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

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Going outside? Erm... Let me think about it for a few more months....

Just Finished Reading: The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (FP: 1957)

Post war America had a problem, actually a gigantic problem. During WW2 the US had become the de facto ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ producing war products on a staggering scale. Once the war was done though this manufacturing capacity – especially for military products – was no longer required in anything like that amount. So as factories converted back to civilian use it was soon discovered that domestic demand was nowhere near enough to sustain that kind of production. America’s natural overseas consumers where still recovering from the wars destruction and it was going to take some time before they could buy American products. It was down to the US consumer to take up the slack. But the average American, rich as they were (comparatively with the rest of the planet) could only buy so much or, put bluntly, wanted so much. They needed to be encouraged to consume more but standard advertising just wasn’t cutting it. Something new was required. Fortunately something new was readily available – Psychology, Psychiatry and Social Anthropology. These comparatively new social sciences were just the things that Madison Avenue needed to boost sales and boost them they did – spectacularly. With ever more sophisticated techniques being used and with more and more agencies getting on board with the new way of doing things America experienced a consumer boom the likes of which had not been seen before. Profits increased month on month, products left the factories and warehouses on the way to American (and later foreign) homes and everyone was happy – except for the end user who, to maintain economic growth, had to be forever dissatisfied with the products he now owned and the life he now lived. Welcome to the Consumer Society.

Looking back over 50 years after this classic expose of the new marketing techniques first print run the author sounds sweetly na├»ve. If he assessed today’s advertising industry with the same eyes he would be both shocked and appalled. The first thing that jumped out at me in this admittedly fascinating slim volume was the fact that the solution to ‘over production’ of actually cutting back on manufacturing rather than coming up with clever ways to convince people to buy things they didn’t need (or often want) with money they didn’t have (interestingly the author talked about the possibility of a future debt crisis and wondered about the rationality of an economy based on consumer borrowing) to impress people they didn’t know or like. More than one reference was made to car manufacturers who ignored the consumer requests for more fuel efficiency and, instead, produced larger cars so that their profit margin increased – manipulating their customer base to believe that bigger cars were a sign of success (and manliness) whist at the same time convincing their wives that big means safe no matter how they actually drove. The other thing that truly fascinated me throughout the entire work was, most likely, completely unintended. As with many older books the author was leaving many things either unstated or unjustified because they were obvious to everyone – himself and his readership. For example there was no need to explain or defend the patriarchy or even/especially consumer capitalism. At one point he discussed mental disorders – including homosexuality. Naturally cigarettes loomed large throughout the narrative and he referenced more than once ‘the recent cancer scare’ which the tobacco companies where doing everything to undercut. Reading between the lines I suggest that the author simply didn’t believe the cigarettes caused cancer. One other thing that really jumped out at me – again throughout the book those being interviewed both within and outside the advertising industry constantly complained that US citizens consistently failed to conform to any standards that could be easily dealt with. They were just too individualistic. But, they hoped, they could tap into a deep need for them to be accepted by their peers and not be seen to be strange or ‘un-American’ and use this to produce more conformity in the market in order to more control sales. Finally I couldn’t help but smile as the author ruminated on the idea of ‘packaging’ political candidates in order to ‘sell’ them to the public – in other words the idea of political parties or individual politicians becoming ‘brands’ in their own right. As Mr Packard died in 1996 I’m guessing that that increasing humming sound is him revolving ever faster in his grave. As interesting read for a whole HOST of reasons and a very interesting insight indeed into the minds and the culture of 1950’s America. Recommended.   

Monday, May 25, 2020


Just Finished Reading: The Jail Busters – The Secret Story of MI6, The French Resistance & Operation Jericho by Robert Lyman (FP: 2014)

Europe, Early 1944. Liberation is Coming. All along the South Coast of England a vast Armada is being put together to transport the men and equipment for the largest amphibious operation in history. Each day aircraft of the RAF and USAAF attack railyards, transport hubs and other strategic targets to slow or prevent counter attack. Each night agents of the SOE, OSS and DGSE rely on dropped equipment, agents and other assistance in their joint operations with the French Resistance, and lately a new menace has appeared – launch pads for rocket weapons have been appearing across Northern France in preparation for ‘Vengeance’ attacks against London and the south coast. Located by aerial reconnaissance and by elements of the French Resistance they are regularly attacked by ground attack aircraft and light bombers such as the Mosquito. But the Germans know that Liberation is coming too. They have no idea where the hammer will fall or when but they do know it will be somewhere on the French coast and that it will be soon. They are also aware of the importance of eyes on the ground and have been operating in overdrive to sweep up as many French Resistance units as possible prior to invasion and they have been very successful in their endeavours. Hundreds of these fighters, labelled as terrorists by the Germans, are being held in Amiens prison awaiting deportation or execution. In January 1944 a cry for help went out to MI6, their main British ally, to help. The RAF was happy to respond. On the morning of 18th February 1944 a force of 19 Mosquito fighter bombers took off in a snow storm and headed at wave top height for the French coast. Their mission was to breach the prison walls in Amiens allowing the escape of highly valued and much needed Resistance fighters. Less than three hours after taking off the surviving 17 aircraft landed back at base after successfully attacking the prison, flying at close to 300mph at rooftop level. The walls came down and many escaped that day in 1944 in one of the most daring bombing missions of the war.

Told with great detail and from multiple viewpoints – including the RAF planners and pilots, MI6 HQ, French Resistance leaders and even some of their opponents in France (both Germans and some French collaborators) – this was an exciting tale of a little known and highly unusual mission by the RAF. Such a thing would never have happened without a whole host of elements coming together in the right way and at the right time. Although highly successful in many ways this wasn’t a mission without casualties. Whilst only the prison itself was hit by bombs – except I think for a nearby church that was struck by one bomb that pierced the prison wall (which was expected to be stone rather than the brick it actually was), bounced on frozen ground and ‘skipped’ through the church without exploding – several of the buildings did collapse and a significant number of prisoners were killed. Two of the tacking aircraft were lost in the attack and at least two of the crew were killed. However, many of the Resistance fighters did escape and the attack itself was both a huge morale boost to the French and a disaster for the German security forces who lost much of their intelligence in the subsequent Resistance reprisals. With insights into Resistance operations in France and the assistance of British, US and even French secret services (a fact I was unaware of!) as well as interesting digressions of the RAF dealing with the V weapon threat this was an excellent read which brought to light pre-D Day elements hardly ever discussed elsewhere. Recommended for anyone interested in these topics. More on the V weapon response (Operation Crossbow) and from the author to come.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Label by Any Other Name….

The keen eyed among you will have noticed that, with the increased time on my hands, I’ve been adding some Labels to the List over on the far right of the Blog. These indicate some appropriate sub-lists and areas of growing interest/future reading plans. They are:

1066 – For all things Battle of Hastings/Norman Invasion related in both non-fiction and fiction.

Cold War – Something that I’ve been dabbling with but will see some increasing traffic in the months and years ahead. I have a stack of books already starting with the Normandy Invasion of 1944 up to the events of 1956. Much more to follow – again both fiction and non-fiction.

Empire – Not exactly PC these days but I do have a long standing interest in the British and Roman empires so anything related to these areas (and other Empires throughout world history) will find a home here.

Exploration – Very early days yet but I think this area will be an expanding one. I definitely have a few books – both histories and first-hand accounts - lined up so watch this space.

Greece – I thought it was about time to extract Greece from its purely Ancient History niche as I have with Italy and Egypt. It only seemed fair. Plus I know almost nothing about post-Classical Greece so I should really find out!

My Kingdom 4 – I noticed that I have quite a few photographs and artwork of the equine persuasion so thought they needed their own Label. Plus there might be some books coming….

On The Road – Same with motor vehicles. LOTS of images and books to come….

On Track – Same with trains. What’s not to love, right? Plus, I know I have some travel books that are heavily train related. Also growing up in the final age of the steam train I miss the buggers.

Post-Apocalypse – I mean, it HAD to be done. It is one of my favourite SF sub-genres and if this isn’t the time to celebrate the literature when is? MUCH more to come here.

SE Asia – An area of the world I know little about and had missed off the existing list. Now rectified.

Titanic – Another subject that endlessly fascinates me and deserves its own Label. More to come on this most famous of ships – both fiction and non-fiction.

To Infinity – I have labels for other forms of transport so why not spacecraft? Mostly images and fiction so far but more non-fiction to come.

Travel – Speaks for itself really. Both modern and classical travelogues to come.

Two Wheels Good – Again only images of two wheeled vehicles (plus a few odd-balls I’ve lumped in with them) at the moment but no doubt there will be books to come.   

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Nod by Adrian Barnes (FP: 2015)

It was probably stress. Paul’s girlfriend Tanya usually slept like the dead but that night she tossed and turned. So it must have been something at the office. Or so he thought. But with her off to work with the distracted kiss Paul could get back to working on his book. He didn’t want to piss Tanya off by saying that he’d had his best night’s sleep in years beside her. Of course everything changed when she got back that evening. It was hard to tell what was more surprising – her news or the fact that Paul didn’t already know but he avoided the siren call of the Internet when he was working. So it was Tanya who told him that no one, at least all but a handful of people, across the entire world had slept the night before. Less than one in a thousand had managed to sleep normally. It was the talk of the world and the world’s talking heads debated it endlessly into the night. When it came time for bed Paul was probably as worried as Tanya looked. In the morning they knew – a world that hadn’t slept for two night running. This was not just a weird coincidence. No way. That’s when the panic buying started. On day three the army was on the streets guarding supermarkets. The frightening thing is just how tired the soldiers looked. Everyone was looking pretty haggard. Even Paul managed to look less with it than he felt. By day four and still no sleep the edge of panic was starting to creep into the world. Wild conspiracy theories abounded on the News and Online. The microwaves of the phone networks installed everywhere where the prime suspect so they were switched off and anyone seen carrying or using a cell phone had it removed and destroyed in front of them. On day five they cut the power. Then things started getting bad. Really bad….. Especially when you lived in a world of the Awakened and all you wanted was Sleep.

This was another of those random books I picked up from my favourite franchise book shop in one of their perennial offers. End of the World stories are probably one of my guilty pleasures. I think it’s the survival aspects I like the most - the idea that any normal day can be turned upside down in a moment by something massive and inexplicable like an asteroid impact of a zombie outbreak. Basically at the flick of a switch you have to survive with whatever you have in your pockets and whatever wits and knowledge you have. This wasn’t quite click of the fingers quick but the world – in this instance Vancouver in Canada – did fall apart in less than a week. Whether that’s realistic I don’t know. I do always struggle in these things at how quickly everything falls apart. I know it’s mostly for artistic reasons (to reduce the cast of characters to reasonable numbers) but I honestly don’t think that things would collapse with anything like the speed portrayed in most books, movies or TV shows. It’s just not realistic. Even without power things just wouldn’t collapse. They’d slump, there would be chaos and then we’d recover. After all if we could have global empires before electricity we can have them after too. But I digress.

This is an interesting single perspective novel. Everything is seen through the eyes of the author – Paul. Whenever things happen ‘off stage’ he either never knows what caused it or hears about it from those who did see/experience the event. It certainly makes things feel immediate and often claustrophobic. The other interesting thing is that most of the main players know that every one of the Awakened is essentially on a clock. Without sleep the body shuts down after about 4-6 weeks. Before that the brain starts to malfunction after a few days with memory loss, hallucinations and psychosis. Paul is essentially living through a transition from normality to a passable creation of Bruegel’s hell. It was, as you can imagine, quite disturbing in places. However, as an End of the World novel it is quite excellent. But being that genre there is a fair amount of death, destruction and all of the associated nastiness we humans are so good at. Not recommended for the faint of heart (especially at the moment) but definitely recommended for those made of sterner stuff.     

Monday, May 18, 2020

Works for me........ 
A Seventh View from the Apocalypse

Things are beginning to open up – at least slowly in most places. I understand why. Mostly it’s for economic reasons. Lockdown is expensive both for governments and for businesses to say nothing about the people who work there. We can’t do this level of economic freeze for ever. Luckily I’m not one of those people who need to start making decisions on the risk of going back to work or to start using public transport again. Personally at the moment I don’t feel safe going to my local supermarket an hour before closing time in the expectation of fewer people being there. How I would feel getting a bus to and from work and then being around people all day….. I’d definitely feel on edge to say the least. Nothing much has changed since the virus hit. We still don’t have an effective treatment or a vaccine due any time soon. So things are nowhere near back to normal nor should they be. Is wearing a mask in public and washing your hands any great defence compared to the risk? I don’t believe so. Until I am FAR happier with the risk environment I’ll be staying in my own personal isolation. I still need to get my work laptop and things into the office but that hasn’t been broached yet. If I feel happier about it I might even walk into work. It’s only about an hour away on foot.

So, I’m still OK. Surprisingly (or not actually) I’m still not bored. I’m sleeping about an hour or two more each day than when I was working. Maybe an hour too much to be honest. My reading totals are up a great deal. I’m easily averaging 80-100 pages a day so it’s looking good for around 75-80 books this year. Maybe even more. That’d be cool. I’ve started hacking the out of control undergrowth in my garden back so that’s looking much better these days. I’ve even begun throwing out some clutter that’s been accumulating over the years (including a few boxes of cassettes I thought I’d already got rid of. I’m also amusing myself finding things (including some books) that I’d forgotten buying. I also have time now to catch up on various boxsets of DVDs that I’d been accumulating. Presently I’m on Lucifer Series 1 – yes, I’m that far behind with things. I’ve never thought of myself on the leading edge of anything to be honest!

All in all things could be a lot worse. I am a bit frustrated that I can’t just go somewhere or do some things because I feel like it – presently there being nowhere to go and very little open. I do need to go out for walks though. I’m not exactly stir-crazy yet but I am putting on a few extra pounds that needs attention. Fortunately Amazon is helping me feed my book addiction although I do find myself torn between restraint and splurging on things. Presently my goal is to have a book on order and one in the mail on its way to me. Hearing that thud on the mat when a book arrives always brightens the day. I do find always having something to do, something to look forward to, helps as does a bit of planned variety. I don’t have a hard and fast schedule (which isn’t really my style) but I do have things that happen around the same time most days. Drifting through the days is, I think, quite a negative way of dealing with current events.

Anyway, as always stay safe and be safe and we’ll see things through to the other side.   

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Behind The Blogger – Book Tag (from Sarah – again).

Sarah, over at All The Book Blog Names Are Taken, has tagged me again…. So here it is:

Why did you start blogging? Why have you kept blogging?

I started because all of my friends were doing it (go figure). I kept blogging because of the interesting conversations I struck up and the people I’ve ‘met’ that wouldn’t have happened without it.

What is your favourite type of blog post to write?

Book reviews and my ‘Thinking About’ series when something strikes me as worth sharing.

What are your top three favourite blog posts you wrote?

I couldn’t list them but I do really enjoy getting the tone and feel just right.

What are some of your favourite things to do to relax?

Reading (naturally), playing computer games, watching movies.

What are three of your favourite things?

Books. Music. Brunettes.

What are your proudest blogging moments?

Getting positive comments from authors when I review their books. But it does stress me out thinking that the author might take exception to my views. Plus the pleasure of a well crafted post.

What are your hobbies outside of blogging?

Mostly reading and gaming.

Describe your personality in three words.

Taciturn, Inquisitive, Philosophical. 

What are your top three pet peeves?

Wilful Ignorance. Duplicity. Intolerance.

What is something your followers don't know about you?

I almost lost my right eye in an accident as a teenager – I still have the scar visible in my eyebrow. The doctor in A&E said that if the impact had been half an inch lower my right eye would have gone. At that point my mother fainted. As far as I can remember I was thinking that an eye patch would look cool on me.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Descartes’s Error – Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio (FP: 1994)

I’d be the first to admit that I’m not a scientist. The last time I studied science in an academic setting was when I was 19 and trying (for the 2nd time) to get into University. As that was over 40 years ago I’ll leave you to imagine how out of touch I am with most things scientific. I have, however, maintained a steady interest in science since my late teens – mostly things like Cosmology, Quantum Dynamics, Computers and Evolution but also things like Human Biology hence this book. Part of that interest is, to be honest, driven by the natural process of aging. I’m interested in what’s coming down the road at me and I’d like to be prepared for it. Mostly it’s just because I’m interested in things which just happens to include why and how I ‘tick’.

I think I tried to read this book back in the 90’s. I do have a vague bell going off (although that might just be my tinnitus) about picking this up at some point previously maybe from a library somewhere. The brain is, obviously, an interesting subject as we all have one and it’s where ‘we’ live. Now I’ve long held the belief that we are our brains and that there is no ‘mind stuff’ that’s separate from the physical brain. The reason why the mind/brain link hasn’t been found is that it isn’t there to be found. The mind and brain are essentially the same thing. Damage the brain and you change the person – you change their minds (often permanently). I know it’s in many ways more comforting to think of us just as ‘meat’ even if it’s as meat machines being driven around by controlling minds but I stopped thinking that a long time ago.

Anyway, to the book itself and why I DNF’d it. DNFing a book is a very rare event for me and I don’t do it easily. My ‘miss’ rate is often no more than 1 book every other year. I’m usually very good at picking books I’ll enjoy or at least finish. The problem I had with this wasn’t so much the content as the style. The author obviously knows his subject but I felt that this book wasn’t really directed as me as a reader. One thing was that I struggled with some of the terminology which slowed my reading too much as I had to ‘switch gears’ to understand or remember which bit of the brain he was talking about. I did speed through his descriptions of various accidents and patient histories held as examples of how brain injuries caused this behaviour and that but I found myself skipping through the more technical bits which I thought were primarily written for medical students. I did agree with his overall premise – that emotion cannot and should not be left out of the thinking equation but I couldn’t help thinking that he approached the idea too tentatively and too slowly to hold my attention. I suppose that what I’m saying overall is that this wasn’t the popular science book I was hoping it was and that other books ahead of it were calling to me – a case in point is that I stopped reading this about 100 pages to the end (160 pages in) and yet read 120 pages of my next book in a single day. Although interesting in many ways this just wasn’t the book for me so not recommended.     

Monday, May 11, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb (FP: 2013)

Bath, England, 1821. It is Rachel Crofton’s happiest day – although she must remember to think of herself from now on as Mrs Rachel Weekes. Not only is she now married to a handsome man ‘on the up’ but he has taken her away from her life as an unappreciated governess to the ungrateful children of rich landowners. Moving to Bath has brought up some bad memories of her previous life in a somewhat higher social station but her future is looking bright – even from a somewhat lower standing. Until she meets Starling and everything starts to change. Starling can’t believe her eyes. Rachel is, almost, the image of the lost and lamented Alice who saved Starling that cold day when she arrived seemingly out of nowhere and was adopted by Alice as a sister/companion/servant hybrid. Now Starling has an idea for the perfect revenge – she will introduce Rachel to her employer and to the man who she is certain killed Alice in a fit of jealous rage. But Starling has no idea how far the ripples of her plan will go and how many lives they will change, for better or worse, once that first act takes place. She hopes that a mystery from her childhood will be resolved but she has no idea just how explosive the answer will be.

My local(ish) bookstore specialises in 3 for 2 offers which, naturally, I can’t resist. One of the things it allows me to do is to ‘take a punt’ on an unknown author or a genre I’m either not familiar with or not a huge reader of. Essentially it allows me to take low cost risks. Although I’m a huge fan of both mystery novels and historical novels there’s always the thought that either element simply won’t be ‘up to snuff’ and I’ll be left disappointed in the end. That was definitely not the case here! At 531 pages this is a reasonably hefty novel for me. In normal circumstances it would’ve taken me around 7-10 days to read it. It admittedly unusual circumstances – with the continuing lockdown plus my retirement – it took 3. This was a superbly crafted neo-gothic ‘romance’ where a pair of heroines (who were completely chalk and cheese) solved a mystery by coming at it from two opposite directions before joining forces to solve it together. The characters of both Rachel and Starling (to say nothing of nub of the mystery Alice herself) are quite brilliantly developed and operate from completely believable motivations. The mystery – without giving anything away – actually contains a mystery inside it which piled intrigue on intrigue without diluting either the plot or the final big reveal. Being the 1820’s neither Starling or Rachel have much or any power of control over their lives but both use their natural intelligence, force of personality and sense of justice to drive the narrative forward. Both women come up against the cold hard reality or living in a man’s world and both suffer for it. There is some shocking violence against both characters which I found more than a little disturbing so the sensitive amongst you might want to think twice before reading this novel, but I think these instances (brief as they are) underlie the precariousness of their positions and highlight how poorly women were treated in supposedly respectable society even so recently. Overall the tone of the book was wonderful, the characterisation was outstanding and the resolution of the mystery handled expertly. Being modern Gothic (or at least that’s how I’m labelling it!) it is most certainly disturbing in places so beware! But if you’re willing to risk it this is definitely a book that will stay with you (in a good way) long after you’ve finished it. Highly recommended.         

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Sarah’s Book Tag

I’ve been tagged by Sarah over @ All The Book Blog Names Are Taken so….. Here’s her questions:

1. Would you have rather have been at court with Eleanor of Aquitaine during her estrangement from Henry II and chat with her on occasion, or be under house arrest with her for fifteen years until Henry II died and Richard I freed her?

Erm……. Erm…….

2. Would you rather have lived at the court of Henry II or Henry VIII?

Oh, Henry VIII – Much more fun I imagine! Never a dull moment in *that* court!

3. Would you rather have been Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, or Jane Seymour?

As I like my head ON my shoulders I’d say not Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour died in childbirth and Catherine appears to have died of (comparative) old age so I’d have to say Catherine – plus as Henry’s first wife she got the fun time younger version of Henry before the volcanic temper and the weight gain…..

4. Would you rather be forced to read the last chapter first of every book you ever read for one year, or have the last chapter be missing entirely?

Oh, read the last chapter – and then go back to the beginning to see how we get there. Missing the last chapter would be pretty much hell not knowing how things end.

5. Would you rather have a friend who always loses books you lend them, or only returns them water-logged/with food or drink stains?

I am a VERY rare book lender and only ever lend books to people I REALLY trust and still don’t expect them back (just the once).

6. Would you rather have your favourite book turned into a movie/tv show, or your fave movie/tv show turned into a book?

Book into TV show/Movie. Done well they’re brilliant. Turning a movie/TV show into a book is pretty useless in my experience/opinion although you do get to add expensive FX and backstory....

7. Would you rather be a professional reviewer or famous author?

Famous author. Upgrades on flights, fan base etc…. Reviewers get to read stuff. I do that anyway……. And I even review it (for free!).

8. Would you rather be able to visit your favorite book and talk to your favorite characters once, or visit whenever you wanted, but only as an invisible observer?

Get to visit inside Pride & Prejudice and try to get Elizabeth away from D’Arcy. That’d be FUN.

9. Would you rather own a bookshop or work at a library?

Own a Bookshop. I actually seriously thought about that one time – including seeking actual financial advice.

10. Would you rather only read physical copies or ebooks for an entire year?

Definitely hard copy. I have ZERO interest in ebooks (which in my mind aren’t ‘real’ books).