Books, life the universe

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Machines just annoy me

Our Boilerman came and fixed the boiler yesterday afternoon. It was fine when he left - had gone off and on a couple of times just how it should - no problems. Today it's gone wrong again and won't fire. Grhhh!! Having been perfectly reliable for 7 years it is now playing up and costing money. It's a pretty simple basic boiler with very little that can actually go wrong with it but it seems as though everything is going wrong at the moment.

Am I the only one who gets really rattled by such things happening? I find it just very uncomfortable and unsettling. I don't even like people coming for routine servicing and it feels as though they are invading my personal space. Next Tuesday the alarm is having its routine service and I shall go out because I need to go into Boston anyway to start doing Christmas shopping so that will be a good excuse. Let's hope by then we've got the boiler sorted as well though I know Boilerman is very busy at the moment.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Another Bibliomemoir

Having read Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing it seemed only fair to read Rick Gekoski's Outside of a Dog. The author is an American who has spent much of his adult life in England. He studied for his Doctorate at Oxford and went on to lecture at Warwick in English literature. The book is about the books he read and how they affected him. It is also about his marriage to Barbara - which ended after 30 years - and his two children Anna and Bertie. He worries he introduced Anna to the wrong books when as an adult she writes a book about serial killers.

He is unblushingly honest about his faults and failings. He tries writing a novel and fails dismally and admits he never has anything original to say. He leaves his secure job at Warwick to build up his rare book business and sets out to read himself back to normality by reading thrillers. University life has turned him into someone he does not like or recognise.

As a rare book dealer he meets many famous people - Kim Philby's widow in Moscow and Graham Green in Antibes and makes a better living than he did as a university lecturer. He writes a book about football which he thoroughly enjoys doing and is thrilled when it is published, though he spends years failing to write a book about D H Lawrence.

I enjoyed the book and loved the author's style of writing and I was left wondering why I have never come across him before. I recommend it to anyone who loves books and reading.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

1930s Crime Story

I've read David Roberts' Edward Corinth and Verity Browne stories before but I was less than impressed with one published a couple of years ago called Something Wicked. At that point I seriously considered not reading any more, but as I'd enjoyed all the rest I thought I'd give the series another go and read No More Dying. It was enjoyable.

Edward and Verity are engaged - in spite of the fact that Edward is the son of a Duke and she is a member of the Communist Party. It is 1939 and war is imminent. Joseph Kennedy is the American Ambassador in London and both Edward and Verity need to speak to him. Edward because he's working for MI5 and trying to thwart an apparent plot to assassinate Winston Churchill which might have originated at the Embassy; and Verity because her Communist Party boss, David Griffith-Jones wants her to get to know Kennedy and because her newspaper boss wants her to interview him. Both Edward and Verity end up as guests at the Astors' home at Cliveden - where the trouble begins.

This book flows much better and the dialogue is more believable than Something Wicked and Verity's crisis of conscience over the Communist Party is well done. I really enjoyed this one. I have its successor - Sweet Sorrow - to read now and I'm enjoying that one as well.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


I finished S J Parris's Heresy last night and I think it was worth reading. As mentioned before Giordano Bruno is an excommunicated monk now working for Elizabeth I's spymaster Walsingham in England. He is sent to Oxford University to try and find out how many Catholics there are at Lincoln College. He has reasons of his own for going there as he wants to track down a book he is particularly interested in.

Shortly after he arrives there is an attack on one of the masters by a large dog as a result the man dies - before he can tell Bruno something he particularly wanted him to know. Bruno himself is suspicious of various people and feels he is being watched and his room searched - added to which he is attracted to the Rector's clever daughter - Sophia. There follows a series of murders and Bruno encounters a sinister book seller who may be able to help him in his search. This is a fast paced story with some interesting characters and the author brings 16th century Oxford vividly to life. This is an author and a series to watch.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Telling Tales

Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes by Melissa Katsoulis is really good. It looks like a fake Penguin paperback of the old orange and cream design.
There are famous and not so well known hoaxes starting with Chatterton's poetry and William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare papers. Many of those quoted are American and the author points out there also seem to be a disproportionate number of literary hoaxes from Australia.
A hoax which intrigued me was a recent one and I remember reading about it at the time. It involved Bevis Hillier and A N Wilson. Both authors wrote biographies of John Betjeman with Bevis Hillier weighing in with a prestigious 3 volume job and A N Wilson penning something rather more lightweight. Hillier was peeved to hear his long time enemy Wilson was writing a biography of Betjeman and he sent him a faked letter supposedly from Betjeman to a lover. Wilson did not check its authenticity and published it in his own book. The first letter of each sentence of this epistle spelled out 'A N Wilson is a shit'. Wilson seems to have put a brave face on it - at least in public - and simply had the passage removed from later editions of the books.
Amongst other hoaxes which caught my attention was one perpetrated by a late night DJ on an American radio station. He and his listeners invented a book called I Libertine - supposedly by a chap called F R Ewing. They all went into book shops asking for the book until eventually they created such a buzz that people not in on the hoax were claiming to have the read the book and met the author. The DJ decided he'd have to come clean about it when it turned up on a church's list of banned books. The book was eventually written at the behest of a publisher and sold well with the royalties going to charity.
This is a fascinating book with many hoaxes I hadn't heard of before. It raises some interesting questions about the dividing line between fact and fiction and about how people react when they're taken in by a hoax. I love it and would recommend it to anyone interested in literature or indeed in human nature. It is written with a wry humour which fits the subject well.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Storm in a teacup

I'm half listening to a recording of the infamous Question Time with Nick Griffin. What a load of rubbish. Whatever you think of the BNP and its policies they are a legal political party and he should at some point have appeared on such a programme. The problem as far as I can see is that no one can set aside their emotions and debate the issues in any sort of analytical fashion. We need free speech - even if we don't agree with what is said.

I think the BNP have probably crystallised some of the things that many people were thinking but maybe they've not done it in the right way. I know from my own reactions to some of the views put forward by the BNP that there is a lot more going on under the surface of the whole argument. Some rather unpleasant archetypes are being given a lot of exercise in the public sphere at the moment.

I do think it's very interesting that the main political parties are angry about the whole thing. Why? Don't they like free speech? Or is it all right provided people are saying things which confirm their own beliefs?

Friday, 23 October 2009

Hamish Macbeth

Even though I read M C Beaton's Agatha Raisin books I'd never bothered with the author's other series - Hamish Macbeth. Having just read A Highland Christmas and really enjoyed it I can't see why I've never read any before.

Hamish is a village policeman in the north of Scotland. He's a bit fed up because everyone seems to be going away for the holiday and he is left at home working. There isn't even any decent crime to investigate - just a missing cat and some stolen Christmas lights. But he soon cheers up when he realises Mrs Gallagher - whose cat has gone missing - is frightened of something or someone. This is a problem worthy of his skills.

I loved the characters and the way Hamish himself sets about solving the crimes. This is excellent light reading with enough of a mystery to keep you guessing until the end. I shall certainly be looking out for more of this series.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Books books and more books

Are books and reading addictive? I'm sure they are. The only time in my life when I didn't read very much was the 4 years from 1996 to 2000 when I used to spend a lot of time doing cross stitch instead - but even then I used to read embroidery magazines, use the Internet and read the occasional book. Since 2000 I've gone back to reading - helped by the fact that for 5 years I was working away from home and had a great deal of time to read in hotels in the evenings.

Now I have even more time to read which I am really enjoying. I've never understood why some people think it's sad to read and you really should get out more. I think that's something people have said to me from when I first learnt to read! I always used to take out the maximum number of books from the library even as a child. When I was about 11 or 12 we lived about 5 minutes walk from the library and in school holidays I used to walk there nearly every day to get out my maximum of two books.

Then when I was in my late teens I can remember reading my way through the whole of Agatha Christie one summer holiday. I would call in at the library when it opened and then spend the day on the beach at the north end of Lowestoft among the sand dunes. Bliss!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Gloomy day today

I'm not gloomy but the weather definitely is - wet and dull. At least the lawn looks better and not so brown. I feel a long winter coming on. The good side is I can curl up with a good book - or several.

Maybe more later - there seems nothing much to say today.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The advantage of posting reviews on Amazon . . .

. . . is that you sometimes receive e-mails from publishers and authors saying would you like some books to review. As I did today. The person who e-mailed me had gone through my wish list as well and fortunately several of that publisher's books were on it. So a good reason for maintaining a wish list as well.

I did turn down an offer a week or so ago because the book offered just didn't look like my sort of thing but generally what I have been offered so far fits my tastes. It's beginning to look as though my writing in future is going to consist of book reviews but as I enjoy doing them and I enjoy reading the books this is no hardship.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Currently reading . . .

John Mortimer's Rumpole Rests His Case. I think this was originally intended to be the last ever Rumpole book as he has a heart attack in the last story. John Mortimer did say after Leo McKern died he would not write any more because he could not envisage another actor playing Horace Rumpole. He was of course persuaded to write Rumpole and the Primrose Path, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders and The Anti-Social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole. Then Penguin have just published a collection of the Rumpole stories written at various times for magazines and newspapers - which I'm pleased about as I haven't read any of them before so I'm saving it for Christmas.

I've gone back to Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots which is fascinating though difficult to read because it is over 700 pages and a very heavy paperback - not ideal for reading in bed.

I've just started reading Justin Pollard's Secret Britain: The Hidden Bits of our History - which features a section on the exploits of Arthur Ransome in Russia! I've also started a book called Heresy by S J Parris which features Giordano Bruno as a detective working for Francis Walsingham to unravel some grisly murders in Elizabethan Oxford while is searching for a copy of the works of Hermes Trismegistus. I've read about 50 pages and it looks good so far.

A pretty eclectic selection I think!

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Arthur Ransome and Safari exploits

I have finally ploughed my way through to the end of The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers. I did find it interesting - even though I haven't read Swallows and Amazons. A large part of the book is Ransome's exploits in Bolshevik Russia which I found excessively confusing. He eventually married - as his second wife - Trotsky's former secretary. He also worked - officially and unofficially - for the British Secret Service. The big question is did he also work for Russia? The book leaves the reader to make up their own mind. There was very little about his successful later years following the publication of Swallows and Amazons and its successors. It was an interesting book - though heavy going at times.

I've also just finished Don't Look Behind You: True Tales of a Safari Guide by Peter Allison. The author's love of Africa shines throughout this book as well as his love of the animals. There are some hair raising incidents with the author getting on the wrong side of elephants lions and tigers but there are also some sad incidents where the author and his colleagues cannot intervene when animals are in danger. The book is almost as good as going on safari.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Arthur Ransome

I'm still ploughing through a biography of Arthur Ransome and finding it a little heavy going as the greater part of it is a history of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. Apparently Ransome was suspected of being a Bolshevik spy though he seems to have spent a lot of time spying for Great Britain on an unofficial basis. For some reason the powers that be in Russia seemed to trust him even though he was English and a journalist for the Daily News at the time. Very cloak and dagger. I will finish it but I really should go back and read all the complicated toings and froings but as I'm not really sufficiently interested I don't think I shall be doing so.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Hated words

I've only heard my current least favourite from a few people and recently found out it is used by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear . Which said it all really. The hated word/expression is T'Interweb - sometimes also heard as T'Internet. What's wrong with calling it the Internet or the Web - either of those say what is. It makes my skin crawl - though I don't know why. My last manager at work used it all the time - first time he used it I had to ask for a translation! I heard it again recently and was reminded how I used to flinch every time it was used. I'm not usually a pedant as far as language is concerned and other popular expressions only annoy me because they're used all the time - e.g. singing from the same hymn sheet; it's not rocket science; across the piece; at the end of the day; by close of play. . . . But this particular one really gets to me.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Secret Shopper Unwrapped

I did enjoy Kate Harrison's The Secret Shopper Unwrapped apart from not particularly liking one of the main characters. Emily is living with Will and Freddie -her small son from her marriage to Duncan. She is one of those silly women who is only able to see things from her own point of view and wants her life to be perfect. She does change slightly by the end of the book and I agree her ex-husband is something of a monster but even so she seems to be not terribly realistic.

The other main characters - Sandie and Grazia are interesting and have a bit more substance to them. If there is a third book in the series I may not bother to read it as I must admit I found myself skim reading it before the end. That's the trouble I think with reading more non fiction some of the lighter women's fiction doesn't hold my attention any more.

I have recently been told on a forum on Amazon that 'I have probably never lifted a finger to help anyone in the whole of my sorry little life' Oh right then - you obviously know all about me. The person concerned made this statement after I said I wasn't too interested in the origins of goods I bought as long as they were legal. I said child labour in other countries or the fate of the Amazon rain forest was not high up on my agenda of concerns. For those remarks I am accused of being sanctimonious. I did ask politely for some evidence of all these evils so that I could assess it for myself but I was told 'It's good to be opinionated but not if you need to be educated on every point you strive to make'. I presume from the vitriolic nature of this response that I have got under someone's skin. To me discussion is all about exchange of views - if you have evidence which will cause me to reconsider my views then I am interested in seeing it. But if all you do is criticise me personally for holding such views, without providing verifiable evidence which will convince me otherwise there is little point in the discussion. It's a real shame there are so many trolls about on the Internet.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Agatha Raisin

I started reading M C Beaton's Agatha Raisin: There Goes the Bride last night and found myself still reading a couple of hours later. If you prefer your crime novels not too violent and with an unconventional heroine then this series is excellent. The current book is the 20th in the series. Agatha - along with many of her fellow villagers - had been invited to her ex husband - James Lacey's - wedding. Unfortunately the bride is shot and killed before she can make it to the altar and Agatha is asked to investigate as she runs a detective agency. This looks like being one of the best in the series.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Feedback on reviews

I had someone leave a comment on one of my Amazon reviews saying they'd found my review so interesting they'd bought the book. It was Kate Ellis' Playing With Bones. The person who left the comment said they were really enjoying the book. It makes me feel reviewing everything I read is worthwhile when I get comments like that. It's the same with authors taking the trouble to e-mail me about my reviews. It gives me a nice warm glow!

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Howard's End is on the Landing

Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing is an enthralling read for anyone who loves books. I've read about 50 pages so far and I'm finding I want to ration my reading of it so that it lasts longer. It is one of those hard to classify books which would probably not have been published if the author wasn't relatively well known. It is not just about what she read during the year when she decided not to buy anything new but also about how books have influenced her life and about authors she has known. Not just a list of books but an inspiration to try other authors. I'm not at all sure I agree with her about Charles Dickens - maybe I need to give him another chance. But agree or disagree this is a fascinating book.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Currently reading

A biography of Arthur Ransome - The Last Englishman: the Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers. Even though I haven't read Swallows and Amazons I'm still finding it interesting. For some reason I always think of famous children's authors as perfect people - and yet they are far from perfect. As a child and young man Arthur Ransome comes over as unbearably self centred and demanding - writing to his mother to tell her to send him a particular book -'I want it'. No please or thank you. You never know whether it could have been a family joke but it certainly comes over as demanding. I get the impression the author doesn't particularly like him either.

Also re-reading Rumpole on Trial by John Mortimer - for the umpteenth time.

Then there's Kate Harrison's The Secret Shopper Unwrapped. It is a sequel to The Secret Shopper's Revenge and I'm not finding it as good. Sometimes sequels shouldn't be written and this is one of those cases I think.

I have just received a book by Susan Hill called Howard's End is on the Landing. She realised she had a great many unread books and books she wanted to re-read so she decided not to buy any books for a year and just read what she already owned. Hummm - maybe I ought to do the same thing?

Thursday, 8 October 2009


No no I'm not considering matrimony at the moment. Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met his Match by Wendy Moore is fascinating reading and as exciting as any historical novel. Mary Eleanor Bowes had a much better education than most women of her generation. She married the Earl of Strathmore and found her freedom curtailed by her status. They had 5 children before he died and it was only when she became a widow that her life really became what she wanted it to be.

She wrote poetry and plays as well as studying botany and financing plant hunting expeditions. She was wealthy in her own right - provided she remained unmarried. As the law stood at the time she couldn't hold any property or money once she married. Unfortunately she was tricked into marriage with the penniless soldier Andrew Robinson Stoney and found her life completely changed. She couldn't do anything without his permission, was beaten, raped and burned, half starved and dressed in rags. She was portrayed by Stoney as eccentric if not insane.

Mary Eleanor virtually lost her will to live before she managed to escape with the help of her servants who could see how her husband was treating her. The law permitted divorce but it was a long drawn out process. The law also permitted men to beat their wives and keep them confined for their own good. Even when Mary Eleanor escaped her problems weren't over. She tried to regain control of her fortune and did eventually succeed though only because her lawyers were willing to work for nothing. Stoney kidnapped her from the streets of London and held her captive. She was rescued by the tenants of her family's estates and continued her legal fight for freedom.

The book brings the 18th century vividly to life and shows how women were treated by the law at that time. There is an index, comprehensive bibliography and notes on each chapter and the book is written in an approachable style with plenty of quotes from original documents. I thought the portrayal of the servants was really good and their devotion to Mary Eleanor herself was way beyond the call of duty. This is a really interesting book which paints a comprehensive picture of what it was like to live in the 18th century.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Nice/nasty smells

KCM listed his 10 nice and 10 nasty smells on Zen Mischief the other day so here are mine - after much thought.

  • Tea - I have to try and avoid inhaling the aroma if I'm making it because it makes me feel instantly sick
  • Rotting fish
  • Rubbish in general
  • The perfume Charlie
  • Warm milk - cold milk doesn't have the same smell at all
  • Unwashed people - fresh sweat is fine but old is not
  • Sewage
  • Silage
  • Rotting cabbages/cauliflowers - something we get a lot round here
  • Chlorine in swimming pools


  • Bread baking
  • Coffee
  • Carnations
  • Clean laundry - whatever washing powder is used
  • Newly mown grass
  • Honeysuckle flowers
  • The perfume Opium
  • Onions frying - has to be while they are frying not the lingering smell afterwards
  • The sea
  • Vegetation after rain

I actually struggled to find 10 that I really hate though I could have found a lot more that I love.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Family History

I've been wandering far and wide in the outer reaches of my family tree today and following up various tenuous connections. I think I might have uncovered a link to the poet John Clare who was born near Peterborough in the late 1700s. I had noticed one of my Slator/Pepper ancestors had married someone whose surname was Clare but had not connected the two before. Then I looked up where John Clare was born and it is in the right area and he was the son of an agricultural labourer so there could well be a connection there. Even if there isn't a direct connection the Clares I'm distantly related to are from the right area. You never know who you're going to stumble across next.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Plot and Wedlock

No, not another conspiracy theory but the title of a book by Madeleine Bunting. It is the history of an acre of land her family owns in Yorkshire not far from Scotch Corner. She has woven together thoughts about her father and his life and the history of this acre of moorland. I liked the concept but so far - about 120 pages - the execution seems not quite right. It is a beautifully produced book though I could have done with a few more pictures.

One of the other books I'm reading is Wedlock; How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met his Match by Wendy Moore. It's about Mary Eleanor Bowes who married first of all the Earl of Strathmore and secondly an Irish soldier - who is the worst husband of the title. It was this lady who provided the Bowes half of the Queen Mother's maiden name - Bowes Lyon. So far it is fascinating reading. Mary Eleanor was far better educated than many women of her day and found herself to a certain extent a fish out of water. There were other highly educated women around at the time - such as Mary Wortley Montague - though they were regarded as eccentric and not to be emulated. This is a well written book which brings the 18th century vividly to life.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Time differences and depressing newspapers

I seems when I posted on what I thought was Tuesday it was actually Wednesday . . . I had forgotten that this is an American not a British site!! Oh well I aim to post one in every twenty four hours and generally I manage it. But I suppose if I write a post about 8.00am in the morning and don't then post again for more than 48 hours it'll upset the dates . . . But actually I haven't done too badly with that particular new year resolution and I think I've only missed two or three days in 9 months.

I was horrified by the case of the nursery workers abusing children. In fact horrified doesn't really come close. In my opinion this is one of the most despicable crimes. But I don't agree with the huge amount of vigilante comments which I've seen on the internet. These people will be punished by the law and the punishment should be left to the law. To threaten vengeance makes us uncivilised. For all those arrested and tried there must be thousands who are viewing such images and who also should be punished. I feel so sorry for the children and I hope they were too young to have conscious memories of the abuse. Of course what it may do to their subconscious minds is unimaginable.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


I was interested to see many people who don't seem to understand even basic geology are attributing the earthquakes in the Pacific to climate change. This is a natural event which cannot be predicted or prevented - as far as we know. Yes I'm desperately sorry for those affected by it but I really don't see why the rest of us need feel guilty.

I got into an argument on a forum yesterday about ethical purchases - big mistake. I only joined in because everyone was saying how dreadful it is to buy cheap clothes made by child labour. I said I really didn't have any interest in assuring myself of the origins of any clothes I bought - provided what I was buying was legally sold. I also said that as I buy many of my clothes second hand I felt I was doing my bit. I was accused of being amoral and not caring about the effects of my actions on other people. So several people on that forum now think I'm a really horrible person. I'm afraid I am amused rather than shamed.

These are not issues I'm interested in - maybe I should be but I get a bit tired of being told what to think and believe about the world I live in and I prefer to make up my own mind. The ethical/climate change/green lobbyists have been exploited by certain bits of the political spectrum for their own purposes - which I dislike. Added to which many people who support these ideas do so unthinkingly. I have not made up my mind about any of it yet - except that I think climate change is natural and not something man in his wisdom can control or influence. I don't like waste and will recycle anything I can - but that is far as I go. I cannot take on the troubles of the world so I pick and choose