Welcome to the thoughts that wash up on the sandy beaches on my mind. Paddling is encouraged.. but watch out for the sharks.
- I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.
Friday, October 30, 2020
Thursday, October 29, 2020
Just Finished Reading: The Death of Democracy – Hitler’s Rise to Power by Benjamin Carter Hett (FP: 2018) [235pp]
The German Weimar Republic came into existence following the end of the First World War. It was born during the crisis of Germany’s defeat and continued in crisis throughout much of its short 15 years of existence. As new as the Republic was the democracy that supported it was almost as young. Until the German nation needed to show the victorious Allies – and particularly the Americans – that they were really a Democracy too and should be treated like one (rather than a military supported Monarchy) – most of the poorer German people couldn’t exercise their vote and little that the constituent assembly in the Reichstag decided during the reign of the Kaiser rose above the level of advice. Power, since German unification in 1871, was solidly in the hands of the military, the Kaiser and Prussia. So democratic roots, where they existed at all, had yet to move much beyond the surface.
Into the chaos of a defeated nation the political parties of early Weimar covered the whole gamut from far Left to far Right. But 1919 and 1920 were years of revolution and counter revolution – of attempted coups, assassinations and threats of uprisings and invasions. Democratic politics generally took second place to street fighting and the sound of gunfire. Disorder and confusion was the order of the day and day after day. Slowly though things began to normalise. Coalition governments – as the country had a system of Proportional Representation – existed mostly around the Centre Left of the Social and Christian Democrats. But these governments were generally weak and short lived. The Communists – allied to the new Soviet Union – made up a significant part of the Reichstag but would not co-operate with other Socialistic parties which they held in contempt as ‘class enemies’. On the far Right a handful of parties fought for votes amongst them the newly formed NSDAP – the Nazi Party. At the time no one really took them seriously. Their vote was tiny and their influence insignificant. They could draw crowds – that was certain, especially after Adolf Hitler joined and subsequently led them – but crowds consistently failed to morph into votes. So it continued….
As the 1920’s dragged on, and fights over Reparations continued to define much of the political agenda, further crisis and turmoil unsettled the country. As the centre parties continued to disagree and fail the country the voters turned to alternatives on the Left and Right of the spectrum. The Communists started to win more seats and more support as did the reducing number of larger Right wing parties. It was here that the first of a series of fatal mistakes were made by political forces on the Right and the major Industrialist who supported them against the Communist threat. Sensing an opportunity for advancement of his programme Hitler positioned himself and his still fledgling party – although much larger by now – as the solution to the Communists. Again initially dismissed some in government saw the Nazi’s as a way to manipulate things in their favour until they could be disposed of. They were to be used as a means to an end, nothing more. But Hitler had other ideas and so the dance began. But when the music stopped it was the would-be manipulators that failed to acquire the all-important chairs.
Important though it is and as vital as it is not to be forgotten I do find myself rather uninterested in the ‘Rise of Hitler’ narrative. As a political and historical chronicle is has, with justification, been done to death. However, I did find myself honestly riveted to this almost blow by blow account of how first the political and economic position of Germany between the wars provided fertile ground for the rise of the Nazi’s and, more importantly I think, how self-serving politicians and frankly incompetent power brokers not only allowed Hitler to gain the Chancellorship but actively aided him on the patent misunderstanding that he could be controlled or manipulated for their benefit. At no point did they think that they themselves were the manipulated ones or that they were enabling or facilitating their own dooms. Indeed many of those who died on or soon after the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ were surprised and shocked that the Nazi’s could turn against them so effectively. Despite every piece of evidence to the contrary they apparently never saw it coming!
As with all good history books this reinforced the idea that everything we might think of an inevitable is in fact highly contingent. There were SO many ways Hitler’s rise might have failed. He was injured twice in the war and could have been killed, several of his followers just feet away from him during the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ were shot and killed and any of those bullets could have hit him, the judge at his subsequent trail could have deported him (as an Austrian) but didn’t….. and so on. The failure of the Weimar Republic was not inevitable – even after the Wall Street Crash. It was the action of individuals, making often self-serving decisions, which put him in power and imperilled the world in the years that followed. That, I think, is the most important message we can take from the events and this excellent book that covers them. Recommended.
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Monday, October 26, 2020
Just Finished Reading: How Democracy Ends by David Runciman (FP: 2018) [224pp]
Thinking about the end of Democracy is almost as difficult as thinking about the end of Capitalism. Although Democracy has a long history, going way back to the ancient Greek city of Athens, in its recognisable modern form it’s only a few hundred years old or, if you take it as only valid under universal franchise, around 100 years old in most western nations. Clearly Democracy wasn’t the normal form of government for most of human history and there will, inevitably, be a time after Democracy just as there was a LONG time before it. But how exactly will Democracy end? That’s what this fascinating little book hopes to answer – or at least meaningfully speculate about.
The author essentially puts forward 4 scenarios where Democracy fails in some fashion. The first is in a Coup. The author considers the odds of any established democracy anywhere in the world falling to a coup to be very low indeed. He even states that “No democracy has reverted to military rule once GDP is greater than $8,000 per person”. I don’t know if that’s true but it wouldn’t hugely surprise me. Coups can only be successful when a population has little or no investment – in all its senses – in their government or the structure of the state. It is difficult indeed even conceiving of anywhere where democracy has set down roots that such a thing could occur. The problem I can think of here is exactly how you define the regimes across the world as democratic – Turkey? Egypt? Chile? – and exactly how deeply the democratic impulse is. How easy is it, for example, to point to a country and say “Well, they’re not really a democracy” or “Well, they haven’t been a democracy LONG enough for it really to take hold”. As always it’s all about where you draw the line. But generally speaking I’d say the author is right. A modern coup in a democratic state is highly unlikely (and the results are probably short lived before democracy comes back).
The second scenario is Catastrophe. When nasty substances hit fans there can be little time or little incentive to vote on the response. But, if history tells us anything is that people still vote in even the direst times. After all we voted in BOTH World Wars, we’ve voted in global recessions and global pandemics and I think it would take a LOT for elections to be postponed or shelved for the length of any emergency. The only way that I think something like that could happen would be after a truly MAJOR catastrophe – like a nuclear war or large asteroid strike – in other words something that was an existential threat. But even in those cases, as long as we survive as a species or functioning society/civilisation, any suspension of the democratic process would most probably be a temporary one. Again if people have any great investment in a state they will inevitably want a say and an influence in how that state is run and how it affects their lives. I doubt if a non-democratic state could last long in these circumstances.
The third scenario is Technological Takeover. By this the author doesn’t mean the advent of Terminator style machines eliminating the electorate on mass but the subversion of electorates by the mega tech companies like Facebook, Google and their cohorts. If people can be convinced to ‘express themselves’ through Likes and re-tweets rather than actually voting for real people who have actual real policies then democracy could be undermined to an extent that people stop caring, stop bothering to vote or taking much interest in politics outside their own particular micro-bubbles online. Flame wars and Twitter storms might be an amusing way to pass time during a boring meeting but democracy it isn’t. Until recently I would’ve said that this was a much more likely outcome than the first two. But events, not just in the present US election but across the world, have made me more confident that people just won’t settle for a quick tweet or an Instagram post and feel like they’ve done ‘their part’ or even achieved anything. People are still willing and able to put their phones down long enough to make some badly written signs and get out there and protest. It’s even likely, I suggest, that technology can actually strengthen and deepen democracies as we move beyond a simple candidate vote every 4-5 years to secure local or national referendums on a whole host of issues that can be tallied almost instantly – and publically – to test the temperature of the larger electorate.
The last scenario is if Something Better comes along. Some, like Nick Land, propose a kind of national corporation where ex-citizens become little more than customers for products, services and anything else that is presently provided for by government. We would, in effect, ‘vote’ by using our choices and purchase power. Of course there is a real alternative to democracy right now on the opposite side of the world – China. Could that be the future just around the corner for the rest of us? Maybe. Pragmatic 21st century Authoritarianism, like we are beginning to see in some unexpected places, might be what enough people want without the burden of political activity or conflict. Could we instead move towards as Epistocracy – a system based on knowledge rather than citizenship? Or an Aristocracy – in the Greek sense – a society run by ‘the best’ for the rest of us (how you choose ‘the best’ is a whole other issue of course!). Certainly Liberal Democracy isn’t necessarily part of the fabled ‘End of History’.Overall this was an interesting work, full of interesting ideas to think about. Personally I don’t think Democracy is going anywhere – certainly not to its end point – any time soon. It might possibly be middle-aged but it’s certainly not in its dotage. Is Democracy the final stage of politics? Probably not. It’s possible that Democracy is simply part of an eternal cycle moving to Oligarchy, Tyranny and back to Democracy again. Or maybe we’ll come up with something better, maybe something no one has tried yet. A recommended read for all the political thinkers out there.
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Friday, October 23, 2020
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Just Finished Reading: How Democracies Die – What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt (FP: 2018) [231pp]
As usual I picked this book up at least a year or more ago (when it came out in paperback) and it has been languishing in a pile ever since. Now seemed a particularly apposite time to pick it up (along with the following 2 books) and read it.
Despite everything happening on both sides of ‘the pond’ I’m not one of those believers who think that Democracy itself is under any existential threat nor would I even go so far as to say that it is under crisis. This is clear, I think, from the amount of engagement – both appropriate and even inappropriate that’s happening presently with protest marches and much else besides. I felt that Democracy was far more in danger from the seemingly inexorable disengagement of a bored and uninterested electorate. You can say many things about the present state of our Democracies in both the UK and US but you cannot say that they are boring, uninteresting or that people are generally disengaged – quite the opposite in fact!
This book was written as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump that shocked and dismayed so many people on the ‘Left’ of US politics. The authors – both professors at Harvard – wanted to understand how such a thing could happen and what it meant for the future of American democracy. Not only did they look for external examples of failed or failing Democracies – Pinochet’s Chile and Erdogan’s Turkey – but, rather inevitably, Italy in the 1920’s and Germany in the 1930’s. They also looked at the historic examples of both France and Britain in the 1930’s who managed to fight off any drift into authoritarian or totalitarian regimes there. But their main focus was the growing erosion and subsequent failure of the American electoral system to first allow the rise of someone like Trump – and as they point out there had often been someone like Trump on the fringes of the Republican Party in particular (with figures like Coughlin, Long, McCarthy and Wallace regularly winning 30-40% support) – and then actively supporting them within the Party to the necessary exclusion of moderates and the dismantling of any idea of a ‘broad church’ approach. The prevention of previous authoritarian demagogues rising to the top and getting their names on nomination tickets was deeply undemocratic and generally took place during discussions between the Party grandees in smoke filled rooms, in private, away from the Press and the electorate – the Party Machine. As the 1960’s moved into the 1970’s this process became less and less acceptable and less and less palatable to the public. Ironically, the authors observed, an increase in democracy has actually put Democracy in peril.
The authors make it very clear that Trump is not an aberration and is far from unprecedented. What is new is that the Republican Party in general supported him as much as they did to get him elected. Trump could never become President on his own as many Independent candidates have found out to their (dollar) cost. The Party Machine got him elected so even if he leaves office next January the ‘age of Trump’ style politicians – or even Presidents - may not be over.This was a very good and timely read. I picked up a great deal of how American politics works and, probably more interestingly, was introduced to just how much of the American electorate has ALWAYS supported people like Trump. For at least the last 60 years – and maybe the last 160 years – around 30-40% of Americans seem to WANT an authoritarian leader. That honestly knocked me back on my heels for a while. So much for the ‘Land of the Free’. Most definitely recommended.
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Monday, October 19, 2020
Just Finished Reading: The Road to Rome by Ben Kane (FP: 2011)
Alexandria, Egypt 48 BC. As the city burns and his long lost sister sails for Rome, Romulus and his friend Tarquinius can only look on and get ready to fight for their lives. Heavily outnumbered by local Egyptian forces they can only retreat to their waiting ships and hope that their commander – Gaius Julius Caesar – can save them. Meanwhile in Rome Romulus’s sister Fabiola has her own plans and her own path. Now free from slavery and lover of Brutus, a man on the rise in Rome, she is free at last to put her plan into effect. Using her position as brothel owner to gather information from the leading men of the Roman Republic she begins to determine who she can trust and who shares her desire to rid Rome of its greatest enemy – not a foreign King or paid infiltrator but someone at the very heart of the Republic itself. But her revenge is far from purely a way to protect Rome from a would-be tyrant. For Fabiola it’s personal – as personal as it can possibly get. For Fabiola is convinced that her enemy is the same man who raped her mother many years ago, the man who almost raped her, the man who was her father and the hero of the battlefield, conqueror of Gaul – Julius Caesar himself.
This was the 3rd book in the Lost Legion trilogy which followed the lives of brother-sister pair Romulus and Fabiola and Etruscan mystic Tarquinius and they make their way through the turbulent history of the late Roman Republic. Rome is seen here warts and all with crime, corruption, filthy streets, poverty and prostitution (to say nothing of slavery, the pitiless ‘Games’ and the casual brutality of the times) rather than the glory of Rome we’re mostly used to. The times and the place are fascinating it themselves but, unfortunately, despite having quite a tale to tell I really felt that this final instalment fell rather flat. Several problems (or irritations) really jumped out at me and recurred throughout the book. Firstly there was the main character’s motivations. We were introduced to them in the first book and reminded of them in the second. I can kind of understand why we were reminded of them again in the third book (after all I myself have, on occasion read books out of sequence) but I felt that being reminded – either during dialogue or internal monologue – more than 10 times (I kid you not) throughout the book was a bit much to say the least. I know I’m ‘getting on’ in years but even my memory isn’t that bad yet. Then there was the internal monologues of the main protagonist in particular. Repetitive just didn’t cover it. There was guilt over a friend’s death, anger over a friend’s lies, missing his sister etc.. Over and over and over again. It was the classic mistake (in so many books and films) of telling rather than showing. Readers are normally intelligent enough to work out a characters motivations if given enough evidence to work from. We don’t need constant rumination coming from someone’s head. Then my biggest bug-burr: Cliff Hangers. To ‘drive the narrative forward’ and keep you turning those pages the author dropped in a cliff hanger (usually a matter of life and death) every three or four (short) chapters. OK, it might have driven the narrative along like an out of control freight train but it was SO annoying I actually howled in protest more than once – fortunately this was at home alone rather than back in my office. I quickly learnt that any moment of drama would be addressed a few chapters later and the ‘dramatic pause’ would be essentially meaningless. It didn’t exactly add very much to me overall enjoyment.
It was a real shame that there were so many things that irritated me with this book. The location and time frame – on the road to the Ides of March – were dramatic enough. The author handled the locations well and his battle sequences were very well handled. There would have been much more interest, for me at least, to spend more time on the political side of things, which where generally glossed over, rather than the private revenge of one person. I haven’t been put off this author (yet) but I’m certainly in danger of being if especially the repeated cliff hangers carry on in other books/series (which if I’m honest I suspect will do). We’ll see. Despite having its moments I can’t say I enjoyed this book overly much. Borderline reasonable.
"The eccentricity of which the English are accused abroad is, in truth, the mainspring of our national progress. However absurd the form which occasionally it may assume, it is yet an element of character eminently productive, on the whole, of good. Without a high degree of originality, which is but another name for eccentricity - a departure from ordinary rule - no man ever accomplished anything great."
Mabel Sharman Crawford, Through Algeria, 1863.
Sunday, October 18, 2020
Saturday, October 17, 2020
For A Few Labels More….
Just a short note: I’ve recently added a few more Labels over on the Right. They are
Although I’m certainly not intending reading biographies of ALL of the US Presidents I have read and am planning on reading a few books which mention them (or at least some of them) in reasonable depth so I thought that they’d shortly need their own special place on the Blog. As I’ve mentioned before, my main historical focus (book wise) is on UK and European matters but the US can’t really be ignored. Plus the fact that it might help me actually understand that rather strange place!
The other label is in recognition that I do intend to read about a fair number – I doubt if I could read books on ALL of them in what remains of my life – of our Prime Ministers. Presently I’m starting from a VERY low base of one on Churchill’s youthful experiences long before he moved into politics never mind became Prime Minister (twice). I presently have one more PM related book in my Review pile and another in my Read Soon pile so – label time it is! I’ve also discovered a series of short books (about 170 pages) on all of the 20th century PMs so they’ll start appearing – in date order naturally – from next year. So be prepared to see political biographies on people you’ve never heard of….
Friday, October 16, 2020
Thursday, October 15, 2020
Just Finished Reading: Austerity – The Great Failure by Florian Schui (FP: 2014)
It’s pretty clear to me, and more so after the debacle of 2008, that most politicians as well as a fair few economists don’t understand how actual economies work. Delving a little more into the morass of economic thought I can see why. Few of their theories have more than a passing relationship with reality, history or human behaviour. So it should come as no great surprise that the response to the Crash of 2008 – caused we should remember by the banks and financial institutions that are supposedly at the cutting edge of economic efficiency and effectiveness – was Austerity. That same Austerity that was so effective after the Crash of 1929, that same Austerity that prolonged and deepened an already deep recession and helped create the Great Depression. I do wonder if we’d still be there without a World War to pull us out of it.
The logic of Austerity has long confused me. The problem, it seems, is the lack of consumer spending, consumer ‘confidence’ and business investment. I won’t even start of the stupidity of an entire economic system based on people like me going out and buying a fridge. Anyway, in bad economic times people quite naturally worry about their future so are much less likely to spend money on ‘big ticket’ items and, instead, concentrate on the basics (like food) and will put money aside (if they have any) to help them through if things go South. So what do governments do? Cut back on spending wherever they can and try to balance their budgets. One thing they usually do is play with Interest Rates. But here’s the problem with that approach – if you increase interest rates to encourage saving that it puts business off borrowing money so they can’t invest as easily. If you decrease interest rates you might increase borrowing/investment but people won’t save as much (if anything) so there will be less money available to invest.
Of course businesses want to maintain their profits in a recession – as much as they can – and the easiest way to reduce costs is to sack people and then get the remainders’ to produce more for the same wage – essentially exploiting your workforce with the threat of unemployment. But the workers you made unemployed now can’t afford to buy your products (at least not to the same level) so you need to cut back further. Governments will pay your unemployed enough – generally – to get by on but in order to afford that they need to raise taxes, cut back elsewhere or both. With less money in the economy and more fear of losing jobs businesses cut back and we go down another level until, eventually, we hit bottom and, generally, bump along it until something happens to get things going again – like a world war. Austerity really doesn’t work – although there are enough politicians and economists who will tell you that it does or at least it should. They just don’t often use economic reasoning to justify it. This is what this fascinating and thoughtful book is all about – essentially debunking the (usually) non-economic arguments for the Austerity policy of the day.
Starting with the ancient Greeks (naturally) the author made an obvious statement that practically stopped me in my tracks. Their early arguments for not pursuing excessive wealth or commodities – like the latest iSaddle with the improved bevelled edges – came from a time of essentially zero economic growth. Arguments from the dawn of Capitalism and the fabled Protestant Work Ethic relied on simplicity and lack of ostentation in order not to offend God by crude displays of wealth. Later arguments from the likes of Hayek postulated that active engagement with the myth of the Free Market inevitably leads to Totalitarianism based on his experiences in Austria between the world wars. Later still the Club of Rome used environmental arguments about the runaway growth of populations (Malthus has never been far from people’s minds despite the fact that we continue to feed our growing populations in most places most of the time) and resource depletion. Here, I freely admit, I have much more sympathy with reducing the lust for growth that has driven the capitalist west for the last few hundred years. But even here growth can be managed if correctly without the wholesale slamming on of the breaks.
Although I certainly don’t agree with every argument the author presents I think he does make a very valid argument overall against the idea of Austerity as a credible answer to the present (or future) economic crises. Time and again, both locally and globally, austerity when enacted has both extended and deepened economic depressions and recessions. It’s time we found another way. Definitely recommended for anyone arguing against the austerity toolset.
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Monday, October 12, 2020
Just Finished Reading: Drums Along the Khyber by Duncan MacNeil (FP: 1969)
Young James Ogilvie had little choice if he’d given it much thought. His Grandfather and now his Father had commanded the 114th Highlanders, the Queen’s own Royal Strathspeys and family tradition demanded he follow in their substantial footsteps. After graduating from Sandhurst Military Academy he began his expected long apprenticeship in the regiment learning its traditions and its way of doing things. But only months into his training as a fresh subaltern the call comes out from the North West Frontier that a rebel chief, Ahmed Khan, has arisen in Afghanistan and is becoming a potential risk to the Empire in India. The 114th are needed earlier than expected to crush any possible insurgency. So, in 1894, Ogilvie finds himself at the very edge of the Empire, falling in love with another officer’s wife, disturbed and a little disgusted with the treatment of Indian natives and facing the greatest challenge of his life to date – passage through the fabled Khyber Pass to fight on the plains of Afghanistan. Whatever happens it’s going to be quite a baptism of fire.
I’ve been searching for books like this for a little while now and was delighted to pick up this first book in the series comparatively cheaply. Unfortunately – unless I want to buy a Kindle – the following books are either difficult to acquire or horrendously expensive. I will, however, persevere and try and get them eventually. Naturally comparisons with the Sharpe novels were quickly made. The most obvious is that James is already a (admittedly newly minted) officer at the beginning of the story and not only comes from a military family but whose father is the Divisional Commander, Sir Iain Ogilvie. Which means, of course, that young Ogilvie has LOTS to live up to and naturally worries that anything good that comes his way is because of the connection with his father – so both sides need to prove that this is not the case. If that wasn’t bad enough there is the character of Captain Black [as soon as I saw his name, and from then on, I could only see the baddie in the Gerry Anderson puppet series ‘Captain Scarlett and the Mysterons] who deeply resents Ogilvie’s position and does everything he can to undermine his subaltern. The story itself is fairly standard stuff with good set piece engagements, some interesting discussion of Imperial India of that time and of the ‘Great Game’ between the British Empire and Russia for control of Afghanistan and the protection of India from ‘foreign’ interference. There was a bit of a lull near the end which dragged on a bit but overall this was a solid read. I look forward to (eventually) reading the sequels. Reasonable. Oh, one more thing… the cover did set my pedant alarm off. The character holding the sword in one hand and the gun in the other is presumably the main character James. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to find who (or when) drew the original artwork. The gun in particular intrigued me. It looks like a C96 Mauser ‘Broom-handle’ – which I think makes the holster wrong – that, as the name suggests, was manufactured from 1896. As the novel is based in 1894 it’s rather doubtful that James could have procured this gun 2 years ahead of its mass production. Interestingly in the novel he does indeed fight with sword and handgun – but the gun is described as a ‘pistol’ which was probably a Mk 1 Webley .455 (in production from 1887) which looks nothing like the Mauser.
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Friday, October 09, 2020
Thursday, October 08, 2020
Just Finished Reading: The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman (FP: 2015)
She took her mother’s warning very seriously. How indeed could anyone even think of marriage to someone like her? She would just have to try harder, try to be more normal. But it was so hard. She tried carrying stones in her pockets and thinking heavy thoughts but still, if she lost control for a moment….. The final straw was that morning, that embarrassing morning when her mother came to wake her. It wasn’t her fault really. After all there’s little you can do when you’re fast asleep. But it was the look, a mixed look of horror and disappointment, which said it all. But there’s not much you can say to someone when you’re floating inches from your bedroom ceiling. At her wits end there was only one thing that her mother could realistically do. She recognised that now but the new boarding school, miles from anywhere and filled with the strangest girls, was quite a shock to the system. To be dropped in, mid-term, in the third year was enough to force her feet to remain solidly on the ground. But her new friends and roommates helped. One was a beautiful and exotic Indian princess, another was the daughter of stage magicians (presently incarcerated) and the third was a member of the British aristocracy. Settling in was taking a while. New school, new rules. New names for things, people to avoid, and lots to learn. But there were also the oddities and the downright strangeness of the place. There were rumours of ghosts and rules about going near the cliff edge or into the woods. But when one of her new friends vanished in mysterious circumstances and few seemed to be disturbed by the event there was only one thing to do – to band together with her roommates and use their combined skills to solve the mystery and save her friend from what would no doubt be a very sticky end.
I’m read a few of this author’s works and have always been impressed by his inventive reimaging of various fantasy and classic crime tropes. This work was the result of lots of research and deep mining into the literature and culture of British school tales – most particularly designed for girls between the World Wars – with a decided Newmanian twist. Imagine a mix of Harry Potter/Hogwarts, Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted and St Trinian’s School for Wayward Girls and you’ll get an idea of what the author was going for. The school – a far from ordinary establishment – is home to daughters of master criminals, outlaw scientists and magicians. But even stranger are the small number of ‘Unusuals’ who have special gifts that few others possess and many fear – like main protagonist 13 year old Amy Thomsett who can float at will and who is learning to float other things too. But she is far from the strangest among them. Others can see the future or into other, darker, realms and some can travel to places not on any map and bring back things that have never existed on this Earth. This was honestly a delight to read. Part homage to a lost style of storytelling from the 1920’s and 1930’s, part (at times fairly dark) fantasy, part coming of age saga this story mostly followed Amy as she adapted to the new school life, learnt to embrace (rather than supress) her natural powers and become an active agent in the world rather than simply a child who existed at the behest of others. Although not, I believe, a children’s novel per se this did manage to tread the fine line between being too ‘adult’ and too childish. There was peril here but a good deal of that took place ‘off stage’ and what violence there is here is pretty minimised. The ‘other realm’ was suitably creepy (especially if you’re not fond of insects or the colour Purple) but not really nightmare inducing. Over all the feel was classic children’s adventure written by someone who obviously understood the genre and used that knowledge with real skill. As I said this was a true delight to read and I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed even more finding out that it has a sequel which I shall be buying and consuming at my earliest opportunity. Highly recommended – especially if you enjoyed Potter or X-Men!