About Me

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

Monday, August 31, 2020


 


 

Just Finished Reading: A Vengeful Longing by R N Morris (FP: 2008)

 

St Petersburg, Russia. Summer 1868. Police Investigator Porfiry Petrovich is not happy, not happy at all. The stink from the canal was getting worse, he was convinced of it. Despite his written protests still nothing had been done. But at least the latest case would get him and his new assistant out of the city – at least for a little while. Everyone agreed that it was an open and shut case but one had to go through the proper procedures and his new assistant needed to be trained for this sort of thing. A doctor had murdered his young wife who had been accused of adultery. Open and shut. Simple. Chocolates had been procured, poisoned and given as a gift. Open and shut. Simple. So simple that the assistant wondered, out loud, why they were bothering to even talk to the confectioner or even to the doctor who, rather inexplicably, denied everything. As the arguments flew across the office they were interrupted by the announcement of another murder across the city – this time of an old army officer. It was an open and shut case and the perpetrator had already been arrested. The odd thing was that he was denying killing the man in a duel despite being found holding the weapon and talked of receiving a note telling him of the man’s transgression against his daughter. Stranger still was the coincidence – that the officer and doctor knew each other. But it was still an open and shut case. Apart from a few niggling things that bothered the Inspector and the growing number of coincidences and links between the two events. When the report of a third murder arrived on his desk Inspector Petrovich knew it was going to be a long, hot smelly summer….

This is the second of a series of historical mysteries set in late 19th century St Petersburg. I read the first back in 2011. I’ll definitely not wait so long to read the next installment. This is a masterfully well-crafted crime novel Not only is the character of the Inspector SO well done (his name might be familiar to some!) but the whole tone of the novel is extremely well done. Everything about this novel feels real and immediate. It’s as if we are there, standing right next to the characters as they go about their lives and as the Inspector and his new assistant go about their business. Having insights into the detective’s methods (as he teaches them to his minion) is a great way of looking at things as Petrovich uses his brain to figure things out without the props of much in the way of forensics. I also liked, very much, the little insights into Russian society where you can see tiny hints of political upheaval to come. I might be reading too much into things but that’s how it came across. After all the 1905 (attempted) revolution is only just over 35 years away…. If you want to completely lose yourself in a novel, in an investigation and in a time and place outside of your everyday experience this is most definitely the book/series for you. Highly recommended and more to come from both the Inspector and the author.     

Oh, this was the last of my Historical Crime Novel sequence. Up soon, after a few Fantasy (and other) novels will be a sequence of Man Vs Machine novels.... 

 

Thursday, August 27, 2020


 


 Just Finished Reading: The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker (FP: 2014)

 

Like most other people Edgar Hill barely noticed the news that there was ‘something wrong’ with Saturn’s rings. A year later he even missed the late night Government Warning thanks to an argument with his wife and the bottle of wine he finished off on the sofa. In the morning, complete with hangover, he knew that something was ‘off’ though. The local newsagents and shop was shut and the thinner than usual Sunday papers hadn’t even been picked up. The headline was pretty obvious though. IMPACT IMMINENT – Take Cover. The confusion lasted a few minutes until the easily recognisable air-raid sirens started going off across the city. Hastily grabbing some random supplies from the now looted shop Edgar ran home and managed to get his family into the basement just as all hell broke loose above them. Rescued a week later by units of the Army, Edgar found himself in a world unlike anything he had experienced except in bad TV movies. Hundreds of meteors had slammed into the Northern hemisphere destroying large parts of Europe and North America. The end of the world as he knew it was just something he had to start dealing with. But as a failing husband, failing father and failed office executive he really wasn’t sure he was up to the task. What made it worse was that neither his wife nor the other survivors thought he was up to it either. But when his family were rescued and flown to safety hundreds of miles away those left behind had a long way to travel and not long to get there. With roads smashed and transport at a premium there was only one way they’d make it in time. They were going to have to run across the length of the country – over 500 miles from Scotland to Cornwall. They’d better get started…..

There were many things I liked about this usual post-apocalypse novel. The main character Edgar wasn’t a hero – at all. He was just an ordinary guy, completely out of his depth just making it up as he went along. He survived the end of the world almost by accident and it looked like he wasn’t going to survive very long. All that changed when his wife and children were taken away from him and he made the decision to get them back – no matter what, including the fact that he knew that other people didn’t think him capable of making it. The running across country was very well handled even if some of the (very few) people they met along the way were clich├ęs out of central casting. A few things did raise my eyebrows a LOT. One was the fact that there was talk (or possibly a plan) to evacuate the UK. Even if 50% of the population had been killed in the impact that’s 30 MILLION refugees. Can you imagine evacuating that many? Even with 75% dead that still 15 MILLION people left alive. You don’t evacuate those numbers. You bring in what people need in situ!! (Oh, and there was a brief one-liner about evacuating EUROPE. That made me chuckle, a LOT). Naturally Government just vanished as usual. At least there was some mention of London being heavily hit as well as region centres in Birmingham and Manchester. But even if National Government had been taken out some kind of local government somewhere would have survived. Even if taken completely by surprise – at from government TV warning and newspaper reports it looks like they had at the VERY least 12-24 hours’ notice – they would’ve had some sort of disaster plan they could have put into effect. Any local government that DID survive would have been in contact with any other government survivors to co-ordinate things and start consolidating some sort of action plan.

Without giving too much away there was a whole section in the middle where the runners are captured by what would be a local warlord in Manchester. Apparently the locals had fought with the police after the impacts and won. So they took over. They had fences, guns (rifles, shotguns and pistols) and had some engineers rigging anti-personnel mines to deter other gangs from attacking them. I was putting words into the characters mouths when I mused – ‘This is all very well, but what are you going to do when the government arrives in tanks?’ Which they would have – eventually. Any local military units would naturally look to proper civilian command and join them. With their equipment, training, organisation and abilities they’d get things up and running again pretty quickly. I’d guess that even with 75% dead and a similar amount of physical damage there would be a centralised government within a year or two at most. National government would be back up and running within 10-15 years (25 at the outside) and things would be back to ‘normal’ 25 years after that. Maybe I should write THAT kind of end of the world scenario!?!

Anyway, even with the above caveats this was a pretty decent apocalypse told from the PoV of the everyman – out of his depth and just trying to do his best despite knowing he wasn’t really up to it. Dramatic in parts, funny in others this was (generally) a pleasure to read if sometimes formulaic. It did have a good ‘tone’ to it though which helped make the whole thing seem much more realistic than most of this sort of tale. I shall be looking forward to the sequel. Recommended.       

Monday, August 24, 2020

 

 

I'm *really* hoping that isn't a REAL advert......

Just Finished Reading: The Fireman by Joe Hill (FP: 2016)

No one really knew where it came from but there were enough rumours to go around. Some speculated that it was a weapon either released on purpose or by accident by the Russians or ISIS or religious fundamentalists. There was even one theory that it was released due to the melting tundra and was what really caused the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Now, it seemed, it was our turn. But at least they had a name for it: Dragonscale or simply ‘scale. It was a fungus that invaded the body somehow (no one really knew how in the early days) and set up home there eventually penetrating all of the organs including the brain. The most obvious sign was mottling on the skin in weird and unique patterns mixed with amber-like granules – hence scale. But it was the scales effects that caused the most concern – and the most damage. When the infected experienced heightened emotions the scale ‘glowed’ and heated. When the emotions were strong enough the fungus became hot enough to ignite the infected person in a burst of Spontaneous Human Combustion so hot that the infected could start fires and start them they did. Before a mass programme of isolation was in place buildings, forests and whole cities burned. The authorities learnt too late for some that the sight of a combustion nearby could cause a ripple effect among other infected and result in firestorms. With little to go on and government action failing across the country self-styled ‘clean-up’ squads thought they had the right answer – shot the infected on sight.

Into all of this school nurse Harper Grayson managed to get pregnant. If that wasn’t complicated enough her semi-psychotic boyfriend wanted them to go through with their mutual suicide pact as the world ended around them. But she had another life to think about now – even after she got the ‘scale and had maybe a few months to live if she was lucky. Determined to go to term and bring a new life into the world Harper left her home looking for a rumoured community where they said they could control the disease. With nothing left to lose and the clock ticking she had no option – unfortunately her boyfriend and his new friends had other ideas….

I’d heard lots of good things about both the author and the novel so, as I have developed quite a ‘thing’ for post-apocalyptic lit, I thought I’d give it a try. The first thing that hit me was the size of the book - at 762 pages it’s a BEAST. Unfortunately, despite it being generally well written, this is actually far longer than it needed to be. Losing 100 pages, actually losing 200 pages, wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall storyline. It’s not that the narrative was padded, it wasn’t, but that the extra pages didn’t add very much at all to the plot. Generally the characterisation was very good – the lead character Harper was well drawn as was the ‘Fireman’ (with some reservations). The ‘scale community was interesting if a little too heavily plotted at times. The evil ex-boyfriend was too much though. I mean, how many times do you have to put a bad boy down before he stays down. I think that’s the biggest ‘beef’ I had with the whole book. Just too many damned cliff-hangers! The ending, once we literally slogged there, was pretty well telegraphed about 100 pages in advance so I wasn’t overly impressed by that. Likewise (as is usual for such things) the government vanished pretty early on leaving the mopping up to street thugs and crazy people. I’ll have much more to say about this in response to my next review but I’ll just say a few words here. I know why authors tend to eliminate governments early on in these novels. Part of it is the ‘wet dream’ aspect of living free of government oversight or being a responsible citizen. I get that. Part of it is that it eliminates right away a whole lot of complications in the story most of which would be pretty boring. But it’s just so bloody unrealistic. Even in a global disaster some form of government would survive and be in your face pretty quickly – and permanently – once the shit went down. Although, if you go by novels like this (and most post-apocalyptic movies too) you’d think that governments vanish in a puff of smoke once the hammer falls. Anyway, this was (overall) a reasonably well told end of the world narrative with some interesting ideas and set pieces. As you can imagine it’s also quite brutal in places so the easily disturbed might want to give it a miss.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

 

 20 Bookish Questions Tag

 

I saw this on Book Olive’s YouTube channel and I thought it worth doing. Check her out. There’s always something of interest there…

 

One: How Many books is TOO many books in a book series?

That would really depend on the author and if they can maintain a series over multiple books. I’ve read some series with 3 or 4 books in them and the end was getting flat. Others I’ve read 5 so far and am looking forward to the next 10 and beyond.

Two: How do you feel about ‘cliff-hangers’?

If they’re handled well I’m OK with them. What I don’t like is 5, 10 or more cliff-hangers in a book or if they happen at the end of a book JUST to get you to buy the next one – although I might forgive the author if the sequel is great!

Three: Hard cover or paperback?

Generally paperback – cheaper, lighter and easier to hold. I will buy a hardback if the paperback is unavailable or if the hardback is really cheap.

Four: What is your Favourite Book?

I’m not even going to TRY to answer that question!

Five: What is your Least Favourite Book?

Undoubtedly something I never finished so – who knows?

Six: Love Triangles – Yes or No?

I’m not a reader of romance novels so it’s not something I come across often. If it’s handled well I guess it’s OK – but usually it’s not (in my limited experience).

Seven: What was the most recent book you just couldn’t finish?

Descartes’s Error – Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio.

Eight: What is the book you are currently reading?

Dark Continent – Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower

Nine: What is the last book you recommended to someone?

Red Moon Rising – Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race by Matthew Brzezinski

Ten: What is the oldest book that you’ve read?

Sense and Sensibility (1811)

Eleven: What is the newest book you’ve read?

Something published last year. I don’t think I’ve read anything published in 2020 yet.

Twelve: Who is your favourite author?

Another IMPOSSIBLE question!

Thirteen: Buying or Borrowing books?

Buying. Not only are libraries thin on the ground around here but I just like OWNING books so much!

Fourteen: What is the book that you dislike that everyone else seems to love?

I couldn’t even begin to guess.

Fifteen: Bookmarks or dog ears?

Bookmarks. Have a bit of self-respect.

Sixteen: What’s a book you can always re-read?

The number of re-reads I’ve done can probably be counted on one hand. I’ve read LoTR twice I think (possibly three times) and I’ve read His Dark Materials three times. There’s just too much else to read I think. Although I am planning on re-reading the Dune series (I only read the first three originally) as well as the expanded Foundation series.

Seventeen: Can you read and listen to music?

Yes, but nothing I’m either too familiar with (singing along (even in your head) AND reading just isn’t on. Classical works well or maybe Snake Jazz [lol]

Eighteen: One PoV or multiple PoV’s?

Whatever works if handled well. Multiple PoVs can be confusing but also enlightening if well integrated.

Nineteen: Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?

Most of the books I read are far too big to read in a single day. I aim for 80-100 pages a day. Hitting 150+ on a good day is not unusual but still…. On average it takes me 3-4 days to finish a book. Really big books (in the 700-800 page zone) can take 7-10 days.

Twenty: Who do you Tag?

Oh, I don’t TAG. I’m happy to BE tagged but I don’t reciprocate…. Sorry.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

 

 

Just Finished Reading: Inviting Disaster – Lessons from the Edge of Technology: An Inside look at Catastrophes and Why they Happen by James R Chiles (FP: 2001/2002)

 

We live, as we are often reminded, in a technological age – an age of wonders, an age of miracles. We also live, as we are too often reminded, in an age of disasters and catastrophe. Not surprisingly the two are, again too often, linked. With great power comes the potential to do truly awesome amounts of unintentional damage. But why is that true? It’s something that the author of this equally fascinating and frightening book has been looking at for most of his professional life.

For decades now technology in its many aspects has become ubiquitous – ever present but virtually invisible. That is indeed part of the problem. We are all users of technology but very few of us (including me!) actually understand much of any of it. Not that long ago even the average driver would not only use his or her car but also maintain it, changing out components and understanding the basics of the internal combustion engine. Today hardly anyone has the technological knowhow – outside a mechanics workshop – to either diagnose or fix a problem most especially if neither the problem or solution are obvious. Now imagine you’re are a pilot flying across the Atlantic in a new aircraft. Naturally you have spent many hours in simulators learning to fly it and have been told about its new features (improved of course) and what to do in the event of a whole host of problems. But no one told you about or trained you to handle the fact that an overworked and very tired technician has forgotten to remove some duct tape covering an external sensor he was working on so the planes computer system ‘thinks’ nothing is wrong with the flight when something is very wrong. But you trust the machine. You trust the screen and the data it displays – just long enough to be put in a life or death situation that you might not be able to get out of. Now imagine you’re the night manager at a nuclear power plant. You’ve read the manuals and you have a pretty good idea of how everything works at the plant. But training, especially refresher training, is expensive and your last ‘hands on’ disaster training back at headquarters was almost 5 years ago. It was two days well spent but you can only cover so much in that time and there’s little utility in training for a once in a hundred year accident that even the most pessimistic engineer can come up with to bust the trainees balls in the simulated control room. So, as these things tend to do, when such an accident happens, when a mechanical valve sticks open but registers closed, when a readout gives faulty or ambiguous data, when a leak is invisible and you only have instruments to go off you do the best that you can and, potentially at least, cover a vast area in radioactive ash.

Accidents happen. They are a fact of life. No system is perfect. But we can mitigate, we can have redundant systems (despite the expense), we can have back-ups and failsafe’s and simulators and adequate training and…… But that’s the point of this book. Advanced technology is, potentially at least, very dangerous if we don’t look after it properly and treat it with the respect it deserves. If we build it, or design it, or use it we need to understand it enough to use it safely and wisely. We need to understand it enough and respect its power enough not to be that guy who left the bolts out of the compressor or didn’t turn the alarm back on or didn’t tell the pilot that his left tanks gauges aren’t reading right.

The author certainly gets around and seems to know his stuff. From nuclear power stations to airplane cockpits to high-rise office buildings he looks at disaster after near-miss to show what happened, why it happened and what can be done about it. It’s a sobering narrative but it’s one that need to be faced, especially as our technology gets more powerful and (potentially at least) more dangerous year after year. But be warned – reading this might put you off flying or living downwind of a nuclear power plant or anywhere near a port handling fertiliser (Texas, 1947!). One last thing: in my 2002 edition there’s a new introduction which looks at the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers from a structural engineering viewpoint. More sensitive American (or other) readers might want to skip over this bit. Definitely recommended.    

Monday, August 17, 2020

 

 

 Just Finished Reading: Public Health – A Very Short Introduction by Virginia Berridge (FP: 2016)

 

…and finally – one further step up to Public Health. Public Health has meant many things to many people over the centuries – from sanitation to vaccination to sexual health to life-style choices to improving things like diet and combatting smoking (and illegal drug use). But the health of the general population hasn’t always been the focus of the State or other institutions either private or philanthropic. Before the Industrial Revolution (and into the beginnings of that particular cultural and economic upheaval) the general health was considered as either irrelevant or simply too complex and expensive. Only with the coming of the factory and the consequent crowding together of thousands of poorly fed and poorly served workers did the idea of Public Health even enter the minds of people who could do something about it. With plague a thing of the past the urban populations had to deal with things like Cholera and Typhoid instead (to say nothing of Smallpox and Measles) which could spread to the more wealthy areas and their inhabitants. Such efforts to combat disease and improve the general health were not completely selfish (or humanitarian) and improve they did – first with improvements in sanitation, housing codes, reductions in working hours, improvements in food distribution. Not all of this was the concern of Public Health officials but, over time, they had more and more influence and more and more power to make improvements, suggestions and policy recommendations. As other countries followed suite (the main focus of most of this slim volume was on the UK experience with minor forays into the European and American experience) the remit changed, expanded and mutated as earlier problems were solved, new problems arose (like HIV/AIDS) and definitions of Public Health changed or expanded. After 1945 Public Health developed a more global perspective led by organisations like the WHO who, somewhat naively, expected to eliminate the great global killers like Malaria by the end of the 1970’s. Only Smallpox fell to the WHO programme and since then more realistic approaches and aspirations have taken the place of total elimination. Where Public Health goes in the future depends, as does much else, on the will to do things for the general wellbeing of all.

This was the last book in the VSI Pandemic book blitz. Whilst it wasn’t as interesting as some of the others it did offer another perspective on health issues and the importance – as we all now realise – of Public Health organisations and mind-sets in fighting, controlling or simply mitigating health issues that apply to everyone (like Pandemics!). Not surprisingly countries with robust Public Health policies and practices generally do better in any health crisis than countries who do not. Public Health is important and should be, at least in my opinion, a central part of any advanced society. A State should seek to look after its citizens in the best way that it can for a whole host of reasons. An adequately funded and resourced Public Health system is a very good place to start. Reasonable.

We’re now back to normal for a while until the mood takes me into another Blitz read. I already have the next one lined up and two more after that in the pipeline. But I’ll be moving away from science based VSI for a while if only to rest my brain for a bit.         

Thursday, August 13, 2020

 

 Just Finished Reading: Epidemiology – A Very Short Introduction by Rodolfo Saracci (FP: 2010)

 

After the previous book on Pandemics I thought it would be good to look at the human response to epidemics and disease in general. This was indeed a very good complimentary read to the previous two books. Over just 126 pages the author looks at the science of disease control starting with the actual measurement of health and disease. After all if you can’t accurately measure something there’s no way to know if anything you’re doing to combat it is having any effect. Measurements give you data to work with which should allow you to zero in on the vectors that gave rise to the disease in the first place – they might show you were the first cases arose or they might show disease clusters or even the fabled patient zero themselves! Once the data has been collected and analysed it should give an idea of the cause of the disease (contaminated drinking water for instance) and allow treatment – or at the very least isolation of the affected area or population. Follow up data can also show the effects of any procedure undertaken to combat or mitigate the effects of the disease – such as handwashing after assisting in childbirth before moving onto the next patient (a process hotly debated before becoming common practice).

All of the above allows the tracking of disease within a population over time and, even without an effective cure, increases the possibility of controlling the spread and reducing any potential negative effects. Even without knowing much about the actual disease organism – bacteria, virus, parasite, fungus – epidemiological study can still highly inform effect procedures to combat its effects. Detailed analysis of the disease itself can come later (hopefully) and will undoubtedly help in devising better protective protocols but a good level of epidemiological data crunching can take you a long way even before you know what you’re fighting.

As I said earlier this was a nice complimentary volume to the previous pair and takes discussion of infectious diseases and pandemics to the next (higher) level and I’d recommend reading all three books as a set. Only one more in this particular ‘blitz’ to go just taking it one more level up in scale. Then we’ll get back to normal programming – or at least as ‘normal’ as it gets around here.    

Monday, August 10, 2020

 

 

 Just Finished Reading: Pandemics – A Very Short Introduction by Christian W McMillen (FP: 2016)

Following the trajectory of my previous VSI blitz books we arrive at Pandemics. Rather inevitably it is pretty much THE topic at the moment so it’s been difficult avoiding mention of both the science of pandemics (and infectious disease in general) and their historical impact on humanity. Although not a history book per se this slim volume can’t help but present various pandemics in their historical context starting with Plague – the Black Death is always a good place to start with this sort of thing – before moving onto the big names of Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, TB, Influenza and HIV/AIDS. This, of course, nicely built upon the topics covered in the previous VSI book on Infectious Disease (not planned that way but a very happy coincidence).

As with the previous books I learnt a great deal about how countries coped (or not) with various pandemics over the centuries and tried various methods to control or at least mitigate the effects of diseases they often did not understand in the least. Without either an adequate understanding of the mechanics of disease or any effective way of combating it even if they did states where forced to use other methods such as quarantine (from quarantena, meaning "forty days", used in 14th–15th-century Venetian and designating the period that all ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death), setting up additional hospitals and local medical boards to decide on any actions proposed to control disease spread such as disposal of refuse, burial of the dead in mass graves and the feeding of those isolated and (potentially at least) infected. Indeed some have proposed that the very existence of secular government structures and intervention of the public into the private sphere might be based on the states interventions required by pandemic control.

As a mere 121 pages this is an ideal little book to place the present pandemic into historical context (interestingly many of the fake news stories surrounding Covid-19 where also in circulation during the much more deadly 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic) and show how some of the very same measures (and slogans!) in place today have been used throughout our long and deadly history with pandemic disease. Highly recommended.       

Saturday, August 08, 2020

 

 

An Eleventh View from The Apocalypse

 

Despite the (reasonably) hot weather the Covid spikes continue to spike – hardly a surprise when you see people crowded onto trains & on the beach. Fundamentally though very little has changed. There has been some breakthroughs with therapeutics which is good. Anything that brings down the mortality rate is a good thing in my book! But the virus is still out there doing its job – infecting people and spreading. ‘Normality’ isn’t anytime soon unfortunately.

I was actually visiting my nearby (20 minute walk) big supermarket and bumped into someone I knew from work. She’d retired in December and had planned lots of travel for her and her partner. They’re big walkers – the Austrian Alps for preference – but have had to put pretty much everything on hold until things clear up. Until recently they couldn’t even meet up (as they live in separate houses) and had to sustain their relationship chatting at different ends of their driveways. NOT good. Nearly everyone I saw was wearing a mask though which was good. It’s mandated now in pretty much all public/indoor places and it’s very rare you see someone NOT wearing a mask – at least inside a shop. Still plenty of people walking around outside without one – including me. People are very good keeping their distance though, although generally anyone under 18 seems to think things like this don’t apply to them or that they’re basically immortal so it doesn’t matter. Hopefully they don’t end up taking an extra special present to Grandma….!

Nothing very much happening here. It’s been pretty warm (low 80’s F) which is a nice change although were expecting rain most of next week. It does mean that I’ve had the time to work on my painting skills (non-existent) on some exterior woodwork that needed some TLC. Still gaming (ONI in the afternoon and Last Stand – part of an old Warhammer 40K game – in the evenings with my regular gaming partner) and still reading about 2 books a week which means my review pile is stubbornly staying locked at 10 books. I’ll see if I can reduce that by slipping in a few hefty buggers to, at least occasionally, drop below the replacement rate.

Apart from that I am, along with the rest of the world, waiting for a vaccine so I can get my life back. OK, it won’t be HUGELY different from what I’m doing now but at least I’ll have CHOICES! I spoke to my Mum a few days ago (clocking in) and everyone is fine. Likewise my gaming buddies are all well. All good news. I think I’ll go into ‘town’ around the end of the month to see if my fave book shop survived the zombie hordes. I do hope so. I guess I’ll find out soon enough. Be safe, stay safe – see you on the flip side!