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

Monday, June 28, 2021



Just Finished Reading: How Music Got Free – The Inventor, The Mogul, and The Thief by Stephen Witt (FP: 2015) [276pp]

I remember, just after I got my first Broadband line, that some of my friends had started downloading music from the Internet. Back then downloading anything of any size was a rare thing. I’d downloaded pictures and text but that was about it. The very idea of downloading video or games was fanciful but music…..? I thought I’d give it a try. So I loaded up Kazzaa and started looking for songs. At first it wasn’t exactly fast. But after a while it got so I could download a song faster than I could listen to it. I remember one day walking back from the shops and a car with the top down stopped just in front of me. Being warm the driver was playing loud music to the world and I recognised the song and thought about getting it. Once home I logged on, found the song, and was listening to it in full digital quality less than 5 minutes later. Sweet. But how did that all happen? Until reading this excellent book I had absolutely no idea.

It all started in Germany with a bunch of technicians and Geeks wanting to record and store music digitally. Surprisingly that’s not anywhere near as easy as it sounds (pun intended). It took YEARS and a lot of money (provided by the West German government) to make it work – honestly I’m not a HUGE techno-geek but this bit was fascinating. As one reviewer said it was amazing how you could read something late into the night that had phrases in it like “polyphaser quadrant filter bank”. [Side note: One of my favourite music terms I ‘discovered’ recently is ‘gated-reverb’ of which more later!] Of course once they began recording the music accurately they hit a wall with transmitting it over the crude wires back then so needed to compress the data as much as possible. Eventually they were awarded with a new standard – despite the idea that it wasn’t expected to catch on. You may have heard of it: MP3. True to form the MP3 format wasn’t exactly setting the wires on fire. Only when it was used for sports recording did it really take off and so it might have languished until a group of music enthusiasts got hold of the idea and started compressing music files of their small PC hard drives. But once you had the data you’d want to share it with friends, right? But how to do that?

Enter the computer whiz kids and hackers. Uploading or ‘ripping’ music was reasonably easy especially with the growth of CDs and the spread of software, both legitimate and homebrewed, to enable you to do so. Naturally over time it got easier and faster as expertise improved. Sharing was a bit more complex especially when you wanted multiple people to access the files simultaneously. With Napster and then others (like Kazzaa, the platform I used) those problems began to be resolved. So here we had music lovers buying music and uploading it for friends and anyone else to download it for free. When the numbers were small no one really bothered about it or cared. When the numbers skyrocketed people started to REALLY care – especially the music industry who could no longer afford to ignore widespread music piracy. So they tried to stop it – HARD. Unfortunately for them the genie was well and truly out of the bottle, that stable door was well and truly open with the bolt and both hinges sitting on the floor collecting dust. But it wasn’t really the home users or the private sharers that the industry needed to worry about. It was the big time leakers.

At first no one really thought overly much about security at the CD pressing plants. But these facilities often received the Master CDs weeks and sometimes longer before a new album was released. It wasn’t long before hacker groups started to compete with each other to release an album first and, for extra kudos, as long as possible before the official release date. DJ’s, record stores and distribution centres each had their moles who, either for money or just for the hell of it, gave early release CDs to those willing and able to upload them onto host sites for general distribution. Naturally the holy grail of such exploits was the CD pressing facilities. One group had a mole their too. As you might imagine the record industries top dogs were pulling their hair out trying to stop the leaks – mostly to no avail.

It was really interesting being able to see behind the curtain and discover exactly how music became free and changed the industry forever. Without the many people profiled in this excellent book we definitely wouldn’t have anything like iTunes that’s for certain. If you had any tangential contact with such a world or just have an interest in music or the music industry then this is definitely the book for you. It was a real eye-opener on multiple levels and was written in such a way that it was difficult to put down. Paced like a thriller, complete with FBI raids, sting operations and INTERPOL involvement this is a real page turner. An interesting window into how the modern music industry operates and definitely recommended. More music books to come.  

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Looking Backwards – The ‘Good’, the ‘Bad’ and the (Very) Ugly

I’ve been continuing digging into my past on an Ancestry website and, so far, have come up with around 500 ancestors mostly on my Mother’s side. I’m still hitting a bit of a brick wall on my Father’s side of things so I’m concentrating on what I can find rather than banging my head too much. So far, as I expected being (as far as I know) a peasant from a long line of peasants it’s all been pretty mundane. Most of my maternal family have been solidly working class with most of the men (that I know of) holding general labouring jobs and most of the women – in between birthing an outstanding number of children – being servants or dressmakers. But going back a ways I did find out a few that stood out.

First the ‘Good’. I say ‘good’ because this was the first Sir I came across. His name was Sir Matthew Herbert (1536-1603) who was born in South East Wales. He was, apparently (and I say ‘apparently’ because I’m still not 100% sure that all of this is real as tracing back my family for 500 years is still freaking me out a bit), my 12th great-grandfather. He seems to have been a Member of Parliament during the reign of Queen Mary and her sister Queen Elizabeth I. Being a Catholic this must have been quite a stressful time for him!

The ‘Bad’ here isn’t really that bad (at least not yet!). What I mean by ‘bad’ is that the two following ancestors were both supporters of the Monarchy of Charles I during the English Civil Wars (1642-1651). The first that popped onto my ‘radar’ was Hannah Parnell Rand (1609-1694) who was ‘apparently’ my 10th great-grandmother. Apart from having an outstanding name I was intrigued by her birthplace – Arundel Castle in Sussex. This was indeed a full-on castle which was interesting enough – although her family didn’t own the castle as far as I’m aware. What was more interesting to me was where and when she died – in Essex county, Massachusetts in 1694 when it was very much still a British colony in the New World. Arundel castle was held by Royalist forces during the war and was held under siege for 18 days in 1643 when Hannah was in her early 30’s. I haven’t confirmed yet that she was present during the siege but it wouldn’t surprise me. I’m speculating that she was likely part of the castle owners ‘affinity’ who were royalists (and no doubt Catholics). How and why she ended up in the New World 50 years later I can only, again for now, speculate. I’m guessing that after the Royalists lost the war and Charles was executed that they felt they could no longer liver here – especially under Cromwell’s reign – so moved, as many seemed to have done, to the colonies and a new life. By the time of the restoration in 1660 I’m guessing that Hannah and her cohorts had put down deep enough roots that they decided to stay.

The other ‘bad’ I actually know much more about. I’ve even found a portrait of him (below). His name was Sir Thomas Allin (1612-1685) and he was ‘apparently’ my 10th great-grandfather. Not only was he around during the Civil War but her fought in them as an Admiral in the Royal Navy (and commanded the Mediterranean fleet) on behalf of Charles I [so another royalist damn him!] and also in the seemingly never ending wars with Holland around that time. I think he’s definitely my biggest ‘fish’ so far!

Now to the (very) ugly…. I have long maintained in conversations about historic slavery that, coming from a long line of peasants, my ancestors were much more likely to have been slaves (indentured probably) rather than to have kept them. Apparently I was wrong. My 13th great-grandfather was one Thomas Padmore (1610-1661). The red flag was that he died in St Thomas Parish, Barbados. So, 17th century Barbados….. Which meant sugar, which meant plantations which meant….. yup, slaves. I haven’t done much of a deep dive into this element of my family history yet but it appears that the Padmore family had a sugar plantation known as Bagatelle which covered 213 acres. This means that the plantation is highly likely to have used slaves even if the Padmore’s themselves didn’t technically own them – which, to be honest, they most likely did. To say that I was less than impressed by this revelation is somewhat of an understatement. Having Royalists in my family tree was bad enough but slave owners too? Not good…… It certainly gives me more to dig into though which is always good. Next time I’ll let you know some of the smaller mysteries that my brief investigations have brought up.      

Thursday, June 24, 2021

 Clearly having too much fun..........

Just Finished Reading: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (FP: 2011) [352pp]

He is anything but a hero in the Age of Heroes. Indeed, especially to his father, he is nothing short of an embarrassment. But an opportunity arose to get rid of that particular torn when, completely by accident, the young Patroclus kills a high-ranking guest. Now his father, the King, has two choices. He can kill his son to supplicate the offended family or he can exile his son forever. Being a practical man the King chooses exile. After all paying the child’s weight in gold to King Peleus – well known for taking in waifs and strays – is far cheaper than an elaborate funeral required for the death of a prince. So Patroclus begins his journey into Myth and Legend for King Peleus has a son too, although one who is the very antithesis of Patroclus – Achilles. Already spoken about in whispers despite his youth, Achilles is a golden child whose mother Thetis is a cruel sea goddess. Being half man and half god great things are expected of Achilles and anyone in his orbit is assured a place in perpetuity merely for handing him a cup or for holding his spear. Competition to be his companion is fierce and everyone is surprised when he chooses the newcomer Patroclus. Now tied together by Fate despite everything Thetis can do to keep them apart Achilles is persuaded against his better judgement to accompany the Greeks to the gates of Troy to take part in the greatest battle in history. Achilles is already aware that he will not be returning to Greece but knows he cannot die until the greatest amongst them falls. As Hero after Hero is incapacitated and the war starts to go badly for the Greeks Achilles begins to wonder, if the greatest has yet to fall are the Gods content to let mere mortals battle forever for their entertainment or, as is often the case, is the awful truth being hidden from them. Only time and blood will tell….

It’s interesting how, sometimes, coincidence throws up a set of books on a similar subject. That being the case here, where The Trojan Wars have now popped up in my reading three times in the past three months. Interestingly the two modern fiction adaptations look at the conflict through the very different eyes of Odysseus and, in this case, Patroclus. I haven’t read the original yet (in translation of course!) but I’m even more intrigued to compare these modern versions to the original. I decided fairly early on to classify this book as Fantasy rather than Historical (knowing that the original tale is most probably not completely based on historical fact) because of the presence of Gods and other fantastical creatures. The previous book, Odysseus – The Oath by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, certainly referenced the Gods but, as far as I can remember, none actual appeared. Here in this work the Gods (particularly the mother of Achilles) are meddling all of the time. Also in the Manfredi book even Achilles was more human than divine – if a particularly impressive version of humanity – whereas here Achilles is most definitely part supernatural in his abilities even, on one occasion, engaging a full god in personal combat and not being immediately bested and destroyed. Quite beautifully told from beginning to end this was essentially a love story between Patroclus and Achilles – usually shied away from in more modern adaptations (I’m looking at you Wolfgang Peterson) – against the backdrop of the Trojan War. But saying that there’s plenty of room not only for the battles, siege and internal Greek politics but also for a fascinating look at an ancient world both mysterious and familiar. Definitely worthy of its accolades and awards and definitely recommended if you have any interest in the legends of Achilles and Troy.


2012 Orange Prize (Winner)

2012 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (Winner)

Monday, June 21, 2021


 OK...... Odd...... 

Just Finished Reading: Empire Made Me – An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers (FP: 2003) [342pp]

It was all by accident really, prompted by an intriguing throw-away line: Here, you might find this interesting. In the box the archivist handed him was a collection of letters and a few bits of random information. Not having time to go down that particular rabbit hole just yet he made some notes and went back to his original project. But he didn’t forget that box or its contents. When time allowed he took up the challenge of putting together an ordinary person’s life – a life lived in extraordinary times and in an extraordinary place.

Richard Maurice Tinkler was a child of Empire. Born and raised in the North of England (actually not too far from where I went to University) his journey into the wider world started with an argument with his father and the desire to prove himself. He did so with a lie about his age, a complicit recruiter and a ticket to the Western Front in the First World War. Survival in those years meant growing up – fast. On his return to England Tinkler found that the promises of a ‘Land fit for Heroes’ were as empty for the reason for the war in the first place. In exasperation a family member pointed out a job advert in the local paper for police officers in Shanghai. Impulsively he applied and was accepted. But for a single trip back home he stayed the rest of his life in that oriental city.

At first things went really well despite his loathing for the ‘system’ that kept him and his working class mates at the bottom of the Imperial totem pole (or at least at the bottom of the white pole – Tinkler and his colleagues were in the strange position of essentially being servants who had their own non-white servants to look after them). He learnt the local Chinese dialect quickly and earned promotions until his underlying anger-management issues and his inability to suffer what he regarded as fools (which to be honest encompassed most of humanity) got him into trouble. Losing rank only fuelled his resentment but may have also enabled him to climb the ladder again until it all finally blew up in his face. In the final analysis he really had no one to blame but himself. Tinkler was not a very nice man. He was a racist – and not just regarding the local Chinese and Indian police units he had to work with – he had deep unresolved anger issues, used violence or the threat of violence too often to get his own way, drank far too much to be healthy (or competent on duty) and was more than a little misogynistic. He was, truth be told, a rather nasty piece of work.

But telling his tale, warts and all, (and impressively too) gives a unique window into the British Empire in China. All too often we see Imperial history told from the viewpoints of Governors of vast Imperial lands or military leaders enforcing civilisation at the point of a Maxim machine gun. Here we see what the Empire looked like and how it functioned from street level where the blood, sweat and tears of the real Imperial endeavour existed day by day. This was the Empire that people rarely saw, rarely heard about and rarely read about except in newspaper headlines. This was the Empire of drug raids, of riot control or systemic racism and oppression – even in a country that was not under Imperial control. It was, page after page, a real eye-opener to what Empire felt like on the ground through the eyes and experiences of one average, run-of-the-mill, police officer on his ‘beat’ in a faraway place. Told by an author who really shows his expertise in both China and story-telling this is a fantastic window on the 1920’s British enclave in Shanghai. If you have even a passing interest in British Imperial or Chinese history this is a must read. Highly recommended.         

Saturday, June 19, 2021

 Looking Backwards – An Overview

A little over a month ago I treated myself to a late birthday present – an Ancestry DNA test. It arrived just over a week ago (from Germany!) and I dutifully spat in a plastic tube as directed and sent it off to be analysed (in Ireland!). I expect to get the results in Late July/early August. Naturally I’ll share things here when the results are in. What I expected, until recently anyway, was for the majority of my genetic heritage to be Irish with probably a percentage of Scandinavian thrown in. After all my father was born in Ireland and my mother has an Irish maiden name so….. WRONG!

As an additional sweetener from the Ancestry website they offered an introductory 3 month access to their database and family tree toolset for £1 (how could I refuse THAT!) going up to the usual £49.99 for a further 3 months from September. So, I thought, I’d dabble in my family history for 6 months and see what I can come up with in that time. The answer is: a LOT. Within a day or so of digging I discovered that nearly all of my assumptions had been dead wrong. But let me explain…..

I grew up in a family that didn’t have much interest in outside family members. It wasn’t something that we discussed. Sure I knew my immediate family but we were never what you would call close, especially after my family moved to their present location. So my knowledge of my family history was close to zero. I knew my father was born in Ireland and that his family arrived in England in 1939 and that was essentially it. On my mother’s side I almost knew as little. I knew my maternal grandmother was from Wolverhampton in the Midlands and that my grandfather fought in North Africa in WW2 and that was about it. Like I said – zero. But I had assumed that, because my mother’s maiden name was Irish that there would, pretty quickly, be a strong Irish connection there too. Oh, no. Far from it…..

OK, step back and BIG picture time. Starting from another low knowledge of the Ancestry ‘business’ I assumed that, if I was lucky, I might be able to push my family tree back to the first national census in 1801. That, I thought, would be amazing. Personally I was ready to settle at 100 years back and would call myself satisfied. So I started digging…. Beginning (naturally) with my parents. Now I knew so little about my father’s side that I had to ask my mother about them. Getting details of my paternal grandparents I managed, not without some difficulty, to push back to my 3rd great grandfather born in 1820. Interestingly, but hardly surprisingly, my father’s family went back 200 years largely living and dying within a handful of miles of where my dad was born. I still need to do a LOT of digging on that side of things but, apart from the odd ‘in-comer’ from a different part of Ireland I’m not expecting any great surprises. What I would hope, indeed LOVE, to find is a connection to two people of my Surname who died on the Titanic in 1912. You will definitely find out if I come across THAT discovery.

The BIG surprise I found was from my mother’s side. Not only could I trace them back further – indeed MUCH further – but the majority of them had nothing at all to do with Ireland. The only direct line, in fact, to what I half-jokingly refer to as the ‘old country’ was through my maternal grandfather whose line goes back to southern Ireland for generations - indeed as far back as the late 17th century with my 8th great-grandfather born in Dublin in 1690. On my grandmother’s side of things the line goes initially to Wolverhampton and then onto Shropshire in the West Midlands bordering Wales. Following her line directly back through her father and so on I got as far back as 1590 all roughly in the same geographical area. So far so interesting if not particularly earth-shattering…. (apart from the fact that I managed, from my ‘spare’ room, in my stocking feet to track part of my family back to the ELIZABETHAN AGE!!!).

Of course being so close to Wales there was bound to be the odd Welsh connection and there was. A few names at first and then a whole LOAD of them, again from the 1500’s. One in particular jumped out at me – Sir Mathew Herbert (1536-1603) – of which more later! Another person jumped off the records because of her birthplace – Arundel Castle. Now I knew that people back then – she was born in 1609 – called their houses ‘castles’ in they had some crenellation and ‘looked’ like a castle from a distance so I wasn’t immediately impressed. So I Googled it – and discovered it WAS in fact a castle and a pretty big one. The other interesting fact about her is where she DIED – Massachusetts….. More later on THAT! Oddly I’ve come across several family members who died in the USA and several of which who died in the New World colonies prior to the War of Independence. MUCH digging to be done there!!

But I don’t want to give TOO much away on my first pass on my ancestry investigations. So I’ll just wrap up with a few first impressions. I was surprised (actually AMAZED) at just how easy it was to go FAR back in the records. So much so that I was a little sceptical about it all, thinking that I must be doing something wrong. Most of what I’ve discovered so far has been on the prompting of the website itself linking up family members that have already been established but I’m going pretty much on what can be said with a fair amount of certainty. If I come across anything even slightly questionable I reject it and park it for investigation so confidence is reasonably high so far. I am totally blown away by the fact that I haven’t just gone back 100 or even 200 years but, more than once, 500 years into Britain’s past. I’ve mentioned to a few people that it really connects you to history in a way that no history book has ever done before. If what I’ve found so far pans out then I have blood relatives who served ‘bloody’ Queen Mary, fought in the Civil War on the side of King Charles, and quite probably kept slaves on a sugar plantation in Barbados (I’m still processing THAT one!). It’s weird how REAL it all feels. I can certainly understand why people become completely addicted and obsessed about finding out as much as they can about their ancestors. It really does ROOT you in time (and place) in what is increasingly a rootless world. I’m SO glad I started looking into this. I’m both intrigued and a little apprehensive by what I’ll find next. 

Thursday, June 17, 2021


Just Finished Reading: The Devil’s Acre by Matthew Plampin (FP: 2010) [404pp]

London, 1853. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and one he was determined to grasp with both hands. There were risks of course, there were always risks. Being associated with someone like Samuel Colt, someone so driven, so mercurial and so secretive would test his skills to the limit. Colt’s ability to make enemies wherever he went would be a challenge – both his commercial rivals (dismissed by Colt as fools or worse) and his political enemies in the British establishment (equally denigrated by Colt) would make determined adversaries regardless of the time and place, in London as war with Russia became daily more likely powerful forces were being arranged against the foundation of Colt’s first European factory complex. But Edward Lowry, now Colt’s personal secretary, had other things on his mind. He had become entranced by one of Colt’s female workforce and was seeking to know her better. Caroline Knox, however, had things on her mind too. Her Irish brother-in-law was involved in a radical group known as the Molly Maguire’s who are determined to get their hands on some of Mr Colt’s merchandise to cause havoc and death amongst those held responsible for depredations in Ireland. Caroline knows just were to get the weapons – a secret stash has been accumulating in the basement of the Colt works. Each gun in perfect condition and each without a British government insisted serial number. Their final destination is a mystery but the secrecy surrounding them is also an opportunity – if only to get the Maguire’s out of her life for good.

After enjoying his previous book, The Street Philosopher, I was looking forward to this one. Located in a similar time period – in this case just prior to the Crimea War rather than during it – the novel focused on the home front rather than the battlefront. I initially liked the main character Edward as a young man making his way in the modern world of big business but as the pages turned I became more and more frustrated with him. Colt himself was larger than life and was someone I ended up wanting to know far more about in real life/history and I’ll dig into that at some point. I was disappointed in Edward’s relationship with Caroline which, I thought, had the potential of being central to the book but was, I thought both underdeveloped and too easily side-lined. Likewise with the nascent ‘terrorist’ group could have become central to the plot as they sought to acquire the best firearms on the market – in this case the classic Colt Navy – but they were relegated to a sub-plot and impediment to Edward’s and Caroline’s relationship. Overall, despite some good writing I found the novel lacked focus. There was probably 3 or 4 good stories in here but I found the failure to give any of them enough space to grow rather frustrating. His previous novel had that focus and was, therefore in my opinion, a superior beast. It’s fair to say that this book was not a complete mess, far from it. It certainly has not put me off the author and you’ll probably see his name again at some point. Despite being somewhat disappointing this was still a more than reasonable read and has at least prompted me to read more about the era and more specifically about the British gun trade of the time. 


Monday, June 14, 2021



Just Finished Reading: The Berlin Wall (13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989) by Frederick Taylor (FP: 2006) [449pp]

It could not be allowed to go on for much longer. With the demarcation between East and West Berlin being noting more than a line drawn on a map there was nothing to stop thousands of citizens of the Communist East simply walking over that line and never coming back. True, it wasn’t exactly that easy for lots of reasons but there was little in the way of a barrier between the two increasingly belligerent ideological coalitions. Finally, Walter Ulbricht the Premier of East Germany got his way with an agreement with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev – a barrier could be built to stop the ongoing ‘brain drain’ from the East to the more prosperous West Berlin. Over a holiday weekend secret plans were put into operation and barbered wire began snaking across the demarcation line. Before anyone really knew what was happening it was now much more difficult to escape to the West. In a last minute panic many people took what they thought was their last opportunity to make a break for freedom – including one very young East German soldier pictured below. Captured in a single, now iconic shot, he made the front cover of newspapers across the world as people looked on with a mixture of bemusement and horror. Over the subsequent years, until its rapid and unexpected fall 28 years later, the Berlin Wall became both a symbol of Soviet repression (and the abject failure of their system) and a magnet for those wishing to escape. Helped by radical West Berlin students who dug tunnels to well-funded organisations who worked for no higher motivation than to make serious money many still made their way West despite an ever increasing effort to make such things impossible. The Wall itself was an act of desperation and a very public admission of failure both for the Soviet system as a whole and of the East German socialist project in particular. Before the wall went up in 1961 many thousands of East Germans and other East Europeans had made it to West Berlin and thence into the waiting arms of Western societies throughout Europe and points west. The Wall was there to stop them and ultimately to protect the USSR from the siren call of capitalist freedom. In that regard it was a singular failure.

I remember in 1989 watching the Berlin Wall fall and the celebrations being held on both sides. As we did so my friend turned to me and suggested we fly there to join in. Every impetuous he had not thought about any of the issues with doing so. I don’t think I had a valid passport at the time, neither of us could speak German, no doubt flight to Berlin would be packed with thousands of other people having the same thoughts and we both had work to go to. So, needless to say we didn’t end up sipping beer while dancing on the grave of the Soviet Union. Told from the Allied and Soviet occupation in 1945, through the Berlin airlift, and thence to the crumbling relations between West and East the first half of this often riveting narrative builds on the foundations of why the Wall was built in the first place. The second half of the book looked at the existence of the wall, attempts to circumvent it and the political fallout from its creation including the famous Kennedy and Reagan visits in 1963 and 1987 respectively. If you’ve ever wondered why the Berlin Wall went up and how German’s on both sides lived (and sometimes died) because of it then this is definitely the book for you. One of the highlights of the year and highly recommended.   

Thursday, June 10, 2021

 A passion to fashion.......

Just Finished Reading: Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer (FP: 2016) [354pp]

The first time was in 3rd period – Pre-calc with Mr Mellick. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be the last time. Mara was right there but didn’t see a thing. At least she didn’t see it happen and probably wouldn’t have believed her eyes if she did. She was distracted and suddenly there was a loud ‘pop’, a sudden deadly silence and then screaming. LOTS of screaming. In those brief seconds Katelyn Ogden was gone – popped like a balloon – and covering most of the classroom in blood. Looking back it was amazing how quickly everyone almost got used to that – almost. It was weeks until the second time and then the loud ‘pops’ of would-be graduating students seemed to be going off on a daily basis. After the tests and the quarantine and the mass exodus from the town of frightened families the authorities realised that this wasn’t some sort of attack (probably) or new plague (probably) as it only seemed to be affecting one year in one high school. Without much in the way of information the students and the town were left to ponder links between the ‘poppings’ and anything the victims had in common. Was it drug use? A new and very public ‘gay plague’? As the bodies failed to pile up the links become more and more tenuous and the theories less and less credible. Mara had a few ideas of her own but none of it really made much sense or helped in the face of her school friends randomly disappearing in a cloud of bloody vapour. So, there was really only one thing to do – get ready for graduation and have some fun along the way.

This was honestly a strange one. I caught the trailers for the movie (starring Katherine Langford as Mara) and was totally blown away [lol] by the idea and the main actress’s style – complete with voice over. When I found out it was actually from a novel I pretty immediately bought it. Although I haven’t seen the movie yet the book does have much of the ‘feel’ of the trailers so I expect that the film makers pretty much nailed the tone of the book and the ‘voice’ of Mara. I did find myself from the first page reading it in Mara’s voice over which was kind of fun. The overall story is strange – as you might imagine – and I still haven’t managed to classify the genre yet. It’s almost borderline SF but not really. It’s not a techno-thriller or a crime novel. It is a sort of coming-of-age teen-comedy romance with people randomly exploding along the way to graduation. I imagine it’s a metaphor for something: growing up in today’s hyper-media age maybe where a single misstep can ruin your life (as it blows up in your face?), but I’m not sure about that. Despite the aura of confusion around the ‘meaning’ (if any) of the text this was a fun an interesting, if very odd, read. I think it helped seeing the trailer so I had Mara/Ms Langford’s voice in my head (if the name seems familiar she played Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why) throughout – as she essentially narrated the whole plot in the book – but you can still enjoy it without having done so. Given the background to the story there’s obviously a bit of blood/gore throughout the book but it’s not really dwelled upon, there’s also some sex and sexual discussion, drug use, alcohol consumption and some swearing – but nothing too bad. After feeling in a bit of a rut with my history and historical novel reading this was a much needed change of pace. Definitely recommended if you want something weird to wrestle with (in a good way!) for a few days. More strangeness to come….     

"The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilised world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes".

Winston S. Churchill

September 6, 1943. Harvard.