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Sunday July 31, 2022

Books in July

  • A Song from Dead Lips by William Shaw [read by Cameron Stewart] BOM-ASongFromDeadLips.jpg
    I thought The Birdwatcher was a great book, and I'm wondering why it took me so long to read another offering from Shaw.
    This story is also excellent, and again was a good fit with my interests - which, apart from the dead bodies thing, was set in the not too distant past of London in the 1960s. This era covered my life from a very small child to a young adult, so I can remember it, but as it were "through a glass darkly" (which must also apply to the author as we are of an age). However, it seems to me to quite accurately reflect what I remember of wandering around London as a teenager - trying to find Carnaby Street and the Swinging Sixties, (unsuccessfully) - and looking for Rupert Street (successfully) to find a wonderful shoe shop, (as opposed to the Raymond Review Bar). So having been reminded of all this - I find I strongly agree with a the NY Times comment "an elegy for an entire neglected generation".
    The war in Biafra is featured fairly centrally as part of the unravelling of the murder mystery. This war provided my first exposure, (with zero appreciation of the true situation), to mass appeals for aid for victims of a terrible famine, and of graphic TV footage showing starving children. The war itself ended by the 1970s and Biafra disappeared as both a news item and a separate state. An estimated 2 million civilians died of starvation, of which three quarters were children.

  • A Twist of the Knife by Anthony Horowitz
    BOM-ATwistOfTheKnife.jpg "I've written three books and our deal is over.", says an exasperated Horowitz, having been subjected to a series of near death experiences as a well as some ridicule (which is worse I wonder...?) through his relationship with the irritating ex DI Hawthorne. As you can imagine, this state of affairs lasts about 5 minutes before Anthony finds himself on the wrong side of the law, and has (reluctantly) to call upon Hawthorne for assistance.
    I have come upon this fourth in the series somewhat sooner than I expected as I was lucky enough to be allowed a review copy; thus I've read it on the page as opposed to listening to it.
    This particular story - another of the "locked room" genre - revolves around a theatre production of a play written by Anthony himself; the play receives a scathing review, leading to... a murder. As with many other snippets revealed in these books, it drove me to look up "Mindgame", to find that it is indeed a play of his from 1999, (and it did receive lukewarm reviews at the time, but, happily, spawned no murders that I could find). Once again, I loved the book- my favourite Horowitz series - clever, thrilling, and wonderfully entertaining. And as I love Rory Kinnear's narration so much, I shall definitely be listening to it all over again once the audio version is available.

  • Secret Water by Arthur Ransome [Read by Gareth Armstrong]
    BOM-SecretWater.jpg This is not quite so adventurous - nor set in such a picturesque a location - as some of the other books up to this point. The Swallows' Father was unable - at the last minute - to take them on a planned sailing trip all together, so he arranges something else for them to do, a little more statically: a mapping project while camped on islands within tidal mud flats; he also arranges for the Amazons come to Norfolk to join them. Since it directly follows the (alarming) events in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, one can only surmise that the adults felt they needed a safer environment for their unaccompanied children. What could possibly go wrong? Nevertheless, the 3 youngest of them manage to end up in yet another disastrous situation. Again we watch helplessly as, despite sound planning, they make a series of last-minute faulty decisions, inevitably leading to their being stranded in the middle of the causeway as the tide comes in...

Posted on July 31, 2022 at 11:17 AM. Category: Books of the Month. | Comments (0)

Thursday June 30, 2022

Books in June

  • The Cliff House by Christopher Brookmyre
    BOM-TheCliffHouse.jpg This is another excellent novel from Chris Brookmyre - an all time favourite since he first introduced us to Jack Parlabane and his version of the "Tartan Noire" novel. Since then he has not stuck to the one detective - despite his evident popularity - but has explored a lot of different writing techniques and styles, and all with great success in my opinion.
    This is a "locked room" mystery, set in luxury a retreat isolated on a remote Scottish island a la "And Then There Were None". The characters are looking forward to a relaxing hen weekend with the usual copious quantities of alcohol and gourmet dining provided by their very own personal chef. However, the bloody demise of the chef on the first evening is a fairly strong indicator that things are not going to plan... and then they discover that they have no communications with the outside world...
    The story is narrated through the eyes of each character in turn, gradually revealing that each of them has a (greater or lesser) dark secret in their past, increasing the tension as we wait to find out which of them might be bent on such a ghastly form of blackmail revenge.
    If you share my own taste for well-written twisty plots and properly rounded endings, you can always be sure of a great read when you open any of CB's books - this one being no exception.

  • In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear [read by Julie Teal]
    BOM-InThisGraveHour.jpg Here we find Maisie at the very start of WW2, with events from the previous war all too sharp in her memory. The story concerns Belgian refugees who remained in Britain after WW1, and a tragic event from their past which led to an inexplicable string of murders so many years later.
    The book provides an excellent account of every day life, as civilians start to get to grips with the rituals of gas masks and sheltering from air raids - as well as some less well-remembered political points (see note).
    Note: Before the Blitz started, the government ordered London Transport not to allow people to use the tube stations as shelters - which seems astonishing now, as we more or less identify that period with Londoners sheltering in the Underground. It seems that though Churchill was happy to use a disused underground station as a refuge himself, he talked about forcibly preventing the general populace from doing the same. However, Underground station staff found that it was impossible to stop people entering and setting up their own primitive camps below ground, and in October 1940, the government policy was changed. The short branch line to Aldwych station (often used now and in the past for filming historic dramas) was closed and given over to the public, and three disused stations were specially opened to the public.

  • Riviera Gold by Laurie R King[Read by Jenny Sterlin]
    BOM-RivieraGold.jpg I would say: 'I love these books', but I have found the last two slightly harder going.
    The books are really about Mary rather than Holmes, and I think she writes well about the latter, with understanding and affection, but I'm not keen on her treatment of some of the other characters. Speaking as a Brit, I suppose, I do not really like Mary's rift with Mycroft, and as I mentioned before, I actively dislike what she has done with Mrs Hudson (now "Clarissa", apparently). This story features "Clarissa" centre stage, so I found it hard to engage with it, plus I found the method of the telling - the plot interspersed with "conversations" between two women in a different timeline - rather confusing, (although that may have been simply that it was not ideal for an audio book). And while I do enjoy the author's peppering the stories with well-known characters from the period (in this case Picasso - probably not very realistically in my opinion but... what do I know?), I did prefer her use of fictional characters (ie Lord Peter Wimsey and Kim for example).

  • Winter Holiday, and We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome
    [Read by Gareth Armstrong] BOM-WeDidntMeanToGoToSea.jpg BOM-WinterHoliday.jpg
    While Peter Duck is a true adventure story in the style of Treasure Island, these two books are a whole other kettle of fish. In Winter Holiday the Swallows and Amazons meet up with the Ds for the first time, with snow everywhere, and the lake frozen over. Nancy is in bed with the mumps, but still well in charge of the rest - who are in quarantine for the duration and unable to return to school - and their expedition to the "North Pole". This is perhaps the more realistic of the two books, in that the children end up in a very bad situation in a blizzard - all very low key unless you have actually been in that situation - and they are lucky to escape perishing from exposure while no-one has any idea where they can be. It's also a perfect illustration of mis-communications ["when you see a signal start for the North Pole"], which provides a good lesson to inform your later life!
    In the same vein, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea is even more heart-stoppingly awful, as we watch the Swallows step-by-step make the wrong decisions in an unfamiliar boat - culminating in the inevitable loss of the anchor, and the start of a ghastly trip across the North Sea in a storm. In some ways it could be said that this is a slightly less realistic scenario, but only in as much as - duffers or not - the more realistic outcome would have been that they all drowned. Luckily, with many more books in the series, this was not the case. Again, this is agonising reading as an adult, and again, I love the way the adults are depicted - especially in the closing chapter, as Mr Walker is viewed by the children at a distance, explaining to his wife what their children had really been up to.

Posted on June 30, 2022 at 12:44 PM. Category: Books of the Month. | Comments (0)

Wednesday June 8, 2022

Downton Abbey


I had an indulgent afternoon out on my own at the Everyman cinema, with a Silver Screen ticket. Designed for the over 55s, the ticket includes free tea and cake, and - along with the twee nature of Downton - perfect in every way!
As for the film - I did feel that the plot was slightly better than previous offerings, relying less on the splendid costumes and locations and more on a proper story. It reflected the New Era in the life of Downton, where they accept a film crew descending on them in exchange for a fee - welcome, however distasteful - and thus it also allowed them to reflect the changes in the film industry through the latest innovation of the "talkies".
However, I'm sure the many fans of Downton would love it whatever the intricacies of the plot (or lack thereof).

Posted on June 8, 2022 at 7:53 PM. Category: Art and Culture. | Comments (0)

Tuesday May 31, 2022

Books in May

  • The Cook by Ajay Chowdhury
    BOM-TheCook.jpg Overall, despite its having a decent plot and potentially interesting characters, this book was not really to my taste. I don't think that should put anyone else off reading it - my taste is by no means everyone's. Kamil Rahman appeared first in The Waiter, and although I prefer to read books in order, when the publishers via Netgalley kindly offered me Kamil's second outing to review, I decided to read it first. I feel that may have been my mistake. Reviews of The Waiter, explicitly mention the vivid interweaving of cultures by alternating between past events in Kolkata and the present in London being so enjoyable. However, unlike the first book, the action here is based solely in London, and I found it very hard to engage with the characters and the communities. Even though I the fault may be with me, (in that the age and background of the players is well outside my demographic), I think the author should have made me engage more, and thus given me more of an interest in things about which I know little. I have the slight impression that the author said all he wanted to about the characters in the first book, (perhaps an indication that they are a little shallow?). Even the themes of homelessness and domestic abuse - which are shocking and ever-present in our society - failed to raise the emotions in the way they should have.
    Despite the good story, I felt Kamil's investigation came across as implausible; the concept of a familiar crew getting together to solve a mystery on their own smacked almost of children's books. All books with "amateur detectives" have this kind of inherent problem - I heard one experienced author saying: "why would a person in reality accept being questioned by anyone other than the police?". However, again, I think it's the author's job to answer that question, and make me suspend my disbelief. Despite all this, I am still keen to read "The Waiter", and I hope we might get improved characterisations as the series - and the author - progress.

  • A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz [Read by Rory Kinnear]
    BOM-ALineToKill.jpg Of course, as with most of Anthony Horowitz's (may I call you Tony? no?) output - I loved this next book in this series. The plot is good, the characters wonderful, and ... well, what more can I say?
    As this was an audio book - and I would say again what an appropriate reader they have found in Rory Kinnear - they followed an apparent trend, by including an interview with the author at the end. I found this really interesting, not only in Anthony's opinion and insights about writing this and other books, but in his sheer irrepressible enthusiasm for his craft. This is reminiscent of some anecdotes I heard from friends who worked with him in his youth in advertising, when "all he ever wanted to do was to write and write".
    I was also very pleased to discover that far more books are in plan for this series, (beyond the "three book deal"). True to the professional he is, Anthony explained that he will need to vary the form in those future books, and how he might do so, to avoid his own fictional role as "Watson" becoming stale.

  • Hot to Trot by M C Beaton with R W Green [read by Penelope Keith]
    BOM-HotToTrot.jpg As Marion Chesney died in 2019, I thought this would be the last Agatha Raising book I would read; however, this book credits Rod Green as a co-author, and it seems clear he will continue to write the Agatha books*. He makes it clear that Marion worked with him and supplied him with some future storylines - as well as approving his first few chapters on her behalf - before she passed away. I think he really has done a good job, although I do detect a slight mellowing - and I suspect he will be unable to bring himself to make Agatha quite as outrageously foolish as she has been under Marion's watch. (I always likened Agatha to an adult version of Blyton's Noddy - he is based on naughty 3 year old mentality, while she is a naughty 50 year old.)
    * R W Green also seems to be continuing the Hamish McBeth series - a delight yet to come for me - I loved the TV series with Robert Carlyle, and was rather put off to discover that it and he ("not a Highlander!") were intensely disapproved of by Marion. I hope sooner or later Green will achieve full credit for the books that he's responsible for.

  • Swallowdale and Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome
    [Read by Gareth Armstrong] BOM-Swallowdale.jpg BOM-PeterDuck.jpg
    Swallowdale takes place the year after Swallows and Amazons. The Swallows - so excited with the prospect of another summer holiday in the Lake District - have to deal with an accident which holes their boat, putting it out of action for the duration of the story (a couple of weeks); this means they cannot camp on Wild Cat Island until it is mended. Instead they find a "secret" valley in which to camp, and a cave - both of which in fact remembered by their relatives from when they were children. Not to mention the "shipwreck" itself at the start of the book, again, there is a very scary element when a sudden mist descends while the the two youngest children (by then, aged only 8 and 10) are making their way back to camp on their own after an "expedition", and they become lost. Once again - despite knowing the outcome - this is especially frightening to read as an adult where you can not only clearly see that, for all their certainty, they are nowhere near where they should be, as they try to follow the (wrong) beck, but you can also fully understand the true peril of being lost and exposed on the fells.
    Peter Duck is quite a different sort of book. Although it still features the S&As, and although it is described very realistically, it is definitely a bit of a tall tale of adventure. Peter Duck himself is a (fictional) old seafaring man living in retirement on the Norfolk Broads. He is referenced in Swallowdale more or less as Titty's imaginary friend, and she names the "secret" cave after him. It is suggested that this is a story made up while the S&As were staying on a Norfolk wherry with Captain Flint, during the winter between the first two books*. Because of he nature of the story, Ransome has a degree of freedom to write an exciting thriller with somewhat larger than life villains and heroes - and yet at the same time staying on the edge of reality - definite shades of Treasure Island.
    * [I see wikipedia describes it as "metafiction"]

Posted on May 31, 2022 at 9:57 AM. Category: Books of the Month. | Comments (0)

Sunday May 29, 2022

Bletchley Park


I was unexpectedly invited to join a friend and (long ago) colleague on a "works outing" through the company social club (* see note).

It was a terrific day out, and the group was treated to an excellent lunch and tour of the site - and of course we got to see the (or one of the) all important enigma machines. I could thoroughly recommend it as a day out for anyone. The atmosphere of the place has been recreated with dim lighting, recording, and projections - everything looking as though the occupants had just stepped out for a moment.

Below is the bright and airy Library inside the Mansion - but the huts where the coders worked were more or less windowless and very eerie. [And highly reinforced externally with concrete structures.]



Towards the end of the afternoon Sally and I went across to the National Museum of Computing, which is adjacent to the site. The staff gave us 100% attention and considering it was the end of the day, were still stunningly committed to their task of explaining the history of the machines on display. I was totally gripped - Sally rather less so, as by that time we were both pretty tired and still had to drive home....
We still managed a retail visit to stock up on our "careless talk costs lives" coasters, and the posters about saving gas and electricity, which I felt highly appropriate to display in our house today... though maybe not in order to build more aircraft...

* Note: It's a real shame that after a century of existence, this year sees the demise of our "works social clubs" after the company announced they will no longer support them. Personally, I think it's really mean spirited since the cost involved - the level of actual monetary support having been progressively cut year on year since I joined in the 1980s - must be really trivial for such a large multinational (and profitable) organisation. However, I also see that the reality is that the interest in the clubs has dwindled. Frankly, I think younger employees probably have better things to do with their free time, with social media filling this particular gap, enabling them to more easily access a "club" environment on a broader scale. This is not true for the "retirees" section though; although retirees potentially have the same opportunity for broader social interactions, the club enabled them to retain those loose bonds with old colleagues that they no longer met every day at work - every outing was a kind of class reunion.

Posted on May 29, 2022 at 7:46 PM. Category: Art and Culture. | Comments (0)

Thursday May 26, 2022

Betchworth Castle Walk


Following the relatively uninteresting (and hot) walk along the river Mole last month, I was told that one could walk in the opposite direction on a footpath to Brockham - so we did. After stopping for a cup of tea and a cake at the Reading Room coffee and cake house in the village, we walked back and took a diversion following signs to Betchworth Castle. The latter is not a castle but a derelict medieval house, in process of being saved as a scheduled monument.



Below is an interesting object sighted on the banks of a fishing lake, on the way to Brockham. Someone has set up a wooden hunter - viewed through the hedgerow, it certainly had us fooled for a while...!


Posted on May 26, 2022 at 3:36 PM. Category: Days Out. | Comments (0)

Saturday May 14, 2022

Sonning - Busman's Honeymoon


Lord Peter Wimsey - upper crust sleuth - has married his lovely fiancee, Harriet Vane. But his honeymoon bliss is shattered when the dead body of the house's previous owner turns up in the cellar.

It seems long ago now that I signed up for this outing to The Mill - and after much rescheduling - here we are again. I did hear a radio production of this story in 2014 with Ian Carmichael, from which I remember the plot was slight enough and a cactus played a leading role. Nonetheless, (ignoring the cactus who was a bit wooden), the acting in this production was probably the best I have seen at Sonning* - at best it's challenging in such a small and intimate space. James Sheldon as Lord Peter was really excellent, convincingly depicting Wimsey's determined gaiety as he tries to overcome his somewhat fragile mental state, as well as his sheer joy at being with Harriet (Kate Tydman). I should really mention all the cast as they were a brilliant set of experienced supporting actors - and I was delighted to find Noel White stepping up as the police Inspector one again, (though the audience refrained from cheering on this occasion and probably quite appropriately as it was a less tongue-in-cheek production!).
I also need to say - the meals provided at the Mill are really excellent, and it was so good to enjoy the experience with the usual group of friends and colleagues, especially now I have retired.

* I was interested to read a rather critical review which to me hardly described the same play that I saw - all I can say is it must have been an off day, and since the reviewer admits, he may have eaten too much beforehand I can only conclude it affected his judgement, though why it would have done so negatively I cannot imagine...

Posted on May 14, 2022 at 3:43 PM. Category: Art and Culture. | Comments (0)