Sunday, 29 December 2013

Meek J The heart broke in

Dreadful title! It comes midway through the book in an odd little anecdote. Neither anecdote not title work for me. Get past that: it's a book worth reading. But set aside a few weeks. It's a hefty commitment. If I were this book's editor it would lose none if its length and complexity. But it would have a new title. I'd call it: A Moral Foundation. That's better. If publishing houses want exclusive rights to  my natural talents feel free to get in touch. Money talks.

What's the book about? It's about morality (hence: better title). There is much immorality in this book. It's also about family, love, and posterity. Please note: this book contains scientists doing science. They are also portrayed as people, with lives and everything. How novel!

First line
The story doing the rounds at Ritchie Shepherd's production company was accurate when it appeared inside the staff's heads, when they hardly sensed it, let alone spoke it.
last line
After all, had her father fought his way back to her, she wouldn't have begrudged him the longing for his own freedom, the longing to feel the wind and sun on his own skin again, if only it  had helped him get home.

Barry B The lace reader

***As endorsed by the Daily Express***

Do not be put off by the company this book keeps, or by the dreadfully written blurb. It's not disposable crap about the supernatural. It's a very readable, but thoughtful, novel of women and lives torn apart by male violence. Several of the characters are broken, but there's hope.

I really enjoyed reading this one. I also learned something of the geography and history of Salem and its coastline: a town we all 'know' and which is a distinct character of the book.


First line:
My name is Towner Whiney. No, that's not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time.

Last line:
The words I say back to her are the same words she said to me that day so long ago: The spell is broken. You are free.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Scott Card O, Ender's Game

Picked this up on impulse in the library, after hearing lots about the current film that, let's face it, I'll probably not bother going to see. An odd little novel, where the threat of global destruction makes an all powerful government reliant on the abilities of children. Ender is six when his adventures start. You can't tell from the characterisation,  so occasionally the author clunkily reminds you.

Readable. Disposable.

First line
I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get.
last line (spoilerish, but this book is nearly as old as I am, so fair game, I reckon)
 And always Ender carried with him a dry white cocoon, looking for the world where the hive-queen could awaken and thrive in peace. He looked a long time.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Block L 2008 Hit and run

Our hero is a hit man on the verge of retirement. This is from the 'one last job' genre. It's a hell of a read, and if life hadn't intervened Id have read it in one sitting. It's very much a - What Happens Next? I must know! - type of book.

On reflection though, there are questions to be asked about the love interest. Appearing about a third of the way through the book this sensible, kind, middle aged teacher / carer is a bit too accepting of her mister's habit of shooting strangers for money. Seriously? She's very decent. Not one wobble about shacking up with a mass murderer? No concerns at all about moving in with a mobster? Perhaps my standards are higher than most women's, but Id like to think that this is a back-story that would make me think quite hard about a new boyfriend.

Fun read.

First line
Keller drew his pair of tongs from his breast pocket and carefully lifted a stamp from its glassine envelope.

Last line:
"Bifocals, and I have to tell you I can see the improvement when I work on my stamps"
"Well," she said, "that's important."

Monday, 4 November 2013

Rusch KK 2004 Consequences: A Retrieval Artist novel

I like this series, which is good because there are plenty of them and they're dirt cheap on Kindle. There have been some after-midnight impulse buys when I've finished one book and need to carry on reading. Once upon a time I fought the e-reader thing...

The premise is fascinating. In a universe where many alien cultures are interacting with each other whose morals, and whose justice system prevails? Rusch's answer is that justice is relative, and her protagonist Miles Flint struggles hard with the morality of that.

Flint is obscenely super-wealthy. That's unusual in a detective story. Everything else about him, though, follows detective-story expectations: he's an ex-cop; he's got a prickly relationship with a cop in high places upon which a plot point will turn; he's a computer genius and hacks something unhackable regularly; he has a Tragic Back Story and is Damaged (but not irreparably). I sound sarcastic and I'm not: I have a real love of Rusch's writing. The books are fun, the plots are internally consistent and satisfying things happen at the end. Also - aliens!

First line:
Kovacs huddled against the edge of the crevasse. Below him, the massive rip in the glacier extended several hundred meters, narrowing as it deepened. He had no idea how deep the crevasse was, but he knew that a fall would kill him.
Last line:
Unquotable. Despite the aliens these are private eye stories. The last line is always a spoiler.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Empire & enlightenment

The Enlightenment is a search for an objective, universal understanding of the world, not driven by divinity. The systemic search for knowledge starts in the eighteenth century.

"Thinking like a global historian is considering connections", says Prof, who takes his time talking about tea in the mid 1700s. Why? Because tea houses became meeting places for gentlemen of leisure, who use the public sphere to think about politics and science and feed their radical thinking with caffeine and sugar. Just like we do today.

Here's a fact I should've known. Captain James Cook - Mr Science - died in Hawaii after locals thought  that actually they wouldn't like to be collected and shipped back to England. These specimens fought back.

Oo! OO!! Prof mentions women. Imagine that! He talks about the Wealth of Nations and says the relations between men and women "are going to be an important part of the story". Of course I acknowledge that for much of history and in much of the world 'people' were men and women weren't considered as a category. But hey, we're modern historians. We can analyse the past using categories - like gender - that maybe our ancestors didn't use. I am excited! Women are going to be part of the story! An important part! Let's find out more...

Mary Wollstonecraft - women are creatures of reason too. If the newly proclaimed laws of Enlightenment thinking don't apply to women then - d'oh! - they are not objective and universal. Atta girl.

Sadly, today that was all we had to learn about women. Prof moves onto the way the Enlightenment created categorisations of race, and shows us Casta Paintings: images of mixed race couples with their children. At least, that's what he sees. I see European men with native women (Indian, Mexican, Moorish, African) and their children. I don't see paintings of Native men with European women. I don't hear any discussion of power and priviledge. Prof, I know you're not a sociologist, but seriously mate this is beginners observation. You can do better than this.

Two important eighteenth century books I've never read and probably never will.

  • Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations 
  • Mary Wollstonecraft - A Vindication of the Rights of Women. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Richard Parkes Bonnington 1802 - 1828

Poor Richard. Died aged just 25 from TB, with the first 16 years of his life spent in Arnold, Notts. Luckily, after moving to Paris in 1818 (where Dad used Nottingham-know-how to set up a lace factory) Richard discovered Travel and went off to see, and paint, the sights of Europe.

If you know anything about nineteenth century French art history then you'll be impressed by the impressiveness of Richard's tutors, peers and pals. I know very little about this, so I'm assuming Wikipedia has got this right. The National Gallery - which definately knows - says:
Bonington was one of the most important artists of the early nineteenth century, vital to the understanding of French and British art of the Romantic period. His range included history and subject paintings, and landscapes, highly-finished works and sketches, all imbued with a brilliance and sureness of touch which was greatly admired both during and after his lifetime.
So there! Arnold boy made good.

Where did this information come from? The National Gallery and the great BBC website 'Your paintings'

Friday, 18 October 2013

Watson Fothergill, architect (1841 - 1928)

His Mum was Mary Ann Fothergill. His Dad was Robert Watson. They called their baby Fothergill Watson but in a fit of proto-feminism(?) he swapped things round; renaming himself  Watson Fothergill in 1892. What's the psychology of that then? Dad had died in 1853 when young FW was 12. He started his professional practice in 1862, aged 21. And then - aged 51 - he changes his name. Odd. I suppose there were no flash cars with which to express a mid life crisis in Victorian England.

Fothergill married into beer - Anne Hage his wife was daughter of one of the three founders of Mansfield Brewery. They marry in 1867 and have seven children. The boys die young and childless; making his decision to adopt his Mum's family name sadly ineffectual.

Anne dies in 1922 - a 55 year marriage. Fothergill is buried in Castle Rock cemetery - an odd little monument that I've walked past and not noticed. When I'm next there, I'll check to see if the wife and kids are in nearby plots.

Clawson Lodge, now the Ukranian Centre
Fothergill's architecture is impressive, if you like the Victorian gothic look. Over 100 distinctive Fothergill buildings in the city and a few in the county. Sadly, Nottingham's redevelopment in the 1970s was thoughtlessly disrespectful and many buildings were destroyed in favour of crappy modernist blocks that don't stand the test of time What remains, though, is prestige.

Where did I get my information from? Why, the Watson Fothergill society, of course. And then, after I'd written the above, I found this Left Lion article and discovered I'm not the first person to make the mid life crisis crack. Oh well. Which of us is truly original?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Nell Gwynn & Bestwood Park

Life lesson: if a King falls for your Great Great (etc) Grandma you'll be a comfortably off family for a while

Nell Gwynn: actress, mistress, mum. Her affair with Charles II didn't start with a glance across a crowded room. Rather, she was one of a number of women pimped out by the Duke of Buckingham until Charles agreed a price. The affair lasted from 1668 - when Nell was 18 and the King was 38 - until his death in 1685. 

King Charles II - a hedonistic royal after a time of Puritan chill - had a dozen or more mistresses, a wife, and an awful lot of children. None of the 'legitimate' children lived though, and his brother James succeeded as King. 

Nell had two sons: 
  • Charles, who became Duke of Beauclerk and Duke of St Albans and 
  • James, who died aged 9.
Many gifts came Nell's way, including several estates. I liked this story, quoted from the Notts county council website. Sometimes, it's worth getting up early:
The popular story is that Charles II and his guests, when staying in the lodge, would tease poor Nell for sleeping in and missing a good morning's sport. Charles II offered to gift to Nell, "All the land she could ride around before breakfast," and was surprised the next day to find Nell sitting for breakfast before the King and all the guests. It was claimed she had ridden out early, dropping handkerchiefs along her route, and the encircled area became Bestwood Park. But that is just a popular story...
 After Charles died King James paid off Nell's mortgage on Bestwood lodge and gave her an annual pension. Although Bestwood had farmland and coal and could provide a healthy income, we all know it's Grim Up North. The Beauclerks lived in their other estates and Bestwood wasn't the family home until the 10th Duke of St Albans - Nell's great great great great great great great great grandson - decided to move in.

It was the 12th Duke who sold up in 1934. Much of the land was bought by the local council, who used for new housing. The 14th Duke sits in the House of Lords and is president of the Royal Stuart Society. For just £22 a year you could join him
  • to uphold rightful Monarchy and oppose republicanism.
But remember: his family's money starts with a woman sold to a king and the miners and farmers of Bestwood.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Mary Potter - 1847 - 1913

Because not all interesting lives are lived by the wealthy

I've never even thought to wonder who Mary Potter was, though there's enough public services named after her in Nottingham. So here's someone not famous who lived a relatively small life and didn't have a stately home to live it in, but isn't entirely forgotten. 

Mary grew up with four brothers in London, raised by her Mum after Dad ran away to Australia. That must have been an impoverished and difficult childhood. After breaking off her engagement aged 20, Mary became a Catholic nun. She attributed her religious vocation to the books her fiancé had given her. Apparently it was "Instructions for Christians with a timid conscience" that tipped the balance. Poor Godfrey.

She comes to Nottingham determined to find some poor people and do some good works. In 1877, after a fight with the Bishop, Mary founds the Little Company of Mary Sisters. It's still around, and because this is modern times these nuns have their own website. The Little Company begins its work in Hyson Green, feeding the poor. Hyson Green poor in the late 19th century were particularly poor: it was a slum then and there have been repeated attempts to regenerate the neighbourhood. 

The nuns start their work from a disused stocking factory. It seems they were the practical, get-on-with-it type. Known as the 'Blue Nuns' - because of their veil, not their choice of white wine - they did the things nuns do: prison visits, pre-natal, maternal, and domestic advice, nursing, prayer. It's said that Mary had two breast cancer surgeries on a kitchen table in Hyson Green without anaesthetic. Really?

But Mary and the Bishop continued to fight. In 1882 she goes to Rome to ask the Pope to take her side. (How's that for the ultimate "I'm telling Dad"?). The story that's told on official sites is that the Pope agreed with Mary but asked her to stay and continue her work in Italy. Maybe, but I wonder whether the nicer food and climate might have played a part? Also, we haven't heard the Bishop's side of this story. Maybe he booked her travel and asked the Pope to please keep her? By 1908 she establishes the first Italian school for nurse training. This means that Mary Potter's work in Nottingham spans just five years. She has a lot of legacy for a five year career here.

By the time she died there were 16 Little Company of Mary Sisters around the world. In 1988 Pope John Paul II declares her Venerable. In 1997 her body was brought back from Rome to be buried in Nottingham's St Barnabus cathedral

Where did I get this information from? I started from the excellent Nottingham Women's History group, and googled from there. Beware the Women's History site: while the political intent is worthy, there are some woeful typos which makes dates entirely unreliable. This BBC report adds extra colour, but I'm not sure it's well sourced.

Cassandra - Duchess of Chandos 1670 - 1735

If I'm ever an international movie star I think I'm going to book into hotels as Cassandra, Duchess of Chandos. It's a superb name. There would be glamour, intrigue and just enough naughtiness. Cassandra, in my imagination, is not the kind of woman who would carry her own luggage.

Cassandra was, though, an actual person, with an actual life some of which was lived in Nottingham's Wollaton Hall. What I think I love most about her is that she wrote down all the family's dirty little secrets which was a racy thing to be doing. She was also a geek: she learned to read medieval English so she could catalogue the family archive, and in her spare hours put Dad's wildlife trophies in good order.

Born in 1670 Cassandra was the daughter of naturalist Francis Willughby and Emma. They named her after her Grandma, family names being very much A Thing in this family of many Francis-es. Dad dies when she's two, and Mum remarries four years later. Step-Dad, Sir Josiah Child, is very rich and they all move to Essex where he plants trees, builds houses, and does the things rich men do. He's  Governor of the East Indies company, founder of the Royal Africa company and owns a good chunk of Jamaica. There's blood on his money.

In 1687 Cassandra's big brother Francis moves to Wollaton Hall and asks her to join him. She does, but he dies in 1688. Younger brother Thomas then moves in, and together the siblings set about restoring the hall which had massive fire damage and had been empty since 1643. Gardens are planted, walls are muralled, statuary is purchased. For inspiration they travel to see other great estates - I'm not clear if they took Thomas' wife along or left her home while they had fun.

In 1713 she marries her cousin, James Brydges. Together they build Cannons House in Middlesex. With fountains! The house becomes so famous that in the 1720s a one way system of crowd control is introduced. You've read Pride and Prejudice: you know that the English have always liked a good nosy round a stately home.

The Middleton Hall pamphlet says
Cassandra was 43 and was marked by smallpox. It is evident that James did not marry his cousin for money or any obvious female charms but his sons needed a mother.
Could that pamphlet be any more annoying? Cassandra was well travelled, well read, 'well bred', wealthy, and had extensive experience of estate management and remodelling. Smart girl. I'd marry her. I will concede that wedding portrait isn't terribly flattering.  Family wealth is hammered by the South Sea bubble in 1720. So let's hope she didn't marry him for his money?

Wedding portrait

Cassandra dies in 1735, aged 65. She'd not been well for the last ten years, and was a big fan of a spa day and a nice lie down. She had no children, but had been step mum to two sons since they were small. Here's a connection I wasn't expecting. Was Jane Austen's mum - the Duke's great niece - named after her?

Where did I get my information from? The Middleton Hall website, and the University of Nottingham archive. I've checked Project Gutenburg: her books and travel diaries aren't there, yet. But I bet they're quite a read.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Sir Percival Willoughby ? - 1643

Heir to Wollaton Hall and its first resident.

If you ever need to impress a train buff with your mastery of railway trivia, Sir P is your man. In 1605 he built the first railway in Britain. Where? Strelley, Notts!

Percival isn't a very interesting character until he inherits Wollaton Hall and its various estates. Born - um, in the past... - he marries his cousin's daughter Bridget in 1580. They sometimes live with his parents, sometimes with hers, for the next 15 years. Family records are incomplete, but their eldest son is born in 1588. They have ten children in total, with nine living to adulthood.

In 1595 his mother in law Elizabeth dies, and a year later father in law Francis dies too. But the inheritance isn't smooth - there's no will, and there's a new baby on the way courtesy of Francis' second wife who was married and pregnant really quite quickly. Once the complications are resolved (baby dies, but it doesn't really matter because she was a girl) Percival has estates, and debts.

In 1599 the family move into Wollaton Hall, which cost a fortune to build and has stood empty for 11 years. A few years later Percival becomes Sir Percival - Queen Elizabeth dies and King James I begins his reign with a few knightings.

Like his father in law, Sir Percival was looking for investments to turn a profit. The railway was part of a coal mine - which wasn't a good investment. He also invested in the Newfoundland company - in an age of explorers and colonisation this must have seemed a good bet. Sending his third son - Thomas - to stake a claim Sir Percival hoped that there would be mining potential he could exploit. I'm fascinated that, when Thomas sailed home, he got a fatherly bollocking for failing to properly explore the new land. I don't really understand the legalities of Sir P's claim but it appears that it went slowly pearshaped over 20 years, and he lost money through the venture.

He was imprisoned for debt in 1606 and 'outlawed for debt' in 1622, 1623 and 1624. He resolved the debt each time by selling land but that decreased his income and - ooops - it happened again.

Bridget dies in 1629 after a 49 year marriage. So close to their Golden wedding anniversary! Sir P dies 14 years after that so he must have been in his 80s by then? There's a serious fire at Wollaton Hall in 1642. I can't find out if this is an accident, or a consequence of the Civil War. The interior is badly damaged and few repairs are made. Is Sir P unable to afford repairs? Or too old and infirm to make it happen? Either way, after his death in 1643 the house is left standing derelict until 1687.

Where did I get this information? It's mostly based on this University of Nottingham archive and this online history of parliament.

Sir Francis Willoughby - 1546 - 1596

A developing fascination with some local-ish history. But why don't people write facts in an engaging way? Here's my re-write of this fascinating but dry site from the University of Nottingham. History is gossip.

Son of Sir Henry Willoughby and Anne, Francis was born in 1546 at Woodlands in Dorset. In 1546 Henry VIII was in his final year as king. Times they are a changing, and the massive religious upheaval of the mid C16 is the background to Francis' childhood.

Mum dies when Francis is two. Dad inherits two estates - Wollaton and Middleton - in 1549 but he dies that sumer while fighting in Kett's Rebellion. So little Francis is an orphan by age three. Francis lives with uncle George, while his big brother Thomas is raised by Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk. (I don't know where his big sister Margaret went to live. Apparently that wasn't an important enough detail to write down.) Anyway, the uncles get political and are part of the Lady Jane Grey plot - the Duke is executed in 1554 and uncle George serves time in the Tower of London.

When Francis is 13 his big brother dies, and Francis becomes heir to the Wollaton estate.

Aged 18 Francis' then guardian (Sir Francis Knollys) suggests marriage to his daughter - who doesn't have a name. Francis doesn't fancy that, and marries his neighbour Elizabeth instead. They have six daughters who live, and various sons who don't. I'd speculate that this heir problem doesn't help what's described as a 'stormy' marriage. Just how violent does the violence have to be for a wife to leave her husband in 1578? She comes back to him ten years later, and dies in 1595. He's 49 years old by then.

Sir Francis - he's knighted in 1575 - is rich, rich, rich. He has extensive land and coal mines in a number of counties, and town houses in Nottingham, Coventry and elsewhere.

In 1580, he decides to demonstrate his wealth by building a Grand Design on the only hill in Nottingham that rivals Nottingham's Castle rock. Like every episode of Grand Design you've ever seen, costs spiral and the borrowing begins. The new hall is completed in 1588 - the same year that Francis and Elizabeth reconcile. Coincidence? I don't know. But they don't move into the mansion. Meantime that most famous of Francis' - Drake - is battling the Spanish Armada and winning the favour of that most famous Elizabeth. Queen Liz never stayed with Sir Francis at Wollaton, though she probably did stay at Middleton Hall, his main residence in the 1570s.

Wollaton Hall: a grand design

Our Sir Francis is known as an early investor in agricultural and industrial innovation. His schemes included woad planting and ironworks. However, he's spent too much on the new hall, and the income from the coal pits is decreasing. England is at war, there are taxes to pay, and all those daughters need dowries. Sir Francis is in debt. This leads to tensions with the man who is named as Sir Francis' heir, and would like to inherit assets, not liabilities please.

Soon after Elizabeth's death Sir Francis remarries. He still wants an heir. New wife Dorothy Tamworth is pregnant when, in 1596, aged 50, Sir Francis dies. It's suspected he's poisoned. (By who? Isn't that tantalising?). The disposal of the estate depended on whether Dorothy's child was a boy or a girl. She was a girl, and died.

There was no will, and there were lawsuits. Eventually the estate - and its many debts - is inherited by Sir Francis' son-in-law (also his cousin) Percival Willoughby. So everything stays in the family in the end.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The worlds that merchants made

Our theme is the move from an inter connected world to an interdependent one. It's all about the market(s), dummy. Colonies mark a shift in models of trade - away from trading the surplus created by a community who is largely self sustaining, towards organising communities to specialise in the production of trade goods.

"As the world becomes wealthier, it also becomes more unequal" says Prof. Again, I ask: where are the women in this analysis?

Found the discussion of how our expectations around food are constructed very interesting. The idea of specific foods for breakfast / lunch / dinner is relatively new. The increased access to sugar made after dinner dessert a middle class essential. Food and meals shape families and societies.

The stock exchange (developing in Amsterdam & London in late C17) is the commodification of companies. They become entities that are traded.

In other news: these lectures would be so much easier to follow if there were a clearer timeline. When did this stuff all happen? Dunno. Colonies were establishing from 1500ish? But lecturer is talking a lot about the Wealth of Nations and that's 1770s. Also a lot about coffee shops which is late 1600s. So it's all very interesting, but it's a 350 year global span in a 45 minute lecture. Deep...

Monday, 30 September 2013

Indian Ocean worlds

Even judged against the very low standards of the kinds of men who make the history books, it turns out that Portuguese explorer Vasca De Gama was not a nice man. Not nice at all.

Famously - well, I say 'famously', but this is the first I've heard of him - De Gama discovered a new shipping route from Europe to the Indian ocean, bypassing the Muslim controlled established routes across the Mediterranean or through Arabia. And, having found his way to the Indian Ocean, this unpleasant and incompetent man was thoroughly unpleasant and incompetent.

On voyage 1, en route, De Gama reprovisioned by attacking unarmed merchant ships and stealing what he wanted. In 1498 he reached Calicut and offered insultingly trivial tribute to the king, whose court laughed at him. De Gama took offence (and took hostages). He went back in 1502 and massacred sailors in port, sending their ears, noses and hands to the king. Some ships were burned, with passengers and crew dying aboard. The Portuguese conquered coastal towns and imposed colonial rule.

Bigger picture - if you ignore the piracy, the viciousness of attacks, the colonialism etc - the new trade routes undermined Venice's grip on the existing spice industry, especially bringing pepper to the masses. De Gama was nicely rewarded by the Portuguese monarchy. So, on balance, probably well worth the blood?

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Stross C 2005 Iron sunrise

I am sated by Stross. As a greedy reader, that's a quite remarkable thing.

A fun novel, with a satisfying ending and an epilogue that doesn't distract. Very little sci fi. Oodles of plot. Strong female characters. Worth the time.

First line:
Wednesday ran through the darkened corridors of the station, her heart pounding.

Last line:
And they'd be there to help her when she said goodbye to home for the final time and turned her back on the iron sunrise.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Atlantic ocean worlds

Theme from the prof was that colonialism is a negotiated process as much as it's an imposed one. The conquerors needed stability. They didn't want to just plunder the riches - they wanted an ongoing relationship with these rich lands. So they needed a system that would keep on giving. If colonies are a source of wealth (rather than a place of expansion) you have to work with the pre-existing societies and turn their social organisation into one which supports your purpose. They did this by deposing some leaders, imposing others, and largely leaving the lower levels of society alone. This led me to think about corporate takeovers: much the same thing, only the executions at the top usually come with a payoff.

Another form of amalgamation addressed by Prof was the Baroque 'mixed marriage' between Europeans and native people or Africans. I think he means between white men and non-white women (not vice versa), but we're left to guess at the power differential and how far these are marriages as I'd want 'marriage' to be. Is this marriage and are these children simply an extension of the ownership principle? Lovely romantic image used in the lecture. I wonder how it felt to be that wife?

New facts: 

  • There was a ship building boom in the wake of 1492 - Europeans using 'brazilwood'. Ships became easier to build and longer lasting - a virtuous cycle making more exploration more possible. The wood was also used as textile dye - why the rich clothing of the Renaissance was red.
  • Access to american commodities shifted the global markets. What had been a European trade deficit with the east (we wanted their silks and spices; they weren't fussed about what we had to offer) moved to a trade surplus. 
  • Early 1500s Spain had a vigorous internal debate about the ethics & legality of enslaving indigenous people. See Bartolome de las Casas who argued that Indians had souls! If Indians have souls then the conquerers need to fulfil god's purpose by bringing the gospel to them. 
  • 6.5m people move to the Americas. Most of them don't have a choice. I read this stark list of slave trade facts. You should too. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

Clashing worlds

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. 

Interesting. Prof encourages to dismiss our preconceptions of native americans as 'peace loving savages; waiting for the west to settle and civilise'. Um. Not a preconception. Something I am noticing is that this America lecturer - who obviously usually teaches a primarily American student body - has his own cultural assumptions that don't fit those of us coming from other places. Each lecture has referenced Christopher Columbus. A small historical character for me - I'm much more likely to hang eras on English monarchs. This, then, is the very beginning of the reign of Henry VIII. 

This lecture, though, is all about the discovery of the 'new world' and the people who were already living there. So let's learn something about that then:

Columbus' ship log shows many navigational mistakes. He couldn't use the new technologies of sextants etc, and was rubbish at the maths needed for navigation by stars. But he must have been a confident talker, because Isabel & Ferdinand believed his promises - that if they funded his trip to the Orient then this would bring them the wealth to conquer (or liberate)  Jerusalem. 

1521 Cortes conquers Tenochtitlan (Aztec city, Mexico). How? Unintentional germ warware - Prof says 40% of the city of 200,000 people was dead before Cortes walked into the city, and encourages us to imagine the stench. But what I don't understand is why the conquistadores didn't themselves fall ill from the diseases that had developed in the 'world apart' of the Americas. Surely the Aztecs had their own germs to which the Spanish would have had no immunity?

Whether intentional or not, contact with the Europeans was devastating for the native American peoples: estimation that from 1500-1600 the native population declined from about 120m people to 20m people.  Small pox, measles, typhus. Horrifying! (And people still choose to avoid vaccination???). 

I had a hard time staying on topic listening to this lecture. Without the background knowledge of what happened when in the various connections between European sailors and various people in the Americas, I struggled. An overview and timeline would have really helped.

Side effect of listening to this lecture: I finally understand what Pratchett's Eric was all about...

Friday, 20 September 2013

Introduction to organisations

I've flirted with the idea of an MBA for a long time. Let's see if it's stimulating or dull.

Are street gangs an organisation? The lecture starts by looking at what's in and out of the definition. Structures of people with "collaborative pursuit of specified goals"...

It's interesting to think about this in relation to my other Coursera lecture this week, on the growth of trade along the silk road. Were the caravanserai an organisation? I think yes, but one which dissolved when the shared goal was attained.

Tentative conclusion: a bit dull. Prof speaks in bullet points and I'm not fascinated yet. I'll carry on but if I'm not getting stories within a week or two, I'm going elsewhere. I would have been so much happier if the school examples had all been related back to Hogwarts. In fact, management lessons from Hogwarts is a JK Rowling spin off that someone should write. Chapters could include:

  • professional boundaries - contrasting the behaviours of Dumbledore and Hagrid
  • recruit wisely, check references - Alestor Moody as a what not to do case study 
  • performance matters - Professor Trelawny was coasting for the last 18 years, why was there no improvement plan?
  • reward your star performers - why it was right to give Hermione the time-turner
  •  cast out your serpents - the usurper Umbridge
  • etc. 
Actually - that was fun. Maybe I'll write the book myself?

Warfare and motion

The Black Death - well, a northern European perspective - is something we covered in school and keeps on appearing in the historic fiction I love. I strongly recommend Karen Maitland's medieval novel The Owl Killers, and the slightly later but still plague insightful The Witches Trinity.

But the bare facts continue to be shocking. Imagine a disease that kills millions. Without any understanding of the transmission routes, no treatments. Imagine the social chaos. The trade routes of shipping lines and the silk road were corridors for the communication of disease. What I didn't know is 'the Black Death' is a term used to describe many different viruses. Prof says that multiple plagues followed the trade routes. So that must have been scarier still: as previously known symptoms are no longer reliable predictors of a disease's progress.

  • China - population drops from 120m to 80m. 
  • Europe - 60% die
How does any society come back from a blow like that? Crops not planted, and then not harvested. The apprentice system in disarray meaning knowledge has died with the master of that knowledge. Children unparented. Power vacuums. Armies decimated. Abandoned by gods.

Peoples and plunderers

The cast of global history at the beginning of the last millennium. A big topic, covered in about 45 minutes, so no depth of anything and many more questions than answers.

My biggest question: were there no women?

This is lecture is - largely - focused on the ruling classes, the political and religious leaders, the money. Fascinating! But I'd also like an assessment of what women were doing, and what was being done-unto them. Prof says the world was largely equal in its basic living standards, by considering life expectancy and average height in different places.  But is that true of men and women? Probably not. Almost certainly there were a few women traders on the silk road: what was it that made their trading possible, or not? We get hints of women left behind with the children while merchants and soldiers went on long and dangerous journeys. How did they live? Did widows have a different status? How did the different societies handle death in childbirth and the raising of children? If most people are living subsistence lives in rural communities are the women doing the same manual labour as the men? Where there is access to formal education are the omen excluded? In war, women are often raped or assimilated through forced marriage. What happened to them? In politics, women are the created links between families through marriage. There have always been exceptional women faith leaders and women warriors. What specific skills were women learning and how were these integrated into the new markets of trade goods? Where are the women???

I was very interested in the story of how technology changed the world. The Chinese-invented compass, charts, and new ship design opened up the possibilities of leaving the shoreline and finding new markets. And by using ships it was possible to move heavier goods further. I suppose that's an obvious point, but one I'd never considered.

Interesting titbits. 

  • Chinese population doubled from C8 - c12 to about 100m people. Hydraulic engineering allows the Chinese to create new rice paddies and sustain such a population increase. Mass deforestation  loss of habitat. There used to be Chinese elephants!
  • the silk road stank. Though merchants were trading luxuries (preciosities), the road and the hubs featured piles of poo - thousands of camels, horses, elephants, people. As the caravans would often travel at night, to avoid the searing sun, they must have been squelching  through the muck. Ick. 
  • Genghis Khan - in 25 years of conquering he laid claim to a bigger empire than the Romans managed in 400 years. His empire was the size of Africa. He overturned the caliphate in Baghdad and the Song dynasty of China. He was stopped by the mountains of Afghanistan. 
  • 1258 - the Grand Library of Baghdad was destroyed by Mongol invaders. The waters of the Tigris ran blue with ink and red with blood. Probably mostly red: the death toll of the siege is estimated from 200,000 - 1m people.
  • There was a global professional market by 1300. Relocation of doctors from China., engineers from Germany. Specialists were travelling the same routes that trade goods took.

Things I want to follow up or find out more about:

  • is there a respectable feminist history of this period?

Would I like to attend a world class University? For free? Oh, go on then.

I'm a bit of a late comer but having discovered Coursera I couldn't be more excited. It's been a year of un-stimulation and while I've enjoyed the downtime I think that adding some intellect wouldn't be a bad thing at all. So I'm signed up for a couple of courses this term, and if it's fun I think I'll do the same next term too.

I wanted a place to keep course reflections and - after some thought - I decided Mrs Ward would approve so why not use this place. I'll tag Coursera and a course title to keep things tidy.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


I've been looking at my bookshelves and seeing clutter, not friends. Increasingly, I just don't want books to make their home in my home. They can live in the library, or in the cloud, and come visit when I'm open to the idea.

So - today - a big box of books has gone to the local charity shop. I still have plenty of full bookshelves, but this felt like something I was ready to do.

Now I'm eyeing up the cookery books. You're not safe...

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Wakling C 2011 What I did

Shock news: the Daily Mail is not always wrong. There's a Mail quote on my paperback copy of this book which I found really off putting, but this book just goes to show that you shouldn't judge a book by the company it keeps on the cover.

I loved this novel, sweetly narrated by a six year old who gets his long words mixed  up, doesn't understand what's scaring the adults and talks in metaphor that they fail to notice. Much like the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the reader has to work for the truth behind the narration, and I found this so much fun.

On reflection I'm not sure what I feel about how the author creates plot tension towards the end. While reading I was gripped (confession: I fall into novels hard). Afterwards it felt like the actions of Dad weren't in keeping with what we knew about him. I'll say no more, because I'd hate to ruin the story for others.

First line:
This is the first bit and shall I tell you why? Okay I will. It is to make you read the rest.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

North A 2011 America pacifica

A dystopian novel where the dystopia is fully imagined and the plot has holes that need attention.

A generation from now the new ice age has made America uninhabitable. We learn, through memories and story telling, how civil behaviour collapsed as cold and hunger became commonplace. Visionaries fled to a new island home, and slowly others joined them. We meet this new society some twenty years after  it was founded, and it's not a great place to be poor. The teenage protagonist knows little about how things got to be as they are, and cares little about changing them. She's focused on the rent, dinner, staying safe.

I found the descriptions of how a marginal society gets by to be compelling. There is filth and hunger which reflect every refugee camp and shanty town you've ever read about, and turned your eyes away from. And the privileged classes - mostly the Mayflower first boaters - hold their privilege by deception and firepower, which also reflects every ailing society you've ever read about and turned away from. The plot, which at first had me gripped when a main character goes missing, lost me for the final third of the book. The final chapter? Meh.

I'd read another novel by this author though, and she seems to have set up a sequel.

First line:
The trouble started when the woman with the shaking hands came to the apartment.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Wilson P 2012 The visiting angel

Do you believe in angels?  For the afternoon I spent reading this novel, I believed hard.

I also believe in good people, and the support worker protagonist Patrick is good people. So is sexual health nurse Sarah. As Patrick, Sarah and Saul tell their stories they also tell the sad and upliftng stories of people whose lives could use some help from an angel.

Flashbacks to Patrick's childhood give vivid and believable vignettes of the cruelties children inflict on each other, the naivity of a boy trying to fit in, and the fierce protective love of his big brother who can't protect him when their world shatters.

Particularly enjoyed the penultimate chapter: crossing the void was beautifully written and nailbitingly tense.

First line:
His brother, as a boy, was unafraid of heights.

Last line:
He is not comfortable in the water himself, but sitting high in the rafters of some anonymous municipal pool, with the light bouncing off the walls of the polished tile and his son nestled beside him, he is happy to worship her diligence, the steady strokes, the accrual of lengths, the way she smiles unselfconsciously at nothing in particular when she climbs fresh from the water, and the beauty in her face that she has won, that this unexpected life has bequeathed her.

Whitely A 2008 Light reading

Apart from the murder, suicide, abuse and adultery, this actually is a light read. I took it at a gallop and finished in a day. Interesting structure too.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Project Gutenberg: collected Byron

Every now and then I remember Project Gutenberg, and then kick myself for the waste of however many months since I last gave it a second thought. Today was a remembering day, and I idly wondered if the collected lettters of Byron might have made it to publication.


This inches thick hardback is a book I've dragged home from libraries in at least four cities. It's hefty, and having it in kindle format will mean less weightlifting and more reading.

Delighted, and so grateful to the volunteers who make Gutenberg such a great resource. Last time I had spare time I was proofing letters written by a man who went on to be an early American President during the turbulence of the war. John Adams??? Maybe?  It was great - even if the finer details now escape me - and something I would never have ordinarily read. I'm going to find a few hours and proof read again this month. Do something good while sitting down with a nice cup of coffee: why not?

Morgan R 2001 Altered carbon

This is a tough and nasty read, but I've read it multiple times.

The fighting is dirty, and I usually skip those passages. The torture is horrific, and I always skip past that. The sex is explicit: some in the good way (merge9 -yes please); some in the bad way (abuse of sex workers). The plot is convoluted and I'm not sure I could describe it.

What did I like? Our anti hero,  Kovacs. We learn in flashbacks that he entered  the military to escpe a tough childhood, we learn just how tough the fighting was - never his fight, never his body - and we learn how hundreds of years and light years distance don't distance you from your demons. Also, despite the body count, he seems to be basically decent. Maybe I'm just an optimist?

Also, I really like the world(s) Morgan creates. It is perfectly constructed. I believe. Has someone fan-ficed the Quellist philosophy into a quasi Little Book of Calm? Make it personal.

First line:
Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah's cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.
Last line:
 The doors were waiting at the top, the needlecast beyond. Still trying to laugh, I went through.

Pratchett T 2009 Unseen academicals

My house contains more books than bookshelves. This problem cannot be resolved with more bookshelves, as my house has also run out of walls. I'm going to reread and donate for a while. Trying to pick out the books I kinda wanna read again, but will probably be okay letting go of by the last page.

Like everyone I know, my Pratchett shelf is well thumbed. These are comfort books that come to bed with me. They've been dropped in the bath. They've gone to the beach,  and the park, and I don't know what that stain is. It's fine to start reading any one of these books wherever they fall open, and there's no need to read to the end after the first few passes. Pratchett bears the test of time.

But not all Pratchetts are equal. I particularly liked the Moist von Lipwig series. I enjoy the witches, seeing myself as something of a Magrat. I can't really be doing with the faux-Scots nonsense in the Tiffany Aching books.

This one is middling-good. Cut brutally in half by an editor with chutzpah I think it would've been very good. The idea of the wizards footballing is visually funny but I think Pratchett is better at plot & dialogue than description and theme. I have no idea why there's a high fashion sub plot (football is for boys, so let's give the girls & the gays fancy clothes?). I suspect the Orc represents some kind of anti racism undertone, but it's laboured and Pratchett's not my choice of social-conscience reading.

 Bye bye, book.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Shepherd L 2012 Tom-all-alone's

This is good! Witty, literary, arch, engaging. I read the first 200 pages at a gallop, then slowed down to savour the writing before it was over all too soon.

It's not quite a detective novel, although the hero is a detective. It's not quite a historical novel, although it's firmly set in Victorian London.

The only aspect of the book I'm not completly sold on is the references to authors who weren't writing at the time the novel is set. It's smart - but maybe a bit too smart? - every time I spot one I lose my immersion for a moment. As she says:
'Only connect' is proving a difficult aphorism to follow.
Yet I defy you to read this and not revisit Dickens.

First line:
The young man at the desk puts down his pen and sits back in his chair. The fog has been thickening all afternoon, and whatever sun might once have shone is now sinking fast.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Davidson MJ 2007 Drop dead gorgous


Don't do it. You wouldn't like it.

Davies DK 2011 True things about me

From the beginning the author plays with the reader's feelings. On the one hand, here's a silly and self obsessed girl who over emotes about a casual fuck. Woman, get a grip and move on. On the other hand, the sense of developing menace makes you worry for the frivolous and vulnerable girl and hope that with her family and friends she finds the strength to stop the descent which is overwhelming her.

Ths is Bridget Jones without the laughs. But the charming bastard who turns her life upside down is less charming and much more bastard than Darcy. Much more bastard.

He took me down the steps into the car park, and led me to a dark area. I could smell damp concrete, oil, exhaust fumes. He backed me up against a pillar. Take your underwear off, he said, and grinned, showing his teeth.

It's a tale of domestic violence. There are strongly written consensual sex scenes, and there are strongly written non-consensual scenes that are hard to read. It's a compelling book. Saying I enjoyed it seems like the wrong word. But I am glad I read it. I won't read it again.

First line:
I pressed the buzzer for the next claimant.

Last line:
So I left him in the bedroom.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Bateman, C 1995 Divorcing Jack

This is how to write a crime novel. Set your book somewhere vivid. Create a flawed protagonist who has enough virtues that the reader cares. Have interesting times happen to your hero, and lay the clues to the mystery so your reader always wants to read just one more chapter.

Bateman works this formula wonderfully. I thoroughly enjoyed spending a couple of days in Belfast with a disreputable journalist.

If anyone out there's writing Bateman fan-fic I'd be equally happy to spend more time with the Mrs, who takes no shit. Mess with her; she melts your record collection. And, in my opinion, she's well within her rights to do so. Unfaithful husbands have lessons to learn.

First line: I was upstairs with a girl I shouldn't have been upstairs with when my wife whispered in my ear, "you have 24 hours to move out".

Last line: "No", she said.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Butcher, J 2011 Ghost story

Confession: I gave up on this one. I did read to page 466 (of 611), so I suppose I could have powered through, but by then I couldn't remember who the characters were, I didn't care, and it was convenient to take it back to the library.

If you like the Dresden Files series, this is another one. You'll probably like it. But, for me, too long, over complicated, bit dull.

The last few books I've read have been 600 page marathons. I think I need a few quickies.

First line:
Life is hard. Dying's easy.
last line (yes, I peeked!)
There is much work to be done
I'm guessing that means there's another sequel coming soon?

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Am a bit slow, sometimes

So reading the last third of Stross' excellent The Revolution Trade I was reminded thematically of the not-excellent-but-great-fun novel by Heinlein, To Sail Beyond Sunset. A little more thinking and it dawned on me that both are Exodus. A chosen people, fucked over by the majority population, starting again and having some tribulations en route.

At least I think thats what happens in Exodus? I havent actually finished reading it...

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Stross C 2013 The revolution trade

Part three of the trilogy, and unlike part two (when I was mostly figuring out who's who and what's what) I'm powering my way through the story and enjoying the factions and the politicing.

My thoughts about the earlier novel apply to this one too. Great writing. Strong central idea, explored in interesting ways. Characters I believe in - I welcomed more of Lady Brill & her kick ass ways this time. Writing that's a pleasure to read.

War is a central theme. There are two civil wars, and an interplanetary one. I'm writing this review half way through the book, and I've been expecting a third civil war to kick off for the last 100 pages. It seems having world-walkers is, um, destabilisng. I'm hoping the book returns to, and explores the moral dimension of, what I'm going to call the BIG KER-BLAM!!! moment. It feels like there's more that shoud be said about the BANG that happens.

I'm also very entertained by the firm views on contemporary Americn government that the author isn't shy of sharing. This is my favourite line:
You know how the Americans respond to attack. They are relentless, and they will slaughter millions without remorse in the name of vengeance.

First line:
The inspectors arrived before dawn.
PS: took my own anti-brick advice. Kindle, baby.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Stross, C 2013, The Traders' War

"It's never treason if you win"

Had I realised in the library that this brick of a book was part two of a trilogy (more accurately, parts three and four of a sixology), I'd have put it back and started at the beginning.  But I didn't realise, and the first thirty pages had me intrigued enough to read on and work it all out as I go. My way requires concentration, but it is doable. I imagine that linear types would be less confused by starting with book one.

The story? Modern Miss finds herself living a luxury medieval-ish life on a parallel earth. Time passes, more worlds ensue. There is a War. This isn't a spoiler: the set up is in book one (I guess), and the war is in the title.

I'm already a fan of Stross' excellent Laundry series - although the stories often confuse me and I only get about 3% of the geek references - he's a writer I enjoy. The Traders' War is a different genre, and I'm delighted to discover I'm a fan of this Stross too. So much a fan that I'll be reading books one and three as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

Handy hint: it's a brick. Buy on Kindle or get in some training with light hand weights.

First line:
Nail lacquer, the woman called Helge reflected as she paused in the antechamber, always did two things to her: it reminded her of her mother, and it made her feel like a rebellious  little girl.
'I think we might be able to deal with the enemy without mounting a frontal attack on those guns: and in the process, inconvenience the pretender mightily...' 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Paretsky S 1998 Bloodshot

Tough detective VI is tough. She adored her mum: Italian, loving, but tough.  She remembers her neighbour: flighty, but tough. She leans on her Dr friend Lotty: caring, but tough. She meets an elderly lady: unfulfilled, but tough. Tough women are tough. In a tough town. That's the theme of the book. It's one note, over 399 pages. Possibly, if there'd been less authorial focus on being tough, the book could be a little shorter. That wouldn't be a bad thing. 

Do you think I may be mistaken? I'm not:
"She hung up on my incoherent protest. I smiled a little - gruff to the end. I hoped I was that tough forty years ahead."

The plot? Who's the daddy? Why is that woman murdered? It takes a while to find out, and you have to be TOUGH to take the pace. 

I thought I remembered liking the VI Warshawski series. I misremembered.

First line: 
I had forgotten the smell. Even with the South Works on strike and Wisconsin Steel padlocked and rusting away, a pungent mix of chemicals streamed in through the engine vents.
last line:
 I knelt next to her chair and put my arms around her. 'Till death do us part, kid'.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Mailman, E 2007 The Witch's Trinity

This is a book of desperation. Desperate cold, desperate hunger, the fears and superstitions of early 16th  century Germany. You'd have to be so brave to bear the trials of the elderly narrator, Güde. As a reader you fully understand why the village has become so cruel, and you fear that, in their world, you would be so cruel too. Cold, hungry and frightened: you'd want to punish someone.

So, a book to be read with seriousness. Chapters are headed with the Malleus Maleficarum, to remind readers that the cruelties are not fiction. We should remember, and I believe fictional representations of a dark time are as good a way to do that as any other. Or, maybe I just like good stories, well told.

First line:
It was a winter to make bitter all souls. So cold the birds froze mid call and our little fire couldn't keep ice from burrowing into bed with us. The fleas froze in the straw beds, bodies swollen with chilled blood. We were hungry.

Last line (at least: this is where the book would have ended if I'd been the editor)
I kissed my son goodly on each cheek and put him from me. I was too distressed to bear his distress as well. I walked away from the square but I did not send my steps home. I knew home had gone up in smoke like Künne, like Fronika.

A cut at that point makes sense to me. It maintains the mood of the novel and you're left to imagine for yourself how - if - Güde can get by. But author and editor didn't ask my advice, and so they carry on for a couple more chapters, a couple of years into the future. For me, this brought forced optimism to a dark tale. Read on still further (at least in the paperback edition I read) and there's a very clunky family history from the author determined to share in her ancestor's tribulations. Trust me. Get to the line where I make the cut, and then ... stop reading.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Cumming C, 2012, A foreign country

Before opening the book you've got a Big Clue. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

 Spy thrillers are places you've visited before: you'll have fond memories of how it was before the tourists started coming,  and a basic grasp of the language. Ths spy thriller won awards, which got me to read the first few pages even though I'm not a fan of the bullets n bullshit genre.

By page 30 you've got the set up: top spy disappears, disgraced ex-spy brought in on hush hush terms.

By page 30 you've also got a very cynical view of marriage. Is there really so much shagging around in Vauxhall?

First line
Jean-Marc Daumal awoke to the din of the call to prayer and to the sound of his children weeping.

Last line
"Jean-Marc, there is somebody I would like you to meet"

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Ryman, G 2004 Air

Just a few pages in and I was thinking this author doesn't like women. At least, he definitely doesn't like his lead character Mae: a shallow, bitchy wannabe who isn't. I like her though. Creating her space in the village selling fashion and cosmetics, she reminds me of the many women entrepreneurs listed on Kiva. If she needed a $25 loan, I'd cough up. Mr Ryman: I think you could write Mae more sympathetically.

I don't know why, but something in this book makes me think of Roberts' The Land of the Headless. When I've finished Air I'm going to read other reviews and find the connection. And then I might reread Roberts, although I remember the concept being more interesting than the story. I do hope that's not the connection...

First line:
Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online.
Last line:
[redacted for possible spoilers] , all of them, turned and walked together into the future.

Update: Mae is written more warmly as the story unfolds. I was interested to note that I had no believability problem with the surprise pregnancy (spit: don't swallow) but for me a talking dog was a an innovation too far.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Howey H, 2011, Wool omnibus edition (1-5)

A dystopia. With knitting.

What's outside the silo? Start this book and you will need to know. This is a stay-up-all-nighter. In fact it's a stay-up-all-nighter then read it again the next day just to check you didn't miss something important at 5am. For me, there's something terrifyingly immersive about the world Howey creates and I'd vote for Mayor Jahns given half a chance.

Yes, yes I liked this book.

First line:
The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. 
Last line:
'I think you're right,' he told little Elise, pulling his radio free. 'I think everything's gonna be just fine...'

Spolier: never trust the bastards in IT.

Grisham J, 2004, The Last Juror

We're in Mississippi in the early 70s. The protagonist is a hippie with enough family money to buy the local newspaper (lucky boy) and enough commercial acumen to turn this into profit. He's also Not A Racist,  developing an unconvincing close friendship with a middle aged Black woman who likes to feed him and tell him stories.

There's a murder, there's a trial, there are legal shenanigans: it's a John Grisham. You know what you're getting.

You'll keep on turning the pages though. If you think death is the wages of sin you'll be fine with how the plot turns out. If you'd rather a more subtle legal system, with a more nuanced view of the world, you're probably better reading something Swedish.

Word of warning: do not read before dinner. You'll eat everything in the house after reading about Miss Callie's carefully tended veg garden and her amazing three-hour lunches. Or is that just me?

First line:
After decades of patient mismanagement and loving neglect, the Ford County Times went bankrupt in 1970.
Last line:
Eventually, slowly, with great agony, I began the last obituary.

Heinlein R, 1951, The Puppet Masters

Ooo, but Heinlein has some dodgy ideas about sex. He truly is a dirty pleasure, and you always need a good wash after reading anything he's written. But he's a first person plotter who gallops at a story and I find I can forget about the dodgy until after the story's done. Turn off your thinking, and thrill to the action.

So: what happens? Alien slugs invade and control the people of Earth.  The people of Earth - rugged individualists from the US of A - heroically fight back. The people of Earth from other countries are pathetic walkovers, and collaborators.

RH likes naked. He particularly likes naked redheads (female variety). Sadly, despite our Viking ancestry ticking the redhead box, our English fear of nudity means we're an early casualty in the alien war...

I wonder: can you tell anything about Heinlein's politics yet? Or his sexual politics?


First line
Were they truly intelligent? By themselves, that is? I don't know, and I don't know how we can ever find out. I'm not a lab man; I'm an operator.
Last line
Death and Destruction!

Harris C, 2012, Deadlocked

Vampires and werewolves and fairies in the Deep South. Why not?

Made the mistake of reading this in book form rather than on kindle. This allowed Himself to see what trivial crap I fill my mind with at bedtime. I think I lost some respect. But hey. People are people and stories are stories, even if the protagonists are undead. And while Himself is laughing at me for reading about myths, he isn't noticing that it's really a straight romance novel. If he knew that he'd really lose respect for me...

First line:
It was as hot as the six shades of hell even this late in the evening, and I'd had a busy day at work.

Last line:
That was going to be a delicate conversation. 'Sure Sam', I said, very quietly. 'Another day'. 

The plot? Everyone is in love with the heroine, she dithers. Isn't that the plot of all romances?

Note: there are a dozen or so books in this series. I reckon I've read about half of them, in no particular order. Continuity isn't necessary. Neither are your critical faculties.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Glynn, A. 2001 Limitless

I fell asleep ten minutes into the film, but the premise intrigued so I got the book.

Big Pharma Are Bad. Why aren't the good drugs fair trade?

Remember the first time you saw The Matrix, and when you left the cinema the buzz was all would you take the red pill, or the blue? And also, coooool coat? This novel tries to build up  that buzz. If you could take a drug that made you smart and successful, would you? If it damaged you, would you still take it? If it damaged others?

The protagonist is a wastrel, and the drugs make a difference. I feel much the same about nice coffee. But it takes him till nearly the end of the book to think about securing his supply by becoming a kitchen chemist. Unlike me: I know where the coffee is and I'm not afraid to brew it.

First line
It's getting late. I don't have too sharp a sense of time any more, but I know it must be after eleven, and maybe even getting on for midnight. I'm reluctant to look at my watch though - because that will only remind me of how little time I have left.

Last line
Then I look at the keyboard once more and, wishing the command had a wider, smarter application - wishing it could somehow mean what it says - press 'save'.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


I'm reading the bible. It's a long term project and I'm in no particular rush, but it's the kind of thing I feel one should read. Eventually. King James, obv.

Reading for stories and general cultural awareness, there's no faith perspective here. If you see the bible as the true revealed word of god, you should probably not read my thoughts.

So: Genesis. What I particularly noticed was how long everyone lived. (Men: we don't hear about the women. Probably busy in the kitchen?). I'd heard the phrase 'old as Methusulah' before, and assumed old M had been notoriously long lived. Well, he was, but the rest of them weren't far behind. None of them with any erectile dysfunction: babies abounding. This, we learn, is how the world got populated. Maybe that's where all the women were?

First line: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

Last line: So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

Beaumont, M. 2009 E squared

Oh, this is trivial nonsense. If you've read it, you'll know that. If you haven't, what are you waiting for? Everyone needs a bit of comforting ephemera in the bath now and then. This doesn't disappoint if you keep your expectations at that level.

Don't speak French? Me either! I found completely skipping past the sub plot did no harm to the story.

Don't like swearing or naughty drugs? It's not for you.

First line: Well here we are again. Another year, another catalogue of ups, downs and in betweens. Mostly ups, it has to be said.

Last line: Cunt.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Webster, J. 1915 Dear Enemy

Sequel to Dear Daddy Long Legs. I was so desperate to read this as a kid I stole it from the library. This was a wrong thing to do, but I was only allowed four books a week and that just wasn't nearly enough. And it was 30 years ago. They've probably written off the loss by now.

Here, Sally McB turns her college educated mind to running an orphanage. This, she appreciates, is important to get right:
the future health and happiness of a hundred humn beings lie in my hands, to say nothing of their three or four hundred children and thousand grand children. The thing's geometrically progressive.
First line:
Your letter is here. I have read it twice, and with amazement. Do I understand that Jervis has given you, for a Christmas present, the making over of the John Grier Home into a model institution, and that you have chosen me to disburse the money?
Last line: Nope. It gives away the ending.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Webster, J. 1912 Dear Daddy Long Legs

There's something about an epistolary novel. I think I'd have been nine or ten the first time I read this book. I know I got it from the library, and read it in one night. Thirty years later, this was another one-night book. Charming, and sweet, it's as good as I remember.

This is a fairy tale, an orphan made good story. She gets her education and her man. What's not to love?

There's some proto feminism in here too. I loved this thought, tucked away in Judy's description of college learning:
Don't you think I'd make an admirable voter if I had my rights? I was twenty-one last week. This is an awfully wasteful country to throw away such an honest, educated, conscientious, intelligent citizen as I would be. 

First line:
 The first Wednesday in every month was a Perfectly Awful Day - a day to be awaited with dread, endured with courage and forgotten with haste.

Last line:
This is the first love letter I ever wrote. Isn't it funny that I know how?