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

Monday, July 31, 2023

Just a few miles from where I was born....

Just Finished Reading: A Game of Birds and Wolves – The Secret Game that Revolutionised the War by Simon Parkin (FP: 2019) [278pp] 

It was a dire situation, an existential threat to Britain and the continuing war effort. If what Chruchill called the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ was lost, then the much-needed supplies Britain needed to stave off starvation would be insufficient, and she would have to sue for peace. New technologies were on their way and new escort ships were being built (or borrowed from the US) but that would take time. Something was needed NOW. Enter a medically retired naval officer with an off the wall idea – he would get destroyer and escort captains to play a game, ably assisted by a group of young and often brilliant WRENs (Women's Royal Naval Service) who had never been to sea and had never experienced a single U-boat attack. 

Scepticism was, all too predictably, high and at least at first the unit – Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) - was allowed to exist on sufferance as long as it didn’t draw on too many scarce resources. But when tasked to review existing anti-submarine tactics it showed its metal by not only showing tactical failures but also developing a working, and highly effective, response to the new U-boat tactics that were causing so much damage, misery and death. When the tactics were approved and implemented through training at WATU the losses of merchant ships began to drop, and the U-boat kills began to increase. The tide looked like it was turning in Britain’s favour, then the Krigesmarine changed its own tactics, deploying ever larger wolf packs to stop the Allied convoys in their tracks. The clash of tactics was going to be played out on the already dangerous waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The only question at WATU was whose game was better – the Allies or the Axis? 

It’s odd that, after all of my previous reading on the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic that I’d never come across WATU before. It seems that their contribution, although significant, has been largely sidelined and forgotten – no longer! Wargaming in the military has a very long tradition and was, arguably, perfected in Germany in the early years of that country's existence. Britain was a late comer to the appreciation of gaming, both as a teaching aid and as a safe way to try out new ideas and new tactics without putting actual lives at risk. The thousands of games played at WATU proved their worth in both ways by trail and teaching new tactical ideas to many hundreds of naval and civilian ship captains to give them a much-enhanced chance of survival in their respective convoys and the ability to fight back with great effect. 

As a LONG time gamer this was an interesting insight into modern official wargaming in a military context. I played a bit of tabletop gaming (back in the day) so appreciated all of the hard work that went into making the games as realistic and instructive as possible. It was also interesting to see the involvement (after much scepticism and opposition) of young women in the unit and how it both changed their lives personally and changed the military itself in respect to the role of female officers and other ranks. Recommended for a whole host of reasons, especially if you have any interest in the convoy system and anti-submarine warfare. 

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Saturday, July 29, 2023

 ...and so it begins....

Childhood Times, Childish Things... 

Stephen over at Reading Freely has recently been focusing on his reading during childhood. He then asked me about my own experiences. So, here we are.... 

I’ve surprised many people over the years when I tell them that I hardly read a thing (or nothing notable) in my formative years – at least not until my early teens. I mean I COULD read and was reading happily before I started school. In fact, when my reading age was tested some years later during a school visit by an OFSTED examiner it was years ahead of my physical age. Yet, I still hadn’t caught the reading bug. The first book that struck me as something special – probably around the age of 11-12 I think – was an odd one, a German children's classic Emil and the Detectives (1929) by Erich K√§stner. How this particular book (translated naturally!) came into my possession I have no idea. As I don’t have a copy, I can only guess it either came from my school or my local library. I’d bet on my school. I really liked it and I can still remember some of the urban scenes 50 years later. But that spark, well received as it was, failed to ignite my reading flame. Next up was another classic 1984 (1949) by George Orwell. This was leant to me by my English teacher at the time. Why such a book was considered appropriate reading for a 13-year-old, I’m not sure but I’m glad she thought it was a good idea. That book completely entranced me and became one of the foundational texts of my political beliefs. But still, no passion for books. The final book which DID manage to get my motor running (and never quite stopping since) literally dropped into my lap. I was around 13-14, probably looking bored sitting on the couch, when my older brother's friend arrived to pick him up. He was carrying a paperback and tossed it at me saying something like “This is pretty good. You might like it”. It was Triplanetary (1934) by E E ‘Doc’ Smith, a classic space opera novel from the Golden Age of SF. That book, that incident, made me the reader I became. It was as if my mind expanded to the edges of the Universe. Nothing has been the same since.... 

The rest, as they say, is History. Fortunately, at least some of it was recorded as soon after I started my mammoth life-long reading spree I began recording (with pen and paper back then) my reads. Below (very slightly anachronistic as the first 5-10, I think, represented a mix of memory and a VERY small stack I’d already read) is a list of my first 20 books I read in the early 1970’s. My reading did become a little more diverse in the subsequent years, but that’s for another post I think! 

1984 by George Orwell
Space Prison by Tom Godwin
Triplanetary by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
First Lensman by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
Gray Lensman by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
Second Stage Lensman by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
Galactic Patrol by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
Children of the Lens by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
Masters of the Vortex by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
Spacehounds of I.P.C. by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
The Best of E E ‘Doc’ Smith by E E ‘Doc’ Smith
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
The Heaven Makers by Frank Herbert
Seeker from the Stars by James N Coleman
I, Robot by Issac Asimov
Inverted World by Christopher Priest
City by Clifford D Simak
The Best of Clifford D Simak by Clifford D Simak
Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein

So, you can see that I was effectively mainlining ‘Doc’ Smith and when I couldn’t get any more of him moved onto other authors. It's also interesting how I got into the heavy stuff and some very decent classic text so early. All of the above was read when I was around 13-14 years old. As you can imagine at this point my poor brain was expanding in ALL directions at the speed of light (or beyond!). 

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit (FP: 2014) [230pp] 

“How would you like to move out West”? That’s how it started for many of them. When they asked where exactly, they received a smile or a shake of the head. Don’t ask... Of course, they knew it had to be government work, war work, especially after the young officer who had called days ago had spent over an hour in their husband's ‘office’ behind a closed door. What about the kids? Schools would be provided. What about.....? SO many questions resulted in so few answers. They couldn’t even tell friends, neighbours or family where they were going or how long they’d be gone. Few of them thought it might be years. But it was better than the alternative. ‘Out West’ was preferrable to the Pacific theatre after all. They had enough brothers, uncles and friends of friends fighting the Japanese. At least their husbands would be safe. How little they knew. Safe is a relative term. Working on a secret programme that might win the war is one thing. But how safe was the project? What if something went wrong? What if....? So, how would you like to move out West? 

I picked this up in my favourite Indie book shop a year or so ago because, as usual, it looked different and interesting. How right I was! This was one of the strangest novels I’ve read in years. It wasn’t the subject matter particularly, but the odd viewpoint. Now, most novels have protagonists and so on, good guys, bad guys, leading characters, side characters and on and on. Not here, at least not really. Obviously there are people in this novel. Some, a hand full or so, even have names. But the commanding point of view is far more generic which, to be honest, took a little while to get used to! ‘We’ was used almost exclusively. I can’t think of a single instance where ‘I’ predominated. The usual individualism of the novel was absorbed into the group – The Wives (a whole host of them) where the main character. It was certainly an interesting way of looking at things and, surprisingly, most effective and affective. It gave the novel an almost surreal, indeed haunting quality which has stayed with me for some time. 

Coincidently, a gaming buddy & I went to see ‘Oppenheimer’ as I approached the end of the book. Seeing the movie and reading the book simultaneously gave an extra frisson (or would that be fission?) to both. Interestingly some of the quotes in the book were repeated in the film so I guess they were historically accurate. Interesting also was the idea – very much a side focus of the movie – that the detonation of the test bomb might set the atmosphere alight and kill everyone and everything on the planet. It was a low probability – but not zero. Similar warnings, all rather generic because of security concerns, echoed through the later part of the book. As the project broke such new ground, I couldn’t help but shudder at the apparently cavalier attitude to nuclear/radioactive material in both book and film. What they didn’t know most certainly could, and in some cases did, kill them. One thing that did make me laugh, and was very briefly mentioned in the film, was how ill prepared the US military were for the number of pregnant women at the Los Alamos site and the subsequent births. I doubt very much if Army doctors had much call for such skills! 

This was an interesting and often amusing look at one aspect of the Manhattan Project that, I’m guessing, most historians or novelists leave out. Definitely a recommended read if you’ve seen the movie or not.  

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Monday, July 24, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Weapons of Math Destruction – How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil (FP: 2016) [218pp] 

Algorithms – it seems to be THE word of technological age we’re living through. They seem (and indeed are) everywhere. Most people see them plainly on Amazon recommendations and other seemingly innocuous, and to be honest sometimes hilariously bad ‘suggestions’ from other websites. But like the vanishing icebergs most of the work of algorithms happen DEEP in the background. Been turned down for bank loan, mortgage or online job application? Watched a convicted criminal get an eyebrow rising super low or super harsh sentence? Heard about ‘blips’ on the Stock market that suddenly buy or sell vast amounts of stock and then almost instantly buy it back again? Started receiving some oddly specific news on your Facebook feed? That’s probably an algorithm (or a few of them) at work doing what they do – making assumptions, making deals and changing (and sometimes destroying) people’s lives based on data, correct or otherwise. The author calls this sort of thing ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ or WMDs for short. 

Of course, the problem with using math (or as we say over here, maths) to make decisions about people's lives or livelihoods is that human beings are messy. Few of us (fortunately) fit into neat categories and a great deal of what we do, know, believe and act on isn’t exactly easy to quantify. So, what’s a mathematician or statistician to do? Use proxies – in other words something that can (at least theoretically) be measured for something that can’t. Like the chance of defaulting on a loan – how do you measure something like that? Well, you compare the data of the person asking for money with people like him – so where they live, education, criminal record, criminal records of their neighbours, family and friends. In other words, you ‘profile’ them. Rather than treating them as an individual you treat them as a member of a group – be in women, the young, racial minorities and so on. It makes decision making by the bank SO much easier. But if you’re an upstanding  member of a group with a bad rep? - Sucks to be you, right? And in a nutshell, there’s your problem. Unlucky enough to be born in a ‘bad’ area or into a risky demographic, you’re screwed. Born on the right side of the tracks? Your life is going to be a lot easier – especially with a fair winded algorithm at your back. 

Using 99.9% US examples – apart from 2 UK examples (one of which was hilariously from the British ‘city’ of Kent) - covering the whole gamut from school grades, teacher standards, incarceration suggestions, loan applications, and much more this was an often-frightening look at how pervasive algorithms are and how much effect they have on millions of people's lives – often with unthinking and unwarranted approval. Despite being almost entirely US focused and starting to feel rather out of date even after just 7 years, this will be a wake-up call to anyone not already familiar with the implications of algorithm influenced decision making. Many more questions need to be asked about how they work, what assumptions are deeply embedded within them and how we go about correcting badly performing ones. A recommended read (with some caveats) to anyone who has wondered what all the fuss is about.

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Saturday, July 22, 2023

Sing a Song of Sixes....  

I ‘borrowed’ this idea from several places: 

Six authors I am looking forward to reading more of 

Edward Marston 

Andy Weir 

Robert Goddard 

Agatha Christie 

Natalie Haynes 

Madeline Miller 

Six series of books read or started 

Foundation series by Isaac Asimov 

Dune series by Frank Herbert 

Maze Runner series by James Dashner 

Ghost series by George Mann 

Destroyermen series by Taylor Anderson 

Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell 

Six books I really want to buy in the next six months 

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals about Human Stupidity by Justin Gregg 

The Jill Tars: Seven Remarkable Accounts of Female Sailors Who Served and Fought Disguised as Men by Rachel Beatty 

Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond by Kathryn Harkup  

When Giants Ruled the Sky: The Brief Reign and Tragic Demise of the American Rigid Airship by John J. Geoghegan 

Magnificent Women and Flying Machines: The First 200 Years of British Women in the Sky by Sally Smith 

Snow Widows: The Untold History of Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition Through the Eyes of the Women They Left Behind by Katherine MacInnes 

Six books recently added to my Wish List 

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin 

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession by Gavin Francis 

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown 

Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves by Lucy Lethbridge 

The Quiet Before: On the unexpected origins of radical ideas by Gal Beckerman 

Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke 

Six classics I have yet to read 

Hard Times by Charles Dickens 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck 

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell 

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf 

Six books on my Wish List that have sport as their major theme 

Little Wonder: The Extraordinary Story of Lottie Dod, the World's First Female Sports Superstar by Sasha Abramsky 

Five O'Clock Lightning: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the Greatest Baseball Team in History, the 1927 New York Yankees by Harvey Frommer 

Raise a Fist, Take a Knee: Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports by John Feinstein and Doug Williams 

The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball by Charles Fountain 

The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt 

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes and Jefferson Chase 

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Footprints – In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier (FP: 2020) [287pp] 

If the historical record (or the nightly news!) is anything to go by our present civilisation or even humanity itself will not last forever. But after we’re gone what, if anything, will we leave behind for far future investigators to discover or uncover? That’s the intriguing question poses in one of the most interesting books of the year (so far). 

One of the early interesting viewpoints is that of the distance of time itself. The author isn’t really interested in what our cities would look like in a hundred or even a thousand years after we vanish. His baseline is at least 100,000 years and BEYOND. On that kind of timescale, you’d be right that very, very little would remain. No books, no paper products at all, no fabric, no paintings. Our greatest cities would have been flattened and largely erased from the environment. But some things would have survived. Glass for one thing as well as buried concrete, tunnels, bore holes and the discovery of rock formations hundreds or thousands of miles from where they ‘should’ be. Mining on an industrial scale would be reasonably apparent even that far out as well as radical and local changes in the natural environment. But our footprint and our fingerprints would extend far beyond our built environment and far further into the future. Human activity, the author maintains, would still be detectable as much as 5 or 10 million years in the future – though not in the way I expected. 

Part of the echo from our time would be in the fossil record itself, both by absence and addition. It would be abundantly clear, looking backward, that the present is a period of Mass Extinction along with a strong indication that a recent arrival in the fossil record (that would be us) was significantly involved in the widespread demise of other species. Conversely the widespread super-abundance of chicken and cattle bones everywhere except Antarctica would also point to our influence. Likewise, the tell-tale signs of increased CO2 in the atmosphere (if by then we hadn’t done anything about it) plus the multiple residues of industrial processes captured in the planet's geology will show something dramatic happened in a vanishing short (in Geological terms) timescale. Other discoveries will show both our disregard and our thoughtfulness about future inhabitants of our world – in the guise of nuclear fallout residue from widespread ‘testing’ and stored nuclear waste in facilities designed to be secure for hundreds of generations and beyond. 

Without even attempting to do sufficient justice to this well written, thought provoking and intriguing work I can simply say that I was both impressed by the science and technology behind the ideas in this book and dismayed at what future (alien?) geologists and archaeologists will think of us and our treatment of the Homeworld. If you fancy a relatively easy introduction to ice cores, nuclear waste facilities and the problems of communicating danger to people (or non-humans!) 100,000 years from now, why jellyfish are blooming and much, much more besides this is definitely the book for you. Highly recommended – especially for all you science nerds out there.     

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Tuesday, July 18, 2023

It's *basic* Capitalism - scarcity increases value. So, either there's not a lot of (or enough) parking spaces in Toronto or your skills just aren't in demand ATM. It might be time to retrain... or invest in parking spaces....

Oh, an EXCELLENT idea for Dr Who!

Monday, July 17, 2023

Just Finished Reading: A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie (FP: 1953) [249pp] 

The cry for help stunned the whole office. Rex Fortescue seemed to be having a heart attack or a stroke. The confusion lasted a few minutes before anyone called for an ambulance and by then it was too late – Rex was pronounced dead soon after reaching the nearest hospital. His last words: It was the tea. When Inspector Neele of Scotland Yard arrived, it was already a mystery. Other people had drunk tea in the office that morning and where none the worse for it. The preliminary toxicology report just added to the strange circumstances of Rex’s death. Apparently the victim had ingested an amount of Taxine – a substance found in the berries and leaves of Yew trees. But what really confused the Inspector was the contents of the victim's pocket – flakes of rye, a lot of them. For the life of him he couldn’t see why anyone would fill their pocket with rye. What, if anything, had it to do with the murder? As soon as the investigation started the suspect list seemed to expand and contract whenever a new piece of evidence was uncovered. Then the prime suspect died under suspicious circumstances and Neele admitted he was out of his depth and needed help. Fortunately for him the Fortescue residence had a recent visitor, a sweet older woman who had seen the details of the crime in her local paper and wanted, in her own small way, to help. Her name – Miss Marple. 

This was my 7th Miss Marple outing and I really enjoyed it – despite this time getting neither the motive nor the murderer correct, not even close! As usual Christie throws in both credible suspects and reasonable evidence like so much confetti. The ‘trick’ is to be on the ball enough to see what sticks and what falls by the wayside. As always I had theories, lots of theories but as they were felled one after the other, I finally decided to give up guessing and just enjoy the ride. The plot, as always, was very simple. Rich man dies in very suspicious circumstances and there are a significant number of people who could have ‘done it’ and an equal number who might have prospered from it in one way of another. As always looking at simple means, method and opportunity doesn’t really help much here. Usually, the motivational triad of greed, lust or revenge helps eliminate *some* of the suspects but that didn’t help much either. I was honestly stumped this time. 

As often with classics, I did like picking up on some interesting social/historical details. The first one that jumped out at me was the mention of ‘black-market stockings’ and later black-market butter. Published in 1953 I’m guessing that this was actually being written in 1951-52, which meant that wartime rationing was still in effect (ending in 1954). The other thing that jumped out was the confusion in the office of who to call for medical help as the National Health Service had only just come into effect in 1948 and was presumably still very much ‘bedding in’ at that point. One final point was a nod to the characters recognising that they were now living in the Nuclear Age which had all sorts of implications. 

As I said several times above, I really enjoyed this classic crime novel and am already looking forward to Miss Marple’s next triumph which I hope to get to before the end of the year. Oh, one last thing... As in some of her other novels Miss Marple does arrive rather late in this one – on page 105 to be precise! That alone made me laugh out loud as my ever-present expectation was finally relieved. Highly recommended for all mystery fans.  

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Saturday, July 15, 2023

Getting ready for some Sun.... Maybe....

Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag 2023 

As borrowed from Marianne over @ Let’s Read 

1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2023 

‘Night Train to Lisbon’ by Pascal Mercier 

2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2023 

‘Havanna Bay’ by Martin Cruz Smith – the 4th book in the Arkady Renko series. 

3. New release you haven't read yet but want to 

‘Stone Blind’ by Natalie Haynes 

4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year 

‘The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History’ by Jeremy Bowen (out on 14th September)   

5. Biggest disappointment 

‘The Color of Money’ by Walter Tevis 

6. Biggest surprise 

'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows 

7. Favourite new author. (Debut or new to you) 

Not sure if any ONE author jumps out at being a new (or potentially new) *favourite* author. It’s the word ‘favourite’ that I’m struggling with here. 

8. Newest fictional crush 

No ‘crushes’, per se, but I did like Nora Seed from ‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig for her strength of character as well as Juliet Ashton from ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows for her essential goodness, and of course the eponymous Circe from ‘Circe’ by Madeline Miller who was a fascinating and complex creation. 

9. Newest favourite character 

Commander Richard Bolitho from ‘Passage to Mutiny’ by Alexander Kent 

10. Book that made you cry 

None. Not really my ‘thing’. 

11. Book that made you happy 

Well, all good books make me happier..... 

12. Best book cover you’ve seen so far this year 

‘Ariadne’ by Jennifer Saint 

13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year? 

EVERYTHING on my planned reading... SO much to read...!! 

14. Best book title of the year so far 

‘Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar.... Understanding Philosophy Through’ Jokes by Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart 

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Just Finished Reading: 1916 – Ireland's Revolutionary Tradition by Kieran Allen (FP: 2016) [196pp] 

This was yet another one of those books that turned out not to be exactly what I’d expected. Indeed, it was far more about its sub-title than its main title. Although the author did discuss the events of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 (briefly) as well as the underlying reasons for both the event and its failure (briefly), the main thrust of this often deeply political work was what happened next and how those events echoed through the following century until the present. 

After the failure of the Uprising and the quite brutal British response (things never go well when you’re firing artillery down streets into enemy held buildings) Ireland secured partial independence from the British Empire followed by a short bloody Civil War and counter-revolution. Here I learnt exactly why southern Ireland became the poster child for religious conservatism on steroids. I never fully realised before just how much of a stranglehold the Catholic church had over just about every aspect of Irish life south of the border with Northern Ireland. Coupled with the political power they had access to 24-7 it’s hardly surprising that a clamp down on unions, socialist politics in general (the fear of *communism* was the foundation of much of this and, it seemed, communism was defined as anything that even smelt of social justice or freedom of thought), abortion, divorce, women in any position of power or influence, women in higher education, essentially women as anything other than baby factories (within wedlock naturally) chained to the kitchen sink. Oh, and no access to contraception of any kind, indeed no universal access to healthcare of any kind – unless you could pay through the nose for it, or travel to England which amounted to the same thing. This didn’t really begin to change until the 1970’s and only really got going in the 80’s and beyond.  

On top of this was, as we know, the situation in the North with the minority Catholic community in the separated 6 Counties living under the heel of the majority Protestant community. As you might expect it wasn’t long until fighting broke out as it had been bubbling under for some time. As you’d also expect the Catholics got the rough end of things which prompted both a backlash from organisations like the IRA and the involvement of the British military – AKA ‘The Troubles’.  

Looked at from a very Left-wing perspective - (I hesitate to go so far as to say Marxist, but Karl does come up quite a bit throughout the book) as much of the countries revolutionary tradition/history centres around the life and thought of James Connolly (who I definitely need to read up about!) who was a devoted Socialist/Syndicalist and was a big fan of the bearded one – this was an often fascinating, if at times deeply political look at Irish history post-1916. I think I had a fair, if general, knowledge of Irish history over the last 100 years but I learnt a LOT in less than 200 pages which is cool. Definitely of interest to anyone who wants to dive deeper into Irish political history, though if you’re a novice to this country’s past I’d start with something a bit lighter! More on ‘1916’ to come. 

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Monday, July 10, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint (FP: 2021) [386pp] 

As a princess of Crete young Ariadne knew her place, not that she liked it much. Her role was to marry someone important, someone wealthy and someone who could help her father, King Minos, consolidate his power. Minos held Crete in his grip in part by fear, fear of his wrath, fear of his palace guard but mostly through fear of the monster he controlled – the Minotaur. Ariadne knew it, him, by another name – Asterion – her brother. Trapped on Crete, just like the greatest engineer of the age, Daedalus, she was suddenly presented with an alternative, a chance to change her Fate. Each year the recently defeated city of Athens sent a number of its youth to serve as tribute and as meat to feed the Minotaur. This year amongst them was Theseus, prince of Athens. Ariadne had never seen anyone quite like him. He was quite simply a Hero who had walked out of the songs being sung in the great halls. Here was hope personified, here was her way out of her island prison and a way to rid the world of a monster. 

I can see why the retellings of Greek myths have become so popular. Most people, I think, have at least a nodding experience with these stories if only from Hollywood movies and stories from childhood. What’s different in the present retellings, apart from the language modernisation, is that the focus has generally shifted from the male heroes to the female characters often either ignored or sidelined previously. The other difference I think is that despite the existence of gods and other fantastical creatures, these stories are told very much from the human level – rather than exclusively from the viewpoint or sorely focused on gods and heroes. This particular tale is definitely one of two halves. The first 130 pages covers the well-known story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Despite the different Ariadne viewpoint, I did find this a little bit dull because it was so well known. The second part of the novel was split into two points of view – Ariadne herself and her younger sister Phaedra who becomes Queen of Athens. Although somewhat long and at times rather drawn out – especially with Ariadne’s relationship with the god Dionysus – I did find this more interesting than the first half because this part of the story/myth was unknown to me. The ending, in typical Greek tragedy fashion all rather grim and bloody, was I thought well done and did surprise me a few times with its very dark path. Much like the plays of Shakespeare there more than enough misunderstanding, grief and death to go around. 

Although this could’ve been at least 50 pages shorter without losing any of its style and impact I still liked this retelling quite a bit. I couldn’t help but think that the author essentially tacked two stories together (possibly after finding the first tale wasn’t quite long enough for the full novel treatment) but I might be being a bit harsh there! The two connected stories worked well together, and it was interesting (for me at least) to find out about what happened after the Minotaur incident. Despite a few minor quibbles this was an impressive first novel and I’m looking forward to the authors future works and I have her next book already. Recommended for all lovers of Greek myths.     

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