Friday, December 31, 2021
Thursday, December 30, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Royal Witches – Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England by Gemma Hollman (FP: 2020) [275pp]
The accusation of witchcraft has often been used as a weapon directed (for the most part at least) at women. Those accused of such crimes could lose all of their belongings to be distributed by the accuser. It was for some a highly profitable way of removing elderly relatives sitting on valuable land or simply discrediting their perceived enemies. But such accusations were not completely risk free. In England, for most of its history, judges and magistrates were almost universally sceptical about people pointing to witches in their midst. Indeed, even in the midst of the great European witch craze it was in England that accused witches had the greatest chance of surviving the experience. Not surprisingly most witches, the so-called ‘wise women’ and ‘wise men’ within most communities were poor, often living on the margins. But some high-born (or at least high-status) women were also accused of practicing the Black Arts. Here the author tells the tale of four of them and what befell them.
Of the four mentioned women – Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Woodville – I was only previously aware of the last two by previously reading novels by Philippa Gregory. In each case the accusation was for largely political reasons – to discredit or disinherit the woman herself or to attack another member of her family (usually her husband) by being associated with a witch. Each accusation outlined here resulted in varying consequences. One lost her property and land – essentially a ‘shakedown’ to pay for a war – but a significant part was eventually returned to her, another lost just about everything but kept her life and another merely had people whispering behind her back for the rest of her life. Despite a spell of incarceration – if you can call months spent in rather palatial castles being waited on by servants' ‘incarceration’ - few of these women could be said to have suffered overly much because of their status as ‘maybe witch’.
Overall, I must admit that I was somewhat less than impressed by this book. Although accusations of witchcraft figured somewhat in the lives of all four women – who were connected by marriage, birth or association – such things were generally peripheral and felt like a rather contrived link to create the book. I wouldn’t say that the title/sub-title was misleading but I think it sometimes flirted with the idea. Whilst generally a reasonable history of the period I often found the focus elsewhere from the women it was supposedly about. The author herself, on multiple occasions, stated that little was known of this period in her life or that incident (a dead giveaway to me is the referencing of bills of payment in lieu of anything else on record) but speculated anyway. But from my perspective the worse ‘sin’ was that I felt that the author spent far too much time speculating on the emotional states of the women filtered through her own feelings of the incidents described – separation from husband/children, loss of property/status, the great unknown of what was going to happen next. Although people living 500 years ago were essentially the same as those living today their culture and upbringing (at any social level) was vastly different. For example, with high infant mortality it was not uncommon for children of poor families not to be named until weeks or months after their birth because there was a greater emotional cost to burying a named child rather than an unnamed one. Such things are practically unthinkable today and such parents would be called ‘unfeeling’ or even ‘monsters’ but 500 years ago it was simply pragmatic. So, assigning unknowable emotional responses based on our present cultures beliefs is questionable at least. Reasonable with caveats.
Wednesday, December 29, 2021
Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Monday, December 27, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman (FP: 2018) [437pp]
England, 1603. With the death of the old Queen and the arrival of the new King from Scotland, Frances Gorges was happy to be away from court and on her parent's country estate. Unfortunately for Frances her uncle and family patriarch had other ideas. Looking to his own position at the new court he wanted Frances to present herself and be in a position to marry someone who could bolster his position with the Stewart royal house. But times and attitudes had changed since the death of Elizabeth. No longer shying away from having a window into the hearts (and beliefs) of the sovereign's subjects, King James will no longer tolerate dissent from the Protestant religion and will most certainly not tolerate any hint of witchcraft in his new realm. Even the mere accusation of witchcraft can be enough to result in the torture and death of the unfortunate individual – no matter their status or connection. How witchcraft is defined by those with the authority and power to do so allows it to be used as a weapon to discredit or depose of anyone seen as ‘trouble’ or as a potential rival at court. Frances herself has much to be worried about. Already known as a proficient healer, her skills open her to the charge of congress with the diabolical. One bright light in her life is the growing relationship with Thomas Wintour, a lawyer with connections to the Queen. But there is a mysterious side to Thomas that Frances struggles with and she is right to be concerned – for Thomas is involved in a plot that will echo down the ages, a plot with the distinctive smell of gunpowder.
This was a nice change of pace from my recent reading. Although it started slowly at first the pace picked up about a quarter way in, and then breezed along at a reasonable speed. I did find the title a bit of a misnomer though, just a tad misleading. For one thing Frances wasn’t actually a witch though she was, briefly, accused of such because of her healing skills. Although this was the basis of her accusation the witchcraft itself was only a way of attacking her (without the requirement of actual evidence) as a way of getting at her parents. Everyone involved actually knew that no real witchcraft was taking place. Putting that aside though, the actual novel was rather well done. Characterisation all round was solid and definitely believable. The court of James I felt real and chimed with what I had heard from other sources – often offensively decadent and flamboyant – and James's oppression of the Catholics, which gave rise to the infamous Gunpowder Plot, shone through the narrative from the start. It seemed, with reason, that almost everyone who met James I eventually wanted to see him dead. If half of what transpired in this novel was true I can see why. I’m only aware of the highlights (or would that be low lights?) of the Stewart dynasty so it was good to see some of it fleshed out – even in fiction – and it has prompted me to read more about the whole period. I was particularly intrigued by the depiction of James’ wife – Anne of Denmark. I need to see if there’s a good biography of her. I was also going to schedule something about the Civil War (caused by James' son Charles) anyway and this has given me extra reason to do so. I’ll also see if I can schedule something about the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (involving James’ grandson – also Charles!). Overall, this was a solid, interesting and informative read and I’ll be checking out the rest of the series at some point. Recommended.
Sunday, December 26, 2021
Saturday, December 25, 2021
Friday, December 24, 2021
Thursday, December 23, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Chasing The Sun by David Mace (FP: 1992) [454pp]
Michael Tranter was riding high. The whiz kid computer programmer from only a decade ago had transformed his skill into a thriving business in High-Tech Security. Going from strength to strength he moving into the world of exotic holidays and had started his own airline complete with best-selling private planes. But then the Recession hit – Hard. The employment of a new CEO to look after his business empire allowed Michael to concentrate on what many saw as his ‘vanity’ project. In the face of growing economic trouble and worrying news from the Stock Exchange Michael was determined to plow ahead with his idea for a solo flight around the world. Going into full PR overdrive he proposed to have Ruth Clifford, his PR Manager and present lover, as his back-up pilot. But Michael never intended to use her in that role. Michael had other ideas – both for his company and for Ruth. But he never saw the accident coming. Grounded with a broken arm he was forced to watch Ruth take off on HIS round world trip. She was going to ruin everything... and then his new CEO discovered fraud, massive fraud. It was all starting to really fall apart.
This was an odd one for me. I’d had it (like SO many others) for years sitting on a shelf gathering dust. I dug it out a few months ago whilst (rather inevitably) looking for something else and added it to a mini-stack of flight related novels. I picked this one (prompted by the ‘Air’ wildcard) because I thought it’d make a nice change from a military related flight novel. After a rather long and slow start I actually ended up quite liking this. The main protagonists – both Michael and Ruth – were not very nice or relatable people so I struggled with that aspect quite a bit. Ruth started to grow on me by the end but still proved to be more annoying than anything else. The new CEO, Robert Munro, was OK and generated a fair bit of admiration and sympathy as he tried to save Michael’s company from bankruptcy. My favourite character was the hyper PR person in charge of the media storm regarding the solo flight – Terri Sabuli – even if she harped on her racial disadvantages a bit too much for my liking. The novel only really ‘took off’ (pun intended!) along with the solo flight which was by far, at least for me, the most interesting part of the book. For the majority of the read I was convinced that this would get an overall rating of ‘reasonable’ or ‘OK’ but, at about the 2/3 mark, it all began to come together and turned out to be rather good by the time I turned the last page. What, at first, seemed to be a group of unrelated threads was woven into a clever plan, on Michael’s part, to get out of the company he built with money in hand before the whole thing crashed behind him. It was all quite ingenious looking down from 20,000 feet. Despite the fact that this hasn’t aged particularly well and that it demands patience for the first half of the book as the author builds the necessary foundations this ended as a better than average corporate world thriller with an interesting aerial twist for good measure. Recommended if you can find a copy.
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Monday, December 20, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Democracy and Its Crisis by A C Grayling (FP: 2017) [208pp]
With the double whammy of the pro-Brexit vote and Trump’s presidential victory the so-called intellectual elite kind of lost their minds for a while and talked about the end of Democracy. Although Trump is mentioned here in passing – for context I’m guessing – most of this short book focuses on the Brexit vote. Naturally I talked to ‘the Guys’ seemingly endlessly about Brexit both before, during and after the decision(s) along the way. The author shadows some of those discussions and I agreed with quite a bit of his reasoning and arguments on the subject. He quite rightly stated that the referendum itself (much trumpeted at the time) was supposedly ‘advisory’ only and then, as if by magic, turned into the ‘Will of the People’ overnight. Or, as I liked to state, the will of 52% of the people who actually voted. That was another problem that the author and I could agree on – the fact that a large chunk of the potential voting population didn’t vote. Does that mean they were happy with the Status Quo or did they consider the question too difficult to answer or where they simply uninterested? It’s hard to tell. What I didn’t agree with was the author’s idea of making the vote – at least in this case – compulsory. That's something I’d never likely agree on. NOT voting is as much a right as voting. CHOOSING not to exercise your right is, indeed, your right. He did make an interesting statement which I’m still musing over – the idea that, in the Brexit Referendum at least, that voting should have been allowed to everyone over 16 instead of the usual 18. I can see the argument for this in this instance – as the future repercussions would be mostly felt by the younger citizens going forward – but I’m not wholly convinced. Dropping the voting age to 16 longer term might be an idea to consider but only, I think, if there was a concerted effort at political education in schools (which should already exist to be honest!).
But does any of this actually constitute a ‘crisis’? Personally, I’d say not. The election of Trump or the ‘No’ vote in the Brexit Referendum does not, in and of themselves, mean that Democracy is in Crisis. Indeed, I do not believe that Democracy is in crisis at all across the globe. It is certainly under renewed scrutiny – in how to protect it from outside interference - and steps to ensure that it is not interfered with should be enhanced but that’s achievable, I think. Other steps, especially with the influence of social media can, likewise, be tweaked to enhance the robustness of democracy. Things can, and should, certainly be learnt from the last 5-6 years in politics which will make democracy in general stronger. But was the Brexit vote anti-democratic? I’d say no. Was it undemocratic? I’d have to say that parts of it could/should have been more democratic. It was pushed through and had to be pulled back from the edge of illegality more than once. It most definitely ruined the political careers of a number of politicians and tarnished the reputation of Parliament for years to come. It was not, overall, a very edifying process. I also don’t think the Trump election itself to be anti-democratic. Of course, the resulting 4 years in office and the subsequent activities of Trump and his supporters are another story. Was it undemocratic? I’d have to say yes on that one. Afterall Trump failed to win the popular vote which is, in my mind anyway, the whole point of democracy. Trump ‘won’ in 2016 and became President because of the Electoral College and not the actual ‘will of the people’. I’m not the only one to find that whole process as passing strange.
So, where does that leave us? Is democracy in crisis as the author maintains? On balance I would say no. Western democracies are, generally I think, reasonably healthy. They’re certainly messy but democracy IS messy by nature. Politicians across the world’s democracies are too complacent and too ready to assume that we, the electorate, either don’t know or don’t want to know what they do or what they should do but, as they found out recently here with the loss of a Conservative seat for the first time in 200 years with a swing away of 32% people ARE paying attention. About the only place I know of where democracy seems under particular strain is, rather ironically considering the usual boasting on the subject, is the United States. After the Capitol riot (I hesitate to call it an actual insurrection) and Trump’s refusal to concede that he lost the system is being put under a lot of stress. It’s not at crisis point yet but I do think it’s headed in that direction if nothing changes soon. For the first time since the Civil War it’s actually legitimate to ask the question of whether or not the United States will still be a democracy in the next 10 years. The consequences, both in the US and around the world, of the failure of American democracy are difficult to contemplate. About the only thing that most people would agree upon is that generally they won’t be good. Interesting times...
Sunday, December 19, 2021
Saturday, December 18, 2021
Friday, December 17, 2021
Thursday, December 16, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Glory in the Name by James Nelson (FP: 2003) [660pp]
Charleston, South Carolina, 1861. It was the only honourable thing to do. With the situation in his home State deteriorating by the week, Lieutenant Samuel Bowater (United States Navy) was on extended leave. As he watched the first shells fall on Fort Sumter he knew his duty. Returned home he informed his father that he would immediately, if with a heavy heart, resign his commission and instead offer his services to whatever task he was assigned within the new Confederacy. His father, as always, was well ahead of him and had already drafted a letter to the head of the Confederate Naval Department. Pleased at last to get a ‘ship’ his pleasure was tempered somewhat by the vessel itself. The unarmed river tug CSS Cape Fear, despite being well maintained by its rag-tag crew and rather plain-speaking chief engineer, wasn’t exactly what Sam had hoped for. If this was the best they could offer to even the few experienced naval officers willing and able to join the South’s fighting forces he knew that the Confederacy would face an uphill struggle against the much more potent US Navy. But after weeks of requesting a combat command whilst providing much needed logistical support for the inevitable encounters with the ‘enemy’ Samuel gets his wish. He is to report immediately to Virginia and assist in the taking of a vital Strategic installation – the Norfolk Naval Yard.
A year or so ago I had a sudden passion for tales of naval daring do (where these things come from I have no idea). So, inevitably, I started hitting Amazon and other sites looking for books – both fiction and non-fiction – to assuage the craving. I liked the look of some of this author’s books mostly because he didn’t seem to be stuck, like so many others it seemed, in the age of sail. Now there’s nothing wrong with wood and sail but I do like a bit of iron and steam to leaven things out a bit from time to time. Of course, one of the great things about the period and conflict covered in this excellent novel is the swift transition from wood to iron which was an added spice to an already well told tale. Indeed, the main character himself both laments the lost romance of sail but also realises the reality behind the move to steam as inevitable. As always (as you should know by now) character is a very important determinant of whether I’m going to like a novel, or in this case a short series, or not. Thankfully the characterisation throughout this quite chunky novel is very good indeed. The main, Samuel Bowater, is very well drawn. He’s understandably conflicted with the idea of fighting people he served with on other ships but has no issue in the heat of combat fighting against ships he had previously served on. The chief engineer is a great foil for the new captain and the growing relationship is fun to watch – complete with the occasional spark of heated conflict between their world views. Even the inevitable love interest – indeed almost love triangle – is very well handled if at least once rather unrealistic (I think!). One of the things that I was regularly reminded of – being the kind of novel it is and the time/conflict it portrayed – was learning not to get too attached to anyone! Bullets and shells fly and no one is immune or immortal between these pages so beware!
The fighting itself – both on the rivers of the South and, briefly at Manassas (First Bull Run) - is very well done indeed. Told mostly from the Confederate viewpoint (with brief moments on Union blockade ships and during the attack on New Orleans) it showed both the confidence in the Southern cause and the fact that, almost from the outset, how outclassed the Confederacy was most especially at sea. I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the American Civil War is scanty but still even I realise that on the face of things it would prove very difficult indeed for Confederate forces to decisively defeat those from the North unless, and probably only unless, they could inflict an early and decisive victory against them knocking them back on their heels and causing them to rethink any war of reunification. Once this failed to materialise, Bull Run essentially being a tie or at least a Confederate tactical victory but a Union strategic one, it was only a matter of time before the North got its act together and crushed the South with its numerical and industrial might. The novel does interestingly go into some of this – mostly through Confederate scratch naval units fighting MUCH superior forces from the Union – with everyone (still alive) realising that this is going to be neither a quick or easy fight. I’m looking forward to part two and, after reading this page turner, everything else from this author I can get my hands on. Definitely highly recommended for all historical (and especially naval) combat enthusiasts.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Monday, December 13, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Democracy Hacked – How Technology is Destabilising Global Politics by Martin Moore (FP: 2018) [272pp]
Attempting to ‘fix’ or ‘game’ elections is as old as Democracy itself. A fake victory, after all, is just as good as a real one – if you can get away with it. Unfortunately for those who have tried this in the past the result tends to not be worth the effort – at least in actual democracies and not in places that call themselves Democratic Republic of ‘X’ or ‘Y’. Of course, you can try to hack into voting machines where they exist (we don’t have them here) but that’s really not as easy as it seems. Likewise, subverting election officials sounds fairly straightforward but never seems quite subversive enough (or widespread enough). But there is another way, rather than hacking machines, the system or even the officials you go deep – you hack the electorate! Back in the 20th you did this through radio, posters and other forms of rather crude propaganda techniques. We’ve all seen it – political rallies, torchlight parades, ‘leaders’ haranguing their followers etc. All very crude, all very unsophisticated. But this is the modern age, we have something much better, more targeted, more precise, and with far more bang for the buck. Today we have the Internet and social media.
There’s never been anything quite like it. Back in those heady days before social media hit its stride (or its billionth subscriber) politicians spent a great deal of time crafting and delivering ‘soundbites’ on TV, kissing babies, drinking beers in pubs to provide the common touch and promising everything to everybody. But it was all scattershot and no one knew if it was actually working even after all of the votes were in. Now, Big Data and its analysis can tell you exactly what worked with what demographic and how to have an even greater impact next time. Politicians, political parties and others – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ now have the tools and the motivation to actively and, more importantly, actually ‘game’ elections to produce the results they desire. With targeted adverts delivered with the data driven precision of a laser-guided bomb they can influence people's micro-decision making to an astonishing degree – so the data shows at least. In many ways, of course, this is what politicians have always done – lied and manipulated their way into power. But technology has now given them a greatly enhanced ability to do that and more. The problem outlined in this interesting and timely book is that our established processes are not designed to easily cope with such an intimately wired world. What it will mean going further into the 21st century as techniques become more sophisticated, algorithms get more powerful and people – especially the young – get even more connected is an open question. After years of Fake News and crude manipulation will people get better at finding the true gold hidden within the gigatons of fool's gold? Maybe. Or will people become more and more pliant as their media and other feeds become more subtle and more invasive so future voters no longer even know why exactly they voted for the candidate they did. Containing much to think about as well as much to be concerned about this is an important read for those navigating their political future – smart device in hand. Recommended.
Sunday, December 12, 2021
Friday, December 10, 2021
Thursday, December 09, 2021
Just Finished Reading: A Christmas Railway Mystery by Edward Marston (FP: 2017) [350pp]
Swindon, England. December 1860. With only a few weeks left until Christmas it was the last thing either of them wanted – to be called away from London, Scotland Yard and their families to investigate a bizarre murder at the recently built Swindon railway works. One of the hundreds of workmen had been found dead but that wasn’t the strange part. The works was not a place for those who treated their own wellbeing casually. To survive unscathed from a hard day's work you needed to keep your wits about you. But that wouldn’t have helped Frank Rodman much. His wife had raised the alarm when he hadn’t returned home from the local pub. Thinking he might have injured himself on the way back a search was organised. It wasn’t long before a body was found. But it was no accident that claimed Franks life – not when his head had been removed from his body and was nowhere to be seen. Great Western Railway (GWR) insisted that Scotland Yard sent their very best man to take charge. That, at least, was the easy choice for Superintendent Tallis – the famed ‘Railway Detective’ Inspector Colbeck and his right-hand man Sergeant Leeming would be sent post-haste. Once in Swindon the trouble really began. Not only was the victim widely hated and feared but his wife was widely admired and, prior to her marriage to Frank, widely courted. The number of potential killers was a lengthy one which seemed to grow with each interview. Each had their own reason to see Frank dead. It was going to be quite a headache indeed to solve things before Christmas...
This is actually the 15th Railway Detective novel but my first read. I just couldn’t resist the idea of having a Christmas themed novel/mystery this close to the actual event. As with most series like this it's not hugely problematic to read things out of sequence (or in my case dive straight into the middle of things). Some mention is made of previous cases but that information isn’t generally germane to the investigation. Despite the headless victim this is overall a rather light and fluffy affair. It’s far more about the clues and working out the mystery than the gory side of things. There’s only one (minor) moment of ‘yuck’ factor for maybe a few lines and that’s it. I did have a feeling throughout that it was as inoffensive as an Agatha Christie novel which feels about right. The overall ‘feel’ of the novel was a delight. It evoked the time nicely (maybe too nicely actually – there's little Dickensian about the whole affair) and the railway works felt real enough. Both the detective and sidekick were well drawn and I liked both of them. I was intrigued by the Inspectors wife who he met in a previous novel so I’m looking forward to finding more out about that! Likewise, there is a young and upcoming detective that I’m looking forward to knowing better too. Being a well-constructed mystery, it kept me guessing to the very end and I only really clued into the murderer seconds before it was revealed and even then I wasn’t anywhere near sure. Many of the side characters were well drawn including the suspects and some of those being interviewed along the way. There wasn’t a single jarring moment throughout and it was a wonderfully relaxing read and I enjoyed it greatly. I already have several more (earlier!) novels in this series and will be scheduling them in at my earliest opportunity. Definitely recommended for all Victorian crime lovers – and those with even a passing interest in trains!