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

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Best Books of 2023 

As yet another year crumbles into dust behind us it’s time to look back and pick the best books I read in 2023. As usual I’ll split them between Fiction and Non-Fiction and highlight the best of the best in BOLD. I reviewed 102 books this year with the maximum TWO DNF’s. So, lets jump right in! 


*Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier* (The BEST of the best of the best).
Pompeii by Robert Harris
Havanna Bay by Martin Cruz Smith
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Passage to Mutiny by Alexander Kent
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
The Midnight Watch by David Dyer
Amistad by David Pesci
The Poison Belt by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan
Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin
The End of the World and Other Catastrophes edited by Mike Ashley
Circe by Madeline Miller
A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
Neuromancer by William Gibson
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
Storm Force to Narvik by Alexander Fullerton


Tamed – Ten Species that Changed Our World by Alice Roberts
Bread For All – The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick
The Rules of Contagion – Why Things Spread and Why They Stop by Adam Kucharski
The Nanny State Made me – In Search of a Better Britain/A Story of Britain and How to Save It by Stuart Maconie
The Stone Mason – A History of Building Britain by Andrew Ziminski
The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy – What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens and Ourselves by Dr Arik Kershenbaum
Pursuit – The Sinking of the Bismarck by Ludovic Kennedy
The Nocturnal Brain – Nightmares, Neuroscience and the Secret World of Sleep by Guy Leschziner
The End is Always Near – Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses by Dan Carlin
Pandora’s Jar – Women in Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes
Twelve Days on the Somme – A Memoir of the Trenches, 1916 by Sidney Rogerson
Footprints – In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier
Heart Beguiling Araby – The English Romance with Arabia by Kathryn Tidrick
In the Shadows of the American Century – The Rise and Decline of US Global Power by Alfred W McCoy
War by Sebastian Junger
D-Day Through German Eyes – How the Wehrmacht Lost France by Jonathan Trigg
Dark and Magical Places – The Neuroscience of How We Navigate by Christopher Kemp
Napoleon and the Hundred Days by Stephen Coote
Weaponized Lies – How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era by Daniel Levitin
How Iceland Changed the World – The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason
Narconomics – How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright

As you can probably tell from the length of both lists, this was a GOOD year for reading and containing some of the best books I’ve read in years – if not ever. I’m SO pleased that, even after decades of reading hundreds of books there’s still the possibility that a new book (both fiction and non-fiction) can completely blow me away with its quality. I’m also pleased with the age spread this year: from 2022 to 1887, that’s 135 years! I’m pleased also that it wasn’t just a bunch of books huddled in the first quarter of the 21st century with a few scattered in the late 19th. There were LOTS scattered throughout the timeline. I’m already looking forward to next year's reading (with 6 books already in my review pile) and will be posting my ‘plans’ next Saturday. 

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Rubicon by The Historical Writers Association (FP: 2019) [177pp] 

I thought this was an interesting idea/concept so picked it up to try it out. The idea is to showcase a number of established as well as new(ish) authors who are writing in a particular historical period. This volume, naturally, revolves around Ancient Rome with others based around the Crusades, the Tudors and the Victorian era. It’s a really great way to deepen your experience in an already favourite era – especially if you’re unsure which author to try next – or to expand into other historical periods you’re less familiar with. 

This slim volume contained 10 short stories or extracts from longer works and each story concluded with a short (3 pages or so) Q&A with the author uncovering their backgrounds, motivations and future plans. I was aware of some of the authors, and indeed have books by them waiting to be read – like Anthony Riches, for example – but others were completely new to me. One that particularly impressed me was Alter Ego by Ruth Downie where a Roman doctor travelling in occupied Britannia solves a crime at a roadside hostel because his travelling companions had annoyed him. I’ve added the author to my interest list, and she will, no doubt, be showing up here again at some point. Another author, who has been on my interest list for a while now, got my attention with her story Mystery of Victory where a small cadre of Romans during the Empire’s transition to Christianity smuggle out one of their icons to set up the break-away state of Roma Nova in order to keep the Old Ways alive. Oddly Roma Nova shows up again in a completely unrelated book of short stories coming up soon. Maybe the Book Gods are telling me something!?! 

I’m giving some serious thought to picking up the other volumes in this series as this one impressed me and they’re only £6.99. They’re a great way to test the waters and, if you’re anything like me and are always looking for something new, a great way to pick up future historical reads with confidence. Definitely recommended. 

[This is my last book review of the year, so I’ll be posting my 2023 yearly review on Saturday. My plans for 2024 and beyond will be posted on the following Saturday.]  

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Monday, December 25, 2023

Just Finished re-Reading: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (FP: 1892) [316pp] 

This outing for Holmes and Watson was somewhat different from the previous two. Instead of a long(ish) novella or short novel we are presented with an even dozen short stories. There’s quite a mixture here, from straight crime/detective stories to mysteries to a few with an almost Gothic ‘horror’ feel. There are a few surprises too, including admissions that Holmes sometimes FAILS to unravel things not just in good time but at all. Interesting to see that ACD didn’t see (or want the readership to view) Holmes as some sort of superman. 

The first story was one of his most famous ‘A scandal in Bohemia’ revolving around an attempted blackmail of a member of that principality's royalty (who had, to be honest, been a bit of a naughty boy and a fool). The protagonist here was the now notorious Irene Adler – apparently always referred to as ‘the woman’ - and clearly admired by Holmes for her mind far more than her looks. There was an interesting comment about romance/love/lust that was central to the tale: “He [Holmes, that is] never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.” I’m still of the opinion that Sherlock has had his heart badly broken at some point. 

In my random(ish) notes I made during my reading (not something I normally do but as this is a buddy read/review piece – plus short stories rather than a full novel – I thought it’d be best to get the most out of it) Holmes’ drug habit was mentioned again, and he even joked about it with Watson when Holmes was found in a London dockside opium den in deep cover on a case. Some mentions of his drug use did make me wonder if Holmes was suffering from manic depression.  

Although in the previous novels it appeared that Holmes (generally) worked for free or for very little more than basic expenses it seemed that he wasn’t above asking for a fee up front – especially from the rich and shameless. Sherlock’s services didn’t come cheap IF you could afford it. Where a professional man might earn around £700 a year in London in the late 19th century, Holmes was given £100 plus expenses and then a bonus on top for a few days' work. That’s not to be sneezed at! 

Another thing that jumped out at me at one point was that a ‘Mrs Turner’ was mentioned as the pair's housekeeper. What happened to ‘Mrs Hudson’ I wondered – only to have her reappear in a later story! This ‘confusion’ only deepened when clients were shown in by a bellboy (as in a hotel) or a commissioner. I suppose that if 221 Baker Street was an apartment complex (with Holmes in B of course) that would make a kind of sense. There were also a few interesting things that jumped out at me in the story ‘The Red-Headed League’ (one of my favourite stories in the collection) including the first time I saw a reference to a ‘three pipe problem’ as well as a note of a vegetarian restaurant(!) in the street Holmes was scoping out for a crime scene.  

As I’ve found in other crime/detective stories of this era, the problem of Identity is very much front and centre in quite a few of the stories. Not, of course as we view it in today's crazy world, but knowing exactly who people are – either victims (who generally can’t answer questions) or protagonists. With little in the way of official documentation and what was available probably easily forged I’m guessing that it was comparatively easy to pass yourself off as someone else. In a world without knowledge of blood types, finger printing (only widely used/recognised in the very late 19th/early 20th century) and certainly not DNA evidence the police and detectives – both real and fictional – had to fall back on much older and cruder methods of identifying someone. 

Overall, this was a very creditable collection of short stories without a duff one in the bunch. Having previously read them over 40 years ago around 90% of the book appeared to read as something completely new to me. The only thing that disappointed me (slightly) was the fact that I learnt very little about Holmes or Watson as people – with Holmes being almost ‘invisible’ in one sense. I suppose (guessing again) that ACD didn’t want the Holmes character getting in the way of the story. So, at this point we still know nothing about Holmes’ family, personal history or much about his character makeup. About the only valuable thing we did learn was that Watson is Holmes’ ONLY friend. I am, naturally looking forward to the next stack of short stories in ‘Memoirs’ and hope to find out a bit more about this great duo and, of course, to be highly entertained and impressed by Holmes’ forensic methods! Highly recommended. 

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MERRY Christmas everyone! I hope that your day is LOW on stress, MODERATE on indulgence and HIGH on fun!

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Time for a cosy bit of reading, I think!

Deep Diving in '24 (Hold Your Breath). 

I’ve been feeling for some time now that my reading is a little too.... scattershot. Sometimes it feels like my Butterfly Mind is on steroids or ‘speed’. Part of the problem, if it IS a problem, is that I’m interested in too much (if such a thing is even possible) and want to touch base with these interests as often as possible – only for them to get crowded out by other ‘urgent’ interests. So, I’m going to attempt to harness my butterfly and get it to focus on a narrower subject for more than a single book. I’m calling these episodes ‘Deep Dives’ (previously known as ‘Book Blitzes’) although the name might be a bit of a misnomer as ‘deep’ will often mean TWO books on a subject read in close conjunction rather than a stand-alone read. Other times this will stretch to a more logical THREE books, but it won’t often go beyond that – at least not quite yet. As you might expect I already have a few ideas buzzing around (not unlike a butterfly) in my head and have even been going through some of my book piles digging out volumes to create mini or micro stacks. So far, I’ve come up with a few ideas: 

American Isolationism
The Liberation of Paris (1944)
The Battle of Britain
Amritsar (1919)
Political Geography
Witch Hunting
Abandoned Places
Roman Britain
The Channel Island Occupation

Some of this is to fill in gaps in my knowledge highlighted by other reading. Some of it will be my attempt to fill out some of my more neglected label buckets. Some of it will get larger projects moving (or started!) and some of it will be to simply reduce a stack of like-minded books to more sensible proportions. If you have any ideas for ‘deep dives’ I could do, of if you’d like me to prioritise any of the above feel free to let me know. Oh, and being me, this will (of course) be subject to change if the butterfly manages to wriggle free of its harness (or I get distracted by something too shiny to resist). 

Thursday, December 21, 2023

No chance of snow here for a while yet. It has been rather breezy though....

Just Finished Reading: The Consolations of Physics – Why the Wonders of the Universe Can Make You Happy by Tim Radford (FP: 2018) [178pp] 

It's difficult not to view the Universe we’re born into with a feeling of awe. Indeed, it's difficult to learn about the Universe without becoming over-awed and maybe a little overwhelmed. Both staggeringly old and STAGGERINGLY huge, it’s easy to think that we’ll never understand it, but the amazing thing is that we ARE beginning to do just that. 

We’ve been looking at the heavens for longer than human history and, no doubt, wondering about the lights in the night sky and what they are. It took a LONG time to finally figure things out (or start the process!) but we’re getting there. With telescopes, probes and a bit of mathematical wizardry we can understand the movement of planets, the birth (and death) of stars and even the birth (and death?) of the Universe itself. But we’re not there yet – not by a long way. Our knowledge of the Universe is still partial and there is much we still don’t understand – or even know we don’t know. There’s even the real possibility that much that we think we know might be flat wrong. We do indeed live in exciting times. 

At the other end of the scale, we have the infinitely small – the once indivisible atom, now known to be made up of progressively smaller and smaller parts. The Quantum realm is bizarre on steroids but works despite Einstein never fully accepting its implications. Not only are things stranger than we know, but they might also very well be stranger than we can know. Few scientists can wrap their heads around the mathematics required to understand (or at least appreciate or approach understanding) of the strangeness of Quantum Mechanics whilst the rest of us normal folk can only look on with wide-eyed wonder and laugh at the absurdity. I do find it FUN though – knowing that the foundations of everything are just so WEIRD. It warms my heart. 

Looking both out into the Universe and into the heart of atomic structure, the author shows how the endeavour to understand EVERYTHING is an amazing gift and one that can inspire much previously held to be the domain of Religion. The Cosmos can leave us feeling a sense of awe, a knowledge of how small we are, and inspire us to want to know the origins and mechanics of existence itself. Breakthroughs in the study of sub-atomic particles can should us just how amazing things really are and how everything, from the exploding hearts of stars to the DNA in every one of every living creature's cells are ultimately connected. We are indeed star stuff. But I think the most awe-inspiring thing we’ve learnt from all our endeavours so far is the sure and certain knowledge of how little we actually know. There is still SO much to learn, So much the discover and SO many misunderstandings to correct. We are living in an era of great scientific breakthroughs. I for one love finding out new stuff and even more finding out we were wrong about the old stuff. Can Physics make you happy? It works for me... [lol] A recommended, if somewhat short, read for anyone unsure what all the fuss is about with Cosmologists and the Quantum world. More to come. 

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Monday, December 18, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius [161pp] 

I’ve had this on my shelves for years – if not over a decade – and thought it was about time I actually read it, especially as I ‘recently’ acquired a companion read (up next) which would make a nice contrast. I think I bought this just prior to my Philosophy degree as it was on the recommended reading list. I ended up choosing an Aristotle related question for my Ancient Philosophy unit, so didn’t ‘need’ to read this so ended up missing it.  

I’d heard of it before (it’s hard to avoid in some circles!) so had some idea of the subject matter and the history of how it came to be written. The author was an early Christian in a position of some power around the end of the Western Roman Empire or shortly after(ish). For a variety of reasons, he ended up annoying other people in power and he ended up in prison where he wrote Consolation. This was essentially a dialogue between the author and the personification of Philosophy about a variety of subjects including why he, as a Good Man, was in prison in the first place. Most of this conversation revolved around ideas of the Good (which was all very Greek, indeed Platonic, in nature) so didn’t float my boat overly much. What I’ve read of Plato (only excerpts so far) hasn’t impressed me much and I’m far more a fanboy of Aristotle. Fortunately, things became more interesting as the author became a bit less self-focused. 

One of the things that did interest me, and made me smile more than once, was the fact that perennial questions, still mentioned today, came up during their conversation – specifically why bad things happen to good people (and why good things happen to bad people!) - and included a very well argued look at Free Will in contrast to God’s omniscience. I have sometimes pondered about the apparent conflict with the idea that if God already knows exactly what we’re going to do in the future how can we possibly have Free Will which HE gave us? I now understand how that particular circle can be squared and it no longer ‘bothers’ me. It’s all about perspective. We, being the limited creatures that we are, live in Linear Time. God, of course, does not and can see Past, Present AND Future simultaneously. Therefore, he can see what we’re doing, see what happens because of that and see the end result. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have Free Will. I thought about it like this: Imagine you’re reading a non-fiction History book. In it you have people making decisions, and you can see the outcomes of those decisions, maybe even with possible other outcomes (if they’d made different choices) and how things eventually worked out – or not. Did those people have Free Will, even if you KNOW what their future entailed? Of course, they did. Same thing... The debate about the Nature of God kind of went over my head and I honestly skimmed a bit of that, but I did find a brief discussion about the relationship between Providence (AKA God’s Plan) and Fate (the action of said Plan in the world) instructive and interesting.  

Overall, I could see why this work has been so highly praised for so long. Although the God/Christianity aspects didn’t really hold my attention very much, I did manage to clear up a few questions that had been floating in the back of my mind for many years. If you’re interested in how Greek thought especially impacted early Christian philosophy and haven’t read this yet I can certainly recommend it to you.       

Translated from the Latin by Victor Watts  

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Thursday, December 14, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Storm Force to Narvik by Alexander Fullerton (FP: 1979) [268pp] 

April 1940. Denmark has fallen to the Germans in a matter of hours. It's almost certain that Norway will be the next target, but still the British government under Nevil Chamberlain vacillates on what to do. With the Altmark incident still fresh in everyone's mind (more soon!), Britain is reluctant to abuse Norway’s stated neutrality but finally a decision is made – to mine Norway’s territorial waters to force the German navy into waters where the Royal navy can engage them. Meanwhile, Nick Everard commander of the destroyer HMS Intent is fighting for his life against a German heavy cruiser. With a ship badly battered and in need of urgent repairs he makes for what he hopes is safe harbour in the fjords. Further up the coast his son is serving aboard another destroyer HMS Hoste which has been ordered, along with a flotilla of other destroyers, to stop the German landings at the vital port of Narvik. Unaware of the German disposition they are about to encounter a large force of destroyers that are larger, more heavily armed and much newer. The risks are high indeed, but the consequences of failure could determine the outcome of the war. The Phony War is most definitely over, and the dying is about to start... 

The Norwegian campaign is one of those stages of the war that is all too often forgotten or sidelined, overshadowed as it was by the subsequent invasion of France and the ultimate retreat to Dunkirk. I suppose one of the reasons for this memory loss was the rather ignominious and shambolic way the fight was prosecuted from London. With troops embarking, disembarking and then reembarking transport ships before arriving in Norway with inadequate or missing equipment the actual ground fighting wasn’t going to go well. The Royal navy also lost a number of ships – including an aircraft carrier! - because of poor planning and contradictory orders. However, the attack on Narvik was something else. Without giving too much of the plot of this excellent WW2 naval thriller away, the navy more than made up for any apparent deficiency in equipment with dash, aggression and ultimate belief in their undoubted abilities. Told from 3 points of view (one of which purely to show the larger picture in conversations in the Admiralty with a prospective high-ranking appointment), including onboard HMS Intent and HMS Hoste (neither of which actually existed) this was a thrill to read, especially after reading about the real engagement some time ago. The author had served in WW2 on several ships so understood not only how they fought but also about how the officers and crew lived. The dialogue therefore is both realistic, salty and often very funny. It definitely added an extra dimension to the book for me and enhanced the pleasure of the read. It also got you invested in the characters a bit more so made the action sequences all the more nerve-wracking! The battles/encounters were VERY well done, again super realistic and exciting. Being the kind of novel it is, you might expect the heroes to be bullet proof but that’s not always the case. There were a few well-crafted heart-in-mouth moments that made me wonder! Although I’ve been reading this sequence completely out of order, I don’t think that’s made too much difference. Definitely recommended for all naval warfare buffs – if you can source a copy. 

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Monday, December 11, 2023

Top Left is my favourite, with Top Right close behind. Bottom Left is too minimal even for me. Bottom Right is a bit to 'out there'.

Just Finished Reading: Narconomics – How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright (FP: 2016) [286pp] 

Humans have been taking drugs, growing drugs and selling drugs probably for as long as there have been people. It is almost one of our defining features [Side note: Personally, I find it pretty amazing that plants exist that naturally produce – processed or not – a variety of narcotics that can get us ‘high’]. On the other side of this equation, though I guess much later in human cultural evolution, there have long been those who want to stop people taking these drugs for a variety of reasons. As we know – they have almost universally failed in this endeavour. The ‘why’ of this failure is the topic of this intriguing and often troubling book. 

What governments (and other authorities) regularly attempt to do is to reduce the supply of drugs to stifle their consumption. For many (often obvious) reasons this is doomed to fail from the outset. For one thing, many of the drugs and both easy and cheap to grow so ploughing up fields or spraying them with herbicides is an expensive way to do very little. Likewise processing drugs is an industrial process on an industrial scale so the interception of the odd (even large) shipment makes little overall difference to the ‘price on the street’ (a proxy metric for how well the anti-drugs authorities are performing). What makes this metric worse is that drug users (who are often physically addicted to the product) are more than willing to pay the higher price for their ‘fix’ and, if that wasn’t enough, by doing so INCREASE the profits of drug dealers. This is hardly a sustainable policy. [Side note: I’ve never understood the fact that drug seizures are destroyed – usually on camera – rather than sold to drug companies for processing into legal drugs. If so, this could almost self-finance the war of drugs] The author, who clearly knows his stuff and has on more than one occasion walked the walk into the proverbial lion's den, suggests a far more effective and cheaper alternative. The idea is to reduce demand and reduce illegal revenue. You reduce demand, especially for the harder drugs, by rehabilitation programmes and other techniques and you reduce revenue by legalising at least SOME of the lighter drugs like cannabis thus cutting the user base from under the dealers. 

The author makes a very valid case for using the unique economics of the drug industry against it rather than staying the course of a decades long failed moral crusade. Seeing the issue as a cold economic one, rather than simply seeing drug users as moral degenerates, would be more effective and longer lasting – essentially because it makes actual sense – than what we (collectively) are doing today. It does seem that at least some regions or countries are listening to this advice with the slow decriminalisation of cannabis use across the world. Even if still illegal here (as far as I know) the police tend to turn a blind eye to its use unless the user steps over the line. Making it legal and standardising the quality/safety of the produce plus taxing it, seems the much more logical solution. It’s coming, and when it does people will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. This is a fascinating look into a global mega-industry that few of us have any experience with and an even more interesting look at the economics of criminal activity. Highly recommended and one of the stand out reads of the year. 

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