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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Or not.... apparently... [lol]

Just Finished Reading: Empire and the English Character – The Illusion of Authority by Kathryn Tidrick (FP: 1990)

It’s not often that you come across a work of history authored by someone with a PhD in Psychology and, after reading this quite fascinating volume, I have to say more’s the pity. Coming at the history of the British Empire from a very interesting direction the authors asks the question: What was it about the men who went out to administer the vast and growing Empire that made them capable of dominating huge areas of the globe with often significant populations with little or no assistance from home? Where did this authority come from?

The answer, laid out in just under 300 pages of finely argued, well-illustrated and often delightfully funny examples of men on the very edge of Empire wielding power sometimes with nothing more than a ‘swagger stick’ and an unshakable belief in themselves, their country and their race. Often with these attributes and no other they faced down pirates – famously calling in the aid of the Royal Navy without authority of having a jolly good time giving chase and destroying both their ships and their bases without permission or sanction – or leading detachments of native soldiers against their enemies on the understanding that their chief only stays in power on the sufferance of the Empire and that he would be quite capable and more than willing to lead another native army against them if co-operation was not forthcoming. Often they were the power behind the throne whose ‘advice’ to those officially in power was nothing of the sort. They ran principalities, chiefdoms and entire countries sometimes singlehanded for years before relief, death or nervous breakdown pulled them away.

From the very earliest days these men were chosen for the qualities they would need divorced as they would be from civilisation. Two strands stand out clearly – evangelical Christianity and the English Public school system. Both produced men who absolutely believed in their place at the very pinnacle of human civilisation, not only vastly superior to the ‘brown races’ they would be administrating but also to other ‘white races’ who, as they did not have comparable Empires of their own had shown themselves simply to be far from up to the job. It was the role of these paragons of the British race to bring civilisation to the rest of the world and help bring them into the light of Western Enlightenment. Nothing was mentioned, at least to begin with, of native participation in their own government once it was set up to British standards and certainly nothing resembling independence or even parity in a commonwealth of nations was inconceivable for generations but maybe, just maybe one day when they had shown themselves capable of good behaviour…..

Written at a time when Empire studies was anything but politically correct this was a brave attempt to understand the Empire without having to constantly apologise for its existence. The author does not, however, shrink from the many incidents – from the Indian Mutiny, the massacres of native populations in Africa and elsewhere as well as the day in day out racism, discrimination, abuse and patronising attitude of the British and other European settlers – but she aims to explain why this was so without condoning it or seeing it as irredeemably evil. This I think was an important contribution to understanding why the Empire emerged in the first place, how it was maintain for so long and why it ending comparatively bloodlessly. The authority that the British had over the Empire’s subjects was an illusion but for centuries it was a powerful one. Once the illusion slipped the Empire crumbled with it. This is a fascinating work by a very accomplished author. I am looking forward very much to her other work on Arabia. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 27, 2015

My Favourite Movies: Oblivion (2013)

Late 21st Century Earth – a planet almost destroyed in a war with the alien invaders known as Scavs. Left behind as a ‘mop up crew’ are Jack (played by Tom Cruise) and his controller Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who spend their days finding and repairing downed drones and looking forward to the day – coming soon – when they can leave Earth and join the rest of humanity orbiting Titan. But Jack is plagued by dreams of the past, a past he has no memory of, and a woman he has never met. How can this be after his memory of life before the war has been wiped as a security precaution? On a mission to the surface Jack is almost captured by the group of Scavs and only escapes with the aid of a drone sent by the observation satellite – The Tet. But it is when a signal is discovered broadcasting off planet and with the arrival of an old NASA craft that things start unravelling. On board the crashed ship is the woman in Jack’s dreams who knows him and who makes him realise that everything he believes about his mission and himself is a lie. Once he realises what is happening there is only one thing to do…..

Yes, it’s my non-favourite actor (again) Tom Cruise staring in another of my favourite films – odd that, don’t you think? Actually the whole movie is rather odd in many ways: For one thing it’s all rather bleak, as you might expect from a devastated Earth with the dominant colour being grey. The level of destruction is I admit very impressive and I particularly liked the shot of a destroyed Pentagon building. Overall the look of the movie was very impressive. Not just the dramatic panoramic scenery but the detail too, in the design of Jack’s cloths, his guns and his amazing ‘helicopter’. It looked as if everything had been designed by an engineer and would possibly work if only we had the technology to build such things. The storyline was pretty standard but had some nice twists and turns to it – even if some of them where telegraphed quite early one. Of course there where loose ends – such as what about numbers 1-48 (I’m not going to explain that as it gives a big ‘secret’ away) but they were largely forgivable. If I wanted tight, logical and reasonable plotting I’d read a quality book rather than watch a 2 hour Hollywood movie! Both love interests – Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko – where, I thought, largely disposable and very much secondary to the plot (especially Riseborough unfortunately who I thought was wasted in her role).

This was a film largely based around Jack/Cruise and he did, not unsurprisingly, carry it off rather well. I also thought that Morgan Freeman as the leader of the (inevitable) rebels was wasted too with little more to do than add gravitas with his presence and wonderful voice – something he does effortlessly. The thing I think I liked most about it, apart from the style of the whole thing and the scattering of interesting and clever (if not exactly original) ideas, was the dual ending – both of which I liked. I particularly liked the ‘Fuck you, Sally’ ending (again without explanation as it would give too much away. Overall then this was a stylish, well made, intellectually interesting and fun movie with a good (double bonus) ending(s). I’ve seen it 3-4 times now and I probably enjoy it as much as the first time. If something like that doesn’t make it into my favourites list I don’t know what would.  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Enraged US man shoots his malfunctioning computer

From The BBC

21 April 2015

A man in the US city of Colorado Springs faces police action after becoming so frustrated with his computer that he took it outside and shot it eight times, police say.

"He was having technology problems, so he took it to the back alley and destroyed it," a police spokesman said.Lucas Hinch was briefly detained for discharging a firearm within the city. He did not realise he was breaking the law when he went "Wild West" on his machine, local media reported. A judge is due to decide what penalty he will receive.

"He got tired of fighting with his computer for the last several months," police spokesman Jeff Strossner told the Colorado Springs Gazette. The paper said that Mr Hinch "shot the darn thing" when ctrl+alt+delete - the traditional method used to re-boot computers - "consistently did not work" on Monday evening. "He was able to wreak the kind of revenge most of us only dream about," the
paper said. "The computer is not expected to recover."

[Well, in all my years in IT Support...... LOL]

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Read whenever the opportunity presents itself..........

Just Finished Reading: Trespass by Rose Tremain (FP: 2010)

Fine Art dealer Anthony Verey is starting to feel every one of his 64 years. Clients in his fashionable shop have become few and far between and sales have become even rarer. For the first time in his life he is starting to envy others more than they envy him. It is, he thinks, time for a radical change in his life. Thinking back to the happiest times in his life he thinks about his sister and how she used to protect him from the harsh realities of life. Now living in France with her lover she is ideally placed to help him transition to a better life. Arriving in Sothern France Verey starts a chain of events that will lead to a death and a cleverly constructed act of final revenge after decades of abuse.

This is another one of those books I picked up because it looked interesting and different – not the kind of thing I normally read, a change and all that entails. It was certainly well written and neatly constructed although I had worked out several of the secrets before being revealed by the author. Oddly, despite being interested to see if I was right in my suppositions, I never liked any of the characters portrayed here. Verey himself, his sister and her lover where all in their individual ways broken people but I couldn’t feel much sympathy for any of them. Their situations, I thought, were entirely of their own making. The French lead character Aramon Lunel was distasteful in the extreme and I really didn’t enjoy being inside his head. About the only person that I felt any sympathy for, as well as a grudging respect, was his long suffering sister Audrun who was at the centre of things by about half way through. Of course not having any character to focus my interest on tended to diminish any pleasure I had reading the novel and didn’t exactly aid my reading through it at any speed. It certainly wasn’t a bad book, just a not very enjoyable one (for me at least). Clever, atmospheric, creepy in places and with a reasonably satisfying ending this was worth the price I paid for it but I doubt if I’ll be looking out for this author in future.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book with a one word title – COMPLETE (13/50)]

Monday, April 20, 2015

Thinking About: All You Zombies

It was probably some kind of teenage angst thing but for a while there I really did consider the idea that I might be the only real person alive. I knew (or at least thought I knew) that I was alive and a real person, but what about everyone else? How could I tell? Of course my head was full of new and strange ideas back then as I voraciously consumed large quantities of SF novels so it wasn’t much of a surprise that my mental stability was somewhat out of kilter – and there was the whole teenage hormone thing going on so my poor brain was being poisoned by various nasty chemicals as part of the growing up process. Interestingly I latter discovered that my rather disturbing musings as a teenager is a recognised philosophical problem – that of other minds.

The other minds problem is deceptively simple. Because you have a dialogue with yourself in your own head it stands to reason that you have a mind in which to have these conversations. There is, it seems certain, a self, a directing force, a personality, directing your actions, speaking through your mouth and making decisions about what you do or choose not to do. You are, in other words, a person. But what about everyone else? They may look like you, or enough so as not to produce too much comment, they communicate in ways you expect (most of the time) and, by and large, react to things that you think you’d probably react in those circumstances but how do you know that they’re actually persons like you? But if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck, right? Probably, but it could be a sophisticated machine designed to do just that and only careful examination might reveal that it isn’t what it appears to be at first glance. You might even have to dissect it to find the mechanical parts. You might even have to look at it under a microscope to be sure and what if, after all that investigation, it still seems to be a real duck? Does that actually make it real or just a really, really sophisticated fake?

You can see how ideas like this are dangerous stuff. If you actually believed that other people are not real – no matter what level you investigate them at - then you could, with a clear conscience, do just about anything to them. After all they’re not real so what does it matter? I’m sure that there are people, hopefully locked up and on major medication, who think just that. But the question remains – how can we know that other people are real? The answer, as far as I know, is that we can’t (ever) unless we get around to the technological equivalent of telepathy and even then we have the fall-back position of citing sophisticated technology (or clever fakery) to explain it. Of course to truly function amongst other people (or zombies) you have to assume that they are actually persons and not just refined automata until that is proved otherwise. Would I be totally surprised if someone I knew turned out to be an advanced machine? I don’t know. I might just stand there, smile, and say “I knew it!” Would I be surprised if I turned out to be one too? Probably not. As proven on several occasions when given free reign my scepticism knows no bounds. I can doubt the existence of other people, I can doubt the existence of the world around me (I did wonder that if I could move fast enough would I catch the film crew or set builders on a tea break not expecting me for another 10 minutes) and I can even doubt my own existence when I take the time to think about it. Knowing what is real is, as far as I know, impossible. I suspect things are as they seem to be. I’m not going to walk in front of a bus or out of a high window because I doubt that the world actually exists. After all in you die in The Matrix you die ‘for real’ too, right? Nor am I going to dissect my friends looking for servo motors or silicon chips so don’t worry about it. As to whether or not you guys are actually real…..? Well, I haven’t quite decided yet.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Take one home today....


April 18, 2013

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Kepler mission has discovered two new planetary systems that include three super-Earth-size planets in the "habitable zone," the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet might be suitable for liquid water.

The Kepler-62 system has five planets; 62b, 62c, 62d, 62e and 62f. The Kepler-69 system has two planets; 69b and 69c. Kepler-62e, 62f and 69c are the super-Earth-sized planets.

Two of the newly discovered planets orbit a star smaller and cooler than the sun. Kepler-62f is only 40 percent larger than Earth, making it the exoplanet closest to the size of our planet known in the habitable zone of another star. Kepler-62f is likely to have a rocky composition. Kepler-62e, orbits on the inner edge of the habitable zone and is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. The third planet, Kepler-69c, is 70 percent larger than the size of Earth, and orbits in the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. Astronomers are uncertain about the composition of Kepler-69c, but its orbit of 242 days around a sun-like star resembles that of our neighboring planet Venus. Scientists do not know whether life could exist on the newfound planets, but their discovery signals we are another step closer to finding a world similar to Earth around a star like our sun.

"The Kepler spacecraft has certainly turned out to be a rock star of science," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The discovery of these rocky planets in the habitable zone brings us a bit closer to finding a place like home. It is only a matter of time before we know if the galaxy is home to a multitude of planets like Earth, or if we are a rarity."

The Kepler space telescope, which simultaneously and continuously measures the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, is NASA's first mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets around stars like our sun. Orbiting its star every 122 days, Kepler-62e was the first of these habitable zone planets identified. Kepler-62f, with an orbital period of 267 days, was later found by Eric Agol, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Washington and co-author of a paper on the discoveries published in the journal Science.

The size of Kepler-62f is now measured, but its mass and composition are not. However, based on previous studies of rocky exoplanets similar in size, scientists are able to estimate its mass by association.

"The detection and confirmation of planets is an enormously collaborative effort of talent and resources, and requires expertise from across the scientific community to produce these tremendous results," said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the Kepler-62 system paper in Science. "Kepler has brought a resurgence of astronomical discoveries and we are making excellent progress toward determining if planets like ours are the exception or the rule."

The two habitable zone worlds orbiting Kepler-62 have three companions in orbits closer to their star, two larger than the size of Earth and one about the size of Mars. Kepler-62b, Kepler-62c and Kepler-62d, orbit every five, 12, and 18 days, respectively, making them very hot and inhospitable for life as we know it. The five planets of the Kepler-62 system orbit a star classified as a K2 dwarf, measuring just two-thirds the size of the sun and only one-fifth as bright. At seven billion years old, the star is somewhat older than the sun. It is about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra.

A companion to Kepler 69c, known as Kepler 69b, is more than twice the size of Earth and whizzes around its star every 13 days. The Kepler-69 planets' host star belongs to the same class as our sun, called G-type. It is 93 percent the size of the sun and 80 percent as luminous and is located approximately 2,700 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. "We only know of one star that hosts a planet with life, the sun. Finding a planet in the habitable zone around a star like our sun is a significant milestone toward finding truly Earth-like planets," said Thomas Barclay, Kepler scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute in Sonoma, Calif.,and lead author of the Kepler-69 system discovery published in the Astrophysical Journal.

When a planet candidate transits, or passes in front of the star from the spacecraft's vantage point, a percentage of light from the star is blocked. The resulting dip in the brightness of the starlight reveals the transiting planet's size relative to its star. Using the transit method, Kepler has detected 2,740 candidates. Using various analysis techniques, ground telescopes and other space assets, 122 planets have been confirmed.

Early in the mission, the Kepler telescope primarily found large, gaseous giants in very close orbits of their stars. Known as "hot Jupiters," these are easier to detect due to their size and very short orbital periods. Earth would take three years to accomplish the three transits required to be accepted as a planet candidate. As Kepler continues to observe, transit signals of habitable zone planets the size of Earth orbiting stars like the sun will begin to emerge.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Just Finished Reading: The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong (FP: 2004)

At the tender age of 17 in 1962 Karen Armstrong did something radical which amazed her friends, family and school. It was the 1960’s after all but no one expected this – she became a nun and entered a Catholic Convent. Seven years later, after suffering an increasing number of fainting fits and experiencing other persistent health problems she decided to leave and enter the Secular world. Much to her surprise both her physical and psychological problems increased and she became more divorced from reality. Seeking help she spent several years in therapy to no avail. It was only after another attack that she was finally diagnosed with epilepsy. Only then, once her drug regimen stabilised her condition, could she start to rebuild her life. It was then that things got really difficult.

Still coming to terms with her loss of faith, or actually realising that she never really had much to begin with, as well as a failed academic career she drifting into teaching only to find it both deadly dull and inexplicably stressful. Finally ‘let go’ she thought her future was assured when Chanel 4 TV asked her to present a religious documentary on the life of St Paul. Forced to engage with religion again she found herself strangely captivated and through herself into her work learning not only about Paul but about Judaism and, whilst in the Holy land, about Islam too and became fascinated with their fundamental similarities. But nothing lasts. When her TV career ends as inexplicably as it had begun she is thrown back on her own resources and decides to write a book on the subject at the forefront of her mind – God. Despite discouragement from her publishers that no one (on this side of the Atlantic at least) had much interest in the subject she moved ahead with the project – then came 9/11 with the resultant anti-Islam backlash. Determined that a whole faith should not be tarred by the actions of a few individuals she protested very loudly to that effect and became a religious celebrity because of it. All rather ironic for someone who no longer believed in the teachings of her order and who, for many years after leaving the convent, felt physically ill at the thought of entering a church.

Told with disarming honesty and a desire to uncover the reasons behind her actions this was a very readable biography of a very interesting person. Seeing someone struggle with her faith (or lack of) and trying to come to terms with a very different world outside the convent made me even happier that I have not had to suffer this kind of thing. Never actually having had a faith/belief in God I have not had to suffer though the after effects of losing it. In another world where I was born into a devout Catholic family this could have easily happened. Thankfully neither of my parents professed any religious belief (and indeed I still don’t know if they hold/held any) so I was not burdened with holding or giving it up. The author’s experiences certainly made me appreciate just how difficult this can be. If you’re interested in the faith/no faith struggle or are just interested in an interesting person’s life (or in the author herself after enjoying her books). This is definitely the book for you. Recommended.    

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Memoir – COMPLETE (12/50)]  

Monday, April 13, 2015

Gay penguin story on list of disputed library books

From The BBC

13 April 2015

A picture book about two male penguins raising a baby penguin has again made a list of books to have received the most complaints from library users. And Tango Makes Three came third in a list of titles the American Library Association said had received the most complaints from parents and educators. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian came top of the list. Sherman Alexie's tale of a young Native American at a predominantly white high school was first published in 2007. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a graphic novel about a young Iranian girl growing up in the years after the country's Islamic Revolution, is ranked second.

The list of titles, all of which have been the subject of a formal written complaint, filed with a library or school, requesting they be removed, is compiled annually by the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

The alleged "cultural insensitivity" of Alexie's novel is one of the reasons cited in complaints calling for its removal. And Tango Makes Three - based on a real-life story of two male penguins who hatched an egg at the New York Zoo - is accused of promoting a homosexual agenda. Other titles on the list include Toni Morrison's debut novel The Bluest Eye, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and A Stolen Life, a kidnapping memoir by Jaycee Dugard.

The ALA counted 311 challenges in 2014, roughly the same as were lodged in 2013.

[It does make me laugh somewhat – I stopped being dismayed about such behaviour long ago – when countries who pride themselves on free speech and free expression complain about, or even ban, books because the contents in some way disturb or offend them. There’s an easy solution to that ‘problem’ – don’t read them. But don’t expect your difficulty with certain subjects to be de facto justification for you stopping other people from reading them! Personally I’d want to read a book because it was banned (or was simply controversial) just to see what the fuss was about. Criticising a book makes more people read it not less. If you want a book to fade into obscurity then ignore it. Maybe, just maybe, it will go away….]

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Force young people to vote in elections, think tank says

From The BBC

6 April 2015

Young people should be forced to vote in the first election after they turn 18, a centre-left think tank has said. Making them vote may halt declining election turnouts and could "kick start the habit of a lifetime", the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said. In 2010, 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted, with the "younger and poorer" least likely to vote, it suggested.

The UK risks "sleepwalking into a more divided democracy" unless there is reform, the IPPR's Mat Lawrence said. "The working class and the young have less input into political decision-making processes, with lower rates of participation and representation than older and more affluent citizens," the IPPR report suggested. Such inequalities undermined the "legitimacy and effectiveness" of democracy, the report claimed, saying it was unlikely the trend would be reversed in next month's general election.

At the 1970 general election, the gap between the proportion of 18-24 year olds and over-65s who voted was 18%. However, at the 2010 general election, the gap had risen to 32% - with 76% of over-65s voting, compared to 44% of 18-24 year olds. "Long-run decline in voter turnout in the UK is being driven by the relative collapse in participation among the young and the less well-off - not by a uniform decline in turnout among all groups," Mr Lawrence added. "A distinctive non-voting population, generally younger and poorer, heightens political inequality by giving some groups far greater influence at the ballot box."

The report comes after the voting age was reduced to 16 for the Scottish independence referendum, in September - when 109,593 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote. Mr Lawrence said the high turnout at the referendum, as well as the rise of grassroots groups, provided reasons for optimism.

Broadcaster and author Rick Edwards told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he supported the proposal, saying "something drastic needs to happen" to encourage young people to vote. But he said there would have to be a "none of the above" option on ballot papers, to allow voters to express their dissatisfaction. "The problem is politicians are more interested in serving the interests of the demographic who vote more because they are interested in winning their votes and keeping their votes. Therefore what is happening is that young people are getting marginalised and their interests aren't being served as they should be," he added. He said that if young people felt they were not being spoken to, or were not being paid any attention by politicians, they would be even less likely to vote.

[Of course, rather inevitably and equally rather sadly, they’re looking at it arse backwards. The reason why an increasing number of people don’t vote in local or national elections has little to do with what is often referred to as ‘voter apathy’. I think the reason why people don’t bother voting (which I believe to be a positive act rather than a negative one) is that many of our politicians are simply unworthy of receiving our votes. What politicians and others seem to struggle with is the fact that they are unworthy – because their belief in themselves cannot conceive of such a straightforward answer to the fact of dropping voter engagement. Of course such ‘disengagement’ is shown to be false by events such as the recent Scottish Referendum where people turned out in unprecedented numbers – simply because they believed that the result of the vote mattered. In contrast the results of local elections particularly (where voting numbers can be embarrassingly low) and even in General Elections the result can be viewed as largely irrelevant. As the old saying goes, no matter who you vote for you still get a Government. These days there seems little to distinguish one ‘side’ for the other when ideology is sacrificed in the appeal to the greatest number and where today’s election pledges are tomorrow’s unapologetic irrelevancies. Voting numbers will go up when people feel that their vote matters. Until that day voting will continue to decline and so-called Think Tanks will come up with increasingly stupid and desperate ‘answers’ to this non-problem.]

Friday, April 10, 2015

"What a fearful infliction hero-worship is to its victim. I think it is a great impertinence to praise a man to his face. It implies you are his superior, for the greater praises the smaller; and though that may be the case, it is not necessary to announce it to the smaller."

Charles 'Chinese' Gordon, 1884  

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Taking a break between bouts of book shopping......

Just Finished Reading: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory (FP: 2011)

England, 1568. After a coup in the Scottish court Queen Mary Stewart escapes to England and throws herself at the mercy of her cousin Queen Elizabeth asking for sanctuary and an army to help her restore the Scottish throne to its rightful occupant. But Elizabeth has a problem. Mary is young, beautiful, fertile and a Catholic. She’s also uncontestably in line for the throne of England (and France) in Elizabeth dies or produces no male heirs. Elizabeth meanwhile is aging, approaching the end of her fertile years, unmarried and possibly unmarriageable. Protestant England could die with Elizabeth and Catholic England return forever under Mary and, no doubt, her predicted brood of Catholic children. There is only one clear way forward. Mary must be confined and prevented from gaining her rightful place on any throne. To do that she places this most dangerous woman in the safe keeping of her most trusted servant, George Talbot, Lord High Steward – reputed to be the most honourable man in England. But Elizabeth had not counted on Mary’s intelligence, her ability to scheme and scheme again and her well founded ability to make almost anyone fall in love with her and do her will – even Talbot begins to fall under her spell despite being newly married to his singular wife Elizabeth, known to history as Bess of Hardwick. As conspiracy, rebellion, uprising and possible invasion for the combined forces of France and Spain loom large Bess struggles to keep her finances afloat as she watches Mary weave her spell around her fool of a husband worried that he might take the ultimate gamble and aid her escape - thereby dooming them all.

This is another facet of British history that I knew the outline of but very little of the detail. I had heard or read about the main characters in books both fiction and non-fiction. Bess of Hardwick is a well-known character (yet again I knew of her but had little background detail) who, for me turned out to be the most fascinating character in the book – though I admit that I too felt the pull of Mary Stewart’s beauty – who came from almost nowhere to become one of the richest women in England through her own hard work and business acumen. Her life definitely needs a follow on from this book and one of her biographies is already on its way from Amazon. The overall story – the tragedy of Mary in particular – is fascinating and shows Queen Elizabeth at her controlling, paranoid and fearful worst. As a character on the periphery of this novel she does not come across as either a likable or particularly effective monarch. How true that is I don’t know but the Elizabethan period is definitely continuing to exert its pull on my time and interest. It would probably been a pretty awful time to live in – especially as a Catholic (as I technically am) – and novels such as this remind me that however we might romanticise much of history that they were not pleasant places to be.

Well written, honestly gripping, full of interesting detail, great characterisation and an eye-opening insight into events as they unfolded during one of the most turbulent periods in Elizabeth’s reign. Brilliant and highly recommended.      

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Book based on a true story – COMPLETE (11/50)]