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, 31 August 2014

"Boris Godunov" by Ian Grey

This is a narrative biography of Boris Godunov, first minister to Ivan the Terrible and his son Feodor, who was then elected tsar (1598 - 1605) when the Rurikid dynasty came to an end, and was toppled by the first False Dmitri at the start of the Time of Troubles.

This is history as narrative. The tale is very simply told. Many of the principal events have been turned into legend and shrouded in mystery:
Ivan the Terrible kills his eldest son; Boris is badly wounded trying to protect the tsarevich
Feodor's brother Dmitry dies, having stabbed himself during an epileptic seizure or was he assassinated on the orders of Boris or did he escape?
Was the false Dmitry really Dmitry or an ex-monk called Grigory?
Did Boris die naturally or was he poisoned by his enemies?
Nevertheless, Grey gives them a little consideration and then plumps for the common sense explanation.

So this is biography as it used to be and it seems rather bald. Most of it is about Ivan the Terrible and the reign of Feodor and although you can argue that Boris was chief minister during both of these reigns and therefore a very important person, there isn't much actually about him. Less than a third of the book is spent on Boris's reign. I rather felt that Grey wasted an opportunity.

August 2014; 179 pages; nice, short chapters

Sunday, 24 August 2014

"The Player on the Other Side" by Ellery Queen

Four members of the York family live in York Square. Mysterious letters are sent by 'Y' to Walt the handyman giving him precise instructions which result in the death of the Yorks, one by one. Before each death a card is sent to the victim with a mysterious letter printed on it. Who is killing the Yorks and why and can he (or she) be stopped before the next murder?

A classic Ellery Queen whodunnit, contrived and formulaic with superficial characterisation but with a hint of other worldiness that distinguishes it from the standard whodunnit puzzle.

August 2014; 309 pages

Friday, 22 August 2014

"Heartstone" by C.J.Sansom

Matthew Shardlake, hunchbacked lawyer, investigates crimes in the England of Henry VIII. In this book he travels into Hampshire to find out whether a young orphan is being cheated of his inheritance by the man who has bought his wardship. At the same time he tries to discover why Ellen has been committed to Bedlam despite there being no certificate of lunacy: what is the secret buried in her past? All this is set to the background of preparations for Henry VIII's final war against France: the French fleet is off Portsmouth and there are rumours of invasion. The book climaxes with Shardlake on board the Mary Rose as the capsizes.

This is written with all the verve that characterises Sansom's Shardlake series (also see entries on Dissolution and Dark Fire). He is exceptional on describing scenes though sometimes I thought there was a little too much incidental detail in this book and not enough concentration on the plot: the journey down to Hampshire with the company of archers, for example, took several chapters and could have been axed without disruption to the narrative.

Monday, 18 August 2014

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Stephen Inwood

This is the biography of Robert Hooke. Lisa Jardine has also written a rather shorter and slightly more readable biography. Inwood's work is remarkable in that it is so comprehensive . It gives a compelling picture of a man who was driven to dabble in everything and, as a result, completed little.

Robert Hooke needed to earn his living in an era of remarkable scientists. Paying his way through Oxford, he became an assistant to Robert Boyle, building and maintaining the air pumps which led Boyle to Boyle's Law. He became involved with a group of natural philosophers in Oxford and then moved with them to London to become one of the founding members of the Royal Society. Needing an income he became their 'curator' which meant that he had to arrange weekly scientific demonstrations. His remarkable mechanical ability and the all-encompassing nature of his interests meant that he was the mainstay of Royal Society meetings; it may be argued that without Hooke the Society would have fallen away (although the equally remarkable Oldenburg who kept an incredible correspondence going with scientists all over Europe as well as publishing the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, mostly at his own expense, was also a key member).

Hooke was a little bit secretive and always on the look out for a little more money, especially since many of his regular sources of income such as the Gresham College lecture fees and his RS salary were often not paid! Much of what he demonstrated to RS members was unfinished, much of his theoretical work consisted of speculations, often published as anagrams of Latin phrases. As a result he got a reputation for always saying that he could improve on someone else's work (but often failing to deliver because of the pressure of time) or claiming that he had thought of something first. The classic situation was in his priority dispute with Newton over the inverse square law of gravitation. Inwood supplies evidence to suggest that Hooke's hints and suggestions helped Newton (a) think in terms of centripetal forces rather than centrifugal forces and (b) realise that the circular motion of the planets was caused by a combination of their inertia, seeking to continue in a straight line and the centripetal force of gravity. Hooke always claimed that he, rather than Newton, invented the inverse square idea. His early work shows that he was thinking of an inversely proportional force and that it was only later that he became convinced (and loudly tried to convince others) that, like light, gravity obeyed an inverse square relationship. However, by the time he got to this point Newton had almost certainly come to the same idea independently. Importantly, Hooke, the mechanical genius, did not have the mathematical ability to back up his inverse square speculation and he certainly did not have the leisure (or perhaps the ability to concentrate) to devote the two years of focussed effort that Newton put into his magnum opus, the Principia.

Hooke's glories were many. Apart from speculations which covered, in particular, mountain building and evolution (he was by no means afraid of religious unorthodoxy) he is famous for Hooke's Law, for his masterpiece Micrographia, andd for his architecture and surveying work in association with Christopher Wren to help rebuild London after the great fire (there is also a suggestion that he invented the sash window).

This biography is an exhaustive account of a great scientist whose many triumphs deserve to be better known.


Sunday, 10 August 2014

"50 Art ideas you really need to know" by Susie Hodge

This is another book in the '... ideas you really need to know series'. I have found these of mixed value. Some of them have been brilliant, others tedious

My main problem with this title is that it doesn't deliver, for me, what it says in the title. These are 50 art movements, which I think are separate from ideas, and there is an extraordinary emphasis on art movements since 1900. Impressionism, for example, is idea 19 in a chronologically arranged book. I felt that I did not 'really need to know' the intricate details of Colour Field painting and Mexican Mural art; many of these merited a line or at best a paragraph under the heading of Modern art rather than the two page spread each received. In this way of doing things Minmalism, which seems to have lasted a truly minimal seven years, receives the same space as the Early Renaissance (170 years) or Byzantine art (over a thousand years).

I wanted a book that went into art ideas. My needs were best met by the glossary. Why not a two page spread on Perspective, or Chiaroscuro, or Sfumato, or Oil painting? Actually Perspective and Oil painting don't even get into the glossary!

I felt I earnt little of value from this book. August 2014; 203 pages

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

"Strip Jack" by Ian Rankin

An early Inspector Rebus. So far I have only read stories from later in the career of this Edinburgh detective (eg Standing in another man's grave, and The naming of the dead). In these he is weary and cynical, a heavy drinker with a sidekick called DS Siobhan Clarke. But in the early books he is a wise-cracking young man. He drinks but it isn't a theme. He has a girlfriend although he is not sure whether he wants a long term relationship or not. He and all his colleagues keep themselves going with a variety of dreadful puns. There is more idealism than cynicism.

It would be interesting to see where the two versions of Rebus join.

This classic police procedural whodunnit starts with a bang: the police raid a brothel and find an MP; the papers have been tipped off. Then the MP's wife is discovered dead. Suspicion falls on the small group of friends who grew up together including the wife of a film star, a mad murderer locked in an asylum, a second-hand bookseller and the owner of a haulage firm.

Best line of the book: "He didn't make waves exactly, but by Christ he splashed like hell."

A tightly plotted whodunnit which kept me interested throughout. August 2014; 279 pages

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

"Dark fire" by C. J. Sansom

This is the second of Sansom's Shardlake novels; it follows Dissolution.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer practising in Tudor London. He has to defend a young girl accused of pushing her half brother down a well. To gain time on this case, he agrees to investigate an alchemist who claims to have discovered the secrets behind Greek Fire, a flame that burns on water and could be used in naval battles. Murders follow.

This is a fun romp through the London to the background of Henry VIII's marriage problems with Ann of Cleves and the impending fall of Shardlake's boss, Thomas Cromwell. The best character is the bully-boy side-kick, Jack Barak, a grown-up street urchin of Jewish descent. Hunchbacked Shardlake is also interesting but the other characters do not convince. The plot is not the tightest example of the whodunnit genre but it certainly keeps you reading along. The scenery is interesting and there is a thriller element. But the puzzle fails to convince.

OK. I'll read the next one!

August 2014; 576 pages

Also see reviews of other Shardlake novels Dissolution and Heartstone.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

"The ways of the world" by Robert Goddard

I used to be a massive Robert Goddard fan. His tightly constructed novels usually featured a whodunnit element based on something that had happened a long time n the past. But recently he seems to be missing his form. I have been disappointed to some extent with Fault Line, Blood Count, Long Time Coming, and Found Wanting.

This book is set in Paris in 1919 but all events are more or less contemporary to that. Fearless WWI flying ace James 'Max' Maxted searches for the reasons for his diplomat father's murder in the context of the Versailles Conference that would shape Europe in between the wars. There are intrigues relating to a Russian monarchist group, a stolen box of Chinese secrets, a French traitor and a German masterspy. Somewhere in this mix is a set of Sumerian seals and an Arab cat burglar nicknamed Le Singe.

Despite such promising ingredients this fails to create a classic Goddard dish. The hero  is far from the usual down-at-heel reluctant protagonist of most of Goddard's fiction. Rather, he is an ersatz James Bond who never really becomes interesting. And none of the mysteries deliver. By the end of the book I was unconvinced that the accepted reason for Sir Henry Maxted's death was the real reason, I had no idea why Le Singe was doing what he was doing, I was sure the Sumerian seals must have some part to play but they hadn't, the French traitor hadn't been adequately explored at all, and the Russian monarchist group and the box of Chinese secrets were similarly left dangling. In short, very few of the ends had been tied up satisfactorily.

Ah, but, this is the first of a trilogy of novels. Perhaps these threads (why 'Farngold') will be  picked up in the next book. Maybe, but I'm not sure if I can be bothered to read it.

August 2014; 525 pages


Friday, 1 August 2014

"How Proust can change your life" by Alain de Botton

This is a quirky self-help book from the French philosopher. It is based on Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, a long-winded novel in seven volumes which is one of those 'works of genius' which very few people have actually read. I haven't. Yet.

De Botton's nine essays in this book include 'How to take your time' and 'How to read for yourself'; he bases each theme on Proust's life and work. For example, in 'How to suffer successfully' de Botton points out that Proust was a long-term invalid, perhaps a hypochondriac, who used his hyper-sensitivity to empathise with and understand his characters. We all suffer, says de Botton, we all have our little aches or disappointments, we all have moments of regret or loss. The secret is to be sufficiently sensitive to our suffering, not to let it incapacitate us but to use it to gain insight into our common humanity.

In 'How to open your eyes' de Botton describes how Proust uses an imaginary impressionist to show his narrator that you can see beauty in everyday modern objects as well as in traditional romantic things. De Botton  doesn't deny that some things may be ugly, or we may perceive some things as more beautiful than others but, he says. if we have preconceptions as to what is beautiful we will wear blinkers and our lives will be more limited than they need to be.

This is a beautiful little book with a lot of important philosophy. It also shows how Proust writer characters in depth (though at the expense of brevity!). I must read the master work sometime.