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

Monday, February 28, 2022

Just Finished Reading: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (FP: 2019) [371pp] 

The Central Criminal Court, London, 1826. On trial for her life, housemaid and companion Francis Langton is accused of the willful and savage murder of her employer and her wife. Given to them as a ‘gift’ by her own father, a slave owner in Jamaica, Francis is the result of a wager between friends – a wager regarding the intelligence and educability of those of mixed race. Proving herself beyond all expectations Francis is well-read, intelligent and incisive. But in England she is hardly more than a toy, a plaything, an aberration even for the bored and melancholic Mrs Benham. Almost immediately there is a frisson between Francis and her erstwhile Mistress of the house. Francis is captivated by a beautiful, willful and sometimes eccentric force of nature whilst Marguerite Benham sees an opportunity to escape her boredom and the oppression of a loveless marriage. As brief as the passion was it could only lead to ruin. In the early years of the 19th century Francis Langton had the world against her. She was a woman educated above her ‘station’ in life, she was a whore (so they said), she was unnatural (so they said) and she had been a slave and the product of that noisome trade. But was she also a murderess and if she was what drove her to kill her employers seemingly in cold blood? More importantly, would anyone care or want to find out before they hanged her? 

This was one of those works that wasn’t exactly as advertised – or at least not explicitly advertised. I was expecting a murder mystery probably told in flashbacks (which I don’t mind if done well) during the progression of an Old Bailey trial. The trial itself only happened in the very last part of the book and barely lasted long enough to qualify as such. The confessions themselves were penned by the accused during her brief stay in prison both prior to and during the short progress of her trial and directed towards her defence lawyer. Most of the tale however was related in ‘real-time’ from Frannie’s perspective as she grew up on the Jamaican sugar plantation and eventually found herself in ‘service’ in London. Despite being somewhat disappointed by both the lack of a good murder – at least early on – and the lack of much mystery I was very impressed overall by the story itself. Frannie Langton was a very interesting ‘creation’ and deserves the praise she received from the critics – as does the author herself of course! As a first novel this was an outstanding work of historical fiction and I enjoyed it a great deal. I did find it a fascinating insight into the reasoning behind some of the debate about Slavery taking place at the time in England. I was actually rocked back on my heels by the (in hindsight) obvious revelation that the end of the slave trade within the British Empire by 1826 did not actually end the practice of slavery and much debate was still taking place regarding compensation for the owners of slaves prior to its final abolition. Naturally there was not debate about compensating the slaves themselves who lived and died to sweeten the Empire’s tea. There was much food for thought and reflection here and interesting avenues of further reading and research to follow in future non-fiction reading on the subject. Part murder mystery, part love story (with some not particularly explicit sex) and part critique of the hypocrisy of Victorian society this is definitely worth your time. Some of it will, no doubt, make some readers uncomfortable for a number of reasons but that’s how we often grow, right? Recommended.   


Costa Book Award - Best First Novel 2019. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Erm... Too late!

Just Finished Reading: American Character – A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good by Colin Woodard (FP: 2016) [265pp] 

One of the questions that has popped into my head over the last 4-5 years is a bit of a strange one: Is America actually a country? On the face of it it’s a silly question – of course America is a country, right? But the USA is a LARGE place too. It’s a bit like asking if Europe is a country. Actually, it’s more like asking residents of a (possible) future United States of Europe if Europe is a country. The logical answer would be No, of course not. Even a century after the USE came into existence, I’m sure that people would still think of themselves as French. German or Italian first and THEN European. Likewise, until fairly recently, people saw themselves and thought of themselves as Californian. Texan or as a New Yorker first and then as an American. Interestingly, the author of this often-fascinating book, has asked the same question I started with and has come to a similar conclusion – that America, as any kind of cohesive nation, simply does not and quite possibly cannot exist. 

The author splits the US into a number (10-12 I think) of ‘nations’ based on their individual histories and who colonised them (and when!). Each nation, because of historical and cultural reasons, has developed in different directions and holds a variety of idea to be sacred or non-negotiable. VERY broadly speaking, with some rich nuance sprinkled within each category, they can be grouped into two political ideologies – those who value individual liberty above all else and those who focus on the common good and who feel that they need to restrain individualism where it clashes with that good. This geographic focus on political ideologies has shifted and morphed over time but, generally speaking, areas that strongly favoured ‘rugged individualism’ in the past favour it still – and maybe more strongly – as do areas who based their political structures and ideology of community being ultimately more important (comparatively) that individual attainment or excess. Inevitably as such ‘nations’ bedded in and people, over the centuries, navigated to the areas that suited their personal ideologies the politicians they sent to Congress and the Presidents they elected reflected a divided nation and helps explain the shifts from individualism to communitarianism and back again over the decades. 

The problem is, of course, that the political identities that have grown up especially since the 1960’s have become people's primary identities. Within living memory, it was still possible for left-leaning Republicans and right-leaning Democrats to actually agree with each other much of the time. It was an era when bi-partisan had yet to become a slur. With the hardening of political attitudes since the 60’s the holders of individualistic or community-based ideologies increasingly hold to the idea that they can ‘win’ and that the other side can be ‘defeated’ forever. Of course, the author rightly states, neither side can (or should) ‘win’ in the fashion some of their adherents dream of. We are all aware of just how badly wrong a country can go when its only driving ideology is the common good at the expense of any individual freedom. We should also be aware, the author states strongly, of the dangers of toxic individualism at the ultimate expense of the common good. These two forces, both necessary for liberty to thrive, should be held in a dynamic balance. Only in this way can a free society be maintained. 

I’ve been looking for books for a while now to help explain one of the burning questions of the moment that I have (somewhat) sarcastically termed USA:WTF. This, I think, went a great deal towards at least giving me a foundation on which to build future delving's into this subject. If, like me, you’ve wondered why America seems at times to be tearing itself apart or why the US seems somewhat more screwed up than normally this might just be the book for you. I’ve recently finished another look at this problem which actually complimented this volume rather well, but you’ll need to wait a few weeks for me to review that one! Further down the line I have another 3 pairs of books looking at various aspects of American culture which, together, I hope will give me some firm foundation to understanding the USA. But then, I do so like a challenge! Definitely recommended and more to come from this author. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

The end of congestion...?

Just Finished Reading: Code Breakers – The Secret Intelligence Unit that Changed the Course of the First World War by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley (FP: 2015) [306pp] 

When radio first appeared on the scene in the early days of the 20th century military forces across the globe immediately saw its potential. First amongst them were nations navies who now, at last, had a method of communicating with ships at sea previously out of touch as soon as they left harbour. But there was a problem and it was a significant one – radio was broadcast and open to interception. Signals lost a lot of their power if potential enemies could easily read your instructions. The obvious solution was to encode the messages at transmission and decode them on receipt. As inevitably as day follows night radio produced codes and codes produced code breakers. 

One of the first acts of the British navy when war broke out in 1914 was to cut the trans-Atlantic cables used by the belligerent powers (as well as the neutral powers in Europe) forcing them to use cables that went through London and thence onto America and points East. Amazingly it was considered at the time that gentlemen simply didn’t read other people’s private messages. The infant Intelligence services – split at that time between Army and Navy – had to fight to gain access to the diplomatic telegrams that, as a matter of course, the cable companies kept copies of. With a wealth of materials and some fortuitous acquisition of enemy code books and other materials from around the globe it slowly became possible to read telegrams and radio communications almost in real-time. You can imagine how important this became for the prosecution of the war – once a few ‘wrinkles’ were ironed out. 

But message interception was only one aspect of the work. From the start, even before codes had been broken, it was possible to use radio receivers to pinpoint the locations of U-boats at sea (thereby allowing ships, and later convoys, to be redirected away from them), zeppelins on their way to bomb London and even locations of enemy army units at the Front. More than once it was possible to guess upcoming attacks and to act accordingly. Likewise, it was possible to direct warships to intercept U-boats at sea and, eventually, to direct fighters to intercept incoming zeppelins and, again eventually, shoot them down. 

Covering the whole war and, indeed, the whole world this was a fascinating insight into a new way of war. Britain had a number of advantages in the effort to break enemy codes – both technical and personal – and they used these advantages (mostly) to their great advantage – at least when listened to by those they had been created to advise. From tracking the German High Seas Fleet to decoding the infamous Zimmerman telegram that finally brought the US into the war on the side of the Allies the effect of the activities of a hand-full of men working to extremely tight deadlines and with matters of life and death always front and centre cannot be overstated. These units were the antecedents of the more well-known Bletchley Park of WW2 and the present GCHQ. Those with an interest in such things will find LOTS of fascinating information to absorb here. Definitely recommended for fans of espionage and the less obvious nooks and crannies of World War history. More of that sort of thing to come!      

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann (FP: 2010) [326pp] 

New York, 1926. Despite the deepening Cold War with the British Empire Manhattan’s police commissioner has more pressing problems. There’s a new crime lord in town who has managed to muscle his way into the world of organised crime using a combination of extreme violence and mystery to intimidate his enemies. The NYPD are at a loss to discover who this player is and can only refer to him as ‘The Roman’ because of his habit of leaving priceless Roman coins on the eyes of his high-profile victims. If that wasn’t bad enough a new vigilante is running around the streets doing what the police are singularly incapable of – fighting the Roman’s minions on their own turf. Leaving dead gangsters, along with the occasional civilian bystander, in his wake the press has named him ‘The Ghost’ for his ability to appear and disappear at will. Detective Donovan has been given the dubious ‘honour’ of tracking down both ‘The Roman’ and his seeming nemesis-wannabee ‘The Ghost’ but is at a loss as how to proceed. In an act of desperation, he decides to enlist the one person who is actually making headway in the case – the spectral apparition himself. But is joining forces with a self-appointed crime fighter the right thing to do? Only time and results will tell. 

To be honest I picked this first book of the series up because of its amazing cover. Generally, I’m a sucker for all things steampunk so I thought it was worth the punt. What sold it for me – even before I read the first page – was the overall description of the book on the back. This was ‘a glorious mash-up of alternate history, science-fiction, supernatural horror and detective thriller.’ With that to look forward to how could I possibly resist? The noir feeling of 20’s America was handled well with seedy streets, seedy people doing seedy things to get by. There was a depression era feel to things throughout and I couldn’t help visualise a Sam Spade vibe whenever the police were involved. ‘The Ghost’ came across as a Batman/Bruce Wayne/Gatsby character (with probably a healthy dose of Hemingway thrown in) who struggled with his wartime experiences in France as well as nightmares about ‘things’ he experienced in no-man's land (I’m REALLY hoping we find out more about that in subsequent novels!). The cop, Donovan, is reasonably drawn but is the weaker of the pair. ‘The Roman’ I thought was a bit disappointing and could have been a much stronger protagonist given his unusual background and was probably the weakest part of an otherwise excellent and highly entertaining romp. Overall though I enjoyed this first installment a great deal. It was MUCH fun with the mashing together of multiple genres (generally) working very well. Some aspects were a little silly – such as steam-powered cars requiring regular top-ups with powdered coal which resulted in quite a lot of mess (something that would’ve been fixed long before it came into general use) and others intriguing, like the use of holographic video phones! The sprinkling of the supernatural element (with strong hints of Lovecraft) was totally intriguing as was the political falling out of the USA and British Empire after the victory of WW1. I DO hope we learn more about THOSE aspects going forward. I’ve scheduled in the 2nd book soon with the final two probably going to be read later in the year. If you find the idea of a steampunk Batman with a supernatural ‘edge’ interesting then this is definitely the book/series for you. Much fun and highly recommended.  

Monday, February 14, 2022

Happy Valentine's Day! Go HUG someone... 

Just Finished Reading: Carpe Diem Regained – The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day by Roman Krznaric (FP: 2017) [236pp] 

I’ve heard it said that spontaneity has its time and place. In a way the author would agree. In a rather counterintuitive move, he proposes that we can (or should) schedule in a recuring place where we have the opportunity to ‘seize the day’ and be more open to the unplanned moments in life. Today, with the all too pervasive “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO), we tend to try to cram in as much of life as possible – by rigidly planning every moment of our waking lives. We are, in effect, attempting to seize our days by removing that essential quality that allows us to do just that. Rather than just ‘doing it’ we, instead, just ‘plan it’. No wonder so many people are increasingly frustrated and confused. With so much on offer to so many the idea of NOT having anything planned is anathema. Paradoxically this attitude reduces the possibility of carping that diem and sometimes eliminating it entirely. This is the thing that the author argues against most in this intriguing little book.  

Of course, it's easy to say that we should seize our (limited in number) days. If only things were that easy! The author readily recognises that we are not all free to do so. Some of those things stopping us can be, and he maintains should be, overcome. Our fears of failure, of public ridicule, of ‘standing out’, of being seen as odd or different, can be overcome. Other things are more difficult – responsibilities for example. It’s easy to say that we should capre when we don’t have children, or a mortgage to pay off or sick relatives to care for. It’s even easier to seize the day when you have some disposable income or time to do so. Many people simply don’t have the luxury. But even this shouldn’t stop you completely. Carpe Diem doesn’t simply mean dropping everything on a whim to spend the next year learning to surf in California. It means being open to possibilities, to be able to recognise that opportunity when it arises and being willing to seize that opportunity if you can do so. It’s not about living irresponsibly it’s about giving yourself the room to be you, to know what you want, to carve out some territory where you can be you.  

I’ve never really been a planner – at least not until I joined a planning team at work and had to plan for a day job. But I’ve never been particularly spontaneous either. I kind of relied on friends to be spontaneous on my behalf. They’d have crazy ideas and my part of the equation was deciding if I wanted to be involved in the scheme or not. On my crazier days I’d say yes – the author quite rightly says that we shouldn’t simply say ‘yes’ to EVERY opportunity that comes our way – and we’d have an adventure. On other days I’d say no and they’d go off and do stuff without me (often in a mildly confused state as to why I wouldn’t jump off something or whatever they’d decided to do with the day). To be honest the ‘Carpe Diem’ mindset is hard. It’s not just that it’s been hijacked by a ‘just plan it’ or ‘just buy it’ mentality (we all know how easy it is to think we’re being spontaneous by ‘impulse’ buying something we don’t need – or actually want – with money we don’t really have). To be aware of opportunities to take advantage of we first need to be generally aware of what’s going on around us rather than starring at our phones wishing we had other people’s lives. Then we need to courage to take the leap – however small – as well as the courage to stick with something or to let it go later. Too much Carpe can easily lead to disaster, too little to stagnation and boredom. This was an interesting read. I’m not totally convinced that the author made a strong enough case but he certainly gave me things, ideas and strategies to think about. A ‘sprinkle’ of carpe diem should, I think, be part of all of our lives. Reading this book might encourage you to add that sprinkle or maybe just to add a bit more. Recommended.      

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Links & Connections (4) 

A few more book links of note – a few playful, a few (reasonably) close. Some much closer and some rather strung out to come... 

The Store by James Patterson & Richard DiLallo 

The Warehouse by Rob Hart 

(I did wonder if I had any more related titles in various piles? Could I have constructed a whole supply chain? Maybe...) 

The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman 

Royal Witches – Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England by Gemma Hollman 

(Strange goings-on in high places. Nothing new under the sun, I guess. More witches in the future). 

Down to the Woods by M J Arlidge 

In The Woods by Tana French 

(...and neither a teddy bear nor a picnic to be seen). 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Ah, the 1970's..... [lol]

Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Honour by Bernard Cornwell (FP: 1985) [370pp] 

Spain, July 1813. With the French armies in retreat ahead of Wellington’s forces a foolproof plan is put into effect. The fragile alliance between Britain and Spain must be broken and the Spanish king, presently the ‘guest’ of Napoleon Bonapart, must be restored to the throne – once he has agreed to eject the British from his country. At the heart of the plan is a simple act of revenge. French intelligence officer Pierre Ducos is determined to ruin Major Richard Sharpe once and for all. A letter is written charging Sharpe with ungentlemanly conduct towards La Marquessa and her husband, as expected, challenges Sharpe to a duel. To refuse would be an act of cowardice but to accept – win or lose – would strain the alliance to breaking point or beyond. It is a matter of honour on both sides, something that cannot be ignored or set aside. Trapped either way Sharpe must discover why a woman who had previously held him in some regard now wishes him ill. Trusting his instincts, he knows that there is far more to this duel than meets the eye. The only question that matters is who is behind the plot and what they hope to gain from the death or disgrace of a single Major in a vast allied army. 

From the publication date you’ll be able to tell that I’m in full catch-up mode with my Sharpe novels (only two more to go plus the latest novel when it comes out in paperback). This one see’s Sharpe “under cover” in Spain trying to get to the bottom of the plot to defeat the British without firing a shot. The plot follows a well-trodden path (and that’s not a criticism) of Sharpe being in serious trouble – essentially for being a hot-headed womaniser – and given minimal resources plus a tight timescale to get himself out of it. Essentially on his own most of the time he must find his ex-lover, find out what she was thinking in sending the offending letter, fight a few small skirmishes, make some new friends and, as usual show up just in time for a battle to finish the book off in true Cornwell style. As always with the author this is a vastly enjoyable romp. Sharpe is, well, Sharpe so inevitably lots of fun. He is honestly a brilliant creation and I’ll miss him when I finally finish the series. The love interest – La Marquessa – is very well drawn and I could definitely see what Sharpe saw in her. She was, in few words, FUN if somewhat hard work and, potentially at least, dangerous. Still fun though! The baddies, complete with a Spanish Inquisitor, are suitably two dimensional and doomed to failure. If there’s anything I’ve learnt during my reading of numerous Sharpe novels is that the quickest way to an unmarked grave is to try to kill Richard Sharpe – no matter who you are or how big you think you are. Full of interesting ‘scenery’ and actual events (most notably the explosion at a French occupied castle) with the battle at the end both clever and dramatic – although it did result in the death of at least one of my favourite characters – I enjoyed this from the first page to the last. Definitely recommended.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Chamberlain and the Lost Peace by John Charmley (FP: 1989) [212pp] 

The word ‘appeasement’ can hardly be used, it seems, without an accompanying frown, a head shake or the inevitable link between it and war. Appeasement is, without argument, wrong. Or at least so I had been led to believe all through my school years. The Second World War was at least in part due to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s failure to deter Hitler from the relentless expansion of a resurgent Germany inevitably leading to war and the death of millions. It’s quite a lot to lay at the feet of a British Prime Minister, but does the idea hold any water? 

My previous reading on the subject, in both non-fiction and novelised format, painted a much more sympathetic picture of Chamberlain and the obvious strain he was under up to and during the 1938 Munich talks. Rather than concentration on that narrow window, this densely argued book looks at the period May 1937 to September 1939 when it all fell apart. Chamberlain and (most of) his cabinet had one primary aim in mind – to avoid war. With memories of the previous cataclysmic conflict still very fresh and with an accurate reading of British public opinion the PM not only believed that he could negotiate with Hitlers Germany but that he had a moral imperative to do so. Unlike the French (for a whole host of good reasons) the British were not wedded to the workings of the Versailles Treaty and, again in line with public opinion at the time, saw the need to redress what had been done – both for the practical reason of reducing tension and in the name of fairness. Anyone could see that the Versailles Treaty was often overly harsh and more often both counter-productive to the aim of peace and in blatant contradiction to the principles of self-determination which lay at its foundation. So, when German moved troops into the Rhineland the British said little. Likewise, talk of ‘readjusting’ the Versailles imposed borders caused few in England to lose much sleep. Those few, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden among them, were seen as trouble-makers, alarmist and even warmongers. 

Several things, over and above a deep reluctance to becoming involved in yet another European conflict, drove the arguments for appeasement. For purely economic reasons, it was argued, a strong and prosperous Germany was going for the whole of Europe and, indeed, the world. With many countries only just emerging from the Great Depression (or struggling to do so) not only was war and rearmament to be avoided on cost grounds an economically resurgent Germany could be the locomotive to pull Europe out of the doldrums. Britain had no commitments in the East, where Germany promised any future expansion would take place, so any conflict of interests did not exist. Germany was also seen by many in the West as a bulwark against Communist Russia so at least some expansion East was seen as a good thing. France, however, was a problem. France had a mutual protection pact with the new state of Czechoslovakia and Britain had a pact with France. With growing tensions in the Czech Sudetenland, it was possible that France could be pulled into conflict with Germany and this could also pull Britain into a war it wanted no part of.  

For France to save face and to avoid a war that neither France nor Britain was prepared for an immense pressure was put on the Czechoslovak government to co-operate with the Germans and given them what they wanted. Reluctantly eventually they did. Hitler promised, in writing indeed, that he had no more territorial ambitions and the Sudetenland would be the end of things. History, as we know, told a very different story. The selling of Czechoslovakia in the name, or at least the hope, of peace left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. The later full occupation of that country by German armed forces showed the world that German could not be trusted. At that point, Britain finally started to seriously rearm for what many started to see as the inevitable coming conflict. When war finally broke out in late 1939 Chamberlain, who had worked so hard to avoid it was a broken man. Appeasement had failed and he knew, all too well, that history would blame him for it – and it did. 

Despite reading about this previously late last year, I still learnt quite a bit about the run up to World War Two. As with the previous book I was actually surprised at how sympathetically Chamberlain was portrayed here. He honestly had very little ‘wriggle room’ in his options – constrained by economics, war readiness, public opinion and our French allies. If he had pushed for a harder line and the Czech invasion had become a trip wire to a European conflict it’s entirely possible – indeed probable - that the combined forces of France and Britain would have been defeated completely. Would a harder diplomatic line and military threat (or actually bluff!) have stopped Hitler’s ambitions? That’s rather doubtful. Chamberlain was stuck between a hot rock and a very hard place. He knew that he had sacrificed Czechoslovakia to buy time for both Britain and France to get into a position where they could fight Germany and win. It didn’t sit well with him and it didn’t sit well with the country. The Czech invasion showed clearly that Europe was on the path to war. This rather thin volume had a rather impressive amount of information and analysis packed into it. I certainly have a great appreciation of what Chamberlain (and others) were going through as they tried to negotiate their way through a diplomatic and potentially military minefield. I really couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Definitely worth a read if you can get access to a copy. More on this subject to come..