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

Thursday, 29 May 2014

"Leonardo and the Last Supper" by Ross King

Ostensibly a history of a painting, this book has so much more. We learn about the wars between the Italian city states of the renaissance as the French armies sweep south (successful because warfare in mediaeval Italy was an almost bloodless affair of mercenary posturing) through Florence to take Naples, only to be defeated by Syphilis. We learn of the hothead preacher Savanorola and his cataclysmic regime in Florence. We learn of the Dominicans and the Franciscans and of Pope Alexander Borgia and his warlord son Cesare.

Most of all, of course, we learn about Leonardo. He was an illegitimate left-hander, probably gay, who was so enthusiastic about everything that he was almost constitutionally unable to actually finish anything. However, he had such enormous talent that his patrons continued to patronise him and the few artworks he actually produced were revolutionary in their impact upon art (even if, with the Last Supper, his experimental techniques meant that it deteriorated within a few years of its unveiling). And we learn about his models, including his apprentice whom he nicknamed 'devil' for his thieving and bad behaviour but whom he tolerated till his death, probably because he had a crush on him. We learn about his belief that you can tell a story from hand gestures and how he collected those gestures from watching people having arguments and how he used them in the painting. We learn about the techniques of fresco and the new use of oils that Leonardo pioneered. We learn how he composed the painting, about the religious ideas that went into it. We investigate the iconography of fruit.

By the way we watch the iciest of cold water being cascaded upon the Da Vinci code. Sophie sees the figure on Jesus' right is a woman and believes it to be Mary Magdalene rather than St John. "Leonardo was skilled at painting the difference between the sexes" states the DVC. In fact, as King shows, Leonardo rejoices in androgynous figures including another St John who is a dead ringer for the St John in the Last Supper. Both may be women, or both may have used the devilish apprentice; Leonardo seems to have liked effeminate looking young men.

This is a brilliant, fantastic and absorbing study in which the painting of a single work of art is used to enlighten a whole historical period. Wonderful. May 2014; 275 pages

Also read these reviewed books by Ross King:

  • Brunelleschi's Dome about the building of the dome over the Duomo in Florence, but also lots about renaissance Florence
  • The Judgement of Paris: as the Second Empire dies Impressionism is born: Meissonier, Manet, Monet and the rest; Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune and much much more!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

"Fire over England" by A E W Mason

I read this when I was a boy and it is a boy's own yarn of derring do in Elizabethan England. It was first published in 1936 by the author best known for The Four Feathers.

Robin Aubrey, English through and through and a schoolboy at Eton, is recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham to travel to Spain as a spy to find information about the imminent Armada. Privately, he wishes to find his father who was tortured by the Inquisition and may or may not be dead. But in this world of cross and double cross, Catholics in England are stalking Robin as he goes about his espionage. His enemies include a rival for the hand of his beloved Cynthia and his old Eton tutor, nicknamed Mr Ferret and a stage villain who makes Uriah Heep look subtle.

A brilliant adventure story, carefully plotted, with some well-drawn characters and breathlessly written. Should be reprinted please.

May 2014; 316 pages

Friday, 23 May 2014

"What money can't buy" by Michael J. Sandel

In recent years Economics has begun to rebrand itself as the science of human behaviour (for example in Superfreakonomics or Nudge. It believes it is possible to assign a monetary value to many human transactions. It sees the marketplace as the most efficient mechanism for adding value to human exchanges. Sandel believes that over these years we have moved from having a market economy to being a market society; a society in which more and more things are monetised.

He makes a compelling case. In Israel there was a daycare centre where the teachers became annoyed at the parents who came late to pick up their children. So they decided to fine the annoying parents. The number of late pickups increased as parents saw the fine as a fee they could pay for the centre keeping the kids for longer. They no longer worried about wasting the teachers' time. Sandel argues that this shows how assigning a price to something crowds out morality.

He also considers Christmas. Economists hate gifts. If I spend money buying you something you hate then I have wasted my money. It would be better if I just gave you the money I have spent (or even gave you less). So gifts 'destroy value' in economic terms. Nevertheless, Sandel argues that giving gifts is somehow better than giving money.

It is a very compelling argument. He looks at the things money should and should not be allowed to buy. Most people would argue that you should not be allowed to buy a favourable verdict in a trial or votes in an election. But faster treatment in hospitals is probably OK. We routinely bet on our own deaths when we take out life insurance but in the US many companies take out life insurance on their employees even without the knowledge of the employees. Is that right? What about people who buy up the life insurance policies of people with terminal illnesses, thereby providing the dying people with cash in their last few months whilst at the same time making a great profit (if they die earlier than expected)> Where is the morality in that?

This is a wonderful book full of insights and arguments into some very tricky ethical issues.

May 2014; 203 pages

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

"Agent 6" by Tom Rob Smith

This is the third book of a trilogy featuring Moscow detective and secret agent Leo Demidov; the other books are Child 44 and The Secret Speech.

Agent 6 is split into two halves. The first half, set in 1965, recounts a diplomatic school trip from Moscow to the UN which results in political intrigue, assassination and murder. The second half takes place during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980 and the rise of the Mujahadeen. The two halves scarcely talk to one another.

The author writes in small bites, carefully entitled with the place and date, for example 'Soviet-Finnish border, Soviet checkpoint, 760 kilometres NW of Moscow, 240 km NE of Helsinki, New Year's Day 1973'. Some of these sections last only two or three pages. This gives the book a breathless feel which might be mistaken for excitement. It also makes the story rather disjointed. It is, I suppose, a very filmic technique. Each mini story is like an individual frame; together they make the film. But I found it flickered.

A lot of the characters do things and/ or suffer things that are evil and wicked and there is a certain amount of moral perspective offered but a lot of this seems to be told to us rather than the reader being shown the moral vacuums by the actions and dialogues of the characters. The overall feeling is that the plot is in charge of the characters and they are puppets reading their lines, unable to stray from the script.

I think that the author believes that he has given each character a back story and therefore clothed them in reality. The FBI Agent, Jim Yates, has an invalid wife. But somehow that detail doesn't animate Jim. He still does what the plot needs him to whether he would or not. It is as if the author had a box of spare clothes and he fished in the box and randomly picked something to dress his character in. But the character doesn't know what he is wearing.

It was hard work to finish the book and in the en I wondered why I had bothered.

May 2014; 543 pages


Sunday, 18 May 2014

"A Higher Authority" by Barrie Hyde

An anonymous MI5 operative is recruited by 'The Organisation'. After three months at a Kenyan training camp his first mission is as an accounts clerk in Slough working for the UK end of an Italian Marble company.

I very much enjoyed the first part of the book in which the author takes time to build up a picture of the Organisation and its operatives. The hero, who changes identity almost as often as he changes his clothes, is an immediate hit in the Slough Office owing to his success at chasing up bad debts. His life is humdrum, travelling 'cattle class' (from this and a number of other snipes we learn that the author clearly does not enjoy air travel) to meet his girlfriend abroad, being courted by the Jamaican in the flat upstairs, meeting yet another lady in a Slough McDonalds. This mixture of spy with mundane is a hallmark of a number of the very best thrillers: it particularly reminded me of Goldfinger in which Oddjob drives a Ford Popular around Kent at speeds sometimes approaching twenty miles per hour.

Suddenly, things change. Suspected as a snoop, our hero is captured as he spies on the lorries unloading marble; his pretext of collecting more paper for the photocopier is not accepted and he is knocked unconscious to wake in the back of a lorry. Fortunately he can activate the tracking device on his watch (memo to self: if ever I have to kidnap a suspected spy I will strip them naked before tying them up in the back of the lorry). The excitement starts with torture and shootings.

Suddenly, the so far rather ordinary hero was able to cope with watching friends die. Suddenly the rookie operative became one of the brains who led the mission. Suddenly a criminal organisation which had been ludicrously easy to penetrate became just as easy to shut down.

I missed any sense of moral darkness. The hero's girlfriend questions whether the mission is worth the body-count at several points but this is never properly explored. The hero himself bounces back from tragedy in the same way as he recovers from being attacked: he has a bit of a headache but nothing a good night's sleep, a shower and a hearty breakfast won't cure.

You do wonder, and it would be fascinating to read a sequel in which this was explored, whether this emotion-less, identity-less, hero working for a never-named Organisation in a moral vacuum is actually a bit of a psychopath.

The plot is classic thriller and well constructed (although I began to get a little lost as the cast list started mushrooming). It contains the mandatory twist right at the end.

It certainly kept me turning the pages and I read it in just a few hours. May 2014; 216 pages

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

"Nelson" by Carola Oman

This is a traditional biography written in 1947 and marred by the unconscious racism of the time. This aside it is a well written narrative which never stops to interrogate its sources and provides a comprehensive account of the life of its hero. It is clear that to this author he is a hero. She is as discreet as possible about Nelson's jettisoning of a wife in favour of the wife of an older man with whom he lived in a menage a trois. She is clearly annoyed that Nelson was never promoted beyond Vice-Admiral of the White.

I realised two things when reading the book. The first was that most of Nelson's life was very boring. He wasn't at sea that much. He spent long periods when he was at sea cruising without seeing any enemy ships. During his long chase after Villeneuve shortly before Trafalgar h never saw French ships and England was saved by an indecisive action with another Captain (who was subsequently court-martialled). Many of the times that Nelson did see action were disasters or, at best, honourable draws. His reputation rests on three battles: the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Three days in his life. Each battle was a matter of getting up close to the enemy and then fighting as hard as he could. The getting up close was brave and twice involved going through shallows in which he might have run aground, and was tactically clever (going shore side of the Nile ships and using two lines of attack at Trafalgar) but one cannot avoid thinking that Nelson was really rather lucky.

A lot of lives seem to boil down to one or two magic moments.

Well written but rather long-winded. May 2014; 574 pages

Saturday, 3 May 2014

"The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith

I really liked it.

This is detective fiction, pure and simple. A private eye with a complicated background and a dysfunctional private life, not to mention a seedy office and a mountain of debts, is given a last chance in a case that involves a dead super-model, a drugged-up musician, a gangsta rapper, a camp fashion designer and London's high social life. He also has a temporary secretary who proves a more able assistant than could be expected. They trawl through the evidence and all the clues are laid out but you don't know who the murderer is until the final chapter. Classic stuff and very well done.

Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling who, as everybody knows, wrote the Harry Potter books and the Casual Vacancy. For what it's worth, I think this is her best book yet and a very good book indeed.

Far better than the run of the mill whodunnits. It kept me reading voraciously until the final page.

May 2014; 449 pages