About Me

My photo
I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 31 July 2014

"How to teach Quantum Physics to your dog" by Chad Orzel

A research scientist explains the basic principles of quantum physics to Emmy, a dog more concerned with chasing bunnies and evil squirrels.

I did some physics for my degree (which was before some of the stuff in this book was discovered) and I have taught A-level Physics for many years so I understand some of the basic principles. Nevertheless, Orzel gave me a better understanding of the Uncertainty Principle (certainly better than Michael Frayn's who confuses Uncertainty and Chaos Theory in his book The Human Touch) and its necessary consequences: zero-point energy, quantum tunnelling and virtual particles. He also writes very clearly about the difference between the Copenhagen and the Many-Worlds interpretations of the Schroedinger's Cat problem. I'm not sure I was convinced by the Quantum Zeno effect; I'm not sure I understood it properly. I might have to read through this section again. I certainly failed to understand how Bell's Theorem proves that Quantum Theory is a non-local model and how that in turn leads to quantum teleportation; I vaguely understood that quantum teleportation transmits states not particles but I got completely lost as to what this meant.

So I basically got the stuff I understood a bit before and failed to properly grasp the stuff that was new to me. That means that this is not the best explained Physics book I have ever read although, to be fair, it must be the most ambitious. It's like one of those Olympic dives where you have to assess both degree of difficulty and success in carrying out the dive. I guess this means it gets high but not perfect marks.

The dog? The dog helps in the way that ad breaks help in difficult documentaries. The dog gave my brain a chance to make a cup of mental tea and rest a while before coming back to full exertions. Lots of ads are funnier though.

July 2014; 265 pages

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

"Dissolution" by C.J.Samson

Matthew Shardlake is sent by Thomas Cromwell to the Monastery of St Donatus on the Sussex coastal marshes to investigate the murder of another royal servant. Hump-backed Shardlake and his good-looking sidekicj Mark Poer enter a corrupted monastic world in which every cardinal sin is on display. One monk is gay, lusting after Mark, another is a Christianized Moor from Spain, another is a harsh disciplinarian. More crimes ensue. Who is the murderer?

This is a classic whodunnit, like a mountain stream: twisting, fast-paced, and sparkling (although a little shallow). Homage is paid to Eco's Name of the Rose (the monastic library contains a copy of a lost work by Aristotle although it is a fake) and Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles (the murderers attempt to escape across the marshes) but it stands on its own and there is a nice twist at the end.

July 2014; 439 pages

Also see later books in the Shardlake series: Dark Fire and Heartstone.

"The Naming of the Dead" by Ian Rankin

Inspector John Rebus and sidekick DS Siobhan Clarke seek a serial killer after the possessions of three victims of unsolved murders turn up near Gleneagles on the eve of the G8 Summit there in July 2005.

The week of the G8 Summit was momentous. Scotland was under siege from 'Make Poverty History' marchers and the anarchists and rioters who went with it. Siobhan's parents are on the march and Siobhan suffers from the split loyalties between police trying to keep order and the protesters, especially when her mother is hit over the head while demonstrating. Was it a rogue policeman? Throughout this multi-layered novel the thin divide between goodies and baddies is shown to be blurred: Rebus has often crossed this line before but will Siobhan? Is the charismatic local councillor a good guy or does he run the gang of local hooligans and is he angling to replace gangster Ger Cafferty as Edinburgh's Mr Big?Is the Special Branch detective who repeatedly impedes the investigation doing this for good 'security' reasons or is he in the pocket of an Arms dealer? Have the undercover cops gone native?

As well as G8, protests and rock concerts, this is the week in which London won the 2012 Olympics. The next day came the London 7/7 tube and bus bombings. This fantastic book, so much more than a genre whodunnit, weaves all these together in a general question about morality today. It has a strong plot which kept me reading, a large cast of brilliant multi-faceted characters and as many layers as an oil painting.

July 2014; 515 pages

Monday, 28 July 2014

"The Policeman and the brothel" by Theodore Dalrymple

In Victorian Jersey the amateur police force had to deal with a cluster of 3 murders in 3 months, the last being the fatal stabbing of a volunteer policeman by a brothel 'madam'. Dalrymple probes into this crime wave.

Except this is scarcely forensic history. rather, these events provide a springboard for Dalrymple to muse, somewhat at random, about the efficacy of the death penalty, police corruption then and now, morality and the press, and whatever else takes his fancy.

What else is he to do? There is no mystery about the crimes, no element of 'who really dunnit?'. The culprits are obvious. There is some investigation as to whether one of the murderers was insane within the meaning of the law but little else. There is an attempt, eventually, to trace what happened to those transported for life. But there is not enough material here to base a book. It should have been a pamphlet. Instead, Dalrymple pads it out with his political views. He also quotes newspaper articles verbatim and court transcripts verbatim to give himself many extra pages.

The book should have been (less than) half the length.

July 2014; 215 pages

Sunday, 20 July 2014

"The King is Dead" by Ellery Queen

This is a strange combination of a thriller with a classic locked room whodunnit mystery.

Ellery and his dad, Inspector Queen of NYPD, travel to a mysterious island where arms dealer 'King' Kane (Cain) Bendigo and his brothers Judah (Judas) and Abel rule a heavily militarised kingdom, an atomic scientist is kept in captivity and assorted world leaders are bribed. Heavy overtones of James Bond plots such as Dr No or You Only Live Twice, the megalomaniac rich man seeking to take over the world with his own private army in a mysterious location. This book was written in 1952.

The crime, the attempted assassination of the King, takes place in a sealed room in which only he and his wife are present. At exactly the same moment, Judah, heavily guarded by Ellery, raises an empty pistol and fires in the appropriate direction. Abel and other potential suspects are with Inspector Queen outside the door of the sealed room. No weapon is found in the room.

An impossible crime? Ellery delves into the King's background to find the truth.

Very easy to read (virtually one sitting although I could have put it down with little problem had I not been seeking to switch off my brain) and a classic puzzle. But the situation requires a greater suspension of disbelief than I could manage. Minimal characterisation, despite an attempt to provide a psychological motive to the killers.

June 2014; 294 pages


Saturday, 19 July 2014

"Peter Abelard" by Helen Waddell

This novel is based on the true-life story of Peter Abelard, a Scholastic philosopher who became famous as a rabble rousing teacher in the early 12th Century, then famous as the lover of Heloise and, after being castrated by Heloise's outraged family, again famous as a heretic forced to burn his book and finally famous again as a scholar and teacher. Some cv.

This novel was first published in 1933. It faithfully reflects that rather gentler age. There are no graphics details, the conversation of many characters breaks off into quotations and snippets of poetry (as presumably the academics of the 1930s did, and the pace of the book is gentle and refined.

It is an interesting book but of its period and therefore rather dated and somewhat slow.


Saturday, 12 July 2014

"Catherine the Great & Potemkin" by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This was a magnificent book.

The title is deceptive. This is a biography of Potemkin. Catherine II of Russia was his lover and his monarch and his political ally and a crucial part of his life but this book is about him and she is important background.

Potemkin was minor nobility but highly intelligent, giant in stature, extraordinarily handsome (they called him Alcibiades at school, presumably more for his physical beauty than at that time for his generalship), and extrememly energetic. He therefore stood out (literally). As a young guardsman he caught the eye of the new Empress who had succeeded her husband (first in a coup, then after having him murdered) and became her 'favourite'. Even after their affair ended (she had many lovers) he worked with her to annex lands from Poland and from Turkey; it is Potemkin who made the Crimea Russian.

But what marks this book out as an epic is the extraordinarily romantic nature of the tale. It starts with his death: the dying Prince asks to be taken out by his Cossacks into the countryside and 'dies on grass having lived on gold' as an eyewitness allegedly said. But it includes a secret marriage between Potemkin and Catherine, a vast chorus of lovers, many of them his nieces, a Cossack rebellion led by a Pretender and the most extraordinary cast of characters.

Walk on parts are accorded to Napoleon (who may have tried to enlist as a young soldier in Potemkin's armies), John Howard of prison reform (and Bedford) fame, George Psalmanazar, Casanova, the allegedly 2000 year old Comte de Saint-Germain, and Count Cagliostro, the quack and charlatan who later became involved in the Diamond Necklace affair which damaged the reputation of Marie Antoinette. There are also John Paul Jones, the father of the US Navy , who also fought for Potemkin, Francisco de Miranda who fought with Bolivar to liberate Venezuela, the wonderful Duchess of Kingston, a good time girl who got rich quick from marrying into nobility and then toured European palaces, scandalously and a crew of assorted noblewomen of dubious origins who were no better than the should have been (although even the true bred aristocracy seemed to have no compunction about hopping into bed with either Potemkin or Catherine and cuckolding their complacent spouses; the Countess of Bruce had a reputation as the lady who tried out Catherine's later favourites although once Catherine caught her in flagrante with Catherine's current boyfriend). A key colleague of Potemkin's was his engineer Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy, the philosopher.

I particularly loved Joseph II, Kaiser of Austro-Hungary, who travelled through Russia under the oncognito Comte de Falkenstein. He called himself 'first clerk of the state' and loved to travel with only one or two companions and bed down on a military mattress in a flea-bitten roadside inn. There weren't many in Russia so Potemkin turned mansions along the route into taverns, a sort of echo of the plot of She Stoops to Conquer that had been first performed seven years previously.

I absolutely loved this big book. It is big and occasionally heavy but the verve of the narrative and the dash of these wonderful characters make it every bit as good a read as the author's brilliant Young Stalin and incomparably better than his Jerusalem.

Must be read! July 2014; 557 words