Sunday, January 31, 2021
Saturday, January 30, 2021
Friday, January 29, 2021
Thursday, January 28, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Rising by Ian Tregillis (FP: 2015) [443pp]
Jax was free. After over a hundred years of servitude to the Brass Throne he was free. After the iron grip of his programming was inexplicably broken he has been free to follow his own path, to chart his own destiny. Unfortunately for Jax his freedom is not something his masters celebrate. Rather when they catch him, and catch him they will, he will be treated for the abomination he is – a rogue clacker. A malfunctioning device that needs to be corrected, which needs to be scrapped. So Jax is following a rumour, a rumour of other free clackers living far to the north, north of the remnants of Free France now under the final assault of a Dutch clacker army bent on their ultimate destruction. There, Captain Longchamp, defender of the last French city, prepares their meagre defences for the coming attack. Knowing full well that he might die in the attempt he is determined that he’ll take as many of the metal monsters with him into the forges of Hell before he goes. Meanwhile the French spy Berenice (Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Perigord, former vicomtesse de Laval) is on the trail of information that could turn the tide of the endless war finally in the favour of her beloved France. Through guile, ingenuity and a fair amount of luck she is closing in on the method the Dutch alchemists use to programme their machines. With that knowledge she can subvert them to fight against their previous masters and restore France to its rightful place on the European continent. As a tasty side-dish she is also on the track of the traitor who gave secrets to the Dutch and who caused the death of her husband. Revenge will be definitely not be served cold….
This is the second book in The Alchemy Wars trilogy (3rd book presently on order!) and moves the plot forward in leaps and bounds. We find out a great deal more about this alternate reality – taking place in the late 1920’s – where a Dutch technological breakthrough in the 18th century allowed them to build unstoppable machines to conquer most of the known world along with hints of where this enormous power came from (which I won’t reveal here). Moving at pace we follow the intertwined paths of the mechanical Jax (who gained his free will in the first book), the bear of a soldier Longchamp (who is quite brilliant and completed dedicated to protecting the last bastion of France in the New World) and my particular favourite Berenice driven by her twin desires of understanding clacker (mechanical) technology and revenging her dead husband. To say that I completely lost myself in this immersive novel is an understatement. I don’t think that I could find a single fault in the plotting, pace or characterisation. More than once I found myself gasping at an event that I didn’t see coming and was equally thrilled to find out how, or if, those involved coped with it. A total delight from start to finish. After the brilliant last sentence (again which I won’t reveal here) I MUST know what happens next! Completely original and highly entertaining. Highly recommended.
Oh, almost forgot... 10 more Man Vs Machine books to come!
Wednesday, January 27, 2021
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Monday, January 25, 2021
Just Finished Reading: A Commonplace Killing by Sian Busby (FP: 2013) [283pp]
London, July 1946. It was the very last thing he needed. In the middle of a heat wave, in the middle of a crime wave that his bosses were already screaming about, the body of a common tart was the last thing he wanted now. Still understaffed after the war had ended he had few officers with the experience to handle a murder investigation. At least it would be a quick one, an open and shut case. Then he could go back to what he was good at, what his bosses wanted him to do, to track down and arrest the seemingly ever present Black-marketer’s infesting the slowly recovering bomb site that was London. As always in these cases there was just a few questions to be answered, a few details to be tidied away. Why was a common tart so well dressed? Who put an expensive man’s coat underneath her presumably prior to their assignation? Why did the killer leave her jewellery behind but take her bag and ID card to prevent easy identification? As they dug deeper in the hope of putting everything to bed before the higher-ups got twitchy about the time being wasted the ‘common tart’ assumption had to be dropped. But that opened up a whole other set of questions. Why had no one reported her as missing? Why had her husband said nothing to the police prior to her identification? What exactly was his relationship with the young ‘flighty’ lodger who seemed herself so unconcerned with the death of her supposed friend? This was no commonplace killing. That was all he needed…..
This was another of those impulse purchases that proved to be a gem. The author (who unfortunately died at a tragically early age just before the book was published) produced both a real sense of tragedy in the circumstances of the murdered woman and a real sense of time and place in post-war austerity London. With the war now over and the desire to ‘return to normal’ almost overpowering there was a counter desire to move beyond the stifling aspects of the pre-war years. The only choice available, or at least palatable, was to move forward into the unknown and unknowable future. But the ever present question in the minds and on the lips of almost every character in the novel was: how exactly do I do that? Seen through the eyes of the murder victim herself (prior to the moment of her death), her assailant and the police inspector (who I liked a lot and sympathised with) this was not only a well-constructed ‘police procedural’ crime thriller but also an interesting insight into what it must have been like to have survived the war and being left with the feeling of ‘OK, now what?’. It’s a real shame that this was only the author’s second and final novel as I think she had real talent and, no doubt, had a great literary future that was tragically cut short. I shall be seeking out her previous novel about a trail that changed English law forever. Recommended.
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Saturday, January 23, 2021
Reading Plans for 2021 (and Beyond)
Follow The Labels
I’m presently working through my country or region labels alphabetically. I’m on ‘France’ at the moment (actually 3 books on Paris) and will then move onto Germany, (ancient) Greece and so on. This will take me through 2021 and into ’22. After I finish that I’ll swing back to the beginning of my label list and hit each book related label in turn with the eventual expectation of having 10 books in each (book appropriate) section. I’m also trying not to let any label languish unloved for more than a year.
Dipping in the Knowledge Streams
I have a few ‘knowledge streams’ (KS) that I’ve been accumulating books in with the idea to dive into a particular subject area more deeply that I’ve previously been able to. Now that I’ve got considerably more time on my hands I feel that I can devote more of that time to areas that I’d only dabbled in. The much promised/talked about ‘Britain Alone’ strand (KS1) will definitely start this year and will look at the period where Britain essentially – although not completely accurately – stood alone against the Axis Powers, so between Sept 1939 and Dec 1941. The second knowledge stream (KS2) will be ‘World War to Cold War’ and will run historically from the D-Day landings eventually up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. Obviously this is a HUGE area so I doubt if my reading will be in any way comprehensive but I’ll see what I can accomplish. Lastly, there’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while now (roughly the last 4 years) which I’ve called ‘USA:WTF’. This will be KS3 and will be a pretty scatter shot attempt to try to at least start to get my head around what’s going on in the USA right now. Any advice on possible reading from my American readers would be appreciated. I’ve been rooting through various piles of books and fished out around 40 US related books. Not all of them, by a long shot, are focused on this question/conundrum but some of them are (at least I think so!). Wish me luck. I aim to read at least 5 books in each ‘stream’ each year.
My ‘read next’ stack sitting next to me on my sofa is presently around 20 books deep. I expect to cycle through 5 of these stacks in a year. The stack represents a melding from various other stacks secreted about the house and is basically what I work from and what ends up being reviewed here – eventually. However, being me, things are a bit more complicated than that! Although I do appreciate order in my life I also value spontaneity – although it does have its time and place. In order to have both I instituted a programme of ‘probabilistic reading’ some time ago which I think is working well – essentially where I roll a dice after every finished book to determine if I drop an unscheduled book in next. In addition to that I added a pair of ‘Wild Cards’ which forced me to schedule either an influential non-fiction or a classic novel into my upcoming reading. I have increased this particular wild card to three instances. In addition I have added two more wild cards prompting books over 500pp, two prompting books by or about women and two ‘oddball’ reads. My definition of ‘oddball’ is presently somewhat fluid.
There are a number of book series that I’ve started but failed to finish. Presently I’m mopping up the last of Cornwell’s Sharpe novels with four more to go. I’ve also got the final books in the Divergent and Hunger Games trilogies that I need to get to as well as the final Maze Runner books. On top of that I’ll be starting both the Foundation and the Dune series of books this year. I’ve read the first four Foundation and first three Dune books before but that was 40 years ago. The new series of Foundation and the Dune movie seemed good prompts to do this.
Bigger Books & Reducing the Review Pile
My review pile as of today stands (rather wobbly!) at 14. This has been persistent for a while now and means that there’s a 6, 7 and sometime 8 week gap between reading and reviewing which isn’t really optimal – at least not with my questionable memory. To reduce this I need to read bigger books. Again presently, my average book length – since records began Oct 22nd 2020 – is 310pp. This is too low as I’m averaging 80-100 pages per day. I need to get this average above 350 and keep it there, hence the bigger books. We’ll see how that goes.
Inspired by Judy over @ ‘Keep The Wisdom’ (check it out if you haven’t already) I’ve dug out a whole stack of Award Winning books I already owned (so no excuse to buy any more just yet) during a recent hunt for another book in a series I want to start soon. Being me (again!) this won’t be 100% straight forward but it will make some sort of sense – if only eventually. I’ll be labelling any books with Awards from now on.
Continuing as Usual
If that wasn’t enough (phew!) I’ll also be continuing my normal – yeah, right – reading as we go. Presently I’m working my way through a stack of SF ‘Man Vs Machine’ books with two in the review pile (although one is already a DNF!) and after that I’ll be shifting focus to WW1 fiction. I’ll still be reading books on Pandemics, post-Apocalypse, both World Wars, the Tudors and so on plus anything that might suddenly become a ‘Must Read’ in my mind. I do miss books on Espionage and I want to read books with more analysis and synthesis rather than spotlighting a particular event – historical or otherwise. I think we all definitely need more of that!
Naturally with ‘only’ 100 book reviews planned each year there’s no way I’m going to fulfil or even start all of my plans outlined above. What I will aim at is at least to get half of them ‘done’ in some sense or other. We’ll see where we stand this time next year. Wish me Good Luck I think I’ll need it but what’s a grasp for, right?
Friday, January 22, 2021
Thursday, January 21, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Life at the Extremes – The Science of Survival by Frances Ashcroft (FP: 2000) [306pp]
As a species that evolved to live, and indeed thrive, on the African veldt we have over the millennia moved far beyond it. There is now little ground that we have not explored and few territories that we have not settled – in time. In other to do so though we have had to adapt to some harsh conditions. Some of that adaptation has been biological but a great deal of it has been technological and cultural – allowing us to move into or at least explore areas that are not only inimical to our own species but to life in general. This is the story, the science, of mankind’s encounter with the extremes of climate and environment on Earth, below the oceans and into Space.
It is a rare place indeed that has not felt the tread of mankind. Starting at height the author (who interestingly sprinkles her own personal experiences of extreme environments throughout the book) looks at the early experiences of mountain climbers and balloonist who, for the first time in human history travelled to the edges (and sometimes beyond!) of the breathable atmosphere and looks at the effects of low oxygen on the body and why some people cope much better with altitude sickness that others. Moving into the opposite realm she explores the issues with working under enhanced air-pressure and the operation of early diving suits and the painful discovery of conditions like ‘the Bends’ first experienced in significant numbers of workers during the use of caissons used in bridge and tunnel construction in the 19th century. Further discussion moved to the capabilities (and dangers!) of the lives of pearl divers and, later, scuba divers and the use of increasingly exotic gases to enable deeper and deeper dives.
So with pressure (and the lack thereof!) so to temperature with the science of living in both Hot and Cold zones on the planet and the adaptations forced upon those who live there – even for short expeditions to the hottest and coldest places imaginable. Lastly the author takes a few diversions – into space (and how we cope with low – or zero – gravity as well as issues like cosmic radiation) and seemingly a bit more off-topic into the realm of speed – essentially running and finally a look at the latest (20 years ago) insights into bacterial and viral extremophiles found, once we actually started looking, just about everywhere from the tundra to hot springs, and from the deepest caves to the most acidic lakes.This was a fascinating romp through Earth’s more extreme environments and how people have adapted to live there – or simply survived brief encounters with temperatures or other factors that would, in other more sustained instances have killed them. There is a lot of information here from all over the world showcasing how humans have used both their natural abilities and their ever inventive brains to push envelopes further than most of us can imagine. So if you want a real insight into how your body copes (or fails to cope) with a cold winter or hot dry summer this is definitely the book for you. It might even save your life one day…. Recommended.
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
"Blessed are they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so immediately important that all doubters must be liquidated - tortured - slaughtered! Good old murder, that since the slaying of Abel by Cain has always been the new device by which all oligarchies and dictators have, for all future ages to come, removed opposition!"
Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, (1935), p114
Monday, January 18, 2021
Just Finished (re?)-Reading: Emergence – The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Steven Johnson (FP: 2001) [234pp]
This is a possible re-read. I say ‘possible’ because I’m not entirely sure. I was moving a stack of books recently and came across another copy (a hardback this time) of this book that I have scant memory of. So, I either read it pre-Blog and essentially forgot about it or DNF’d it (again pre-Blog) and never actually finished it. Either way my re?-read didn’t produce any audible bells of recognition.
This is essentially about the (then new) science or idea of Emergence – that what look on the surface as orderly processes from a global, big-picture perspective are, at ground level, nothing of the sort. The classic case is the ant hill where everything seems ordered, regimented, under control. But looked at from the point of view of a single ant it’s nothing of the sort. For one thing it’s impossible for any one ant to conceive of the whole nest. It’s just too big, too complex and her brain (they’re all female of course apart from the occasional requirement for male ants once a new queen is hatched for simple impregnation) is just far too small and too simple to understand the totality. The Queen, at the centre of things, doesn’t give out daily orders – or indeed any orders – but spends her days laying eggs. The individual ants rely on signals from other ants to determine how to behave. They follow pheromone trails and count the number of other ants they encounter to decide if they’re needed here or need to be elsewhere doing something else. Their total instruction set is brief. But taken together, in their thousands, order emerges out of chaos and the nest endures. Like ant nests and bee hives so cities, brains and the (again at the time of publication) more advanced simulation games like SimCity. Each example has a limited set of comparatively simple rules and yet, when thousands (or millions) of actors use these rules – which individually look and indeed are chaotic, uncontrolled by any central agency and undirected for any overall purpose – a global order is spontaneously created and emerges into focused existence.Of course thinking about it these ideas aren’t really that new. The ‘Invisible Hand’ of Adam Smith is I think drawing on this idea. You have individual actors with a primary directive to maximise their utility in preference to anything else. With millions of people doing just that you’d expect total chaos as everyone fights everyone else to maximise their take home. But, out of all those actions you get a (mostly!) functioning economy – large scale order from small scale chaos, in other words: Emergence. Despite the blank from my possible previous read this is a pretty good introduction to the idea/science of Emergence and gives you a good idea of how emergent properties come into being. Being now 20 years old it’s more than a little out of date and I imagine that there are more up to date introductions to the field out there. Even saying that it’s still worth a quick read if you can get hold of a copy. Interesting.
Sunday, January 17, 2021
Saturday, January 16, 2021
Yes, Prime Minister (2)
It’s been almost exactly a year since I (officially) started looking at reading biographies of British Prime Ministers. My idea was to start off with some of the more famous (or infamous) ones and then work backwards in time at least into the 19th century. I don’t think I’ll ever complete the whole list (I think there’s around 70 of the buggers) and I also don’t think that all of them actually have had biographies written about them. So, how have I done over the last 12 months? Not exactly brilliantly I’m afraid. I’ve added two more PM’s to my list (both from the EARLY 19th century!) and, rather inevitably, another book about Winston Churchill. This year I expect to add two more PM’s (both from the 20th century this time) and maybe another book or two about Churchill. So, this is where we stand today:
Winston S. Churchill (10th May 1940 – 26th July 1945) (26th October 1951 – 5th April 1955)
Young Titan – The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden
Churchill’s First War – Young Winston and the Fight against the Taliban by Con Couchlin.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (22nd January 1828 – 16th November 1830) (17th November 1834 – 9th December 1834)
Wellington by S G P Ward
Spencer Perceval (4th October 1809 – 11th May 1812)
The Assassination of the Prime Minister – John Bellingham and the Murder of Spencer Perceval by David C Hanrahan
It is a LONG journey but we have made the first few halting steps along the way. Personally I think that it’s going to be quite a fascinating trip, but then again I am a little strange at times….
Friday, January 15, 2021
Thursday, January 14, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Death of Expertise – The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols (FP: 2017) [238pp]
It is arguable that we need our experts now more than ever. With a global Pandemic still raging across the globe, political unrest (and not just in the US) on the rise, with a world still reeling from a financial meltdown over a decade old and already feeling the effects of devastating climate change its understandable that people are looking for answers. What is less understandable is that our experts are increasing NOT being asked to provide them. In some quarters those who profess expertise in almost any area are seen as elitist (as if the idea of elites is in some way offensive. No one seems to have any problem with elite athletes for instance) and, once labelled as such, dismissed or denigrated. It is as if the democratic ideals of the sovereignty of the individual, equality before the law and one person, one vote has been extended into the knowledge sphere to state that all opinions are equally valid. Unfortunately they’re not. Firstly there is the obvious difference between opinion and informed opinion. Then there is the even more obvious difference between expert opinion and the opinions of random people being interviewed on the street or giving their opinions freely on Twitter, Facebook or even Blogger. They are not the same thing and are not equivalent. This is the argument, admittedly rather polemic at times, the author (a self-confessed expert) makes throughout this short book.
Interesting in the preface to the paperback edition he admits that he thought the rejection of expertise was a purely (or at least largely) American phenomena. Of course this is not true, although I do think that the US has gone down this road more than most other countries for a whole host of particular and cultural reasons. But America is definitely not alone in this. I still remember a government Minister saying during a debate on Brexit, in order to win his point against an expert in Economics, that the British public had had enough with experts. Unfortunately he won his point. The author points to several areas or trends that have ensured we have arrived at a place where there is apparently no final answer to anything. One I do think is mostly American is education (though I admit I have been out of the educational sphere for some time now so haven’t been exposed to some of the ‘culture’ apparently dominating University life presently). He proposes that because parents, and their pampered children, see their time in higher education as largely transactional that colleges and universities bend over backwards to ‘support’ students in their feeling of being ‘special’ which apparently includes not marking harshly and never telling a student that they’re wrong. We can all see how this can, and apparently has, get out of hand. Inevitably the Internet comes in for a lot of criticism here too. Having a question and Googling the answer (if it actually is an answer that is!) is not the same as getting an advanced degree in a subject and then spending 20-30 years researching it further and teaching it in university. Again the two activities are not equivalent. Likewise the proliferation of ‘news’ sites and, dare I say, Blogs that call themselves NEWS are not equivalent to global news agencies with highly trained, educated and experienced professional journalists. No matter how well you craft a Blog post that doesn’t make you the same as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist - sorry.Despite its sometimes polemic nature and the fact that it was essentially preaching to the choir (not that I’ve ever been a choirboy!) this was an interesting read that deserves to be as widely read as possible if only to slow down the seemingly unstoppable advance of the uninformed majority who, most dangerously, actually think they know what they’re talking about. Acquiring knowledge and especially a level of expertise is difficult and takes time and effort – which is why experts are rare beasts indeed. Recommended.
Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Monday, January 11, 2021
Just Finished re-Reading: Catching Cold – 1918’s Forgotten Tragedy and the Scientific Hunt for the Virus that Caused it by Pete Davies (FP: 1999) [304pp]
This is a rare beast – a RE-read. I read it first around 20 years ago when it first came out in paperback and certainly found it interesting enough at the time to hang on to it. With the ‘current situation’ still on-going I thought it deserved to have the dust literally blown off it and to be re-read.
It starts with a slow motion panic in China. A patient has died of acute respiratory failure and the doctors have no real idea what killed her. A few days later there is another and then one more. The symptoms have commonalities although the patients – now all dead – seem to have nothing in common and also seem never to have come into contact with each other. Samples are sent to CDC in Atlanta and research units in Britain and Holland. When the results come back the panic starts. It’s a completely new strain of Influenza with what looks like a high lethality. Doctors are dispatched to China to find out more and co-ordinate a response. Another case is discovered and then another. They are widely dispersed and, again, seem to have not come into contact with each other. As they fight for their lives a decision is made. ALL wildfowl in the affect zone are to be killed and incinerated – immediately. Weeks later, with hundreds of thousands of dead birds burnt and buried, no new cases in humans have been reported. It looks like a potential bullet has been dodged and there is talk of another ‘1918’.
Until recently, as we are now only too aware, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic mislabelled the ‘Spanish Flu’ had been largely forgotten. After events in China around 20 years ago the disaster of that Pandemic was very much in the minds of some of the world’s top Epidemiologists. The problem was, even with gene sequencing coming on-line there was nothing available to sequence. No ‘live’ virus existed anywhere in the world. So it was time to go looking for it. The main focus of the book was the project to exhume bodies that had died of the ‘Spanish flu’ above the Arctic circle where they would have remained cold enough for tissue recovered from them to, potentially at least, still hold the virus. Two other lines of investigation were also followed in somewhat less detail – the existing holdings of the US Army Medical Service and a ‘freelance’ investigator operating in Alaska. The concern I still remember from 20 years ago was that the virus could indeed to found and then accidentally released into the environment with devastating consequences.
This was actually an interesting and valuable re-read. A good chunk of the book spent time looking at the world-wide effects of the 1918 Pandemic and the attempts to hold it back. Naturally as the theory of viruses was only just being discussed and the fact that no virus had ever been isolated at that time it was impossible to do much except essentially keep away from other people – AKA Social Distance. But they did try, or at least think about, other things – including encouraging people to smoke and, my particular favourite, inject people with creosote! There is nothing new under the Sun it seems. If you can get hold of this book and are still interested in reading about something that we’re all actually experiencing this is well worth the effort. More Pandemic reading to come.
Sunday, January 10, 2021
Saturday, January 09, 2021
As part of my ongoing quest to ‘Understand the World’ I have over the past few years been reading a handful of significant or influential books each year. As these works changed the world in ways both large and small I thought that they’d give me at least some insight, both large and small, into the reasons exactly why the world is the way it is. As with life itself this is very much an ongoing project without any clearly defined end point. My short term aim is to read at least three such books each year. Below is the list of works read so far (in chronological order read) with the most recent in BOLD.
Rock of Ages – Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould
How Children Fail by John Holt
The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
Suffragette – My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
The Old Straight Track - Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones by Alfred Watkins
The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence
The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
The Rights of Man by H G Wells
The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes
The Two Cultures by C P Snow
The City by Max Weber
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
The War of the Flea – A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory & Practice by Robert Taber
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton
Seize the Time – The Story of The Black Panther Party and Huey P Newton by Bobby Searle
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley
Achtung Panzer! – The Development of Tank Warfare by Heinz Guderian
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
About Looking by John Berger
A Vindication of The Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
War on Wheels – The Evolution of an Idea by C R Kutz
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Design as Art by Bruno Munari
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
The Rebel by Albert Camus
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
A Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
So, not exactly a huge leap forward in significance but any progress is still progress I guess! These books are prompted by a pair of ‘Wild Cards’ (of which more later) in my ‘Read Next’ stack resting rather precariously on my sofa. I have since increased this number to three. So, here’s to 2021 and hopefully many more significant reads.