Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Books I Read In March

'Monstrous Regiment' by Terry Pratchett
This is one of those Pratchett books which highlights the problems of a writer becoming so great that no-one feels they can edit their books any more.  I found this the least humorous of the Discworld books I have read.  There have been many I have laughed out loud to, but this one really dragged.  It is very much in the style of 19th century stories about ruritanian kingdoms, in this case Borogravia a central Discworld duchy which has been inconclusively at war with its neighbour for many years.  It follows a group of new recruits, most human but also including a troll, an Igor and a vampire.  It is not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the bulk of them turn out to be women who have joined up either to escape abuse or to find a lost male relative/partner.  The trouble is that the characters wander around the countryside for much of the book with no clear destination in sight, leaving the reader feeling much the same about the book.  

There is gentle satire about army life, war movies and women dressed as men.  However, it is incredibly flabby and many elements are laboured and repetitive.  Some references, such as the vampire having flashbacks of the Vietnam War of our world, will not engage even adult readers let alone the general target audience of teenagers.  The book is terribly overwritten and even the conclusion in the castle that the unit relieves drags on and on.  Pratchett seems to have forgotten that the sharpest humour comes from tightly-written text not in hammering home supposed jokes.  This book would have been better for being cut by a third, around 150 pages.  It is well worth putting it alongside earlier Pratchett books, such as 'The Colour of Magic' (1983) published twenty years earlier and seeing how much shorter that book is.  I was very disappointed with this book.  I will not stop working my way through Pratchett's books but maybe will expect less of the newer ones.

'Hawksmoor' by Peter Ackroyd
This book came highly recommended to me by a friend, I think in part due to the similarity to my name and certainly because he loves the parts of London featured in the book.  I was very irritated by the book and regret having read it.  I was glad it was less than half the length of 'Monstrous Regiment'.  Though published in 1985 the book fits in with too many of those rambling, often drug-influenced books of the 1960s and 1970s.  Instead of the real architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) who built six churches in Central and East London in the 1710s, it features the fictional Nicholas Dyer (1654-1715) as the architect overseeing these six churches and an additional fictional one.  Like Hawksmoor, he worked for Sir Christopher Wren and alongside Sir John Vanbrugh.  The book keeps jumping back and forth in time between 1712-15 and 1984-5.  In the modern day a Detective Superintendent Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating the murder of boys and men at the seven churches built by Dyer.

There are so many problems with this book.  First Dyer writes in an 18th century idiom with lots of capital letters thrown in and random spelling.  He is a Satanist and is intent in not only on building occult shapes into the churches but sacrificing boys and men in the foundations to give power to those he sees as gods.  This would be fine as a concept but his narrative rambles so badly that it is literally very easy to 'lose the plot'.  He seems to morph into an unnamed tramp who lives from the 18th century into our time. There are lots of coincidences between things Dyer and Hawksmoor encounter.  Both men appear to go mad.  Dyer's churches may be incomplete before he is replaced by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor is certainly taken off investigating the impossible murders (the time of death nor the weapon can be told, there are no DNA traces).  The two characters end up wandering around London in their insanity.

Unfortunately this description gives more structure to the narrative than is actually the case in the book which regularly dissolves into random descriptions.  For the first couple of chapters it seems fine but then completely loses the plot. Twice it flits into being a play script rather than a novel.  It is as if Ackroyd had a jumble of ideas in a folder and simply jammed them into the novel and then lost interest, tossing it aside in a shambolic state.  This is certainly one of the books I regret ever reading and I recommend you staying away from it.  I am upset that its title is so close to my surname and I dearly wish a far, far better book had been given that title instead.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Books I Read In February

'Brother Cadfael's Penance' by Ellis Peters
In terms of story chronology, this is the final book in the Cadfael series; it is set in the 1145.  There is a prequel, 'A Rare Benedictine' (1988) which was the 16th book in terms of publication but is set in 1120.  I intend to read it in the coming weeks. 

This is not one of the stronger books in the series.  Its format is like that of  'The Summer of the Danes' (1991) in that Brother Cadfael is taken away from his monastery at Shrewsbury and is involved on the fringes of high level politics.  In this case he goes to the ecclesiastical centre of Coventry where there are abortive peace talks between the two sides of the long-running civil war, Empress Matilda and King Stephen.  A murder occurs during the talks and once they break up one of the suspects, a young man, Yves Hugonin, that Cadfael met six years earlier in 'The Virgin in the Ice' (1982), is snatched by relatives of the victim.

Cadfael goes into Gloucestershire to secure Yves's release, so violating the terms of his temporary release from his monastery.  He also discovers the whereabouts of his imprisoned illegitimate, half-Syrian son, Olivier de Bretagne that he had met only twice before, in 1139 and 1141.  Olivier is a supporter of the Empress and is now in his thirties, expecting his wife, Yves's sister, to give birth.

The story is interesting in a number of aspects.  There is much discussion about reconciliation between fathers and their adult sons, not just Cadfael and Olivier but also Philip FitzRobert who imprisons Olivier and Yves and his father, Robert of Gloucester, Matilda's half-brother.  The book, seeing the meeting for the final time of Olivier and Cadfael is a suitable ending to the series.  The description of a small castle in a rural setting and it coming under siege and assault covers aspects not usually featured in the Cadfael series.  However, Peters handles it well giving a good perspective of the hazards within the walls. 

The central difficulty with this book as with 'The Summer of the Danes' is that the murder feels very bolted on to what is primarily a story about the political situation.  Similarly here the resolution to the murder is delivered very simply without Cadfael having to use his skills to unmask the killer.  I suppose Peters felt compelled to include a murder in each of her Cadfael books, but this would have been that bit better if she had left it out and simply stuck to the political machinations and resolving the abduction of two of Matilda's soldiers.  Overall the series ends a bit with a whimper but fortunately with the large personal issues for Cadfael resolved.

'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century' by Ian Mortimer
This book shares a characteristic with a couple of history books that I read last year, notably, 'Hidden History. The Secret Origins of the First World War' by Gerry Docherty & Jim MacGregor and 'Pétain's Crime' by Paul Webster in that the authors feel they are putting forward such a radically alternative perspective on the history they are covering that throughout they have to keep insisting that what they are saying is so very different from anything you may have read on the topic before.  First, such incessant haranguing becomes very tiresome to the reader.  Second, it is probable that the vast majority of the people who have picked up the book are interested in the authors' perspectives and in many cases will already accept their line of argument; they do not have to be persuaded again and again.

Mortimer believes he had created something called 'virtual history'.  He uses this in a very different way to Niall Ferguson for whom it represents counter-factual history.  Instead Mortimer uses it to refer to what was called in my youth, 'everyday history', i.e. history of a period seen from the viewpoint of ordinary people rather than the rulers and elites.  The focus is on day-to-day life rather than battles and political machinations.  I know such history was pushed aside in British schools by the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1992, but even so children still get some of it when they have to pretend to be evacuees or Victorian chimney sweeps or increasingly, passengers on the 'Titanic'.  Certainly for people of my generation, everyday history was in fact the norm.  Mortimer conveniently forgets all the books especially in the 1970s and 1980s which took the same perspective of him.  I even remember the Usborne Time Traveller books which still seem to be in circulation.  Yes, they were aimed at children but like Mortimer's book involve the perspective of a time traveller on the period featured and focus on ordinary life in the times 'visited'. 

Mortimer would have been better off persisting with the conceit of the reader being a time traveller.  This is largely forgotten and only pops up occasionally.  Instead you feel as if you are being led around by a prissy lecturer who is as eager to show you how foolish you are, as he is to actually engage you with what he is addressing.

Setting aside the patronising tone that pervades the book, it is reasonably well written looking at different aspects such as towns and villages, travel, food, medicine, etc. in turn and viewing them for different social classes.  There are new aspects which are revealed notably on crime.  The chapter on literature of the time is really different in nature and indicates the motives behind Mortimer's interest in the time and the place.  Mortimer has gone on to produce similar books on different time periods.  I do not know whether he maintains the patronising tone in these and maybe given their success most people who buy the books do not seem unhappy about it.  If you can remember other 'everyday history' books on the Middle Ages you probably have no need for this book.  It is a useful reference if you want to set fiction in 14th century England or if you have never read or been taught about how people lived in that context.

Friday, 20 February 2015

More UK Government Harassment Of Diabetics

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have Type 1 diabetes which comes about because of a disease or a failure in the body, typically before middle age rather than Type 2 which tends to arise from obesity or old age.  For some reason the current government is particularly hostile to diabetics.  As I noted in 2013 we are treated as if we are drug abusers and if involved in a car accident that was not out fault we can be arrested and the perpetrator let off: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/diabetic-driver-discrimination.html   The difficulty the police have with diabetics was re-emphasised recently as new laws are coming against drugged driving.  Diabetics are being told to carry medical 'evidence' or face being arrested as if we were abusing heroin or cocaine.  This is ironic because, unlike drug abusers, diabetics are highly aware that with care they can maintain good health and prolong their lives, so they tend to safety-minded rather than reckless.  In one step, however, people with a disability (diabetes has been considered a disability legally since 2005 in the UK) are now assumed to be on the same level as criminal and drug abusers.  I might as well have a letter from my doctor tattooed on to my body to ensure that even if I am beaten unconscious by the police who decide to stop me, the medical evidence cannot be lost.

Anyway, today's posting is about something slightly different.  Britain has long been proud of its state-run health service and its welfare system.  However, there has long been a concern that provision should only go to 'deserving people' and that both run the risk of abuse from 'scroungers' and 'fiddlers'.  Diabetes is one of ten conditions which means you get free prescriptions.  The reason for this is that I take four injections per day of two types of insulin and I take four other sets of tablets.  Each prescription lasts me twenty-eight days (when the doctor gets it right, sometime they only prescribe a fortnight's worth).  At the current rate of £8.05 per item I would be spending £629 (US$968; €849) per year just on the medicines, this does not include the needles for the two insulin injectors or the blood test strips which tell me my blood sugar levels and which I have to use 30 minutes before every time I drive and then every 2 hours of a journey, so getting through a pack of 50 a week very easily.  An acquaintance of mine in the USA has to keep down a good job to fund his Type 1 diabetes and it eats into the money he has for rent and food, the costs there are so high.  The UK prescription charge is a fixed rate not what I would have to pay to buy this medication and appliances on the open market.

With the drive of the coalition government to reduce public expenditure to the level of the 1930s they are incessantly trying to hunt down and charge people who are defrauding the system, that is unless they are high salary tax avoiders or bankers.  Today Diabetes UK reported that many legitimate diabetics were being fined for apparently trying to defraud the NHS (National Health Service) by claiming exemptions from prescription charges.  It was stated in the news that most of those affected were people diagnosed before 2000 when the need to renew your exemption certificate every five years was introduced.  Before them you had a certificate for life because at present Type 1 diabetes is incurable.  The NHS Business Services Authority said it was down to the individuals to make sure that they complied with the rules as they now stood.  What was neglected on the news was that even people who do still face fines.

I have had Type 1 diabetes since the 1980s.  In 2000 I was told by my pharmacy in East London that they could no longer serve me without an exemption card so I got one and have renewed it every five years since.  I have a current one at the moment.  However, even this has not spared me for receiving a fine of £96.60 (US$148; €130).  The letter was very threatening and starts from the assumption that you are guilty.  There is only a tiny section which tells you how to contest the charge laid against you.  If you do not pay within a month they add another £48-50 on to the fine.  Obviously I rushed to contest the fine, though of course they were not there on the weekends.  They finally admitted that they were wrong. 

Apparently the problem arose because they had an old address for me and that did not match the one I was now using.  I asked them how it came about that they did not have my latest address.  Every time I move house I have to register with a local doctor and from there my new address goes on to my NHS file and is not only used by the local surgery but also hospitals in the surrounding area so that they can call me for associated checks on my eyes, my feet and my diet.  I could not understand why they did not receive the same information as I had been at this address for seven months already.

It turns out that the NHS Business Services Authority is not connected to the NHS records system so every time you move you have to inform them separately.  All they do is compare fee-exempt prescriptions coming in against a list they hold and if something does not match then they send out a fine.  What this seems to be is a private company doing something for the government as so often is the case these days.  It does not bother with the processes in place and simply applies its own rules, funding itself from the fines it gathers.

There is a further unpleasant aspect to the Business Services Authority's approach and that it utterly disparages the staff working in pharmacies.  As I collect a prescription from mine every two to four weeks, I am well known in there.  However, every time I go in, I have to produce my exemption card and it is checked by the staff even before they accept my prescription.  Clearly however the Business Services Authority has absolutely no trust in the assiduousness or the capabilities of the pharmacy staff even when dealing with patients they are very familiar with.  Their whole approach is an insult to these professionals.

One can imagine that similar cases will come forward from those with one of the other nine conditions that have been treated in the same way.  I do fear that given this government has overseen two steps to harass diabetics what will happen in the next five years if the Conservatives are even part of the government let alone if they have a majority.  This is despite Prime Minister David Cameron having had a disabled son.  What will he next steps be?  To ban diabetics from driving even though no-one has shown any evidence that they are any great risk and certainly not more than the speeding Clarkson-wannabes who apparently are in full health?  Will the next Prime Minister choose to follow the path of Winston Churchill in the 1900s and seek the sterilisation of those deemed to be at risk of 'sullying' the Great British blood?  By 2020 will I find myself at a risk of not simply an unwarranted fine but a summons to an institution to house me where I will never return from and will be lost to 'complications'.  Remember the Nazi regime killed 70,000 disabled people even before they started the Second World War.  Diabetes is an 'unseen' disability so if people with it are suffering harassment what can be expected for those with more visible conditions?

P.P. 24/03/2015 - The Penalties
Just to sum up how horrendous the prejudice is against diabetics these are the penalties now in force that I will suffer as a Type 1 diabetic if someone decides to crash into me.  In contrast, they may walk away with absolutely no penalty.  This comes from the UK government official website:

"Prescription medicines

It’s illegal in England and Wales to drive with legal drugs in your body if it impairs your driving."

However, if you are involved in an accident that was not your fault they still can arrest you as if it was, because as a Type 1 diabetic you are no longer considered to be like normal people.

"If you’re convicted of drug driving you’ll get:
  • a minimum 1 year driving ban
  • an unlimited fine
  • up to 6 months in prison
  • a criminal record
Your driving licence will also show you’ve been convicted for drug driving. This will last for 11 years."

So all I need to spend time in prison and get a criminal record is to have one of those Clarkson-deluded speeders shunt me.  If this is not discrimination against a minority, I do not know what is.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Books I Read In January

'The Affinity Bridge' by George Mann
This has classic elements of a steampunk novel set in 1901 it features a mad scientist, crashing airships, automatons and a sword stick with an electric charge.  There is a pairing of an experienced investigator and his young female assistant very much in the Steed/Peel mould.  There are even zombies in East London.  It romps along very well, doing what steampunk does best mixing issues around Victorian society with stories reflecting on the impact of the steam technology on that society and the people within it.  There are some great adventure scenes climaxing on an airship over London.  The stunning scene is when Queen Victoria is revealed to be still alive, ten months after she died in our world, as a result of life support technology.  One oddity is that electricity seems to be readily available but lighting is still all gas both in houses and on the streets.  This seems a little anomalous given that air travel and cybernetics are far advanced on our history and yet lighting lags behind the situation as it was in 1901 in our world.  There is no explanation for this.

The key problem, one that might be connected to the gas light issue, is the lack of editing.  This is ironic given that Mann is a very experienced editor of science fiction magazines and other writing.  I think his standing may have meant that those he lists as helping him gave him a very light touch in terms of critiquing his work.  One problem is the constant switching of points of view, sometimes between three people in a single paragraph.  This is something that any creative writing tutor would emphasise as needing to be avoided.  Yes, you can have different perspectives but they need to be handled carefully to avoid confusing the reader.  Another problem, especially in the first third of the book is simply how many cliches that Mann uses.  Surely he has a more extensive vocabulary to allow him to stay away from so many hackneyed phrases.  Another aspect is the repetition of words in the same sentence or consecutive sentence.  An example comes at the start of Chapter 6: 'It was not yet eight, but she expected that Newbury would already be sitting at his desk, reading the morning newspaper as was typical of his morning routine.' [My emphasis].  This is not wrong, but if I did not know the author I would think s/he was far less experienced than Mann seems to be.  Possibly the worst example of this lack of checking and the proper application of a 'fresh pair of eyes' is the use of 'hanger' when Mann means 'hangar'.  This leads to some comic elements when the heroes are shown around a vast hanger.

I liked this book as I am a fan of steampunk.  However, with more care and attention it could have been better still.  Maybe younger readers are less concerned about these niceties.  Yet the strength of a story comes from people being able to engage with it, follow what is going on and not keep running up against tired phrases they have heard so many times before.  A revised edition of this book would be worthwhile recommending.

'Hannibal: Clouds of War' by Ben Kane
This is the third book in the Hannibal series and features events during the 2nd Punic War (218-201 BCE); a conflict I have fought on 'Rome II Total War' hence this book being bought for me.  It focuses on three characters: Quintus - an upper class Roman now serving in the light infantry; Aurelia his sister and Hanno - a Carthaginian friend of theirs who has fallen in love with Aurelia.  This approach of having people on both sides of a conflict is a common one for war stories and there is nothing wrong with that.  However, given that for most of the book they are in different parts of southern Italy and Sicily this tends to lead to a fragmented story.  This is not aided by the fact that even for the stories of the three leads, what is shown is episodic with jumps when they are suddenly in a different city or involved with some new activity.  The episodes in themselves are well portrayed and gripping.  Kane does not baulk from the horrors of war and the impact on innocent people caught up in it, not just the soldiers.  With his knowledge of the times and the locations he conjures up the settings and the dilemmas very well.  However, the book overall is less than the sum of its parts and once you have finished it you feel that you have read a series of related though not connected short stories.  

It is not a bad book but can leave you feeling dissatisfied.  Furthermore as is the tendency with these long series you feel that each book beyond the first and the last is like a chunk of the story.  It is like a stick of rock with the slice between one book and the other simply coming down arbitrarily.  This seems to be acknowledged by Kane himself as in his Epilogue he outlines what happens to the characters after the events shown, rather than showing that to us as he could easily have done.  Clearly it is to get them into position for the next book based in Spain.  The edition I have has a compliment from Wilbur Smith the veteran historical author.  Kane would benefit from reading and learning from more of Smith's books.  Smith is a populist author, but does manage to weave the stories of various characters together very well and bring the books to a proper conclusion.  Kane may be being applauded but he certainly needs to keep working at his craft if he is going to produce books that are as effective and enduring as Smith's.

There is a good glossary of terms in the back of the book.  As regular readers know I like thorough historical notes.  Kane may take note of what I have been advised if he brings his books to being e-books and have dynamic links to the relevant notes from the text and back again.  What is utterly unnecessary is Kane's showboating in the Epilogue.  I do not feel he needs to tell us what happens next to the characters; he could have handled that better in the narrative.  Certainly he does not need to go on about where he has been and his wonderful travels in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in Europe.  If we did not have faith in his knowledge then we would not read the book.  Thus, his travelogue just jars.  I do not know his background but he seems to be compelled to tell us how much better his life is than ours.  He forgets the bulk of the people reading his book do so to escape from their mundane lives and the fact they cannot afford to gallivant around the places he mentions.  Yes, acknowledge people but do not laud what is effectively a closed shop guild to block out other aspiring historical authors.  Excite the reader with descriptions of places and people, do not make them feel small.  This is something Kane could also learn from Smith a bit of noblesse oblige.

Again, not a bad book, but one that could be better,  Editing has died as an art and this means that books now often have elements that readers are not keen to pay money for.  If you want to talk about your travels put it on your blog, do not bulk out your books by saying how wonderful you and your mates are.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

My Books Creating Some Interest On The Internet

This posting is a bit of an ego-boost for me.  They say only sad people search themselves on the internet.  However, this blog has long been a tool to help me cope with life and all that it throws at me.  As can be seen from previous postings, I love writing books but am often exasperated by the feedback people give me that seems to dismiss me for being 'wrong' (as opposed to have 'wrong' opinions) or portrays me as having failed simply because I have not included something specific that they want.  I wish people would write to me here rather than condemn me on Amazon.

A recent reviewer on Amazon.uk complained that some of my stories were dull.  That is a fair point.  I do not agree but I accept for him they may have been.  Then he complains that I do not have dynamic links from the stories to the historical notes at the end.  This is a challenge with e-books.  People cannot put their finger in at one page and flick forward to the end of the book.  I was able to put such dynamic links into the five books concerned the evening that I read that comment.  If he had emailed me directly then I could have done it sooner.  People forget that you can amend and republish an e-book in 12 hours, sometimes even less if you are a regular publisher.

I suppose that most people do not want me to correct their error, because there is a tribe of reviewers who thrive on bringing down authors.  It is a hobby in itself.  It reminds me of all these 'errors' programmes about movies and television programmes, which show tiny mistakes that you never even notice when watching the original programme.  Some people have been great and written to me with updates or corrections and I have amended the book immediately.  However, most prefer to use any slips as a tool to condemn a book.  One word wrong on a single page in this society is enough for an entire 200-page book to be condemned as useless.  I know it makes them feel good and powerful but it means e-book authors face a much harder time than authors of the past, despite the fact that ironically, they have far greater power to amend errors.

Out of boredom, I decided to see if anyone was talking about my books in other contexts aside from the Amazon feedback sections.  In my alternate history books I outline that one of my goals is to stimulate debate about the possibilities in history and that I am happy if people disagree with me if they are discussing the topics.

This is the longest debate, about Japan becoming an ally of Germany in the First World War which comes from my in 'Other Trenches'http://www.alternatehistory.com/Discussion/showthread.php?p=9702453  They are not overly enthusiastic about my ideas, though it is rather presented as me saying this would happen rather than discussing the feasibility.  Some of the contributors see Japan before the First World War as a puppet of the British which is a mistaken impression.  This was the whole reason that Britain broke decades of behaviour and went into an alliance and with a country that no Power had considered a potential alliance partner.  The relationship only lasted 20 years.

The commenators also seem to miss how stretched British naval forces were in that decade with the fear of German naval power, though the fear was greater than the actuality.  They see no reason why the British would not try to restrain Japan in 1895 though this is exactly what they did in 1921-22 over the Shandong Peninsula and with warming relations with the USA they dropped Japan very quickly as an ally.  Yes, Japan did not have the strongest navy in the world, but in the North Pacific and against the forces the colonial powers could muster there, it was strong, especially if aided by the Germans.  This strength had been proven against Russia, though the commentators dismiss the naval strength Russia itself held before 1905.

This one is discussing the war between Italy and Greece in 1940-1 but mainly points to the chapter in 'Other Roads III' about the German invasion of Bulgaria:  https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/soc.history.what-if/zwZjrwRqDK4 

A couple of other people have said they have read my books:

Stig Haugdahl stated on Twitter he had read 'Other Trenches'

and in August 2014 someone calling themselves 'Deceptively Calm' gave me a nice review: 'Just finished "In other trenches" by a guy called Rooksmoor. A great collection of WW1-What-ifs, intelligently explored. Not fiction, just alternate history. I've already bought the sequel and am eyeing his books on alternate 19th century scenarios as well.' at http://www.iswintercoming.com/what-are-you-reading-t16-735.html

I suppose all of us seek some supportive words. I get frustrated when someone attacks my books for being something that I never even intended them to be.  I have had to put up big warnings about the essays not being fiction.  Even then some feel that because I do not insist on a particular outcome I am somehow dodging what alternate history should be about; one even insisted I be removed from the alternate history category.  It is clear that they want me to be dogmatic so that they can be dogmatic back and dismiss my ideas.  A debate is harder to contest and they do not get the satisfaction of showing me what an idiot I am.  Book writing and reviewing has become a combat sport.

I am interested in how I often get turned from 'Alexander Rooksmoor' into simply 'Rooksmoor'.  Perhaps the blog name contributes to that, perhaps again it is characteristic of the pugnacious nature of online debate which so often turns to epithets drawn from physical violence, particularly rape.

P.P. 24/03/2015
I saw that a US reviewer, W.K. Aiken had posted a nice review of 'Route Diverted' which I felt 'got' what I have been trying to do and not simply complaining that I have not written the book that they want to write.  Though I do feature real people in the stories, I have deliberately sought to avoid the little coincidences which make me as an avid reader of 'what if?' to groan.  I want to treat the reader in a more mature way:

"Mr. Rooksmoor is a unique writer in that he does not take the usual "It's Alternate History!" tack when writing AH. Most writers will work twisty little ironies and whatnot into their prose - not a bad thing, mind you, just a common feature of the genre - and keep poking the reader with the "coincidences."

Mr. Rooksmoor has a much more subtle touch, relying on the existing knowledge of the reader a) that what is being read is fiction and b) of what really happened. He then takes a "slice of life" from whatever alternate reality he's created and lets the reader fill in the gaps. The narrative is more of a glimpse into what would be happening over the hill, around the bend and in the next town, away from the action on which Tsouras, Conroy or Turtledove would be focusing.

It's an intriguing approach and a nice contrast, but certainly more for the experienced AH maven.

Imagine Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men In A Boat" written from within a 240-year-old Commonwealth. How much would be changed? Having the advantage of "OurTime" perspective, the differences would be intriguing but the scope would be minute."

I would say that most of the scenarios have a far broader perspective than just a single book.  I like to note that small changes had the potential to affect millions.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Less And Less Control Over What My Computer Does

As noted last month, I was facing the deterioration of my laptop after 3.5 years.  Over the Christmas period it got worse, regularly overheating (despite cleaning out the fans) and consequently crashing.  With the sales on, it seemed like an opportune time to buy a replacement.  Knowing that this one is unlikely to make it far into 2018, I spent one third of the money I spent on the last one, so it will not be such a pain when I have to dump it.  The trouble is, now I buy a laptop and it is on Windows 8.  So much stuff is buried far deeper than in the past.  I battled even to change the wallpaper on the main screen.  Everything I do I seem to have to log in and re-log in and verify myself.  Even to play the Mah Jong matching tile game, which is free, I now have to establish an account with Xbox.  I also had to receive a code to my mobile phone, just to play a simple, free game.

What makes it worse is that it is not simply Microsoft which is asking me for verification at every turn, but because I bought a Hewlett-Packard computer, their facilities are constantly on to me to link to its provision often in contradiction to what Microsoft are peddling to me.  They have no appreciation of how I work, they want to connect everything in the way they see best.  This has long been my concern with computers, that these days, the systems patronise you rather than offer the facilities you need, they try to get you to fit to their approach.  With Windows 8, I had to disable a score of apps that I have no desire to use and had to work to put all the stuff I like, such as Word and work packages like Excel and PowerPoint into a place where I could reach them easily without having to dig through recommendations for a New Year diet or trips to places that I could never afford.  There needs to be a setting which recognises - 'this person bought a cheap computer at a sale price, thus he does not have the income to afford all this stuff we are shovelling at him'.

Back in the 2000s if I bought a computer, I bought a tool.  Now what I have bought is a billboard, constantly piling me with extra things I might want to buy and locking my identity into everything.  I got sick of this and so have established an entirely anonymous account unconnected to anything else.  This, however, then bars me from playing the Mah Jong matching game.  The trade is constantly, 'you can only have basic functions if you allow us to keep shoving advertising at you'.  In the 2000s, I paid about the same amount of money and was left alone.  Is such advertising necessary to fund the cost of these machines?  What is tiresome is that I spend more time disabling all these facilities than I actually do working on what I want to work with.  It is as if I have bought a car but on the way to work I have to go by a route chosen by someone else so that I can stop at shops along the way that I have no interest in.  Just wait until the 'updates' start and I have to switch on my computer so that it can simply play with itself for 30-60 minutes apparently 'updating' something that looks identical when it has finished.  Sometimes it deigns to allow me to focus on what I want, but that is never within the first hour of being on.

The other thing is Cloud storage.  The hacking of such facilities is well known and yet I am constantly being pummelled to put my documents and photos into Cloud storage.  Microsoft, Dropbox and Hewlett Packard have all offered me totalling around 5TB of Cloud storage.  Why on Earth would I want to us that?  I am not rich and having bought a laptop I see no reason to go out and also get a smartphone or a tablet.  I would get one not all of them.  Typing novels on a phone is a waste of time; searching for an address when on the move is something different.  However, we are encouraged to see every tool as universal, rather than seeking out the best for what we want to do.  Again, the companies feel they know better than us how to live our live - am I the only one for which that is dystopian?  I am not a teenager and so I recognise that I might be out of step with current trends and indeed have no interest in current fashions in technology.  Then again, I am not a man who would buy a car because it looks good, I buy a car which I hope will work well and is safe.  Companies seem to forget that dull people like me make up the majority and many of us do not even want to try to look cool.  For me a computer is a tool not a lifestyle choice.  If Sony can be hacked, what hope do I have that my Cloud-stored materials will be safe?  If Hollywood celebrities can end up with their photos everywhere, people could send mine around without a second thought.

Memory sticks are leaping on almost on a monthly basis.  Three years ago, I got a 4GB for £29 (US$45; €37) now I can buy a 32GB memory stick for £20,  Yes, you can have memory sticks stolen or you can lose them, but for work stuff, my fiction, even photos, even if I want to use them on different devices, why risk using the Cloud, when I can have them all on a tiny piece of metal affixed to my keys?

What I am seeking, perhaps foolishly, from computer and software companies, is to be treated like an adult.  I want a tool that does what I want it to do.  If I want extra, I can make that choice in time, I do not need to be advertised to every time I switch on.  Indeed, I think they do not recognise that how in so many people it instills hostility to the very things they are promoting.  I want tools on my computer that I can use without going online.  There seems to be a fantasy at Microsoft and Hewlett Packard as with many companies that the internet is universal and always available.  They clearly do not work in the average office let alone try to use it in a cafe.  Having to incessantly connect even to use mundane products, slows the whole process up.  We have long put aside the concept of the 'information superhighway' and know at best it is a B road.  However, these companies seem determined to fill it up with ice cream vans seeking to sell you the latest gimmick. 

Each time I buy a computer, I seem to spend a larger amount of my money on getting things I do not want and finding access to what I do want harder than ever.  Perhaps in an era when utility companies charge you in advance for energy or water you are never going to use, I should not be surprised that as a consumer, despite the apparent 'choice' it is ever harder to get the right tool for me.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Books I Read In December

'Winston Churchill' by Henry Pelling
This book was first published in 1974 and I read a revised edition from 1982.  However, in general it felt even older than that.  It has a style that would not have been out of place in 1954.  Despite what some reviewers say, it is not a strictly chronological book as chapters step out of the flow of history to look, for example, at his private life or his writing.  It gives details that many readers will not encounter in general histories about Churchill as a man and as a writer as opposed to being a leader and it is good on those times when he was not in office.  His interest in bricklaying was something I never knew.  It also shows him as a constituency MP and this also gives a perspective on local British politics through the period that he was standing for election.  It gives a fair appreciation of Churchill's role in the Great Upheaval of 1910-11, a topic of particular interest for myself.  What it is particularly poor on, however, is a blind defence of the Dardanelles Campaign during the First World War.  It was an utter fiasco and yet Pelling portrays it as not being that bad and somehow finds some value in it.  Otherwise he excuses Churchill's involvement due to timing of him being in various roles.  This approach really weakens the credibility of the book.

The book is almost purely narrative, with minimal analysis and certainly no efforts to bring out long-term trends in Churchill's politics, this is left down to the reader.  What became apparent was Churchill's imperialist mindset, indeed a form of racialism (as opposed to racism) in that he seems to have categorised peoples of the world into a hierarchy.  The 'English-speaking peoples' that he wrote of appear to have been at the top in his view and towards others, certainly beyond Western Europe he adopted a patronising attitude.  He seemed to be quite content to see the dissolution of Poland and Czechoslovakia by the Germans, but for the fact that this advanced the strength of Nazi Germany as a rival for Britain.  This attitude which becomes apparent from connecting points through Pelling's book explains his hostility even to self-government or dominion status for India.  It is clear he saw the Indians as a benighted people with weak leaders who were incapable of even approaching democracy.  His attitude to African colonies was even more dismissive.  This is not surprising of a man of his class and time, but tends to be overlooked and there is sometimes, as seems the case with Pelling, that whilst Churchill was a defender of democracy against dictatorship he also worked tirelessly to deny democracy to many people.  Overall this is a worker-like book that is probably best used for reference rather than for getting a rounded picture of the man.

'The Holy Thief' by Ellis Peters
This was one of the Cadfael stories that was televised (in 1998), though there are subtle differences between the book at the teleplay.  However, Sub-Prior Herluin is less of a forceful character than the very sharp portrayal of him by George Irving (born 1954) in the television series.  The story surrounds representatives coming from another Benedictine monastery at Ramsey in Cambridgeshire which we have seen ravaged in previous books as a result of the continuing upheaval of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud.  Shrewsbury where Brother Cadfael is based suffers a bad flood and the reliquary supposedly holding the bones of St Winifred (though readers and a couple of characters know from the incidents seen in the first book of the series 'A Morbid Taste for Bones' (1977) that this is not actually the case) is moved for safety and then is stolen.  How it ends up on the lands of a local lord is different to in the television series. However, much is the same, with the involvement of the wayward monk, Brother Tutilo and the musicians/singers Rémy of Pertuis and his slave Daalny. Local characters, the Blounts, who featured in 'The Potter's Field' (1989) also reappear.

This book is stronger for being back in Shrewsbury. It is also good to see the Blount family once more as often in the Cadfael books, bar the reoccurring central characters, often you do not find out about what happened to people wrapped up in earlier cases. The book highlights the issue of slavery which while discouraged was permitted in England at the time and the use of sortes Biblicae, i.e. flicking through the Bible and stopping at a random point to come to decisions about clerical issues. As in a number of stories in the latter half of the sequence, Peters looks at men unsuited to being monks and the female perspective on the choices such men had made. This gives her some room for the romantic element which she likes to include and this story does have elements of a 'courtly love' tale of the kind that troubadours like Rémy sing about. However, it also leavens the very certain and very male perspective of books centred on a monastery. Readers will also be glad to see Brother Jerome, one of the nastiest characters in the books, have some kind of come-uppance. I enjoyed this story and felt in the penultimate novel of the main Cadfael sequence, Peters was back to form.