Thursday, 18 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

I must apologise for the photo in this posting, the light level was lower than I realised even though I have always lived in unfortunately gloomy houses.  As seems typical with Belmont, the ordinary biscuit brand from Aldi, they have gone for a lengthy title.  These went into a head-to-head with the Lidl equivalent for a taste test by two members of my house and came off slightly worse.  They crumble easily, a trait common for shortbread, but the full biscuit lacks 'bulk' when bitten, it seems too dry.  There is no visible sugar, but the butteriness that you would hope for given the title also seems absent so it comes off as very plain biscuit with only a little of creamy after taste.  The Lidl version just wins out for having better structural integrity and some more of that creamy flavour that you look for in shortbread.


Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

I bought these Hill biscuits from Aldi.  The first thing is that you get a very long packet, though the biscuits themselves are small.  Perhaps they have too much of a snap for a shortcake.  This is the start of the problem for the biscuit.  It takes more like a Digestive without the oaty pieces in it; the creaminess of a good shortcake biscuit is missing.  The fruit is lacking in sweetness, so effectively you end up with a kind of small - and they are small - Digestive biscuit with bits in it, not a pleasant experience.  If you were looking for a better value biscuit like this, then simply buy a Digestive, they are available from Aldi too.

P.P.  Just a warning: I found that these biscuits have a laxative effect which I put down to the hard currants and the wheaty texture of the biscuit.


Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Books I Read In April

'A Hat Full of Sky' by Terry Pratchett
This is the second book in the Tiffany Aching series of books by Terry Pratchett.  They are aimed at children, but as with many of Pratchett's books there is an ambivalence and they speak to readers of different ages on various topics.  Though published in 2004, I feel this series captures the essence of what was so good in Pratchett's writing in the early days.  In contrast his other novels published in the 21st century, seem weighted down with too many issues and have lost the spry nature of his earlier books.  However, despite the humour, the book is very perceptive on our own society and makes very acute remarks about it; another great characteristic of Pratchett's writing even when dealing with the fantasy setting of Discworld.

This book moves on two years from the previous one, 'The Wee Free Men'.  It sees Tiffany, at the age of eleven, leave her home on the downlands and become an apprentice to a witch in the mountains.  The Nac Mac Feegles, the rough fairies with a Glasgow accent, do feature but to a lesser extent than in the previous book.  Tiffany is pursued by an ancient force, a Hiver, which seeks to take over the bodies and minds of the powerful.  Aside from battling with this force and what it makes her do, Tiffany becomes developed as a district witch, very much like a district nurse or someone from social services in our world.  Thus, there is an adventure, but also commentary on how societies function and the role that carers in the community, especially women, play.  There is also a challenge to the Wiccan approach of using amulets and fancy costumes as if this aids magic, a bit of a swipe at New Age attitudes as opposed to practical action.

Overall, this is a brisk book with some decent laughs and a real feel of the old Pratchett that many of us read decades ago.  Though it has a girl at the centre, at no stage did this feel like a children's book and indeed some of the comments from the Nac Mac Feegles would probably go over the head of an 11-year old.

'Copperhead' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the second book in Cornwell's tetralogy about the American Civil War.  It is better than the first book, 'Rebel' because while featuring many of the same characters, he has toned down what seemed to be a universal nastiness of them.  Even the hero, Nathaniel Starbuck was unlikeable in that novel so it was hard for the reader to empathise or even care about his fate.  This book covers the period in late 1861 when the Union forces were trying to advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond and despite amassing a huge force fumbled the invasion and the advance and so lost the chance to end the war much earlier.

Many people comment that Cornwell is best when handling battles and that proves the case.  This book opens with the Battle of Ball's Bluff and covers many engagements in the campaign of General  George McClellan to try to reach Richmond.  There are scenes in Richmond, including a harrowing one in which Starbuck is tortured as he is suspected of being a spy for the Union.  He finds out who the real spy is and as in the first book, though to a lesser scale, there is a lot of him contemplating the morals of his situation as he has gone from being a trainee clergyman to being a Confederate Officer, the lover of a prostitute often led into risky situations by his lust.

The main problem I have with this book is that at times the spy aspect feels very laboured,  Starbuck crosses back and forth across the frontlines blithely lying to his family and his comrades.  Another character goes the other way across the frontline.  Despite the carnage around them, they do this largely unscathed and so there is a sense of invincibility.  Towards the end of the book it seems quite contorted and you wish Cornwell would have kept to a more straightforward story, less stretching of credibility.  Yes, having some devious and useless characters is fine, but the sharp contrast between this series and the Sharpe books is that the twists are excessive and so undermine Cornwell's strength in portraying the American countryside and the reality of the soldiers and people living and fighting there.

'The Sudden Arrival of Violence' by Malcolm Mackay
I am glad to have reached the end of this trilogy.  The fact that the books have received such acclaim continues to astound me.  It is called the 'Glasgow Trilogy' and finally in this book we actually get mention (twice) of one district of Glasgow.  For the rest of the time the action takes place in a vacuum with people moving between houses and businesses that could be in any city.  You have no sense of geography except once they go into some generic countryside to bury two bodies.  This adds to the claustrophobic sense of the individuals.  Having produced his 'how to be a gangster' lecture in the first book, Mackay is left with just the worrying of the various characters.  If in 'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' he stuck two fingers up to the 'show not tell' precept of writing, he continues to violate the 'rule' about sticking one point of view at a time.  He jumps between perspectives sometimes within a single paragraph.  This does not help clarity and at times is even ridiculous when we are treated to a combined memory of brothers William and Callum MacLean.  This weakens what Mackay is saying about the characters.

I know the book has been praised for being 'laid back', but unfortunately in a crime novel that comes over as weary.  In this book and indeed the previous one 'How a Gunman Says Goodbye' with is pathetic anti-climax conclusion, this tone just makes everything feel laboured.  Too many of the characters are old and tired something exacerbated by this tone even more than in the first book in which new ideas and branching out was the trend.  Women are very disposable in this novel and none of them seem to be more than simply a plot device.  Mackay has tried too hard to be 'hard boiled' and has simply taken that voice without reflecting it in the substance of the story.  Despite some attempt at the late stage to get us interested in William and Callum, there is too little to empathise with.  Even the police are weary and largely failing for almost the entire book.  Yes, Mackay has tried something different but he does too much of it.  He could have taken 100 pages from each of the three books; cut out large chunks of navel gazing and made them closer to what they are marketed as rather than these slack, tiresome novels.  I will not be coming back to his writing.

'A Game of Thrones' by George R.R. Martin
This book, at 801 pages in my edition, has taken up a lot of my reading this month.  I was able to purchase the 7 books currently in the series unread for just £1, but it does mean I have committed myself to reading a lot by one author this year which will reduce my coverage of a range of books.

I have seen all of the seasons of the television series, also called 'A Game of Thrones' (though the book sequence is called 'A Song of Ice and Fire') which are available on DVD in the UK.  So I know the story pretty well, though I hear book and television series diverge later on.  What is striking is how close portrayals of characters from the book are on the television, much dialogue seems to have been carried across and even the tone preserved.  There are differences because it is easier to have grand detail in a book, but easier to show a landscape in images.  Thus, in the book you find out more about a lot of the minor noble houses, the history, nature, clothing and food of the world Martin has created.  An added advantage is that you see more of the thoughts behind the characters' actions.

I think the success of this series is that at heart it is just another fantasy series.  You can pick up hundreds of series about imaginary worlds with a kind of medieval context and magic thrown in; in which people battle to become ruler.  What distinguishes Martin's series, from what I have read and seen, is that there are no heroes.  His characters are flawed throughout; perhaps the most minor are those who are simply naïve.  The vast majority of the characters are selfish, cruel, violent, petulant, exploitative, etc. and sometimes have a whole host of nasty elements to them.  Thus, it seems almost like a contemporary rather than a historical/fantastical drama; as if corruption in national politics had been moved from our world today into this context.  Many of the characters are ugly, the trait least transferred on to television.

Martin does include magic but very sparingly.  In the book we see one ice zombie and we see three dragons hatch right at the end of the book.  I think this is also useful because it then emphasises the importance of the human element and also keeps magic as exceptional as it appears to the people of the world Martin creates.  In fact what we witness is dismissed as impossible by many characters.  The other thing is that you do not know who will die.  Unlike in many fantasy series, no-one is immune to death and this also increases the credibility of the story, something vital when portraying an alien context.

The book is gritty and grotty.  Despite the length, unlike some (maybe many) fantasy series it moves along briskly.  Most chapters end with a cliffhanger in themselves.  Some readers might find the jumping between different characters across the world confusing, but to me, naming the chapters solely after who they refer to, works well and I was not lost, though it might have helped that I have seen the story with its characters.

Despite my generally positive view of this book, there is one aspect which seriously jars.  If this book had been self-published to Amazon in 2016 rather than published traditionally in 1996, it would have been rejected.  This is because of the featuring of underage sex.  Many of the leading characters are children and at times it feels a little like a children's story.  Some of these characters have been aged for portrayal on television and it is clear there would have been uproar if this had not happened.  Martin makes it explicit, in particular, that Daenerys Tagaryen is only 13 when she is married off to a leader of steppe horsemen.  She becomes pregnant by him aged only 14.  This is not fudged around, it is stated explicitly. Another character, Tyrion Lannister, remembers when he was tricked into having sex with a woman by his father when aged just 13. 

Now, I know Martin is trying to recreate behaviour of the Middle Ages in our world in which marriages of children occurred and even in parts of the USA where the age of consent remained below 16 into the 20th century.  However, Martin's emphasis on this behaviour is highly unsettling, and, as I note, to portray it actually runs against policies of providers such as Amazon.  Perhaps he is trying to add extra 'grit' to his novel, but it simply comes off as sordid and utterly unnecessary given what else he portrays throughout.

Non- Fiction
'Britain and the Korean War' by Callum MacDonald
This is a quick book looking at the political context of the Korean War.  There are brief mentions of what happened militarily but that is not the focus of the book.  It concentrates on Britain's often ambivalent part in the war which stretched over a change of government from Labour to Conservative but throughout was driven by a desire to keep US protection for Britain in Europe.  Many aspects of the organisation of the war are familiar for those who have lived through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the USA feeling obliged to have a multi-national force as long as it did precisely what the American commanders and politicians wanted.  Thus the British were very much dragged along, often unhappy at backing the corrupt and cruel regime of South Korea and especially the bullishness of US commanders, including a desire to use atomic weapons, not simply General MacArthur.

There are some aspects that I had not come across before.  One was the role of India as friendly to Britain but able to talk to the Chinese and the issue of the exchange of Prisoners of War, especially those who had no desire to return to China or North Korea.

The book shows how the war helped formulate US Cold War policy with a temptation to 'roll back' replaced by containment and a willingness to be involved in proxy wars but only to a certain extent.  In addition, it shows a willingness of US administrations, whether Democrat as under President Truman at the start or Republican under President Eisenhower, to work with dictatorships even if they were half-heartedly fighting Communism.

MacDonald also does well in showing how the errors of the 1930s weighed so heavily on any decision.  Furthermore he highlights how few choices the British had given how short of money they were following the Second World War, even when they utterly disagreeing with US policy.   He shows the British seeing the Americans as naïve in dealing with developments in East Asia and provocatively aggressive, risking an all-out conflict with China and/or the USSR.  One particular point of difference is the British awareness that China and the USSR were not really a single bloc, a misapprehension US politicians clung on to right until the 1970s.

This is a brisk book which is very useful in highlighting aspects of the early Cold War that have so often been over-written by erroneous assumptions about what happened and especially about what leaders were seeking to achieve.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Biscuits Coconut Cookies

Belmont Biscuits Coconut Cookies

These were a really pleasant surprise and found approval more widely in the Rooksmoor household than just from your reviewer.  There tend to be some gems among the own brand biscuits of stores and these are the one from Aldi's Belmont Biscuits range.  They are of a decent size and have a good snap.  Unlike some coconut biscuits they do not crumble.  They have a sweet flavour but do not overdo it.  There is a nice coconut taste but only with a few strands of coconut in each biscuit in contrast to some that are full of shreds.  They are very moreish.  I was pleased with these.


Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Biscuits Cookies 'N' Cream biscuits

Belmont Biscuits Cookies 'N' Cream biscuits

These are Aldi's version of Oreos.  However, both the biscuits and the packet itself are very small.  They come close to the taste of Oreos but the darkness of the chocolate biscuit is so strong that it almost gives a 'burn' to your tongue.  The filling is very creamy and these flavours are so at the extremes from each other to make it a very odd taste overall.  You can compare it unfavourably with other sandwich biscuits such as Bourbons and Custard Creams, in which the filling compliments the flavour of the biscuit.  I accept that Aldi has done reasonably well in creating a biscuit which has strong flavours rather than the blandness of too many biscuits I review, but I think it needs toning down on the two components.  The packet and the biscuits themselves both need to be larger no matter what other company's biscuit they may be aping.


Friday, 31 March 2017

The Books I Read In March

'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' by Malcolm Mackay
This is the first book in a crime trilogy that I was given.  It is set in Glasgow, though you could not really tell that from the details in the novel.  Fortunately it does not use dialect, but apart from the very Scottish names held by many characters, you could easily imagine it taking place in a town in the Midlands or southern England.

As a writer you are often told to 'show, not tell', i.e. to keep the narrator back a bit, not explaining everything to the reader, but allowing the reader to gather information from how the characters act.  Mackay has gone to the opposite extreme and much of the book reads like a handbook on how to be a gangster.  It is interesting, but tends to drain a lot of life and certainly tension from the book.  This problem is further exacerbated by how almost every single character is unpleasant, including the police.  None of them is anybody you would want to associate with let alone empathise with.  This consequently puts up a further level between the reader and the action.

There are occasional points of tension, the scene towards the end of the book when a gunman  is  fighting for his life when attacked by a man with a knife.  Yet, even then Mackay pulls away and we only see the outcome some time later.  I recognise Mackay was seeking a new type of voice for a crime novel.  It is interesting but because of this distance and the matter-of-fact handbook style, it is certainly not engaging.  I do not know if this will improve further on in the trilogy as we will be familiar with the characters.  I am rather surprised that the book received the acclaim it did and I guess it was simply because it adopted a new approach, but one I do not feel succeeds.

'How a Gunman Says Goodbye' by Malcolm Mackay
I do not really understand how this novel, the second in the trilogy, won an award.  It is less written in 'how to' style of the first book.  However, it remains very claustrophobic, in part because there are only vague references to Glasgow and for much of the book characters are simply in rooms or driving between them.  This book features fewer characters still than 'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' did.  Little happens in the book, despite it being longer than the previous one; I guess because Mackay does not have to introduce the characters and the crime system they are part of.  There is one scene which could have had tension, at the start of the novel, but this means that for the rest of the book, it is all pretty down hill, with no real sense of jeopardy.  The ending with the weary gunman, is a real anti-climax.  It is almost as if Mackay feels he has to recount a story he witnessed rather than write what you would feel is a genuine novel.  Only one of the policemen introduced in the first book has anything to do and so as a result the book simply drifts.  It makes me nostalgic for Peter James's Roy Grace novels, which though not outstanding, had a far greater sense of direction than Mackay's trilogy.  Overall, this comes over as a very bland, directionless book that could easily be in any town in Scotland, it even lacks that local colour.

'Time and Time Again' by Ben Elton
*While I am going to recommend that you do not buy this book, if you do intend to read it, please note that this review is full of spoilers.

I cannot remember when a book has angered me as much as this one.  On the surface you would imagine it would appeal to me.  It is about a man, Captain Hugh Stanton, who is sent back in time from 2025 to 1914 to avert the start of the First World War by both preventing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and by assassinating Kaiser Wilhelm II.  He succeeds in both tasks and so alters history. 

There are some good characteristics of this novel.  First is the way in which time travel works.  Sir Isaac Newton is shown in the 1720s as having worked out that time is relative; that it moves in a helix; is affected by gravity and, at specific points along the helix, two dates touch at a particular location.  In this book it is 2025 and 1914 in a cellar beneath a hospital in Istanbul.  Being in that point allows a traveller to go back to 1914.  Elton works on the 'alternate universe' version so that an action which significantly alters the timeline erases the previous universe and replaces it with a new one.  This means that the time traveller and whatever they brought with them from the future, even war poetry, is unaffected by the changes they bring about.

I did worry that Elton was trying to coin a trope initiated by Douglas Adams that time travel is a secret of the University of Cambridge shown in 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' (1987) and the associated incomplete episode of 'Doctor Who' (1979).  Adams went to St. John's College rather than Trinity which features in this novel.  I guess it does allow Elton to bring in Newton and this archaic form of time travel.

The other strength of this novel are the descriptions of Constantinople, Sarajevo and Berlin in 1914.  Elton does these well and captures the sense of appreciation that a time traveller would have.  It also plays lightly with changed manners and language.

Now to the rest.  Hugh Stanton is a former S.A.S. soldier so is violent throughout, casually killing people all over with the most minimal of guilt.  I guess this is to appeal to men who generally would not read a Ben Elton book.  A major problem are the female characters.  They are all treacherous; even Stanton's murdered wife, Cassie, is portrayed as making unreasonable demands on the 'hero'.  Stanton kills his former tutor, Professor McCluskey who sneaks herself on to the time-travel mission when it becomes apparent she had his wife and children murdered.  McCluskey is a caricature of a bullish female academic who is disposed of abruptly.  There is an unconvincing, anachronistic love interest in an Irish suffragette, Bernadette Burdette who, of course, betrays Stanton.  When the third woman 'Katie' from her serial number, turns up, a hardened criminal from the grim future that Stanton's actions create, you realise women are only in the book as devices to enable certain actions to occur.  They are not developed and are removed sharply with no further concern.

Overall, however, the main sense of the book is one of despair.  Early in the book, Stanton's professor complains about the Marxist students in her history classes in the 2000s, because they argue that the path of history is inevitable.  At first this seemed odd: to find a Marxist on campus in the 1980s when I studied, was rare, let alone in the 21st century.  It is only later that you realise that Stanton is not from 'our' history but one in which there was no Second World War.  At the end of the book you find that there have been multiple attempts to use this time hole, constantly altering history.  Elton does not answer, however, why the multiple time travellers have not run into each other before Stanton meets Katie. 

The end of the book shows that every attempt to improve the 20th century it simply makes things worse. Elton does not allow any change to bring an improvement from genocidal totalitarian dictatorships, though ironically, the 20th century that Stanton turns out to have lived through was better than ours because the Second World War was avoided.  Britain is shown as being in a mess in the 2020s, but that is caused by broader trends in society and it looks little different from ours.  There is a misplaced lionising of the pre-1914 situation which does not help.

Yet, Elton will not permit even his own demonstrations that actions could make a difference stand.  Consequently I was reminded of the very bleak movie, 'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) which works on the same basis. Stanton, however, probably deserves the prize for causing the greatest deterioration in one step.  Thus, Elton's message is a highly Marxist one: i.e. that nothing an individual does will alter what is going to happen.  It is a message of despair and suggests that no-one should bother opposing Donald Trump, because, even with time travel, we could only make it worse rather than any better.

I know Elton used to be left-wing, though I did not think he was an ardent Marxist.  I also thought that once he did believe in people getting active to oppose bad government.  Clearly success and age have shifted his view.  In writing a very violent, male-focused, populist book, he is trying to peddle his message that we just have to sit back and accept what we have inflicted on us and that to think we can do anything different is illusion.  A very bleak, unpleasant book, that I advise people to avoid.

'Blast from the Past' by Ben Elton
Though published in 1998 this is a better book than 'Time and Time Again' (2014).  However, it left me irritated and this suggests that I was foolish to think that I would enjoy Ben Elton's books.  He has written 15 in total and I will avoid the others.  This book feels very much like a play.  The action takes place in a flat in Stoke Newington over a couple of hours early one morning.  From this there are flashbacks.  The story centres on Jack Kent, who, as an US Army captain in the 1980s based at the Greenham Common nuclear base, had a heated sexual relationship with a 17-year old peace protestor, Polly Slade.  He abandoned her because of the risk the relationship presented to his career.  In this book he has turned up at her flat sixteen years later to ensure she is not a risk to the final step in his career.

Polly is far better developed than the women featuring in  'Time and Time Again' and a lot of the dialogue is around the conflicts in civil society in both the UK and especially in the USA of the slow advance of women's rights.  Both Jack and Polly believed they had all the answers in the 1980s and while they are still pretty confident that they are each on the right side, doubt has crept in and compromises have been made.  However, while Polly severely messed up her life after Jack's departure, despite some regrets, he has progressed very well.  Thus, in many ways it is also commentary on the differences between the UK and USA and this becomes particularly noticeable in terms of guns and violence.  A stalker, Peter, also becomes involved in the story and one noticeable difference between the late 1990s and nowadays is the legislation that can be brought to bear on such criminals.

I think Elton is better with this book as 1980s protests are very much in his area of expertise.  I am sure he drew on people he knew for real and perhaps others he encountered on the other side.  Kent is a soldier, but you can see the complexity in his character and appreciate sacrifices in what he has done, driven by ambition.  Similarly, though a lot of what Polly has campaigned for, at times you can be frustrated with her for freezing her life at a particular stage.  Saying that, she is constantly misused by men.

The book (363 pages in my edition) is too long and could have been more effective if trimmed down by 50-60 pages.  The length means that our faith that the couple's attraction to each other, which remains strong, could ever had overcome all the obstacles in the way, begins to wear thin.  However, the way Elton writes the swings in emotion is handled well, even if the outcome seems unconvincing.  Picking up this book I had thought it was based, as some others of Elton's books appear to be, on an incident reported in the media.  In this case, the relationship between Petra Kelly (1947-92), sometime head of the German Green Party and Major General Gert Bastian (1923-92), her partner who murdered her before committing suicide.  As the book progressed, I felt that the parallels were minimised but looking back over it, you can certainly see that Elton was keen to explore this kind of relationship without writing a story featuring real people.  Overall, not bad, but the persistence earnestness from the two leading characters and the ending (let alone the happier ending tacked on) have confirmed that I will not be returning to Elton's novels.

'The Age of Lloyd George' by Kenneth O. Morgan
This book consists of two parts, one a standard history of British politics in the period 1890-1929 when David Lloyd George was prominent and then a collection of documents from that era, most not from Lloyd George himself, but providing an interesting context.  The story of the decline of the Liberal Party and its replacement as the main opposition to the Conservatives by the Labour Party is one that has often been covered.  However, Morgan is good at showing that the decline was not as inevitable as some have come to see it and in fact that in the period 1905-14, the Liberal Party reached a new peak and was able to introduce a great deal of legislation.  The fact that it did not achieve more was largely due to the ability of the House of Lords to obstruct any legislation, even budgets and the still insoluble situation in Ireland.

A couple of things stand out from this book.  One is how authoritarian Lloyd George was.  He may have arisen through the Liberal Party, but he was happier as someone almost 'above politics' and even after leading the coalition 1916-22, sought to maintain a combination of Liberals and Conservatives but under him.  Morgan highlights that he was not a team player and really was seeking a kind of centrist Lloyd-Georgeite party.  The more I read about Lloyd George, the more I was reminded of Tony Blair's politics as he always seemed to be more a Christian Democrat than a Labourite and New Labour was very much his personal political party.  Lloyd George went further, of course, and once he had fallen from power he began to embrace dictators notably Hitler.  This reminded me of Blair's support for Colonel Gaddafi, dictator of Libya.

The other parallel which comes from reviewing British politics a century ago, are concerns about the wide divisions in society.  A lot of the industrial unrest in the 1910s stemmed from real incomes falling for ordinary people, just like the 2010s, while there was increasing conspicuous consumption amongst the wealthy who were controlling an increasing share of the nation's income.  It is thus, unsurprising that the period saw the rise of the Labour Party, just as we have recently seen Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader best connected to those historic values in the party, coming to the fore and equally causing as much upset in British politics.

This is a brisk book which even though old now (published 1971), provides perspectives that still seem neglected in books that rehash a rather simple portrayal of the political shifts of the early 20th century.  I know that the documents were included as a learning tool, but they provide an interesting context from the perspective of a range of commentators of the time, that enriches the book as a whole.

'Eastern Europe 1740-1985: Feudalism to Communism' by Robin Okey
This is another author that I have met.  I saw him lecture in the late 1980s and then met him at the National Archives in the mid-1990s and finally ran into him a couple of years ago in a café in Coventry.  He is a lecturer who really inspires his audiences with his immense energy.  I do not think I have seen one who charges around the stage as much as Okey does.  He is very skilled in languages and one advantage of this book is that he speaks all of those of the countries he covers, from Poland down to Serbia and Bulgaria, the countries that have lain between Germany, Austria and Italy on one side and Russia on the other.

Okey's ability with languages marks the book out from 'The Habsburg Monarchy' (1941) which I read in December 2015, as he manages to move beyond simply the political and economic aspects to look at the cultural inputs into these facets, especially in terms of how the languages and identity of the various nations began to appear through the time period he covers.  He is very adept at showing the similarities between the different nations and their experiences but then also teasing out all of the exceptions.  Much of his story is about the growth of nationalism in the region and then how this was filtered through the dictatorships of the inter-war and Second World War period, then the Communist regimes that followed.

While Okey hints at the appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev, this book, published in 1987 (it is the 2nd edition, the 1st edition published in 1982 ran to 1980, i.e. the death of Tito), stops before his era begins to impact on the region this book focuses on.  He is appreciative of the possible difficulties that nationalism will cause, but obviously did not foresee how vicious this was going to prove as seen in the Yugoslav War 1991-2001.  However, in some ways stopping before the latest round of upheaval in Eastern Europe proves to be a strength of the book.  It is not over-awed by the end of the Communist regimes so is able to properly analyse how they developed from the 1950s-80s and look at them without the assumption that they would collapse.  This is useful for people interested in the region over those decades; there are many other books which address the fall of the Communist control.

Overall, this is a brisk, lively book which manages to balance very deftly, between making overarching points and drawing out the particularities of specific nations and countries.  It also provides a useful cultural backdrop to the political and economic developments which more frequently feature in books about the region in this time period.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Biscuits Malted Milk

Belmont Biscuits Malted Milk

Belmont Biscuits appear to b Aldi's equivalent of the Tower Gate brand for Lidl, i.e. their everyday version.  Their version of Malted Milk biscuits is not too bar.  It has a sound snap and they are not crumbly, even 'sandy' as some Malted Milks are unfortunately.  The creaminess I seek in a Malted Milk is largely lacking, but instead there is a 'tart' flavour which while not what you might be looking for is not unpleasant and means they avoid being yet another effectively Rich Tea in another form.  They have a reasonable level of moreishness.  If Aldi worked on these and tweaked them to bring out a creamy flavour, these could be very successful.