About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

"The house of silk" by Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz writes a new Sherlock Holmes novel, using the authentic voice of Doctor John Watson.

And it is pretty authentic. He really gets the feel of Watson and the relationship between the narrator and his hero. Watson is perhaps a little too stupid (Holmes sometimes mocks him) and the social conscience seems a little modern (Conan Doyle was no Dickens) but foggy London is still there. Horowitz succumbs a little to the temptation to put in as much from the canon as possible: the Baker Street Irregulars and Mycroft and Moriarty and other characters from previous stories as well as a horde of red-headed men. And all the set pieces are included: the violin and the drug addiction and Holmes being able to tell what Watson is thinking and being able to correctly deduce others' occupation and history (although I loved the bit where he got the teacher wrong).

My basic problem with this book is that I didn't really like Sherlock Holmes in the first place. The stories are too far-fetched. Holmes is impossible. The villains are unreal. But worst of all, the author doesn't play fair.

The fundamental rule of detective fiction (which of course post-dates Conan Doyle) is that the reader must have the chance of guessing whodunnit before the revelation. When Holmes does his clever clever stuff he usually gives the observations after making the deductions. And often the solution is so extreme and improbable that it leaves me unmoved.

So Horowitz has to modernise the story to the extent that he offers the reader the chance to play the game. And he succeeds in doing this. The clues are there. Some are very easy, others well-hidden. I guessed the identities of two of the three criminals (although Horowitz follows Doyle in making some of his villains so blatantly villainous that there is little room for error).

A worthwhile update on a classic. January 2013; 399 pages

"Three men in a float" by Dan Kieran and Ian Vince

Two writers for The Idler magazine decide to pay tribute to former Idler writer Jerome K Jerome, best known as the author of Three men in a boat, by driving an electric milk float from furthest East (Lowestoft) to furthest West (Lands End). Clearly they can't do it by themselves so they recruit as third man Indian holy man and electrician Prasad.

Given their almost total lack of organisation (they forget to buy insurance until the day before the trip) it kis amazing they make it to the start. But that, tautologically, is only the beginning. Although they have some planned stops they are mostly reliant on strangers who will (a) give them a bed for the night and (b) provide the milk float with a free charge.

It was a mostly charming book extolling the delights of slow travel. In keeping with their muse, Kieran and Vince lengthily expound their views on the world. They hate supermarkets which is a little churlish given that their float is charged by both Morrison's and Tesco. They also hate Cornwall, monasteries (they get free bed and board in one) and regimented camp sites. They trumpet the green virtues of electric vehicles and deplore cars. They are opinionated but unlike Jerome, their views are rarely humorous.

Nevertheless this book keeps you going because of the eccentricities they meet along the way. January 2013; 276 pages

Sunday, 20 January 2013

"Standing in another man's grave" by Ian Rankin

Rebus is back.

I have read very few Rebus novels. I ought to read some more. These are well-written, thoughtful whodunnits (although I wasn't impressed with the last one I read, Tooth and Nail). Granted, the Inspector (in this book retired) is the usual maverick, verging on alcoholism, unshaven, unkempt, living alone, mingling with low-lifes and bending every rule he possibly can but the character is convincing and the locational detail (I was following the story on Google Maps) is stunning.

And even though I guessed wrong (and even though my answer was considerably better than the final answer) I kept turning the pages desperately. This book really sucked me in. DON'T read it unless you have the ability to kill a couple of days without your wife getting angry, your work standing unfinished and your chores left alone.

Fantastic. January 2013 356 pages

Saturday, 19 January 2013

"On the map" by Simon Garfield

I really enjoyed 'Just my type' by this author. This book is good but it isn't quite so good.

He uses the same style: breaking up the heavy information about the history of cartography with little gossipy vignettes such as a discursion about map thieves. Some of these are delightful: I loved the bit about RLS and Treasure Island.

He covers a wide variety of aspects of mapping from Ptolemy's Geographica and Mercator's Atlas to the Mappa Mundi, the Vinland Map (is it a forgery?). the A to Z, satnav, google maps, globe-making, and even brain mapping via a discussion of whether women can't read maps or just can't read maps that men draw.

But I think I found it slightly heavier going Just my type because I knew something about maps whereas I hadn't ever really noticed typefaces before.

Friday, 11 January 2013

"Mr Briggs' hat" by Kaye Colquhon

This tale of Britain's first railway murder in Victorian London in 1864 is a true whodunnit. The facts are meticulously detailed. Senior bank clerk Thomas Briggs enters a single railway compartment at Fenchurch Street. He is seen when the train arrives at Bow Station in the carriage in the company of two men. His unconscious and dying body is found on the track between Bow and Hackney Wick, four minutes away. At the next stop, Hackney, two clerks from the same bank enter the compartment to find it full of blood. Briggs' stick and bag are in the compartment and a battered hat. But the hat is not his.

Within a few days a jeweller describes a man exchanging a gold chain which is found to be the one missing from Mr Briggs. Following the publication of a reward a heavily indebted cabbie puts an acquaintance, a German tailor called Franz Muller, firmly in the frame as prime suspect when he describes his friend's new hat. But Muller has sailed for New York. The police pursue him in a steamship which, thanks to contrary winds, arrives long before the sailing ship. Despite the American Civil War and the need to travel to Washington which has  recently been surrounded by Confederate armies the police extradite Muller and bring him back to London to stand trial. But did he do it?

There is yards of circumstantial evidence: the watch chain, the hat, the watch itself. But there is also an alibi. And the police suppress evidence of the two men seen sitting with Briggs in the carriage, neither of whom fit Muller's description.

Will Muller be convicted? Will he hang? And if he didn't do it, who did? Was it cabbie Matthews who subsequently sought to incriminate his friend? Was it the unknown man who had threatened Briggs over a loan?

This is a desperately exciting whodunnit brilliantly written. January 2013; 286 pages.


Wednesday, 9 January 2013

"The magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the brides in the bath" by Jane Robins

Everyone, a Orwell pointed out, loves a murder. This book tells of one of the classics: George Smith whose modus operandi was to marry a woman, insure her life, steal her savings and then drown her in her bath. He got away with it three times under three different names in three different seaside towns getting three inquests to declare three misadventures before the father of one of his victims read in the newspapers about another case and recognised too many similarities for coincidence. Nevertheless there might have been an acquittal. Forensics was still in its infancy as a science and the corpses were in an advanced state of decomposition when they were eventually exhumed. But the brilliant pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, whose evidence had helped convict Dr Crippen, showed that it would be possible to forcibly drown a woman in a bath with no conclusive marks left on the body and without a struggle.

This delightful and readable book oscillates between a chapter describing another victim and a chapter describing Spilsbury's early career before clamaxing in the trial scene.

Good fun. January 2013; 246 pages.

Monday, 7 January 2013

"Arthur Ransome and Capt Flint's Trunk" by Christina Hardyment

This is a strange mix of a book. On one level it tells how Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books were written; on another level it tells the tale of how the author and her family visited the sites that inspired the books. Being a Ransome addict I loved the first level and was thoroughly annoyed by the second level which simply distracted me from the main story. And bulked it out a bit. And I suppose, to be fair, in some ways it was like the way that Ransome bulked out his adventure yarns with loads of little real details such as rowing to the farm house to collect the milk.

But the real appeal of the book was the sheer nostalgia of recalling those fabulous stories which I started reading when I was about seven and still sometimes read. My favourite is... That's silly. My favourite changes from time to time. Pigeon Post, the gold mine story? We Didn't Mean to go to Sea where John skippers the Goblin through a storm to Holland? The Picts and the Martyrs with the wonderful Great Aunt? The map-making expedition in Secret Water?

What I learnt from this book was that Ransome stole most of the details of most of the stories from real life. Although some details of Coniston are conflated with Windermere, there were five children called Taqui (a tomboyish girl who became Captain John), Susan, Mavis (whose nickname was Titty), Roger and Bridget. There was a farm called Swainson's and Mrs Swainson was a real person. The dog in Coot Club was real. Ships had only their names changed (and sometimes not even that, there was a sailing dinghy called Swallow). Some plotlines really happened. Others (such as the plot for Great Northern) were suggested by other people. Ransome's genius was to take his acute observation which gave his books such a convincing air of reality and to tell stories that gripped the reader.

So mostly I enjoyed this book although you have to be a fan to get anything really out of it. I loved the chapter which is simply the initial draft of Peter Duck. I loved the bits about Ransome. But I think it would have been better to reread one of the books.

Interesting. January 2013; 211 pages

This book inspired me to re-read Swallowdale.