About Me

My photo
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

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

"Lolito" by Ben Brooks

A fifteen year old boy, Etgar, discovers that his girlfriend has had sex with another boy. Confused and home alone he enters an adult chat room on the internet and hooks up with Macy, an older woman. Cyber sex leads to the real thing.

On the one hand I found this a page turner. I wanted to know what happened.

On the other hand I found it very difficult to read. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time. I can cope with that. But Etgar's inner dialogue is very confused. I think the author is trying to recapture the confusion and chaos of all our thought processes but particularly that of a fifteen year old boy. On the one hand Etgar seems extraordinarily naive. He surfs the internet for porn, he drinks and smokes and goes to house parties, but he doesn't know whether he should fight the boy who had sex with his girl and when he tries he makes a complete mess of it. He and his friend Aslam use street slang but often say the wrong thing. Perhaps this mixture of adulthood and childhood is deliberate; the author is trying to demonstrate the confusing liminality of puberty. Etgar is convinced he looks like a child but he has no difficulty buying alcohol with his fake id; perhaps again the author is telling us that he does look like a man and it is only Etgar's self-image problems that make him think he doesn't. Perhaps this is why Macy gets lured into having sex with Etgar even though his lies about being a mortgage broker as so transparent. Perhaps. But while I think I know what the authro is attempting (and applaud the attempt) I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief. And, given the revelations later in the book, Etgar's naivete simply did not work for me. Had he been naive and had to grow up very quickly I could have (possibly) credited it. But the time plan of the book suggested that he should have grown up at least a year before the events started.

An ambitious attempt to enter into the mind of a a modern teen but in the end I felt it lacked credibility.

January 2015; 276 pages

Saturday, 24 January 2015

"The Simpsons and their mathematical secrets" by Simon Singh

The script writing team of the hit US cartoon series The Simpsons includes a surprising number of mathematicians; they have degrees, post-graduate degrees and in some cases they have even published original research. Perhaps because of this, they have made it their mission to sneak mathematical jokes into the cartoons; often on the basis that there is no harm adding in extra jokes that only a very small percentage of the population will understand. This can be as simple as choosing three numbers for a display board which, rather than being random numbers, are a Mersenne prime, a perfect number and a narcissistic number.

This book not only exposes the secrets but also goes into the history and the maths behind the numbers and has pages of mathematical jokes. (There is also a section at the back about the maths (and sometimes the physics) of the spin-off animation Futurama; this felt a bit like padding because there is no hint on the front cover or the title page that Singh is going to include another show.)

My favourite mathematical joke from the book: There are 10 types of people in the world; those who understand binary and those who don't.

My favourite fact that I didn't know before: in 1979 an upper limit was calculated for the number of flips you would need in the worst case scenario to make a randomised pile of pancakes into one that was perfectly ordered such that the biggest pancake is on the bottom of the pile. This number was calculated in a paper co-authored by William Gates who went on to found Microsoft.

But then the book made me angry. Why do we live in a society that spurns the beauty of mathematics and assumes mathematicians are weirdos while soccer players are heroes. As Singh points out: Keats claimed that if you "unweave the rainbow" you will somehow destroy its beauty but Feynman replied that a mathematician or a scientist can appreciate the surface beauty of a flower whilst at the same time appreciating the underlying beauty of the biology and the ecology and the biochemistry that makes that flower. So scientists see more beauty than non-scientists.

So I would like to make a start to reclaim poetry for the geeks by proposing that Euler's equation:

has the transcendent beauty equal to (or even transcending) any haiku. The very idea of e or of i are as stunning as a rainbow!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

"Dead Reckoning" by Caitlin Rother

True crime: in a plan masterminded by his wife Jennifer, ex-child actor Skylar Deleon and two accomplices board a boat, force the retired couple who own and sail it to give them power of attorney over all their assets, and then tie them to the anchor and dump them overboard.

This is a classic of American journalism. Obsessive about detailing every single character in the drama, we know the religious convictions of the detectives and the military background of the judge. I adore this sort of reportage. My favourite example is probably All the President's Men, the Bernstein and Woodward classic about Watergate, in which we learn what the reporters eat when they meet with the owner of the Washington Post. This captures a real flavour of my (probably inaccurate) perspective of what it is to be a citizen of the USA: churches and food and money and health and things and things and things.

And this does seem scary. Life in the beautiful state of California does seem to be a perpetual struggle. Honest people seem to work so hard (often at more than one job) for very little pay. Medical bills can easily tip them over the edge. Skylar and Jennifer wanted the good life so they rapidly ran up credit card bills and took out loans from banks and family members which they had no hope whatsoever of repaying. At the same time, it was easy to earn tens of thousands of dollars from drugs or by persuading the gullible to part with inheritances and savings as 'investments' (and then to kill them.

And violence is never very far away. When Skylar needs some muscle for his murderous plot he arranges it through a contact. He meets the muscle (a gang member bizarrely named John F Kennedy who is studying to become a pastor) in a car park and persuades him there and then to join in. The man gets $1300. The notary who illegally notarizes the power of attorneys gets more (she is a sad case of a woman who knows she is doing something dodgy but is tempted by the bucks well over her head).

When you think about it, this is a deeply disturbing portrait of a society in which a prosperous elite is perpetually threatened by a dysfunctional underclass.

Most of these criminals are weak and stupid. Alonso is a poorly paid prison guard who falls under the influence of Skylar. He then vacillates between working all hours for good money and working long hours for poor money. Finally he joins Skylar on the boat on the fateful day. Sickened by what has happened, he runs away to Mexico but then voluntarily returns to testify, for which he gets a reduced sentence of twenty years.

But you cannot believe that Skylar and Jennifer ever thought they would get away with the crime. They used their cell phones to talk to one another throughout the day and the cell phone masts tracked where Skylar was. The power of attorney plan was botched and almost deliberately designed to throw suspicion on these two to whom, apparently, the victims had given complete control over their finances.

Incredible! But a rattling good read. January 2015; 474 pages

Monday, 19 January 2015

"The Saint on guard" by Leslie Charteris

I used to love the Saint. Simon Templar, the scourge of the underworld, who takes the law into his own hands to punish the ungodly, is the world's most debonair hero/ villain. He easily out-Bonds James Bond. His style and ready wit have enabled him to tweak the tails of law enforcement officers throughout the world, despite leaving a trail of dead baddies.

I thought I'd read the entire corpus when I was a kid but here were two stories I had missed. They show the Saint operating in the USA during the war, working on behalf of the good guys to track down spies and saboteurs. One of the unusual aspects of Saint stories is that they are almost always of novella length so that you get two or three adventures in a book.

This is Simon Templar at his exquisite best. Great fun; not very heavy.

January 2015; 253 pages

Saturday, 17 January 2015

"The corpse on the court" by Simon Brett

Another well-written murder mystery in the classic style from prolific and versatile author Simon Brett who has also written Blood at the Bookies and Bones Under the Beach Hut (which also feature amateur lady sleuths uptight Carole Seddon and fat and sexy Jude), the Charles Paris theatrical whodunnits such as A Decent Interval, and Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera.

Jude's new boyfriend, Piers, is a fan of real tennis. At a tournament, fat Reggie almost has a heart attack. Some days later, Jude arranges to meet Piers at the isolated court for an early morning lesson and they find Reggie, dead.

Meanwhile, Carole is investigating the local unsolved Lady in the Lake mystery.

A classic whodunnit results.

January 2015; 217 pages

Friday, 16 January 2015

"Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera" by Simon Brett

This is a murder mystery in an extravagantly Wodehousian style.

Blotto, utterly dim second son of the Duke of Tawcester ("though Blotto had for some years been manfully working his way through The Hand of Fu Manchu, literature had never played a major part in his life") and his brainy sister Twinks investigate the theft of two of their family portraits. Forget the story. Enjoy the humour.

They talk in outrageous flapper slang. Exclamations include Toad-in-the-Hole, Broken biscuits and Larksissiums. If you are glum you are said to have lumps in your custard. And the thieves are four-faced filchers, or stenchers. Blotto persistently misunderstands everything. When told that some people have pictures on their walls that are reproductions he thinks these must be pictures of people reproducing. When a French painter exclaims "Salaud!" he assumes this is French for "Allo" so he replies "Hello" (this is a repeated gag). When Twinks is flattered that someone has written her a poem, she is his muse, Blotto thinks she is a stable block.

The names are delightful. The two French painters who compete to do works of triangulisme and how sick they are of consumption are called Blocque and Tacquel. The two American writers who compete in drinking are called Chuck Waggen and Scott Frea. Even the minor characters are brilliant. Every French waiter discusses philosophy. There is a silent film star of breath-taking stupidity who is surprised that her lips are red when they are always black in the movies and reasons that is because you always see movies in darkened rooms. (She is also in France to find her ancestors even though her French name is only a stage name and she is actually the daughter of American hog farmers.) English writer Westomoreland Hubely attempts a gay seduction of Blotto but Blotto has no idea what he is talking about.

Brilliantly funny. Who cares about the plot.

By the prolific author of the Fethering mysteries including The Corpse on the Court and Blood at the Bookies and Bones under the Beach Hut and the Charles Paris theatrical whodunnits such as A Decent Interval. 

January 2015; 200 pages

Thursday, 15 January 2015

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan

The life story of Dorrigo Evans, youngest child of a railwayman living on a smallholding in Tasmania who grows up to become a surgeon, the commanding officer of Australian Prisoners of War slaving for the Japanese on the Death Railway. It tells in graphic detail of the suffering of the starving men as they toil to build a railway in the jungle. It tells of his love, his marriage and his infidelities and the difficulty he and the other PoWs faced when they returned home. We find out what happened to the Japanese and Koreans who guarded them and treated them brutally. Some lives end quickly and some live for a long time but in the end we all live, we suffer, we love and we die.

And through it all men are helped to survive by art. Dorrigo learns poems by heart; he favours the classics: Homer and Catullus. The Japanese quote haikus. Early on, Dorrigo reads about a Japanese poet whose death poem was a simple circle. Is life a cycle or is it a line like the railway: the narrow road to the deep north.

This is a remarkable book. I toiled at first. It jumps around, flashing forward and backwards, sometimes swapping to the perspective of different characters. Right from the start there is a hint of a master at work in the fresh descriptions: page 4 has "verandah-browed wooden cottages". And the mixture of Dorrigo's beautiful, if adulterous, love affair and the horrors of the jungle makes one read on. But the book rreally took me towards the end, when it detailed the inabilities of so many of the survivors to find peace when they got home. Then it ends in great drama, with a most unexpected twist and a tremendous bush fire.

By the end I knew that I had been reading a masterpiece. And I suspect that it has taught me something important about life and survival and love and suffering and death.

January 2015; 448 pages

This book won the 2014 Booker Prize. Other Booker winners in this blog include Hilary Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Vernon God Little, and Possession by A S Byatt

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"Rugby's Strangest Matches" by John Griffiths

A couple of own goals, some refereeing errors, some surprise victories, great starts and disappointing end. One or two incidents that you could call strange but otherwise you need to be a big aficionado of rugby to be interested in this book.

I'm not. I was bored.

January 2015; 166 pages

Sunday, 11 January 2015

"Alan Turing: the Enigma" by Andrew Hodges

This is a very thorough, indeed exhaustive, biography of Alan Turing and his ideas. It is the book that has been filmed as the Imitation Game

Turing (most people apart from 'Alan' and his closest associates are referred to either by their surnames or by their initials and surnames like a cricket card) was not a particularly distinguished school boy who had a particular love for Maths but took two goes to get a scholarship to Cambridge. He seemed to go from zero to infinity as an undergraduate and before his doctorate published his ground breaking work on the Universal Turing Machine. Then he was recruited to code breaking and solved the secrets of the naval Enigma machine so saving Britain's convoyed food supplies (and many thousands of sailors) during the Battle of the Atlantic. But after the war he failed to have much of an impact on the birth of the primitive computers despite working at the NPL (where he met my father) on the ACE and at Manchester University. He wrote a truly ground-breaking paper on morphology but this was mostly unrecognised at the time. Then he was arrested and convicted of homosexuality and forced to undergo hormone therapy as an alternative to prison. Some time after that ended he died from cyanide poisoning.

This is a difficult biography to write. Turning's work was in the hardest bits of mathematics and logic and I found the explanations hard to understand. (And I think I might have a small edge of a general reader, having taught Physics for 33 years.) There is much that is mysterious. His wartime work was under conditions of the strictest secrecy but so was his sex life (being criminal at that time) and so was his death (was it suicide? if so, why? - he left no note - or was it an an accident? or was he, as the conspiracy theorists suggest, murdered by the security services who in the height of the Cold War were frightened that this gay man might spill wartime secrets?). Hodges has done well to tell us as much as he has.

But there was an awful lot of speculation. Hodges tends to assume that Turing's scientific ideas mostly come from a text book he had as a child; there are many quotes from it. Other major influences are a book by Eddington and Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw. There is a lot of talk about Red Queens and White Queens and chess problems and Alice Through the Looking Glass. But there seems little evidence for most of this.

I think this book would have benefited from a severe pruning. Although the book leaps over the last year of his life and dismisses non-suicide theories of his death, it then spends 50 pages discussing the invidious position of homosexuals in Cold War Britain. There is an awful lot of detail on the early days of computing in Britain. It could have been shorter and tighter and this would have been better.

And it really isn't for the general reader.

January 2015; 656 pages

Monday, 5 January 2015

"Complexity: A very short introduction" by John H Holland

It was always going to be difficult to express a difficult new science in 90 pages. Mostly, Holland succeeds. There are moments when he repeats himself, especially using the same examples more than once, which is obvious in such a short book. There are moments when he seems to spend too much space explaining a relatively concept and then compresses something more difficult. I was left high and dry when he claimed that there were 40,320 distinct arrangements of 5 balls having 2 colours in 3 locations (and he then said the maths was simple but tedious and he wouldn't give it so I don't know how he got it because I didn't get it!). More seriously, there were bits that didn't quite work. For example, on page 8 he discusses von Neumann's cellular automaton and claims that it is capable of reproduction; he refers to figure 1. Figure 1 is on page 9 and is entitled Laws ('Game of Life'). This shows a snapshot of the Game of Life created by the uncredited John Conway; worse, it shows the pattern known as a glider which 'moves' across the screen. There are patterns the 'breed' gliders but these aren't shown. On page 67 he offers 9 pictures of patterns of urns you can get if you move one ball from the starting position, but one finishing position is the same as the start.

Despite these little niggles, Holland managed to explain complex systems in terms that I could mostly understand using Maths that I was happy with. But I teach Physics. I don't think this is for the general reader. And I would have liked a little more explanation of some of the more difficult ideas.

An easier to read introduction to some of these ideas is John Gribbin's Deep Simplicity.

Holland also wrote Emergence: from chaos to order.

Friday, 2 January 2015

"The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club" by Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers was published as a monthly serial over twenty months starting in 1836. Only twenty five years separate it from the first of Jane Austen's books but what a huge chasm there is between the two of them. Austen's neat little comedies of manners are rooted in Georgian society; servants and tradesmen are all but invisible. Pickwick, though straddling the accession of Victoria and set in a world before railways, is belly laughs rather than titters. It is vulgarly comic and it celebrates the underclass of servants and innkeepers and coachmen and the great unwashed. It must have burst upon the reading public like a sudden sunrise.

It is highly picaresque; it rambles. The periodical nature of its publication is inherent within the narrative. In the first instalment we are introduced to the main characters including comic villain Mr Jingle who speaks in staccato bursts. Before the end of the first instalment there has been a duel following a case of mistaken identity. (There is a clear streak of farce throughout the novel: at one stage Pickwick ends up in a lady's bedroom by mistake.) From time to time Dickens interrupts the narrative with little short stories, including two ghost stories. The initial emphasis is on Mr Winkle who has a great reputation as a sportsman which is repeatedly shown to be false (out shooting he clearly does not know how to hold a gun and manages to wing one of his friends). But after Jingle's elopement with the spinster aunt fancied by Mr Tupman we meet Sam Weller who becomes the classic cockney servant extricating his rather naive but determined master out of the scrapes that Pickwick lands himself in.

Presumably one of the reasons why the characters get into so much trouble is the enormous amounts of alcohol they drink. Even the temperance preacher gets drunk; Pickwick is regularly inebriated and many other characters spend much of their time sloshed.

Later Dickens presages some of the great themes from his other novels. He savagely satirises the law which he would return to in Bleak House. Pickwick is locked up in a debtors' prison; he would revisit this in Little Dorrit.

Such a huge book with such a loose structure is bound to have points where the action drags or the coherence disappears but on the whole Pickwick is a joy to read. January 2015; 798 pages