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

Friday, March 31, 2023

..and so ends Mad March. I hope you've enjoyed a bit of weirdness in your life!

STILL not as tough as a Nokia........

Oh, GOOD GOD - FINALLY!!!! Of course this (first) case will run for years and he probably won't end up in prison... but still..... FINALLY!!

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Passage to Mutiny by Alexander Kent (FP: 1976) [319pp] 

Sydney Harbour, New South Wales, October 1789. Richard Bolitho, captain of His Majesties frigate Tempest is glad to finally arrive despite bearing disturbing news. Another of His Majesties ships, Bounty, has mutinied and could be in the area under her pirate crew. But as one of the only two Royal Navy vessels in that part of the Pacific Tempest and her captain have other tasks to perform. One of them is both a delight and a frustration – to escort a new island administrator and his wife to his post and provide security whilst there. Bolitho could care less about the new posting and administrator Raymond clearly returned the favour. His wife, Viola, was however another matter. Meeting again after years apart, Viola and Richard renew their love for each other much to the sympathy and worry of Tempest’s crew. Despite (some) friendly islanders, the Pacific is far from a friendly place – with storms, disease, aggressive natives, pirates and now news from France of Revolution it is not the time for a shipborne romance.  

This is actually the NINTH book in the authors Bolitho series – unknown to me – but that seemed to make little difference to the story. The author slipped in a few references to previous actions and events without overloading the pacing, so I never felt like I was missing anything substantial. I actually pick up this and three or four more from the series years ago from a random book buying trip. As they were originally published around 50 years ago they’re quite difficult to acquire in anything but Kindle format. But that’s OK. It’s not like I’m short of books to read – even ones with much wood and sail involved. This was actually a very easy novel to get into. There wasn’t a HUGE amount to learn about life in the Age of Sail after reading various novels based in the period. Some types of sail and other bits of the ship were mentioned from time to time, but I tended to pick these up through a process of literary osmosis. They certainly didn’t interrupt what was going on in the story. Being the time it was set and the nature of such things I found out very quickly not to get attached to anyone, even those you rightly suspect are main characters. It’s the kind of book where no one is ‘safe’ which makes each splinter and each sniffle a cause for concern, never mind flying cannon and musket balls. 

Overall, I can say this was a very creditable read. Maybe not in the Patrick O’Brian league, but then again who is? Definitely entertaining though – definitely. There are an impressive 30 books in the Bolitho series but I’m not aiming to read ALL of them – considering the difficulty in finding them – but I’ll pick up any I do find. Bolitho is an interesting and complex character, and I liked the interplay with his fellow officers and crew. Recommended for all sail and gunpowder fans and well worth the effort of searching them out. 

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Monday, March 27, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar.... Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart (FP: 2006) [180pp] 

Even if I wasn’t hankering after some Philosophy reading after too long a break, it’d be hard to turn down a title like this one. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting from this slim volume but what it turned out to be was a high-level overview of various Philosophical Schools or viewpoints illustrated (kind of) by a scattering of fairly funny and generally related jokes. I think what I had hoped (or expected maybe?) was more focus on the philosophy of jokes – indeed on philosophy itself – which left me a bit disappointed in the whole thing.  As a gentle introduction into the world of philosophical thinking this wasn’t a bad effort. The addition of philosophically appealing jokes was a nice idea, especially as a few of them were really funny and rather philosophical too! Unfortunately, an Introduction to Philosophy wasn’t something I was looking for. Although it’s been a while since I’ve read any ‘real’ philosophical works – rather than general or pop-cultural works about philosophy – I didn’t really need to go back to basics. I’m not sure what else to say really, if you’re wondering what Philosophy is all about but are too afraid to dive straight in, this might just be the way to whet your appetite. If you already have some idea of the basics, then you’ll need something a bit more substantial to take you to the next level. Reasonable.   

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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Pretty cool... [grin]

Where In the World? - 2022/2023 edition. 

About a year ago I pondered the question: Where has my fictional reading taken me over the last 10+ years? Apparently, not all that far! I thought that most of my reading had been based in the UK and US and, as you can see below, I was largely correct. Now, as mentioned last time, I have no great intention to read at least one book from *every* country on the planet but I would like to see if I can spread the love beyond the Anglo-American and even the Western world. As mentioned last time, these are fictional locations rather than the nationality of the author. I’m only counting books that take place mostly in a single country (with the odd exception) and am not counting Fantasy or SF. I wasn’t expecting much from my first year's efforts to change this, but things should (I hope) get better going forward. Changes and additions since last year are in BOLD

Afghanistan – 2
Australia - 1
Canada - 1
China – 1
Crete - 1
Cuba – 2 (+1)
England – 56 ½ (+10 ½)

Estonia - 1
France – 11 (+1)
Germany – 5 ½ (+½)
Greece – 2 (+1)

Holland - 1
India – 2
Ireland – 1
Italy – 4 (+1)
Jamaica - 1
Japan – 1
Norway – 1
Malaya - 1
Portugal – 3 (+1)
Russia – 4 (+2)
South Africa – 1 (NEW)

Spain – 2
Sweden - 3
Scotland – 2
Turkey - 2
Ukraine – 1 (NEW)
USA – 45 (+8)

It’s good to see I’ve at least added a few countries, although at this rate I’ll take a lifetime to add enough to make much difference! As before, rather sadly given my overall aim, the biggest growth by far is in the US/UK axis. It seems that it’s going to take some time and effort to turn this juggernaut around. Let’s see what progress I can make this time NEXT year [lol].  

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Prestige by Christopher Priest (FP: 1995) [360pp] 

Andrew Westly always seemed to get the strange ones – the stories that often led nowhere and always ended up buried deep in the paper. This time he was investigating stories of a cult leader who had apparently appeared at a conference despite being in prison in the US. But it only got weirder from there. Lady Katherine Angier had quite a story to tell even if it wasn’t the one he expected to hear. The tale dated back to the turn of the century when two feuding stage magicians attempted to out-do each other in being the talk of the town and retaining top billing in their theatre appearances. Always looking for a trick or spectacle that the other couldn’t possibly replicate, until one, Kate’s ancestor went further than anyone thought possible – but at great personal cost. The other magician, Andrew’s ancestor, recognised he had finally been defeated but left a legacy that Andrew had been struggling with since he was adopted many years before. He has always imagined that he was a twin, separated from his brother but still connected somehow. Unfortunately for him, he was going to find out the truth that very night... 

I remember enjoying the 2006 movie adaptation by Christopher Nolan starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johanssen. Although the core of the book is largely the same, the wrapping, narrative thrust and conclusion are all very, very different. The main story is told in a series of flashbacks and diary entries of both magicians, so we periodically get the same story from both sides (which does nothing for the speed of the narrative) resulting in interesting and sometimes annoying “echoes”. Even without these distractions and diversions the story is often a slow one as both magicians perfect their trade and begin to compete with each other. It might have been that I have limited knowledge and a lack of interest in 19th/early 20th century popular theatre, but I didn’t exactly find this page turning stuff. This was odd as I’m a fan of the author and have read 7 of his novels previously and have enjoyed all of them – and often very much so. This is one reason why I hesitate to regard this as a bad book. It’s possible of course that the author simply dropped the ball here or that the story simply didn’t appeal to me – unlike the others – but I do wonder if it wasn’t just me. I mean, the story itself was interesting with a scientific ‘twist’ that might have been more intriguing if I hadn’t already seen the movie. So, in this case, the prestige – the WOW effect of the trick – was already known, although it's somewhat different in the book that the film. Maybe that’s the reason – the surprise simply wasn’t surprising. On the other hand, the author did take his merry time getting there so there was that. I think what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t enjoy this much, although other people may do so. It hasn’t put me off the author (a score of 7-1 isn’t bad!) and you’ll be seeing his name again here no doubt. Reasonable.  

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Monday, March 20, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Nanny State Made me – In Search of a Better Britain/A Story of Britain and How to Save It by Stuart Maconie (FP: 2020) [281pp] 

I picked this up for several reasons in addition to the standard ‘Buy one get one Half price’ deal: It was about the Welfare State, it was written by someone I’m aware of and haven’t read anything by him before and it was (by and large) about the North or at the very least from a Northern perspective. Although initially it took me a while to settle into this rather rambling narrative at times, I ended up liking it quite a bit. I’d heard the author talk several times on TV (he worked/works for the BBC), so I actually ‘heard’ him chat away in his own voice in my head as I read along – and ‘chat’ was definitely the word here. 

Part history of, and indeed love letter to, the Welfare State (although in nothing like the detail of my previous book on the subject naturally), part polemic against those who opposed its founding and are even now trying to dismantle it and part autobiography, this was an interesting look into the impact the Welfare State had on also all of us growing up in Britain. Very early on the author makes a very valid (and funny) point. Those in positions of power who disparage the Welfare State by calling it a ‘Nanny State’ are the only ones who HAD nannies – unlike the rest of us. It is, I think, a telling argument. It is only our ‘betters’ who generally oppose a system that is meant to alleviate the conditions that prevailed before its arrival in the late 1940’s - poverty, ill health, ignorance and poor-quality housing. Using his own life story growing up in the North of England – primarily in Wigan, a mere 7 miles where I was coming of age around the same time – as well as fellow beneficiaries of Welfare provision (from schools, libraries, doctors and public parks) this was a very personal ‘take’ on the making of modern Britain. Naturally, given the state of things, this is not simply a tale of good news, a tale of community over greed or a tale of civil society over wealth inequality. It is also a defence of the provision of welfare in all its aspects in an environment where such a provision is under attack as never before, from library closures, privatisation of bus services, ‘redevelopment’ of public parks, the lack of social housing, and the chronic underfunding of so many of the services so many rely on. 

Reading through this rambling but often entertaining (with laugh out loud moments) narrative, I was struck time and again by the close correspondences with my own life. The author was born 18 months after and 11 miles further east than me. He spent his formative years in and around Wigan – only 7 miles away where I lived ages 10-23 – and even taught (briefly) in Skelmersdale College only 2 years after I left with good enough A Levels to attend University. So, we almost met (as he taught Sociology – a subject I took at the College). Weird! Inevitably this was, in many ways, a cosy comfortable read being focused (mostly) on life in the North of England in the years I lived there. Interesting and informative on many levels and full of interesting insights and people this is a great piece of social history. Definitely recommended to anyone who wants to understand how the Welfare State works at the ‘coalface’ and what its loss would mean to so many. More from this author to come I think!

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Saturday, March 18, 2023

(The Lack of) Women Authors 

Prompted by a recent post over at Stephen’s place (Reading Freely) I began wondering just how many female authors I’ve been reading over the last 10 years. I had a pretty good idea that it’d be fairly low – I'd estimate about 20-25% of the total – but surprised myself that even the few authors I did read tended to only have a single book reviewed here. But, so as not to have a (actually not that) long list of such ‘one-offs’ I thought I’d only list authors that have managed to snag my interest more than once. Some of the usual/expected suspects are there but one – Alison Weir – is notable by her absence. I only have a single recorded read of hers in the last 10 years! Amazing! Anyway, this is the list from 4th March 2013: 

Philippa Gregory      5
Suzanne Collins     3
Juliet Nicolson     2
Agatha Christie     6
Veronica Roth      3
Amanda Hemingway      3
Mary Beard      2
Alice Roberts      2
Helen Rappaport      2

So, not exactly an impressive list after TEN years! Inevitably, going through my reviews it become very clear that not only have I read many more male authors, but I’ve also tended to read many more books by those authors too. I’ll post something on that in the next few weeks. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve a 50/50 split between male/female authors for a host of reasons, but I’ll see if I can reduce the distance between them a little going forward. It’ll be interesting (for me anyway!) to see where I stand in a year's time.    

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Color of Money by Walter Tevis (FP: 1984) [236pp] 

It seems to be all over for ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson (Paul Newman in the movie ‘adaptation’). The fame he achieved in his youth has mostly vanished, his wife has divorced him and the pool-hall business he had been steadily losing interest in has had to be sold off. Only his memories of the pool circuit remain and maybe, just maybe that could be his way out, his way back to the big time. Tracking down his most famous opponent, the great Minnesota Fats, he proposes a set of televised rematches in the hope that, even in his fifties, he can jump start his career in a new age. Eddie isn’t really happy with the money he’s offered but just playing pool again, the hustling for dollars, is enough to awaken the drive, the need, to win.  

To be honest this wasn’t the book I thought it was! For some reason I thought it was about Poker – rather than Pool. I guess I was thinking of both another book and another movie. I also confess that I’ve never seen the movie adaptation and, by the looks of a brief glance at the synopsis at IMdb, seeing it wouldn’t have ruined the seemingly very different book. Overall, the narrative is one of loss, regret and the desire to be recognised. Eddie, now middle–aged, both wants and has the opportunity to relive his past glories but learns some valuable lessons along the way – like talent isn’t enough and practice, constant practice, is a vital ingredient. So far, so good. Eddie, however, finds training boring (at least initially) and suffers from a sense of entitlement. To be honest in many ways he’s not a nice person and I honestly didn’t warm to him very much. He certainly has talent and a keen mind but his only real focus in life (or rather foci) is winning and money – but mostly money. His girlfriend, likewise, is generally unlikable. Recently divorced from a comfortable but boring marriage, the achievements she wants seem to be too much effort. She pushes Eddie to succeed (almost in her stead) but then resents the fact that he does so. The word I’d use to describe her is ‘toxic’, although Eddie seems to like her enough to keep her around. Whenever I read something, I much prefer it if at least some (or just one!) of the characters are either likable or interesting. Unfortunately, here neither of the main characters had either of those qualities and most of the secondary characters were generally of the disposable kind. Overall, this wasn’t a badly written book. But I did find I needed more effort than I thought I would to finish it. Possibly this is simply because the pool tournaments didn’t really interest me all that much. I always enjoyed playing pool (mostly during my university years) but I never even considered watching semi-pros playing it as entertaining. So, reading about it didn’t really float my boat. One last thing: I wouldn’t have called this a Classic mostly for the fact that I think it’s far too modern (and, frankly, not good enough to be called one) but as it’s part of the publisher's Modern Classic series I’m going to have to. Hopefully my other book by this author will be more my ‘thing’. Reasonable.

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Monday, March 13, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Fifth Avenue, 5AM – Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson (FP: 2010) [210pp] 

I’m not exactly sure why I bought this. Impulse is the only word that springs to mind – that and it was comparatively cheap. I’d seen the movie YEARS ago and kinda liked it and I had, at that time, the novella by Capote waiting to be read. It seemed like a fun idea to read them concurrently – and it was. 

Despite being a big fan of both movies and books in general it’s rare that I read much about even my favourite films. So, I was pleased by how quickly I fell into the narrative presented by someone who both wrote well and obviously had a love for the subject. Following the trajectory from published work, to script, to filming to awards this was a fascinating and eye-opening look at the US movie industry at the cusp of the 1960’s. I actually lost count of the number of things I learnt and the times my eyebrow went up in surprise. One of the things that didn’t surprise me, however, after reading the book was the controversy surrounding the role and the casting of the main character. As often with these things, Audrey Hepburn wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play the iconic Holly Golightly. That [raised eyebrow] was Marilyn Monroe! Can you imagine the alt-universe this version exists in? Maybe equally surprising was that Hepburn was an early choice for the role of Maria in West Side Story but she turned it down [another eyebrow raise]. Anyway, when Audrey was finally approached to play the main character she turned it down – as both her and her husband considered the part too much of a departure – playing a ‘hooker’ no less – from her usual on-screen persona. It took a LOT of persuading and rewriting of the script to get her on-board. This, naturally, wasn’t the only hurdle to be overcome. The studio originally had several other directors lined up before they finally, and rather reluctantly, settled on Blake Edwards and then there’s the iconic song ‘Moon River’, written with Audrey in mind to sing it, and almost rejected by the studio. In many ways that’s just scratching to surface of the ups and downs of getting this movie made and on screens across the world. Chaotic doesn’t really cover it! 

Apart from the story and the movie adaptation itself, the author spends a significant amount of time looking at the leading lady herself (I know a BIT about her, but I didn’t realise how she struggled with her profession – she always wanted to dance ballet – and with elements of her life) and the impact she and her role in the movie had on women coming out of the more conformist 1950’s into the freer and more individualistic 1960’s. Overall, this was a surprisingly interesting look at an iconic movie and I admit I enjoyed it more than I expected. Maybe I should read more movie related books in future? Definitely recommended for all fans and for anyone interested in the industry or the cultural impact of that little black dress. 

[Labels Added: 2, Labels Total: 35] 

Saturday, March 11, 2023

 The Bookworm Tag (borrowed from Stephen & Marian H) 

1.  If you had to go into the witness protection program, and they gave you the option of moving inside a book, where would you like to go? 

FUN question! Somewhere safe would be good, so..... I’d go with one of Iain Bank’s Culture novels – on board one of his ships.... Keep moving, that’s the ticket...  

2.  Have you ever claimed to have read a book you actually hadn’t read? 

No, although it doesn’t carry too much risk in that most of the people I do (or have) been around wouldn’t have a clue if I was lying or not! 

3.  What author have you read the most books by? 

That’s a moderately difficult question. It’s *probably* Isaac Asimov, but Larry Niven, Frank Herbert or Robert Silverberg might give him a run for his money.  

4.  Do you ever buy fun bookish merch like mugs, shirts, artwork, etc? 

Probably only book related T-shirts! 

5.  Do you usually read only one book at a time, or do you have several going at once? 

Usually two – a fiction and non-fiction. I had a ‘thing’ ages ago where I thought that I wasn’t reading enough non-fiction so started Non-Fiction Sunday’s. So, if I’m already reading a novel, I’ll switch to the non-fiction choice on Sunday before switching back again on Monday. Odd, I know... 

6.  Are you a mood reader, or do you plan out your reads? 

Mostly ‘planned’ - in that I have a pretty good idea what my next 10-12 books will be – but I also feel free to drop in other books as the mood or interest takes me. 

7.  If you could meet the author of your favourite book and ask them one question, what would you ask them? 

I don’t have a favourite book per se and I’d hope that I could get beyond a bland “Where do you get your ideas from?” type question. I think I’d rather sit in a quiet part of a bar with a drink and chat about things – rather than a single question option. That’d be MUCH more fun and, hopefully, informative. 

8.  Have you ever tried a new food or drink because you read about it in a book or story? 

No, but I have sometimes wondered about knocking back a few Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster’s from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. 

9.  Have you ever named a pet after a book character? 

No, I don’t think so. Our pets either had boringly normal names or didn’t have one (do people name their fish?). 

10.  What book are you reading right now? 

Presently reading ‘The Prestige’ by Christopher Priest (and not enjoying it much presently) and will be starting ‘Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar – Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’ by Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart tomorrow – as its SUNDAY! 

11. If you could spend a day with your favourite author, what would you do with them? 

If it was Iain Banks, we’d be ‘tasting’ whisky in a cosy pub in Scotland somewhere.  

12. What is the longest book you’ve ever read, and did you like it? 

Most probably the single volume Lord of the Rings. It’s well over 1K pages and took me AGES to read as a youth. I do have some longer ones awaiting to be read, but with my review backlog still so small it’ll be a LONG while till I read any of them! 

13. Have you ever cried over a fictional death scene, and if so, which one(s)? 

I’ve been annoyed or disappointed when a favourite character died – but no tears I recall. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

UK Socialist/Labour Governments 

We voted them IN 22 Jan 1924  

Then OUT 4 Nov 1924 

IN 5 Jun 1929 

OUT 24 Aug 1931 

IN 26 Jul 1945 

OUT 26 Oct 1951 

IN 16 Oct 1964 

OUT 19 Jun 1970 

IN 4 Mar 1974 

OUT 4 May 1979 

IN 2 May 1997 

OUT 11 May 2010 

It’s called Democracy. Plus, the Bolsheviks (as another example) gained power in Russia in 1917 with a coup after failing in their attempt to gain an absolute majority in their parliament after a questionable election. Just 74 years later the Soviet Union collapsed with barely a shot fired. Weird, isn’t it, how a catchy slogan often doesn’t do so well after 10 minutes of research, a bit of common sense and a passing knowledge of history....

Oh, and NICE Soviet era PPSh-41. A classic sub-machine gun! 

These days it takes about 90 minutes..... SO much improvement in 100 years [lol]