About Me

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

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

...and so ends Book Month here at SaLT. I hope that you liked at least some of my posts. Now it's back to (ab)normal - except for a sight detour coming soon - until October. I see a whole WORLD of possibilities.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon (FP: 1931) [155pp] 

It was just a matter of luck – good or bad he had yet to decide. The King of Spain was visiting Paris, passing through really, and Inspector Maigret was the only one available for this rather seedy and seemingly straightforward case. At least it would get him out of the office and away from the sweltering city streets. On arrival at the scene of the crime – the Hotel de la Loire in Sancerre – his initial assessment was that something distinctly ‘odd’ had occurred. The victim, a travelling salesman and a regular at the hotel, had been shot AND stabbed without anyone seeing or hearing any kind of confrontation. Maigret considered, for a few moments, the possibility that it was a suicide, but the absence of the gun quashed that idea. So, murder it was. Then, almost immediately, things moved from simply odd to downright strange. When the Inspectors requests for information came back any kind of certainty had vanished. The dead man's name was a false one, as was his profession. He had, in fact, been leading a double life for years unknown to his family. But who leads such a life to stay in a hotel room and, seemingly, do nothing. There was no other woman involved, that was certain. So why the deception and why would anyone want to kill him for it? It would seem that the late Monsieur Gallet would need to answer quite a few questions before the investigation was over. It was such a shame that he was quite dead... 

This was my second Inspector Maigret outing. Whilst the first book revolved around a fairly complex crime, this was at least on the face of things a much simpler affair. The style of the writing was quite sublime and, as I thought numerous times, VERY French! Maigret himself is a wonderful character. He doesn’t say very much and seems, from an outside perspective, not particularly bright. But his mind, the way he weighs possibilities, the way he circles back to problems, the way he asks just the right question and just the right time and to just the right person is a delight to be a part of. He’s also relentless. If something can be found out, he’ll find it! Despite being (again) a very short novel this felt much longer – and in a very good way. I expect that was because it was just so immersive. You really felt you were with the Inspector as he walked the streets of Sancerre chatting to the locals and the Hotel manager about events in the village. Of the around 8-10 main characters all of them were well drawn and believable. Although at least some of the plot depended on a historical thread running through French life and culture – which the contemporary French readership would’ve been most familiar with – I did know enough about French history to understand it. But for modern readers not familiar with those ideas it's safe to simply recognise it as a plot point and move on – it’s not central to the overall narrative. To be honest I can’t fault this book in the least. I fell into it almost from the first line and emerged a few days later as if I’d spent a few weeks in France during a hot dry summer. As you might be able to tell by now, I LOVED every minute of the experience. I may not be able to read all 75 Maigret novels (!), but I’m going to try for the first 20 or so. HIGHLY recommended to all classic crime and French literature fans.  

Translated from the French by Anthea Bell

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Happy Birthday: Mary Wollstonecraft (27 April 1759 – 10 September 1797) was a British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft's life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships at the time, received more attention than her writing. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and her works as important influences.

During her brief career she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.

After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. Wollstonecraft died at the age of 38 leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. She died 11 days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley, who became an accomplished writer and the author of Frankenstein.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Waiting for War – Britain 1939-1940 by Barry Turner (FP: 2019) [342pp] 

Despite the expectation of many, after war was declared on Germany on 3rd September 1939 nothing happened. The expected air attacks did not occur despite an overzealous sounding of an air-alarm siren moments after the announcement. The so-called ‘Phoney War’ had begun and would last 8 months. It was a strange time for everyone. 

Most people's experience of war had ended in 1918. For those not involved in the front lines, and especially for those not living in London or on the South coast, they had practically no idea of what was going to happen next. Naturally the government sent out ‘information’ leaflets which were, as usual, not that informative. The overriding message, it seemed, was not to panic and that most things would continue pretty much as usual. Even after war was declared the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain still hoped that Hitler could see the error of his ways and come back into the family of nations. Hence the dropping of leaflets, rather than bombs, on Germany in the early months. Unsurprisingly these had very little effect. Actually, the RAF was quite keen to start dropping bombs on German targets but were constrained by Government restrictions against damaging private property (I kid you not) and angering Hitler resulting in him being pushed further from the negotiation table. 

Meanwhile, in England, wartime restrictions had come into place – including a countrywide blackout. Most of this was completely pointless and, paradoxically, caused a lot more injuries and even deaths than any enemy action did. Likewise, the evacuation of hospital patients away from the capital and the restriction of the availability of hospital beds (in anticipation of mass casualties due to bombing) caused people to miss their required procedures thereby probably hastening their deaths – and still, week after week, without any enemy action. Along with hospital patients and the elderly living in the predicted ‘danger zones’, thousands of mothers and young children were moved out into safer areas to prevent both mass casualties and mass panic during the expected bombing. It wasn’t long before people started moving back into places like London and other cities because of the many practicalities overlooked by government guidelines. 

One thing that did interest me was the issue of gasmasks. Although gas was never used it was thought that it might well be, so every adult (and child) in the country was issued with a mask and was required to carry it on them at all times. Failure to do so could get you a talking to by the police or even the issue of a fine. When it became obvious that gas wasn’t going to be an issue a growing number of people simply stopped carrying them. After a while the police & the government just had to turn a blind eye to this to save on the effort of enforcing a non-sensical rule. [Side note: for years in High school the bag I used to carry my books & stuff in was my dad's gasmask case which was quite brilliant. I loved it!] 

With the Second World War being an unprecedented event, it's hardly a shock that at least some of the government’s plans were either irrelevant or actually counterproductive. Partially it was various departments working at cross purposes or interpreting instructions in various conflicting ways. Partially, of course, it was the result of guesswork that had to be rolled back or rescinded once policy hit hard reality. Partially it seemed to be the reluctance of the Chamberlain government to accept reality – they were at war and sooner or later war-like things were going to start happening. This was an interesting insight into some of the chaos in the early months of the conflict and particularly how the ‘Phoney War’ impacted civil society. I think, for me, the thing that stood out the most was the cynicism and scepticism of the public and their willingness to break what they saw as pointless regulations. Maybe the people in that time were not as compliant as we assume they had been. Recommended for anyone with an interest in the early part of WW2 and its impact on the average person in the street.   

Monday, April 22, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Ghosts of Empire by George Mann (FP: 2017) [292pp] 

London, 1927. It was supposed to be a much-needed vacation, especially after the incidents in New York which very nearly ended all of their lives. But Gabriel was a man of action, a crime fighter and dedicated enemy of monsters, so visiting historic sites in London and sitting in fancy restaurants for too long was starting to bore him. Luckily their late guest provided much of interest, especially as he arrived covered in his own blood and was barely alive. Unable to tell Gabriel who attacked him or why it was clearly time to his alter-ego known simply as ‘The Ghost’ to investigate further. It wasn’t long before his friend's attackers showed their hand again in an all-out assault using esoteric magic the like of which the Ghost/Gabriel had never seen before. There was far more going on here than a simple attack, something dark, something sinister and, so it seemed, something very Russian. The Ghost couldn’t fight such a force on his own. Even his friends, as capable as they were, would not be enough. Luckily for the Ghost he was far from alone. Operating in the shadows, watching, waiting and gathering strength was an element of the British Secret Service dedicated to fighting the Empire’s supernatural enemies. After the end of the Great War and the recommencement of the ‘Great Game’ they knew that the Russian Empire would be itching to strike at the very heart of Albion itself – and Gabriel Cross, AKA The Ghost – had just walked right into the middle of it. 

This was the 4th and final book in the Ghost series. Whilst not my favourite – that was the 2nd book Ghosts of War – this was still a FUN romp in a crazy mixed-up steampunk, Lovecraftian, gothic Batmanesque world. It did start off rather slow but ramped up quickly once the action started. Some of the characters from previous novels got a bit more into the action this time – Gabriel's cop-friends wife actually got some ‘acting’/action time here and proved herself capable with the pistol – although some got trimmed back a bit – Ginny was definitely toned down as she had become quite powerful in the last book, being inhabited by a shard of an Egyptian god and all that.... The one I really missed was Astrid, the New York witch, who I really liked and wanted to see more of. I did like some of the British spies – both the boss and the girl had some depth of character to them – and the baddies were suitably BAD although maybe a little too weak. Much of the magic work was reasonable (reminding me of Dr Strange more than anything else) but much was very well done. The final ‘boss fight’ was slightly disappointing but not too much so. Overall, it was a pretty good outing and I enjoyed it. It was interesting that more attention was paid to the use of magic in the Great War than had been hinted at before but it's possible that the general public wasn’t aware of it as the information came during an exposition by the head Secret Service guy, but that would cast the conflict in a whole different light. Personally, I’m still totally intrigued by the whole idea of monsters from other dimensions living & feeding in no-man's land. That STILL sends shivers down my back! Looking forward to more novels/series from this author. More to come. Above average stuff and, therefore, recommended. At last, a FINISHED series – time to start two more!! 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Happy Birthday: Charles Patrick Ryan O'Neal (April 20, 1941 – December 8, 2023) was an American actor. Born in Los Angeles, he trained as an amateur boxer before beginning a career in acting in 1960.

In 1964, he landed the role of Rodney Harrington on the ABC night-time soap opera Peyton Place. It was an instant hit and boosted O'Neal's career. He later found success in films, most notably in the romantic drama Love Story (1970), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama; Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? (1972); Paper Moon (1973), which earned him a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy; Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), in which he portrayed the titular character; Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far (1977); and Walter Hill's The Driver (1978).

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Just Finished re-Reading: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (FP: 1902) [315pp] 

It was quite a story – a family curse, an isolated location and a spectral hound bent on a family's destruction. Holmes was suitably sceptical but equally intrigued, most especially when he heard how the latest tenant of Baskerville Hall had died – in sheer terror running for his very life. The reason Dr Mortimer was anxious for Holmes’ help was the imminent arrival of the last of the Baskerville line, recently residing in North America. He hoped that the story, and the family mystery, would intrigue the great detective enough to use his powers to unravel the riddle, see off the hound, and save the life of an innocent but cursed man. Holmes said that he would be delighted to, if only he had the time for he was pressed by other cases. He would volunteer Watson though and despatched him North to report back to Baker Street anything which might help the case move forward. Watson, alone and surviving on his wits (as well as what Holmes had taught him over the years), was going to be at his very best if he was going to protect Sir Henry Baskerville and help solve the mystery. If called upon could Holmes arrive in time to save the day if Watson couldn’t. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to put it to the test. 

As with the other Holmes books, I first read this over 40 years ago. I was somewhat surprised therefore by how well I remembered the plot although I’m guessing that’s as much based on the excellent 1939 movie adaptation starring the inimitable Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. I remembered this as my favourite Holmes outing, and I think I can say that it retains this top spot. Although I do enjoy the tightness of the short story format – which, to be honest, stops Conan Doyle going ‘off-piste’ with side stories in exotic lands – I did enjoy this substantial novel giving ACD time to develop the plot and have time for some decent character development. I liked, or at least didn’t dislike, most of the characters here. Dr Mortimer was an interesting one and I liked the way he described himself as ‘a dabbler in science, a picker-up of shells on the shores of the great unknown sea’ - very poetic! I did also laugh when Holmes *really* didn’t like being described (by the Dr again) as ‘the SECOND highest expert in Europe’. 

One of the things that really jumped out at me and was quire perplexing was the spelling of Eskimo – spelt in this case: ESQUIMAUX. Really? Was there no agreed upon spelling for Eskimo at that time? Did the author spell it phonetically because he didn’t know how to spell it? I’m intrigued! As with a hand-full of his short stories there was a definite Gothic feel to good chunks of the story, as you might imagine with a Hell Hound nipping at some of the characters feet, and Baskerville Hall certainly had that feel about it. LOTS of white paint needed, I think. A comment from Watson about Holmes made me smile – that Holmes had a ‘cat like love of personal cleanliness’. Finally, there was much mention, and much made of, the Barrows on Dartmoor as the *houses* of neolithic peoples – they were, of course, burial sites but I guess that this was unknown at the time of publication. 

Overall, I enjoyed this a great deal, and I was glad that my fondness for the book hasn’t diminished much over four decades. Definitely deserving its classic status and well worth a read even if you’re not already a Sherlock fan. After reading this you will be. I’m already looking forward to the last three books in the Holmes collection and then onto other Holmes ‘related’ tales. Much more to come. Oh, I almost forgot... I usually try to find the actual cover of the book I’m reviewing, but can’t in this particular case because my copy doesn’t *have* a cover. It’s a small format hardback I picked up in a 2nd-hand bookshop at some point in the late 70’s (I think!) for the princely sum of £1 and was published in 1948. Although not as nice as the copy I have of Pride & Prejudice – published during WW2 – I'm still rather fond of it. Pity about the lack of a dust jacket though!   

Monday, April 15, 2024

I LIKE it!!

Just Finished Reading: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (FP: 1937) [212pp] 

I grew up (ages 10-23) about 7 miles from Wigan so it's not that surprising that I’d heard about this classic for as long as I can remember. Recently, especially after reading another non-fiction by Orwell, I thought it was about time I finally got around to reading it. It wasn’t really what I was expecting and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed that Wigan itself didn’t appear more prominently in the narrative. But that was my only, very minor, quibble with this work. 

The word that comes to mind concerning his descriptions of working-class life in the North of England around that time is: grim. Not only was unemployment rife and of long duration – the area was only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression despite industrial uptick due to the ongoing (slow) rearmament program – but the general living conditions were often appalling. Born in a dilapidated Victorian terrace myself (built I think in 1888) I could easily visualise Orwell’s accounts of the houses he stayed in during his time there. I could also sympathise with the tales of overcrowding – although I have no solid memory of such – as my parents and my brother and I shared a TWO-bedroom house with my maternal grandparents. How we actually managed that is beyond me! 

Another early section that really jumped out at me was his description of a visit to a coal mine and a discussion of the conditions below ground as well as how poorly treated (and paid) the coalminers were. In the 1970’s - so a little over a generation later – my school offered a trip to one of the last working coal mines in the area. I THINK it was probably Golborne Colliery. So, when Orwell described the conditions at the coalface and the hardship of just getting there and back – UPAID – I was right there with him. The group of us (plus a teacher or two) only stayed there a few hours but by the time we got back I was both exhausted and filthy – and we hadn’t actually DONE anything. The guys who actually WORKED down there, 8, 10 or more hours a day, week in and week out – just the thought of it amazes me, as it did Orwell who had nothing but praise for them. 

Whilst the first half of the book covered conditions for the workers – both above and below ground – the second half moved onto more political and sociological discussions of Class which was much more important and honestly rigid almost 100 years ago. Orwell had some interesting ideas about the prospect of a ‘classless’ society as well as the problems of ‘social mixing’. In some ways little has changed, although so-called social mobility is far easier these days where money talks louder than old-school ties – at least in most places. I did find it interesting when Orwell mused on the possible future European war and the dangerous rise of fascism both on the Continent and in England itself. Interestingly he thought that fascism could indeed take hold here if it wasn’t intelligently challenged.  

Overall, this was a very interesting look at a particular Class in a particular part of England at a particular time – and viewed (of course) from a Middle-class perspective [Orwell was VERY conscious of his position in the class hierarchy and that in itself was another fascinating look at the lived experience of the control system that Class was/is]. Inevitably this was at times very dated – a LOT has changed in the last 90 years or so – and, as a look into a very different world, could be quite confusing at times – even the language used was different in some ways back then – but as a brief glimpse of a slice of cultural/political/industrial history it's definitely worth a read and is worthy of the name Classic. More Orwell to come. Recommended.  

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Happy Birthday: Guy Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606), also known as Guido Fawkes while fighting for the Spanish, was a member of a group of provincial English Catholics involved in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was born and educated in York; his father died when Fawkes was eight years old, after which his mother married a recusant Catholic.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Humans by Matt Haig (FP: 2013) [293pp] 

It was a punishment assignment, that was obvious from the start. His briefing was practically non-existent, he didn’t even know the language though, luckily, he was a quick learner. When they arrested him later – for not wearing cloths, how ridiculous! - he managed to cover his many mistakes with a simple phrased he’d picked up from Cosmopolitan: Nervous Breakdown. It was (almost) literally a get out of jail free card, well that and a bit of technologically enhanced hypnotism. It took a while longer to realise that they’d also lied to him. He’d just assumed that everything he ‘knew’ (or it turned out thought he’d known) was true, indeed obvious. It wasn’t. Sure, humans were indeed violent creatures who were wholly ignorant of how the Universe really worked but there was more to them than that. They had music, the poetry of Emily Dickenson and a wonderful food called ‘crunchy peanut butter’. They also, rather bizarrely, cared for their children and even knew who their parents were. Probably because of that oddness they also had something called ‘love’ but all of that was distracting from the mission.  

The real Dr Andrew Martin, who he had replaced soon after he was taken, had achieved a mathematical breakthrough. If allowed to be known it would propel humanity beyond its wildest dreams, into their Solar system and beyond into the greater Galaxy beyond. Such a thing could simply not be allowed to happen. The new ‘Andrew Martin’ would need to find out who knew about the breakthrough and eliminate them. Then, to make sure another breakthrough didn’t occur he needed to destroy all and any evidence. To be particular, he had been ordered to eliminate Andrew Martin’s wife and teenage son – just in case. That’s where the problems started and Newton the dog wasn’t exactly helping either... 

Sandwiched between a pair of serious books (the second of which is reviewed on Monday) I thought I’d drop in something silly, something different. This was definitely ‘it’. This is my 3rd book by this author and again I was not disappointed. He has the kind of off-beat quirky mind that I like – a lot. It would be easy to compare the author to Douglas Adams and this book to ‘Hitchhiker's Guide’ but that would be a disservice all around. Both are ‘light’ SciFi, both are commentaries on the absurdity of human existence, and both are ironically funny – and there the comparison falls apart. Essentially this is a novel about human relationships seen from a very ‘outside’ PoV. It's about just how HARD it is to communicate with others, even if you live with them, even if you gave birth to them, even if you love them – most of the time anyway. It’s about owning your mistakes; it's about admitting failure and doubt and it’s about knowing how inadequate the word "sorry" is. It is, in fact, all about being human. Funny, sad, profound at times and endlessly thought provoking I really liked it. Highly recommended – but you might need a few tissues ready for the sad bits.