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

Sunday, 22 June 2014

"The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith

This is the second Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith who is better known as J K Rowling. It is better than The Cuckoo's Calling, which was good. This is a very good detective novel indeed.

The usual cast of characters are here, resolving their issues with one another and with their partners. Private Eye Strike investigates a missing author who he soon finds murdered in horrific circumstances which appear strikingly similar to the ending of his latest unpublished novel which appears to viciously attack a wide section of London's literary world. Every chapter heading has quotes from Jacobean tragedies and a one-legged detective limping painfully around a snow-bound London in pursuit of a crazed killer seems to fit the bill perfectly.

Despite the flamboyance of the scenery, Galbraith keeps reality firmly in mind. I started wincing every time Strike's prosthesis rubbed or he had to limp down a snow-covered street concentrating hard on not slipping. When he interrogates a witness over lunch he worries about the size of the bill; he tries taking the tube rather than taxis despite his damaged knee. Locations are accurately described, from exclusive clubs to pubs to tower blocks. Characters are sympathetically portrayed: they function in the plot but each one has a set of strengths and weaknesses and longings and disgusts.

Whodunnit? Clues are scattered through the narrative with care, red herrings are equally dispersed. I nearly got it.

Well written and a real page turner; I didn't really want to go to bed last night. June 2014; 455 pages

Thursday, 19 June 2014

"Willie Watson" by Frank Garrick

This is "a biography of England's most successful double international" who won 4 caps for England's Soccer team and 23 caps for England's cricket team and who must be the only person ever to have been to a soccer World Cup finals (although he never played because England were sent home after the first round) and on an Ashes tour of Australia.

I found the endless sporting statistics a little mind-numbing (I am not a great fan of sports) but I was intrigued by the picture Garrick built up of the life of a professional sportsman before the era of big money. Willie Watson combined professional soccer (mostly for Sunderland) in the winter with professional cricket (mostly for Yorkshire) in the summer; both clubs were very understanding when seasons overlapped and when international duties called. But he also ran a sports' outfitters business with his brother and a chicken farm with his wife. He was miffed when his World Cup tour netted him only £60 when a season playing cricket for Yorkshire would have earned him £300. His biggest source of income was a Yorkshire benefit season.

It was also interesting to learn about life at the bottom. Willie Watson rarely brought luck to his teams. Sunderland tended to bumble around the lower half of the First Division (now the Premiership) and Yorkshire around the lower half of the County Championship. When he moved to Leicestershire they had a spell at the bottom of the Championship; when he became a football manager of Halifax Town they had to apply for re-election to the league. Whilst he played soccer for England the team suffered its most humiliating 1-0 defeat to USA in Rio and his test cricket career was mostly draws and losses. His greatest achievements were gritty defences of losing positions, scoring incredibly slowly but staying at the wicket. Moreover, the clubs he played for had repeated financial crises. There was little glamour in this sporting superstar's career.

The book is well written and, despite the parade of depressing results, mostly held my interest. I would have liked to know a little it more about his life away from the pitch but I imagine that sporting fans would not. Although I had never heard of Willie Watson before, there are a huge number of sporting giants in this book from Stanley Matthews to Ian Botham. So, if you are interested in the history of soccer or cricket, I recommend this book.

June 2014; 229 pages

Sunday, 15 June 2014

"The Farm" by Tom Rob Smith

This is a new book by the author of the Leo Demidov trilogy: Child 44, The Secret Speech, and Agent 6.

Daniel's parents have retired to a remote farm in Sweden. One day his father phones him claiming that his mother is mentally ill. Then his mother arrives in London, claiming that his father is a co-conspirator in a series of unspecified crimes. Then his father arrives in London in pursuit. Daniel must listen to his mother's story, consider her evidence and decide whether to believe her and go to the police, or to believe his father and take his mother to a mental hospital.

This is a brilliant conception. Daniel's mother slowly narrates the chain of events that led her to her conclusions. This keeps you reading because of the many hints of dreadful things. Many of the things that happened to Daniel's mum (Tilde) in her summer on the farm are humdrum and even the way she interprets them is modest. It is sometimes difficult to see how such wild theories are being built of such mundane evidence. And how is it all connected with the events that led Tilde to run away from her Swedish farm and father back in 1963?

This has all the potential of being a brilliant story and the author tells it well. But the characters are insufficiently realised (much mention is made of Daniel's partner Mark and the hidden gay relationship but not a lot is made out of it) and the sense of menace struggles with the ordinary character of what is being described. This might turn into a brilliant film because the intensity of the narrative frame being in a hotel room in Docklands but the book fails to pull it off. Even the climax is a disappointment.

Because of the claustrophobia inherent in Daniel's dilemma, choosing between a possibly mad mother and a possibly criminal father, I wanted a story with the intensity of grand opera. It rather wimped out on that.

June 2014; 351 pages

Thursday, 12 June 2014

"The Sun King" by Nancy Mitford

This is the biography of Louis XIV of France who reigned for 72 years from the age of five and was succeeded by his great-grandson, after three Dauphins died, one after another, in 11 months.

What is unusual in this biography is that Mitford only mentions the momentous historical events that took place during his reign, such as the Fronde and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the War of Spanish Succession, as background to the court life of Versailles. We learn far more about the Sun Kings shifting mistresses and the parade of noblemen through court than we do about the politics of the time. This is a fascinating perspective on history and may indeed reflect the way the king viewed the world through the ritual of courtly life but I found it confusing: there were so many monsieurs and monseigneurs and madame la duchesses and monsieur le ducs. It was also frustrating to have tantalising glimpses of the world outside the palace and never to have anything explained. This was the world of the Musketeers and I have never quite understood about Richelieu and Mazarin and Fouquet and the Huguenots. This book shed no further light on these mysteries of the French.

There were a lot of wonderfully romantic moments. At one stage hundreds of French minor nobility are imprisoned secretly and in solitary using lettres de cachet because they are caught up in a poisoning plot and might, just might, reveal that one of the King's mistresses, Madame de Montespan, was a prime poisoner. Shades of the Man in the Iron Mask (and on almost the last page Mitford claims that on his deathbed Louis told his nephew the Duc d'Orleans who was to be regent to the five year old Louis XV, the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask and that only two other people (Louis XV and Louis XVI) ever knew it (so Mitford obviously can't reveal it)). Louis also romantically married Marie de Maintenon as a second wife secretly and was more or less faithful to her until his death.

So there are some interesting moments but I was disappointed not to learn a lot more about this fascinating reign. June 2014; 242 pages

Friday, 6 June 2014

"The Peculiar case of the Electric Constable" by Carol Baxter

John Tawell was a wannabe Quaker who had been transported to Sydney for forgery, made his fortune, and returned to become a respectable citizen. Except he had a mistress and two illegitimate children whom he kept at Salt Hill near Slough. When she died horribly, shortly after he was seen to leave her house, he was arrested for murder (thanks to the new invention of the telegraph which could travel faster than the train from Slough to Paddington). This is the tale of the investigation and trial.

It is brilliantly written. Baxter uses all the original source material and then reconstructs them into a narrative. After the initial excitement of the crime and the chase she dives back into Tawell's life and the original crime which led to transportation. We find out about conditions in New South Wales during the convict era. Then we follow the investigation and the details of toxicology tests in the earliest days of forensic science. There follows a courtroom drama. Baxter writes fluently and with clarity and the pace never stops.

A great example of the genre. June 2014; 349 pages

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

"Leviathan" by David Scott

This is a history of England from the Battle of Bosworth which ended the Wars of the Roses and inaugurated the Tudor dynasty in 1485 to the Peace of Paris which ended the American War of Independence in 1783. It therefore charts the rise of Britain from a state riven with internal dissension to the pre-eminent world power. Scott's case seems to be that this was largely the product of luck. England happened to go Protestant because Henry VIII wanted a male heir. The delicate bloom of Protestantism managed to survive because Mary Tudor died young and Elizabeth survived and the Armada failed. Nevertheless, England tore itself apart again in the Stuart Civil Wars and still somehow managed to survive.

And this is where I found Scott's arguments rather weak. It seems to me that Britain had a significant underlying strength, a resilience, which enabled it repeatedly to bounce back. Fundamentally, despite the fact that the monarch was always strapped for cash (except for Henry VIII who extravagantly wasted not only the secure finances bequeathed to him by his father but also the windfall from the Dissolution of the Monasteries), the country seems to have kept wealthy.

The Dutch Republic was the model: it too was wealthy because of trade and because of innovative financial systems such as Banks and joint-stock companies and its wealth enabled it to survive the seventy year rebellion against the much more powerful Spanish and Hapsburgs combined.

Whilst England and Holland were prospering, Spain with all the wealth it looted from the Americas was lurching from bankruptcy to bankruptcy and the dominant militarism of Louis XIV's France bequeathed an equally debt-ridden crown to his successors. But England, although never being a land power, bankrolled troops across the continent, paid for a Navy and (crucially) the on-shore infrastructure to support it, and still made increasing profits from trade.

In summary, despite Scott's apparent attempt to debunk the Whig view of history, he left me thinking that it cannot have been solely luck that saw Britain's rise. Instead, I would suggest, the clearing out of old orders inherent in both the Monastic reforms of Henry VIII and the Cromwellian Republic, and the growth of Protestantism hand-in-hand with literacy led to a social structure in England that was able to innovate, progress and prosper.

This book never really surmounted its essential problem which was that as a history of nearly three hundred years it was spread too thinly. At the same time it was often slow. I found it mostly heavy going.

June 2014; 465 pages