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

Monday, February 27, 2023


I was definitely much more of an asshole in my late teens/early 20's than I am now. But I was always pretty much afraid to ask girls out.... Luckily, I'm neither THAT post-modern nor Marxist (neo or otherwise). Oddly though, people have considered me intimidating.... ME! That always both amazed me and made me laugh (although it also made me rather sad hearing it..... I mean..... I'm a PUSSYCAT).


Just Finished Reading: Havanna Bay by Martin Cruz Smith (FP: 1999) [453pp] 

The Soviet Union has collapsed, Russia is in chaos and Arkady Renko, Moscow Militia Investigator, finds himself in Cuba. On arrival in Havana, he is informed that his missing friend KGB Colonel Sergei Pribluda has been found in the harbour, dead from a suspected heart attack. It is now Arkady’s only task to identify the body and return with it to Moscow. But Renko is far from happy to comply. First, he has questions – what was Pribluda doing in the harbour in the first place? What caused the so-called ‘heart attack’? Most importantly, why were the Cuban authorities so reluctant to investigate the death fully? Questions built on questions with no answer's forthcoming. Renko knows he’s out of his depth here. Far from home, no knowledge of the area and unable to speak the local language there is little, indeed nothing he can do about his friend. Whilst packing for his return flight home a mistake is made. Answering the door, thinking it is his ride to the airport, Renko is attacked and has to fight for his life. Now he knows for certain something is very, very wrong. Why, at the very moment he was leaving does someone panic and try to kill him? What was Pribluda really up to and what do ‘they’ think Renko already knows? With a week until the next flight to Moscow, it’s time to start doing what Renko does so well – asking questions, ruffling feathers and making trouble. 

This is my 4th Arkady Renko novel and I loved it. I’ve loved Renko since seeing him (played by William Hurt) in the 1983 movie adaptation of the first novel in this series ‘Gorky Park’. He’s such a sad character, a man with a strong sense of justice and with deep personal integrity forced to operate in a world were power is truth and the truth can get you killed. Here, in Cuba, we find him completely out of his depth and, initially at least, alone and fighting against shadows. Late 90’s Cuba is a fascinating place – recovering from the financial, political and psychic shock of the Soviet collapse and full of hatred for anything Russian (including Renko himself). Here Renko must not only figure out how and why his friend died but he also needs to figure out Cuba itself – and in the process discovers it for the reader too – in order to unravel the central mystery that drives the plot. This is a rich novel, not only with a brilliant central character full of tragedy and pathos, but with a host of interesting secondary characters each with a fully fleshed out back story and easily believable motivations. Both the good guys and the bad guys make sense (from their own positions) and gain a certain amount of sympathy because of that. What I’m trying to say is that the world we temporarily inhabit between the pages of this excellent novel feels real – you can feel the sun on your face, the smell of cooking food as you pass through a marketplace, the sounds of music and laughter as you pass an open window and feel the sand beneath your feet as you walk on the beach. There’s some (non-explicit) sex and some reasonably nasty periodic violence (or threats of violence) but that’s few and far between. Mostly we follow Renko as he uncovers the story behind the death of a friend and here the journey is well worth it. Another really good novel and I mustn’t wait so long [2009 when I read the last one!] before scheduling the next book in this brilliant series. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to lose themselves in a very good book.  

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Saturday, February 25, 2023

Good advice.......!

Book Tag: 5.... 4.... 3.... 2.... 1.... Borrowed from Marianne @ Let’s Read 

FIVE Books you Love 

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen 

The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin 

Pure by Andrew Miller 

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel 

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier 

No doubt I could have added more if I was allowed to. 

FOUR Auto-buy Authors 

Bernard Cornwell 

Martin Cruz Smith 

Robert Harris 

Joseph Kanon 

Authors that have (with one notable exception) never let me down. 

THREE Favourite Genres 

Science Fiction [my first love] 

Historical [endless variation] 

Crime [puzzles galore] 

TWO Places You Read 

These days, on my sofa. In my previous life I’d read anywhere and at any time I had more than a few minutes of otherwise ‘dead’ time. I always carried a book – because you never know when you’ll have a few minutes to spare (or be stuck somewhere for HOURS with nothing else to do but wait). 

ONE Book You Promise to Read Soon 

There are SO many to choose from, but....  

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Just Finished Reading: American Immigration – A Very Short Introduction (2nd Edition) by David A Gerber (FP: 2021) [136pp] 

It is hardly controversial to say that America is built on immigration. Every man, woman and child presently living there either came from somewhere else or had ancestors who did so. For all of its more recent history, at least since its ‘discovery’ in the late-15th century, immigrants from all over the world have flocked to its shores. For a good part of this time, they were welcomed with open arms – or at least without any great restrictions. The ‘New World’ needed strong backs and productive people to populate and dominate the seemingly endless Frontier. Only in the 19th century did the government start restricting who could, and more importantly who could not, enter the USA to stay. Rather inevitably, the early bans were based on race and the colour of skin with restrictions on Chinese immigrants in California – those same immigrants who had assisted with the building of the trans-continental railway. Rather oddly after the Mexican War had added vast amounts of territory in the south and west the local Mexican population were classified as ‘white’, whilst on the east coast the seemingly endless wave of Irish immigrants were classified as ‘black’. Colour, it seemed, was more political than actual. 

For well over a century argument about immigration and immigration control into the USA have become more fractious and more polarising than ever. Quotas from non-European countries – and particularly non-northern European – have waxed and waned over the decades. Debate on the status of Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms and Nazi extermination still cast a shadow over present debates. Children of immigrants decry policies they see as too lenient on those who want the same as their ancestors, debates over pathways to citizenship and ‘illegal’ aliens erupt in government and in the media. The issue is, depending on their position, requires a simple solution or a national debate on what it means to be American. The only thing that’s certain is that the arguments around the issue are not going away any time soon. 

I learnt a lot from this short but detailed look at American Immigration. In many ways it’s a complicated and divisive subject. It has philosophical and political depth and isn’t a subject that can be easily dismissed with either a handwave or the stroke of a pen. At heart it's about identity. It’s about who you are and who THEY are. It’s also a question as old as time – or at least as old as the idea of nationhood – and is unlikely to go away as long as the nation-state exists. Informative as always and definitely recommended to anyone who has wondered where to start reading up on the subject.   

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Monday, February 20, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Bread For All – The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick (FP: 2017) [267pp] 

Britain’s Welfare State didn’t just emerge, butterfly like, from the ashes of WW2 (to mix my metaphors somewhat). No, it was a long time coming – a LONG time. The earliest Poor Laws date from the reign of Elizabeth I and didn’t really change that much for hundreds of years. The Old, the Sick and the Destitute were looked after by Local Authorities as best they could and, mostly, it worked to a reasonable degree – mostly. However, the onset and spread of the Industrial Revolution highlighted its many failings and Charities, Philanthropists and finally the Government began to tinker with the system. Then came the fiasco of the Boer Wars and, on its heels, the Great War. Both conflicts showed, as never before, the failings of British society with the poor health of the average soldier and the inadequate education of the officer class. Promising a ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ after the end of the conflict in 1918 more effort was made to improve both health and educational provision throughout the UK as well as clearance of slums and other Public Health measures. The problem was (as ever) money, which became increasingly short in the 1920’s and most especially after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. So, it wasn’t until after the Second World War than plans for a full Welfare State could come to full fruition in 1948. 

I remember learning about some of this in school, about various reports (Beveridge in particular) which pointed out systemic problems with the UK and proposals to solve (or at the very least ease) them. This excellent book goes into far more detail although I was pleased that I was aware of some of the names of those involved and most of the highlights. What I didn’t fully realise was both the length of time it took for a patchwork of rules, managed by an even bigger patchwork of organisations, to come together as well as just how many people were involved in the process. It was a true mammoth undertaking. Of course, taking so long and involving SO many – both pro and anti – the Welfare State is, and probably always will be, a bit of a mess because of the winding historical path to get here. But it's inarguable that, imperfect though it undoubtedly is, what we have now is far, far superior to what existed before 1945. One of the interesting things that made me smile/laugh ironically throughout the book is the same arguments used, year after year, decade after decade AGAINST the very existence of the Welfare State – arguments that are still used today: about the moral failings of the poor, about the evils of intervention, about the waste of money and the inevitability of rich and poor. But we have also had those, throughout the same timescales, who have pointed to fairness and common humanity, who have shown that a healthy population is a productive population rather than a burden, who have shown that an educated population is innovative, valuable and even more productive, that a Welfare State can be a key factor in preventing political upheaval and even Revolution. 

Despite being comparatively short this slim volume is PACKED with interesting information. Written in a very accessible style (which is periodically rather funny) I can honestly say that I really enjoyed it. This is Social History at its best. You might imagine that a book on the origins of the Welfare State would be rather dry and boring. This is as far from that as you could imagine. If you have even wondered how the Welfare State came into existence or why things are as they are – and why some bits really don’t work as advertised! - this is definitely the book for you. Although flawed in a number of ways, the UK Welfare System is central to much of what makes Britain what it is. Highly recommended – as I’ve come to expect from a Penguin book.

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Saturday, February 18, 2023

Oh, I remember that - when *everyone* seemed to be called 'Carol'. At first it annoyed me, then it just made me laugh. I'd introduce myself and she'd say: I'm Carol.... and I'd say: Well, of COURSE you are! and burst out laughing.... [lol] The Universe/Matrix/Simulation thingy has such a great (twisted) sense of humour!

100 Questions – to get to know someone. 

61. What is one thing you love about yourself? 

Insatiable curiosity 

62. What is your biggest insecurity? 

Not being very practical. Not being able to cope very well with other people's emotions. Being made to look stupid in public.  

63. What is the title of your favourite book? 

Yeah, right..... As IF I could have ONE favourite book!! 

64. When was the last time you felt lost? 

Mildly, probably a few days ago....... 

65. Do you cry when you are angry? 

Not that I’m aware of. I tend not to get THAT angry as a rule. My anger is more like flowing lava. Slow and VERY destructive given time, although thankfully it generally doesn’t hang around very long. 

66. Are you excited about anything right now? 

Finally watching Series 4-6 of The Expanse on Amazon Prime. 

67. Nike or Adidas? 

Neither. Presently (when I go outside) wearing Skechers 

68. What is your comfort food? 

Food is my comfort food! 

69. Do you laugh at the number of this question? 

No, because I’m not a child. 

70. Where do go when you want to be alone? 

Home. It’s was always great to get back from work and just close the door and the world outside. I’m not sure what I’d do or what I’d be like if I couldn’t have my alone time. Although I hear that solitary confinement is pretty chilled.... 

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Just Finished Reading: They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie (FP: 1952) [218pp] 

Ruth Van Rydock just knew something was wrong, she could feel it. What exactly was wrong was a whole other matter. It was something indefinable, something that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Fortunately, she had a friend who could help with that, someone she could rely on, someone who could puzzle things out – her longtime friend Jane Marple. Jane was happy to oblige because it had been far too long since she had visited Carrie Louise, far, far too long and if she was in any danger then Jane was obligated to help if she could. Arriving at Stoneygates, part old family residence and now part a young offenders rehabilitation centre Jane slowly began to see what Ruth no doubt had felt. There was something wrong there, but what exactly? It was quite a mystery and, it seemed, a deadly one. With one violent death already could Miss Marple see through the haze of motivations, histories and misdirection's to stop the killer striking again? 

This rather thin, and I must admit slightly disappointing, classic crime novel started with quite a surprise - Miss Marple appeared on page ONE! Normally, at least in the previous novels, Jane Marple only appears in the final third and sometimes the final quarter of the novel to wrap things up and put the police, politely as always, on the right track. Here she was involved from the very start. The other surprise, if I can call it that, was the overall ‘feel’ of the book. It felt, almost from the beginning, that I was reading either a play or a play that had been adapted into a novel with the bare minimum of changes between the two media. It was a bit odd and rather off-putting. The cast was pretty much as you’d expect from a Christie novel with those who had axes to grind, hidden histories to be revealed and long remembered slights to be avenged. The setting was again pretty typical in an old house (with faulty wiring AGAIN!) but with an attached offender's centre (plenty of potential baddies there). The ‘play’ feeling was enhanced, as if it needed to be, by repeated mention of an amateur drama club with the youngsters as both actors and stagehands. The plot is progressed through an interview style format with the residents almost lining up to speak to Miss Marple to tell her their particular truth. This did seem a tad lazy to be honest, so I was pleased when this phase was over, and the crime started happening. 

I was pleased that I’d managed to spot the victim ahead of time. There were a number of candidates amongst the residents, but I felt I’d zeroed in on the right one (although I had no idea WHY that was the case). I was also pleased that I spotted the real misdirection (or attempted misdirection) and managed to ignore the plethora of red herrings swimming by. I have done this previously – being convinced I was onto something – and have been proven spectacularly wrong. I think I picked the correct murderer by a process of elimination and luck. Christie spent a great deal of time casting potential guilt on several other people, but I resisted that temptation and stubbornly stuck to my guns (pun intended) because of the way an alibi was set up. What I didn’t know for sure was the motive, although motives generally fall into one of 3 categories: Love, Revenge or Money. I didn’t see a lot of love motivation and thought the Revenge motives were a little too weak, so plumped for Money. But, as with the rest of the readership no doubt, I didn’t know the details until we were told at the end. My ‘reasoning’ such as it was certainly wouldn’t have stood up in a court of law, but I was moderately pleased with myself. 

Whilst not exactly anywhere near the best Miss Marple book (out of the 6 read so far, I’d rank this bottom) it was entertaining enough for a few days' read. I think it’s been almost a year since my last Miss Marple read, which is FAR too long. I’ll try to fit in the next one before the end of THIS year! Recommended.

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Monday, February 13, 2023

Just Finished Reading: This Is An Uprising – How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century by Mark Engler and Paul Engler (FP: 2016) [304pp] 

Non-violent resistance to perceived oppression has a long and fruitful history. Used with surprising effectiveness in diverse situations from Gandi's India to the Civil Rights marches of MLK and others to the present day in Egypt, Serbia and Hong Kong, non-violence is a tactic that can be used against both democratic and non-democratic governments. But does it always work? Why does it sometimes fail? Is it more effective against oppressive regimes or is a free media a force multiplier than cannot be ignored? Are non-violent protests simply a product of random factors used by protestors in an ad hoc fashion or can ‘trigger events’ be created at will for maximum effect? What happens after the protest is over? Can long term change really be achieved by non-violent action? These are some of the questions addressed in this interesting book – even if the subtitle is rather misleading! 

Despite using case studies from Serbia and India, a major focus of this book is the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s in the US. Time and again aspects of the struggle – both the long running organisational side and the ‘sudden’ outbursts of protests on specific and local issues – are highlighted to illuminate the well thought out points the authors are trying to make. Looking at things from both a practical, on the ground, perspective and the theory of protest (proposed at the time by those involved or tangential to the events and also later in academic circles) lessons learnt are translated and applied to later protests from the ‘Occupy’ movement, the Arab Spring and beyond.  

Although not exactly a by-the-numbers work book for effective protests this is still a useful reference guide to draw on if you’re in the protest business and is, I think, especially effective in understanding why some movements or stand-alone protests either fail to work or appear to fail to do so. Forcing an issue and bringing it into the consciousness of the media is all very well but without an effective organisation behind it to do the follow up work things are much more likely to fall apart – as the example of the Occupy movement shows. Likewise, the disconnect between the street protestors in the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, and the political spade work required to change the system in much needed ways failed to produce the results many so desperately hoped for. 

The nature of the misleading subtitle is all very simple – the thrust of the book is very much about the past and there’s little here about the future. It does show the foundations of future protest and does give any future movement leaders, organisers or ‘political officers’ advice on building a useful library of texts and some good advice on the does and, more importantly, don’ts of successful protest but doesn’t really show or speculate much on how things will be as the century progresses. Nevertheless, this was a very interesting look at how non-violent protest has evolved over the last 50+ years and highlights the many lessons learnt along the way. As such this definitely belongs on the shelves of any serious thinking radical. Recommended. 

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Saturday, February 11, 2023

100 Questions – to get to know someone. 

51. Do you get jealous easily? 

Generally, no. I used to envy some people a bit – usually those with more sexual success than me – but I managed to (largely) get beyond that. I sometimes used to get (mildly) annoyed for a while when people progressed faster than me (the irony of course was that I had little interest in ‘progression’) but that passed quickly too. I learned that not only is jealousy a particularly toxic emotion but that it’s a pointless one too.  

52. Is there anyone you've ever given up on? Do you regret it? 

Depends what ‘giving up on’ someone means. If that means no longer trying to ‘save’ them (usually from themselves) I try but if they refuse to be ‘saved’ or positively influenced by me I leave them to it. You can’t save everyone (or anyone really). If that means giving up on someone who isn’t into you – that's my MO, although it took me a while to figure out that giving up is perfectly OK and a damned good way to stay sane(ish). 

53. What is something on your to-do list currently? 

Buying toilet roll tomorrow. 

54. Are you over your past? 

LOL. Are we ever ‘over’ our past? Our past experiences and memory largely make us who we are. Plus, there’s nothing we can actually DO about our past except accept it or at least come to some form of accommodation. There’s very little point fretting about it. What’s done is done. The point now is living with it, learning from it and, if required, trying to fix whatever damage was done.  

55. Are you afraid of dying? 

I’m not exactly looking forward to the process of dying – especially if there’s pain involved. But I also don’t want to be so dopped up on pain killers that I no longer know who I am, were I am or what’s happening. I’d like to think that death itself doesn’t overly bother me. My belief is that death is the end – much like a lightbulb going ‘ping’. Nothing follows it. You’re just not here anymore. But I guess we all find out (sort of) eventually. 

56. Are you afraid of change? 

Afraid? No. Change can be annoying or inconvenient though. Despite working for YEARS in a Change Team who planned and instigated change across a large organisation I can struggle with change if its outside of my control or if I believe it to be either unnecessary or wrong-headed.  

57. Does commitment scare you? 

As in relationships? No, I don’t think so. I think I could’ve mated for life given the right opportunity. 

58. Were you picked on as a kid? 

Yes, at least for a while during the early years of High School. It took me a few years but I learnt the skill to avoid the bullies without resorting to any kind of violence. 

59. What is one meal you know how to cook? 

I’m not a great cook, but I could probably throw together a decent stew or a curry – veggie, of course! 

60. How many pillows do you sleep with on your bed? 

Just the one at the moment, but I have used two if they’re a bit on the thin side. 

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Pompeii by Robert Harris (FP: 2003) [394pp] 

Pompeii, Italy. AD79. It looked like it was going to be a record summer and the last thing young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus needed was a problem with the aqueduct that fed the local area. Somewhere along the miles of engineering marvel there must be a blockage and it was his job to find it and fix it before citizens started rioting and the emperor noticed his failing. His predecessor was no help. With almost no records available and the man himself apparently vanished into thin air Attilius was on his own. But at least he knew from the information he had and the map he had been provided with the rough location of the fault. It was on the side of Mount Vesuvius overlooking the Bay of Napoli. Needing to get there as fast as possible Attilius approached the local Admiral – Pliny the Elder – for assistance. More than happy to provide a ship and introductions to the local powerbrokers Pliny is distracted by his wine glass. Moments before the wine had been as calm as a sheltered pool. Now it was vibrating as if possessed. He had never seen the like of it before and couldn’t help but wonder what, if anything, linked the problem with the water flow and the bizarre behaviour of his wine. More study was needed and Pliny was delighted at the prospect of new knowledge for his next book. Meanwhile strange mists had been seen on Vesuvius and talk of giants. What was more disturbing was the quiet. Where had all the birds gone.... and Why? 

I’d been looking forward to this for a long while now and I wasn’t disappointed. Looking at the events around the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 mostly through the eyes of a young engineer trying to solve a related problem was a great way into the narrative. The MYSTERY of what was happening on (and unbeknown to the local population) IN the apparently dormant volcano was a great way of driving the story forward as well as building tension through most of the book. The fact that the reader already knew what was going to happen, whilst the characters clearly did not, enhanced the sympathy for them – most especially with Attilius and his love interest (which was handled really well) - which made the ultimate eruption that much more dramatic because, by then, we cared about what happened to them. 

One of the (actually many) things I liked about the whole narrative was the number of things I ended up learning about Roman society without either being lectured or without the story grinding to a halt. That takes skill. I’ve read far too many historical novels that rely on data dumping to fill in the background or world build while the characters in the middle of things twiddle their metaphorical thumbs as we’re brought up to speed. You don’t have people sitting around a table explaining about past events that they themselves lived through. It’s up to a competent author to sprinkle knowledge throughout the book and to trust the intelligent reader to pick up enough of it to help them make sense of the story and reach the required level of immersion. In this case the author manages that – and then some. 

A nice addition for me was the fact that I’ve been to the summit of Vesuvius some years ago so found the visualisation of that mountain easy. Likewise, I have visited both Pompeii itself and the near-by Herculaneum so could visualise the devastation of the ultimate eruption with ease (although the description in the book still took my breath away). As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this immensely and what to know more about the event itself and the aftermath. So, some history books to come! Definitely recommended for anyone interested in a cracking good read or for those looking to dip their literary toes into historical fiction. Excellent and more to come from this author.    

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