25 days left to serve, Frank (played always superbly by Denzel Washington) isn’t allowing him any slack whatsoever. But things only become really tense when Will accidently hooks up a few extra trucks to the load being pulled and puts their lives in danger when they need to make an emergency diversion to avoid a runaway train. Determined to do something to stop the runaway crashing into a highly populated area Will and Frank give chase in their locomotive. Going against Company orders but aided by the local sector controller Connie (played impressively by Rosario Dawson) they literally must race against time to save thousands of lives – including Will’s wife and child.

This is a very simple film full of clichés. Hard working, simple folk working long hours for little pay and less recognition face down the ‘Company’ who are only interested in the bottom line (and avoiding litigation) in order to save other hard working folks in danger by simply being in the wrong place. Two heroes, both with troubled lives and troubled relationships who decide to do what’s right – rather than what’s expedient or what they are told to do – thereby saving the day, bonding and saving their relationships at home. You get my drift. It is very easy to be massively cynical about this film and just regard it as a slice of typical Hollywood cheese – and you’d be dead wrong.

This film is well acted, very well directed by Tony Scott (of Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, Man on Fire, Déjà vu and Pelham 123 fame), well-paced, has great cinematography, is honestly gripping and above all else highly entertaining in ways that most movies simply aren’t these days. This is simple, straight forward storytelling based on a true incident told in an exciting way – even when you’re aware of the outcome. This won’t exactly tax your brain in any way whatsoever but that can be a good thing! Kick off your shoes, unplug your phone, have a drink and snack to hand and just relax with 94 minutes of tension and mayhem. It’s a blast from beginning to end. Enjoy!        

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Iraq? (Again…..)

So, is anyone else not in the least bit surprised by the Iraq situation at the moment? Obviously I’m not alone in thinking that the country would quickly descend into chaos and civil war as soon as Coalition Forces left but I think that quite a few people have been surprised by just how quickly the whole thing collapsed after the first push. It appears that all of the time, effort and money spent building up the Iraq defence forces and police which had, apparently, arrived at the stage where they could now protect themselves has been a complete waste of time. Even worse it looks like the time, effort, money and blood expended in turning around a failed state and creating a self-governing country (a democracy even) has itself been a colossal waste in every sense of the word. If the Iraqi government don’t get a handle on things soon – which is looking increasingly unlikely – the country will be back at square one or actually before square one as the three sides involved slug it out in the desert for control. Of course, as the map below shows, Iraq isn’t really a country anyway (the straight line borders are always a give-away of this sort of thing. Iraq as a country was manufactured by the European Powers) which mean that the people living inside its borders don’t automatically see themselves as the same people, instead they are Kurd, Sunni and Shi’a first and possibly Iraqi a poor second at the very best. Little surprise then that they fall on each other given the opportunity.

So, what now? Do we get involved in a Third Iraq War? Good God, I hope not! I really don’t think that the electorate of any Western country would stand for that. There might be some airstrikes and cruise missiles fired at tempting targets but there’s probably very little that such things can do to 'help' and there’s probably little appetite even for those limited measures. Maybe this ‘insurgency’ will teach the West not to get involved in these internal regional conflicts in the future (one can but hope) but whatever happens and whatever we do (or don’t do) it’s not going to be over quickly and it isn’t going to be pleasant for anyone involved.    

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Try picking on a planet your own size......

Just Finished Reading: Resistance by Owen Sheers (FP: 2007)

England, 1944. After the disaster on the Normandy beaches the shattered British and Allied forces brace themselves for the inevitable counterstrike. When it comes the German forces, fresh from their victories in the East, quickly gain a beach head and begin to move inland for the long awaited victory over their only remaining opponent in Europe. Meanwhile in rural Wales life goes on as it always has. The war is still far away and the crops need to be harvested. Convinced that the war will pass them by the residents of the border Olchon valley ignore the radio reports of disaster and get on with their lives. Until one morning the women wake to discover that their men have all vanished in the night apparently to join the emerging resistance to German occupation. Much to the women’s surprise and dismay a small German contingent enter the valley with the advertised mission of setting up a radio station before moving on. But trapped by a sudden heavy snowfall the German troops, led by Captain Albrecht Wolfram, decide to sit out the war for a few months in the hope and expectation that it will all be over by the time the snow melts. At first wary of each other the German troops and the local women gradually see that their survival during the harsh winter depends far more on co-operation than resistance. But how far can you go before you collaborate with the enemy and what are the Germans really in the valley for anyway?

I saw the movie of this book some years ago and thought it was reasonable. The book is, as they often are, much better and the main characters – the Captain and his ‘love interest’ Sarah – are particularly well drawn (I really liked the Captain). I had more of a problem with the premise that the D-Day landings would fail so spectacularly that England is invaded and put in real peril. The author does explain, at least in part, that the world in the novel is very different from our world but I still doubt that events portrayed in the book could have come to pass in the way they did. Maybe part of that was I didn’t like seeing England invaded so easily and Allied troops defeated at every turn. Despite those misgivings I did, generally, enjoy this book quite a lot. It was a little slow in places with somewhat less tension that I’d have liked. He handled the sense of isolation (on both sides) well and didn’t go for the easy romantic options that some others might have gone for (for which I was grateful) and much of the characterisation all round rang true.

One thing I did notice immediately. This is the author’s first novel (which is rather impressive considering the strength of the story) but his previously published works have been poetry – and you can tell in his use of prose. It is a very well-crafted novel and you can tell that his choice of practically every word is very deliberate and that, for me at least, distracted from the story. It did seem that the author valued a well turned phrase (and this novel had many of them) more highly that a plot required to move the story along. This wasn’t a bad book by any means but, again for me, there was something missing at the heart of it. An absence most notable which seemed to constantly tug at my consciousness and constantly remind me that I was reading a novel. It’s difficult to explain but I think if he’d turned the absence into an actual presence then this could have been something quite exceptional – but I’m guessing (OK, I’m pretty confident) that the absence I felt was fully intended by the author. Unfortunately for me, that really didn’t work. Interesting and still recommended as something worth reading but it didn’t really float my boat.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Just Finished Reading: What Matters in Jane Austen? – Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan (FP: 2012)

Yes, yet another book I picked up in the 3 for 2 (actually buy 1 get one half price) deal in my local Waterstone’s book shop. But honestly, how could I not buy this? After all I am a huge Austen fan and have red four out of her six novels so far. I still wonder what she could have produced as she matured rather than being cut down at a ridiculous age. But anyway, I digress as always.

Here, renowned book critic and expert on all things Austen looks at her works and asks 20 apparently simple questions about her work. Each question teases out various aspects of her work and the author uses all six books plus her unpublished last novel and personal letters to friends and family, as well as reflections on the age which brought her works to prominence, to both deepen and widen the discussion and to discover exactly what Austen meant in her work. Some of his speculation and analysis came as a surprise – often of delight – as he teased out hidden meanings, in jokes, hidden critique of social convention and the subversion of form most of which had initially (on my first reading of her books to date) gone completely over my head. Not surprisingly I have been tempted to re-read P&P, Persuasion and Emma again so I can ‘see’ for myself his loving analysis of the text. Funnily I couldn’t help thinking that my avoiding of much Lit Crit to date and my historic avoidance of English Lit at school (I just wanted to read books rather than have them ruined by too much explanation) was misguided at least. The author brought out themes and ideas that had not crossed my mind – until now that is! I think that my reading of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park will be quite a different process than her previous 4. I fully expect that, after reading this book, I shall be reading Austen with enhanced pleasure rather than reduced please through over-analysis – at least I do hope so!

But the questions, what are they? How much does age matter? [Lots], Do Sisters Sleep Together? [a cheeky one, this one with some interesting asides on the lesbian question…..], What Do Characters Call Each Other? [an interesting discussion on protocol and the importance of names in showing relationships – both existing and would-be], How Do Jane Austen’s Characters Look? [Starting with the fact that both Gwyneth Paltrow and Keira Knightley where seriously miscast as the heroines of two recent film adaptations the author discusses just how little we know about Austen’s characters looks], Who Dies in the Course of Her Novels? [just two people apparently…. This was one of my favourite chapters in this book – despite its rather morbid subject – with a fascinating discussion of mortality in Jane Austen’s real world and how it translated into her works], Why Is It Risky to Go to the Seaside? [deeply humorous here as the debate rages between the health giving aspects and potential moral degeneration associated with the sea], Why Is the Weather Important? [one word – randomness], So We Ever See the Lower Classes? [apparently much more than I thought: though I’m not totally convinced by his argument], Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels? [several, all for interesting reasons], What Games Do Characters Play? [my second favourite chapter as it explains why certain games are played in her books and what they signified. Seemingly a game of cards is not just a game of cards], Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? [surprisingly – yes.], What Do Chracters Say When the Heroine Is Not There? [a fascinating chapter which gets to the heart of Austen’s sometimes deeply subversive style], How Much Money Is Enough? [a central theme in Austen most especially to women], Why Do Her Plots Rely on Blunders? [let me count the ways…. A gem of a chapter this one], What Do Characters Read? [funny this – especially when fictional characters read fiction in books including some that Austen herself had read], Are Ill People Really to Blame for Their Illnesses? [illness, both real and imagined, pervades much of Austen’s work which is understandable when you consider just how dangerous being ill really was then], What Makes Characters Blush? [a delightful chapter drawing on Austen revealing her characters inner emotions – often open to misinterpretation by others], What Are the Right and Wrong Ways to Propose Marriage? [another surprising chapter with answers I certainly did not expect], When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader? [well, this came as a bit of a shock as I hadn’t realised she did so much – and so well so as not to disturb the narrative] and finally How Experimental a Novelist Is Jane Austen? [very, it would seem!]

If you’re an Austen fan or are someone who wonders what all the fuss is about then this is most definitely the book for you. I for one will be looking at her work in a different light from now on and even might break my unofficial rule of never re-reading a book (through lack of time). Maybe P&P could do with a revisit armed with my new insights? It’s a thought…..