About Me

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

Sunday, 30 August 2015

"A Pirate of Exquisite Mind" by Diana and Michael Preston

This is a biography of William Dampier, the first person to circumnavigate the world three times, who landed on the coast of Australia 80 years before Captain James Cook and who became the best selling author who inspired the new genre of travel writing as well as Robinson Crusoe (being on both the expeditions which marooned Alexander Selkirk and which rescued him) by Daniel Defoe (whose biography is reviewed here) and Gulliver's Travels. He is also responsible for a host of words including avocado, barbeque, chopsticks and sub-species.

But he started off as a buccaneer. Sailing to the West Indies he began working on a sugar plantation but his wanderlust soon got the better of him. He spent time as a logger before signing on as a pirate. His career in piracy was pretty lacklustre; in his first voyage he sacked a couple of towns but kept missing the rich prizes and he returned to England (having rounded Cape Horn and crossed the Pacific) after twelve years at sea with little to show for his trouble. His second voyage, as a captain of a scientific vessel for the Royal Navy was equally unsuccessful. Only on his third voyage, demoted to navigator under the command of Woodes Rogers, did he help in capturing a Spanish Galleon which earned him some thousands of pounds, enough to pay his debts after he had died. In all, he did better as an author.

The Prestons tell his tale in great detail which sometimes slows the narrative. A great deal of time is spent on the first voyage (to be fair, it was the longest, it took twelve years). But Dampier did so much and discovered so much that it is difficult to see how any less detail would be possible. Certainly the book is action packed to the extent that I got a little lost a times. I would have liked to see some (modern) maps to show exactly where he was at which time.

This is is an interesting biography of a fascinating man and well worth reading.

August 2015; 461 pages

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

"The Eustace Diamonds" by Anthony Trollope

This is the third in the Palliser series of novels following Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn but it certainly stands alone; there are occasional appearances by characters from the other novels but they are sufficiently explained (although you might not want to read them out of order in case you discovered who married whom which would be a bit of a spoiler).

Lizzie Greystock is a scheming, lying minx who persuades Lord Eustace to marry her; he soon dies having fathered a son. She is left the income (£4,000) from the Scottish estate for life and, so she claims, a £10,000 diamond necklace. But lawyers for the estate claim that the necklace is an heirloom. All is set for a legal battle in which possession is nine-tenths of the law.

She also wants to marry again, to gain a protector. She catches penniless Lord Faun in her wiles but he then wants to withdraw from the engagement because of the potential scandal about the necklace. So she then sets her cap at her cousin, barrister and MP (and also penniless) Frank Greystock. But he has pledged himself to governess Lucy Morris though all his friends tell him that he must break off this engagement because he cannot afford to marry on his barrister's income whilst still having the expenses that accrue to an MP (unpaid in these days). Every man who comes close to Lizzie is captivated by her beauty and turned inside out by her verbal dexterity in which she recasts all their honourable motives as bad and makes them believe that the only thing that they can do is to marry her; if she will have them.

About half way through the book, after a glorious invocation of the joys of fox-hunting, we meet a set of penniless adventures Lord George, Sir Griffin, Mrs Carbuncle and her daughter Lucinda Roanoke, and the preacher Mr Emilius (a rather racist portrait of a foreigner from somewhere to the East who is both stereotypically greasy and insinuating but simultaneously stereotypically sexually enticing). With the arrival of this crew the story really takes off and the plot begins to develop.

What is remarkable is how well Trollope portrays the central character of Lizzie: she is hypnotically awful; we hate her but we realise that she is clever and manipulative. The way that she keeps justifying herself with the mantra that the diamonds were hers is beautifully done. The tension about Frank (will he be honourable and marry poor Lucy or will he be a rat and fall into Lizzie's snares?) had me hooked from very early on. And the other characters are brilliantly drawn: this is a social comedy driven by character and in this sense is superior to Dickens. Whilst deploring the racism (but that means reading using hindsight) I was impressed by the way Trollope made it clear that Mr Emilius, though a liar to equal Lizzie, is sexually magnetic. Dickens is so black and white but Trollope makes you see the weakness in his heroes (even goody two shoes Lucy can get snappy) and the humanity in his villains.

Yes, it could do with some editing. The first half is too long and too dry. But the second half rattles along. This is a great novel.

Also on this blog, the next novels in the Palliser series:

  • Phineas Redux: in which Phineas is tried for murder
  • The Prime Minister: another unscrupulous foreign adventurer seduces another English gentlewoman for her father's money
  • The Duke's Children: Can Mr Palliser apply his political principles to his own family as his children threaten to make yet more unsuitable marriages?
But The Eustace Diamonds has easily the best female character of the series.


August 2015; 687 pages

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

"Adventures of a Black Bag" by A J Cronin

People of my age and older will remember Doctor Finlay's Casebook, the television series that starred Bill Simpson as Dr Finlay, Andrew Cruickshank as old Dr Cameron and Barbara Mullen as the housekeeper Janet, set in the fictional Scottish village of Tannochbrae.

These are some short stories about Dr Finlay, although they are mostly set in the industrial port of Levenford; Tannochbrae being a small village nearby. The stories are set in the pre-National Health days when you had to pay for the Doctor's consultation; one of the stories features the new and controversial diagnosis of Appendicitis and a number of the treatments involve little more than good food and bed rest. As a social document, the stories are interesting.

But I couldn't stand Dr Finlay. Not only is he a goody goody but he is as omniscient as God and as prone to performing miracles. Almost every story revolves around the way the wicked and naughty characters he encounters are brought back to the straight and narrow by this interfering and meddlesome healer who is able to do far more for their souls than for their bodies. He is a paragon of virtue and thoroughly dislikeable.

The stories themselves are very short, very simple moral fables. In this brief format, Cronin has little opportunity to develop character and most of those we encounter are thoroughly two-dimensional, selected for the role they will play in the plot, which is mostly to allow Finlay to redeem them.

A definite whiff of medical romance stories.

Other A J Cronin books in this blog:

  • The Keys of the Kingdom which is a full length novel with a real, complex character and is sooooooo much better than these short stories.


August 2015; 158 pages

Sunday, 16 August 2015

"At Home in the Universe" by Stuart Kauffman

Kauffman is a pioneering complexity scientist and this book endeavours to show how life could have emerged from a sufficiently large and diverse collection of molecules with autocatalysis. Despite being unable to point to an example where some scientist has successfully replicated the necessary reactions, his arguments are compelling. Complex networks of individual agents can give rise to emergent phenomena: life, consciousness and more. There is no need for a designer or an intelligence or indeed any external influence; you don't even need the agents to be purposeful or (in economic terms) rational. Given the right conditions of complexity (and in Kauffman's models, rather more than in those of Per Bak, there is a degree of tuning required to ensure that the parameters give rise to critical sustainability rather than subcritical inert stability or supercritical chaos), emergence will, er, emerge.

The phenomenon of self-organization means that systems not in thermodynamic equilibrium will create what Kauffman calls "order for free". The second law of thermodynamics continues, of course, to apply to systems in equilibrium, systems that are closed to inputs and outputs of matter and energy, in which entropy or disorder inevitably increases but Kauffman's systems are ones through which matter and energy flow.

Kauffman clearly finds these exciting. He keeps repeating his discovery that we are not the random products of chance, rather we are the inevitable results of the way the universe works. He is right, of course: this is a revolutionary thesis as important as the Copernican paradigm shift or Darwin's Natural Selection. But this is where I began to find the work a little muddled. His lyrical descriptions of the desert in bloom are presumably meant for the general reader but at the same time there is a lot of technical details about his theoretical models. On the other hand, when I try to understand more deeply these same models I am frustrated by gaps in the explanations. For example, he states a formula S = lnG and I think I know what he means by G but I am not certain; he is not clear. He tells us on page 163 that pleuromona has between 500 to 800 genes but on page 42 it is between "a few hundred to about a thousand". He explains that some systems can jump beyond the 'correlation length' of a fitness landscape but he never tells us how to measure this length. Perhaps this is just me not being clever enough or picking too many nits but a few minor changes could have really helped me understand this work.

This is an important and ground-breaking book. It would benefit from slightly better editing. August 2015; 304 pages.

Other works on this exciting topic:


Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:
  • The Wisdom of Crowds 
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
  • Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
  • Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes



Saturday, 15 August 2015

"Did she kill him? by Kate Colquhon

This is the story of Florence Maybrick, a young American married to James, an older man who is a merchant in Liverpool. Tensions lurk behind their solid Victorian middle-class front, in their house containing a cook, maids and a nanny for their two children. James has a mistress and Florence is flirting with another man. And then, after a short illness, James dies.

His brothers are convinced that he has been poisoned by Florence and suggest this to the doctors. Slowly, the cumbersome machinery of Victorian detection and justice swings into action.

The house is littered with Arsenic in many forms, chiefly as patent medicines. Did Florence use them to remove herself of a husband who was beginning to turn violent or did James poison himself through his hypochondria and an addiction to arsenic? Did he even die from arsenic or was it simply gastro-enteritis? Nothing in this case is what it seems.

What is particularly brilliant about the narration of this case is that Colquhon never tells you what is going to happen before it happens. At each stage of the case there is doubt about what will happen next. Did she do it? Will she get off? Slowly, inexorably, the story unfolds. It is as good as any thriller. The only way it is marred is when Colquhon spends rather too long judging the social circumstances by repeated reference to Victorian novels, especially to those of Henry James.

Otherwise a brilliant real-life whodunnit.

August 2015; 346 pages

Kate Colquhon also wrote the desperately exciting Mr Briggs' Hat about the first railway murder in Britain.

Monday, 10 August 2015

"The Keys of the Kingdom" by A J Cronin

The fictional life of a catholic priest from Scotland by a master of storytelling.

In many ways Father Francis Chisolm, the hero of Cronin's tale, reminded me of the whisky priest on Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. He is a very ordinary man, convinced of his own unfitness and inadequacy to serve God, who has an extraordinary faith based on a naive personal relationship with God, perpetually at odds with the Church hierarchy. His life, from being a rivet monkey in Tyneside shipyards, a recalcitrant student and seminarian, a curate battling for working men and women, to a Chinese missionary, is contrasted with that of his boyhood friend Anselm Mealy who rises through the church to become a fat and flabby Bishop. His unorthodox beliefs ("the best man I ever knew was an atheist"), his self-doubt, and his struggles (trying and failing to be a pacifist when a Chinese warlord is shooting at his mission) make him a Christ-like figure. And there were moments when it became so sad or so touching that I found it difficult to read. Sniff!

And just like the whisky priest he is convinced of his failure to the very end. But we know that, despite the scorn of the world, here is a true hero.

There's nothing fancy about Cronin's style. He tells a good story, with clearly drawn characters. Perhaps the characters are a little bit too baddy or goody and perhaps the coincidences are a little too obvious  but it was a real page turner with lots of action and a wonderful lead character. He might not have been a posh author but he could really spin a yarn. I'll have to locate some more of his work.

The Keys to the Kingdom was a 1944 film starring Gregory Peck (and earning him an Oscar nomination).

He also wrote The Citadel (his first book and a best-seller; its description of medicine in the 1920s was helpful in the setting up of the NHS), Hatter's Castle, The Stars Look Down (an inspiration for Billy Elliot) and created the character of Dr Finlay in Adventures of a Black Bag.

An incredible book. August 2015; 316 pages


Saturday, 8 August 2015

"On the Edge" by Edward St Aubyn

This novel follows a group of people as they travel to California for a week of meditation and new age workshops culminating in Tantric Sex.

It is wickedly funny in many places although I found myself uncertain as to whether St Aubyn was just poking fun at these people or whether he actually believed some of the nonsense they spouted. Certainly he seemed to be in agreement with at least some of the long lecture given by Adam towards the end of the book. And clearly the Tantric Sex worked for a number of the characters.

My favourite moment came when one character asked why God doesn't "alleviate our suffering" and answers that it is "because he doesn't see it as suffering" to which the other character replies: "Clearly he's less bright than one imagined." Another good moment came when the split between body and soul was dismissed as being analogous to the distinction between a rose and its scent.

But I found the first few chapters extremely difficult. Each chapter stared with a new set of characters and the second chapter is an eighteen page description of an LSD trip in the American desert. I found it very difficult to care about any character when they were introduced and dismissed so quickly, especially when their purpose seemed to be so that the author could mock them. The book didn't really hit its stride until we met the sceptical Peter who is just going through the mystical experiences in order to track down a woman he had sex with for three days and then we meet the equally sceptical Julian. (Why were the only real sceptics the two English men?)

In part I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh. The wit is caustic and can be very funny, the descriptions and observations sometimes lyrical and poetic but wit and poetry don't make a novel and I found the format too fragmented to be able to enjoy to the full the stories that were developing. In the end I didn't really care enough about the people.

August 2015; 278 pages

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

"Breakfast with the Borgias" by DBC Pierre

Computer Scientist Ariel Panek finds himself in heavy fog in a taxi making for a hotel on the Suffolk coast. He is desperate to send a message for his student waiting in Europe; he is due to go to a conference and hopes to arrange a dirty weekend with her but he has no mobile phone (cell phone) or wi fi connectivity.

The hotel is old fashioned. He still can't get connected and the kitchen is closed. So is the bar but in the residents' lounge he meets the Border family, a strange assortment of weirdos, drinking cocktails. Leonard the father is trying to arrange a business consortium and wants Ari to invest. Wheelchair bound Margot tries to connect with him by talking about quantum entanglement. Rob the son hides behind the curtain playing computer games. Ari definitely fancies Olivia the teenage daughter. Then anorexic Gretchen arrives with a mobile phone that actually works; she proceeds to dismantle it and use it to gouge a wound into her arm. Slowly, the situation becomes worse and worse and Ari finds himself trapped with these strange people, the games they are playing, and the lies they are telling.

A Hammer novel, this book is meant as a horror to be written in a single setting. As such it failed on both counts for me. There was also too much made of the difference between the quantum world and the classical world; as an ex-Physics teacher I think I understood most of this but I doubt the average reader would find this more than geek-padding. But what really makes this book stand out as a classic was the brilliant dialogue. Every character is driven by their own internal logic and every utterance they make conforms to this. But rarely does a whole conversation make sense. So you are trying to decipher what is happening to these people (and it keeps you guessing almost to the very end) and what the hell is going on. As such it is beautifully crafted and absolutely gripping.

DBC Pierre also wrote the brilliant if equally quirky Booker-prize-winning Vernon God Little. August 2015; 248 pages


Sunday, 2 August 2015

"Love on the Dole" by Walter Greenwood

Squalor and despair set in an industrial town in northern England in the 1930s. No matter how hard you work, you can never earn enough to life yourself out of poverty. You pawn your possessions and darn your clothes, your furniture is rented and if you need to borrow money you must find a local loan shark who will charge you extortionate amounts of interest. Bullies and bookmakers and small time criminals prosper; respectable hard-working people do all they can to stay afloat. Then the local engineering firm gets new machines or finds a cheaper source of labour and you lose your job, any possibility of making ends meet, and your self-respect. You can't even afford to love.

Despite its simplistic storyline and sometimes didactic nature, this is a classic story of penury and hopelessness which has a very real message for today.

August 2015; 256 pages