Thursday, 22 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Oaties

Belmont Oaties

While not a Hobnob, these do very well.  They have that oaty flavour but without tasting something like ryebread.  They do not disintegrate on being bitten and you do not have to pick pieces from your teeth, though you get the oaty texture in them.  There is the hint of sweetness which is right to indicate that this is not a biscuit for cheese.  The packet is a little small, but the thickness of the biscuits is more than reasonable.  Overall good value oaty biscuit if that is what you want.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 11 June 2017

What If Proportional Representation Been Used in the June 2017 UK General Election?

This is something I have now been doing for a few years, most recently for the May 2015 election: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/what-if-proportional-representation.html  In part it is driven by my interest in counter-factual analysis and how different Britain might have been if back in 1918 when given the chance, the coalition government had introduced proportional representation, or indeed, if the Labour Party had stuck to its stated policy and introduced it when in power in 1997-2010.

I use a simple system for my analysis, allocating the number of seats in Parliament on the basis of the share of the vote received.  Of course, any proportional representation system cannot replicate purely the percentage figures but they tend to come close.  Some systems, e.g. that of Germany, will not allow any party polling less than 5% of the total vote, to have a seat in parliament.  However, I assume such a bar is not in place.

This election has seen a rise in support for both the Conservatives, who received more votes than they have done at any election since 1983, and for Labour, who saw a 10% rise in the number of people voting for them.  The thing is, especially for the Conservatives, many of these votes are simply 'stacking up' in seats that they already hold safely, they are not winning additional seats, simply raising the majorities of individual MPs.  Thus, whilst they are the party most opposed to proportional representation the Conservatives might actually benefit from it as they are, in many cases, firming up their hold on some constituencies especially with the departure of UKIP. Perhaps the party with the greatest stacking this time, however, are the Greens, with a single MP, but now with over a 14,000 majority.  Many Green votes are not translating into seats.

While noting the stacking up, this election has also seen some very narrow majorities, the most extreme being in North-East Fife where the SNP won by just 2 votes.  Such narrow margins are difficult to translate into proportional representation as simply 1 person voting differently could have changed the situation. In Kensington, Perth & North Perthshire, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Southampton Itchen, Richmond, Crewe & Nantwich, the majorities were fewer than 50 votes.  In another three seats, including two in Glasgow, the winning candidate has a majority of fewer than 100 votes. 

In the 2015 election there was a lot of talk about the 'shy Tory' people willing to vote for the Conservatives but unwilling to say so to people asking their opinion.  This time there is talk of the 'shy Labour supporter'.  In fact they are largely shy because they were under-reported by the predominantly Conservative media.  Labour was having big rallies and the increase of turnout by 3% to 69% seems largely to have been young people who have not voted before, whether too young in the past or were not sufficiently engaged.  There had been an assumption that UKIP supporters would simply become Conservative supporters, but it appears, especially in northern England that instead they have turned to Labour, which highlights the fact that judging the political scene in the post-referendum era and especially in the time of populist politics, on old assumptions is flawed.

Of course, if proportional representation had been before this election then the political scene would have been very different anyway which may have meant that an election would not have been called at this time.  Analysis in 2015 showed the following profile for the House of Commons if proportional representation had been in place.  The actual returns are in square brackets:


2015: 650 seats [Conservative Government]

  • Conservatives: (36.9%); 240 seats  [331]
  • Labour (30.4%); 198 seats  [232]
  • UKIP (12.6%); 82 seats [1]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.8%); 51 seats [8]
  • SNP (4.7%); 31 seats [56]
  • Green (3.8%); 25 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Northern Irish Parties:
  • DUP (0.6%); 6 seats [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%); 5 seats [4]
  • UUP (0.4%); 4 seats [2]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [3]
  • Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [1]
Labour would have been stronger and it is likely that the Conservatives would have been in coalition with UKIP so there would still have been a referendum on leaving the EU and it is likely that the UK would have left.  However, the political scene would have been pretty different to what we saw in 2015 with the Liberal Democrats still a significant force and the Greens stronger by far than even the Liberals were back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the ascendancy in the 2000s.  Thus, it is likely that they would have received more back as a 'credible' party, it is impossible to tell.  With such a system other parties may have appeared too.  Again in the figures below, the numbers in square brackets are what the parties actually got.

2017: 650 Seats [Conservative with DUP Confidence & Supply Support]
  • Conservatives (42.45%): 279 seats [318]
  • Labour (39.99%); 263 seats [262]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.37%); 49 seats [12]
  • SNP (3.04%); 21 seats [35]
  • UKIP (1.84%); 13 seats [0]
  • Green (1.63%); 12 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.51%); 3 seats [4]
  • Others (0.52%); 3 seats [0]
Northern Irish Parties
  • DUP (0.91%); 6 seats [10]
  • Sinn Fein (0.74%); 5 seats [7]
  • Independent Unionist (0.45%); 3 seats [1]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
  • UUP (0.26%); 2 seats [0]
I always caution on Northern Ireland figures as some constituencies are highly partisan, and a form of proportional representation is in place, so the figures might turn out pretty much as they do in reality. 

The portrayal of Labour as so extreme and its leader Jeremy Corbyn as some revolutionary in much of the media, has overshadowed what was actually going on.  The Conservatives did very well, not having polled as well as this since 1983.  Labour did badly, only really as well as when Gordon Brown lost power in 2010.  However, because of the incessant portrayal of Labour under Corbyn as useless, the right-wing media have made the party's modest gains appear far more significant than was in fact the case.  Theresa May's arrogance in assuming she could do better than her predecessor compounded by an aloof attitude which was even greater than the snobbishness of Cameron, did her party no favours among floating voters.  However, it went down very well with people who were already Conservative supporters as seen with increased majorities in safe Conservative seats.  May largely talking to Conservatives rather than floating voters probably gave her a distorted view of what was happening.  The assumption that almost all former UKIP voters would automatically turn to the Conservatives was also flawed.

What is apparent is that 2017 saw a polarisation back to the 2-party system characteristic of the 1940s-90s.  However, there are geographical shifts with Labour picking up seats in a number of unexpected places such as Canterbury, perhaps finally benefiting from the mobilisation of university student votes, much vaunted but little seen in 2015.  With so many universities in the UK and more towns having two, they may create pockets of Labour and even, in time, Green support among Conservative 'seas' of rural Britain.  The Conservative return to Scotland, strongly in the South and East, in part compensated them for Labour's random gains and without which they might have even struggled to form a coalition. 

Of course, Labour's chance of ever having a majority government ever again are quickly fading as boundary changes will lose them over 30 seats as parliament shrinks to 600 members.  They are likely to find that they again receive fewer seats than their share of the vote as their support will stack up in small urban constituencies to a greater extent than has been the case recently.

In this alternative, there still would have been polarisation, but to a different pattern. The Liberal Democrats under proportional representation would have fallen rather than risen in the number of seats yet would have been returned to being the third party with the eclipse of UKIP.  Now, if UKIP had been in a coalition with the Conservatives since 2015 they may not have been swept away; indeed there probably would have been no need for an election for Theresa May to continue with the Brexit process. 

Other small parties have seen a decline, notably the Greens and Plaid Cymru.  However, if the Greens had had 25 MPs in 2015 rather than 1, then people might feel a vote for them was not 'wasted' and so the fall in support might have been less in 2017 than has been the case in our system.

Labour really no longer has any need for proportional representation as its number of seats is proportionate now to the amount of the electorate supporting it. The same can be said for Plaid Cymru. The Conservatives still receive more than their 'fair' proportion of seats, getting 48.4% of the available seats.  The same applies to the SNP, who got 5.4% of the seats compared to 3.04% of the votes this time even though this is a fall from 8.6% of sets in 2015 from just 4.7% of the vote.  Thus, parties that win or when they are winning, large rural seats, tended to be over-represented.

Analysis that I have done on elections down the years if there had been proportional representation is that a Labour-Liberal coalition would have been the predominant form of government.   In fact the more common coalitions of the 21st century under the first-past-the-post have been Conservative dominated ones as in the early to mid-20th century.

With proportional representation another Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition  with probably the SNP and Greens adhering too, is likely to have appeared in 2017 with the departure of the Conservative-UKIP coalition.  However, in that scenario I imagine the 'Brexit Coalition' would have continued under Theresa May and having no election until 2020. 

What is interesting is that for Labour is that its vote is increasingly in line with the number of seats it receives, in contrast to the situation in the 1990s.  The Liberal Democrats and the Greens, previously to a far greater extent UKIP too, are heavily under-represented for the amount of support they gain.  The big winners from the first-past-the-post system are the Conservatives and SNP who effectively need a smaller number of votes to win a seat than the other parties do.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

These are not bad as Rich Tea biscuits go; certainly not as small as some are now becoming.  They have a rather dry starting taste but some richness in the aftertaste and they are reasonably moreish.  They have a good snap and as you would hope for Rich Teas do not crumble easily.  Overall, for the standard range of a discount supermarket they do the job intended for them.  A little less dryness in them would raise them that bit higher.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Books I Read In May

Fiction
'The Mask of Dimitrios' by Eric Ambler
Ambler, publishing first before the Second World War, is seen as the precursor of post-war spy thriller novelists notably Len Deighton and John Le Carré.  Having read a lot of Le Carré this year, I feel he needs to go back to his Ambler to get an idea of pacing and excitement.  This book features a novelist, Charles Latimer, in late 1930s Turkey who becomes friends with Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and is shown a body apparently of Dimitrios Makropoulous, a renowned criminal.  He travels Eastern and Central Europe unearthing the career of the man before ending up in Paris to find out the final truth.

The book moves briskly.  It shows an ordinary man being sucked into extraordinary situations, but ones which appear highly feasible.  There are nasty, but believable people.  It is a thriller, but one you can believe in.  Though published in 1939, now that the Cold War is over and drug and people traffickers are back working the same kind of routes, it has a more contemporary appeal that, say back in the 1970s. 

Much of the story is related by other characters, but it is Ambler's skill that this is engaging. Unusually for a British novel, almost every character is not Anglo-Saxon and the protagonist actually speaks fluent Greek and reasonable French; he has to enlist help with other languages, which he does in a credible way. The novel also highlights many historical developments in Eastern Europe of the 1920s which these days are often overlooked; the violence of the Greece-Turkey War 1919-22 is an notable example, but also unrest in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia feature.

In many ways the book is grim, but it is a good read and is a useful lesson for anyone wanting to write thrillers today about how to keep them taut and the reader engaged in a story which is intriguing but rooted in reality in a way some contemporary authors fail to achieve.  Probably the best book I have read this year.

'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' ed. by Mike Ashley
There is now a whole plethora of these 'Mammoth Books' but this one dates from 1993 and, like those others I have read has a very wide assortment of stories under the umbrella of a genre, one which was blossoming at the time but has expanded immensely since.  This book, stimulated by the writing of Ellis Peters who provides the foreword and one story, is a collection of 23 detective stories set historically to when the author was alive and runs from 2000 BCE up to 1910 in chronological order.  One of the authors, Herodotus, is a well-known historical figure in his own right but even he wrote a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, a thousand years before he lived.  I must say that there are far too many locked room (or even sealed tomb) mysteries that by the end you tire of this conceit.

As with collections of 'rivals' to Sherlock Holmes I have read, one thing is such collections tend to show you why the novelists you know best in the genre, in this case both the story by Peters featuring Brother Cadfael and one by Robert Van Gulik featuring Judge Dee, both of whose work I have read before, though not these stories, stand out from the others in terms of the crispness of the story and the language.  Though there are some half-decent Roman detectives and the stories John Maddox Roberts and Wallace Nichols show how Rome changed in going from Republican to Imperial rule, few stories were sufficiently engaging for me to want to find other work by these authors, saying that having a slave as detective as Nichols does, creates a fascinating dynamic.

There were some that I found interesting for the setting.  One was a Sister Fidelma story by Peter Tremayne set in 7th Century CE Ireland and it is fascinating in terms of the potential for a nun to play a part in the legal process of that time and what a High King needed to attain the throne.  Paul Harding's story has some of this in featuring a 14th Century coroner in London.  Another is 'Captain Nash and the Wroth Inheritance' a full length novel by Raymond Butler, set in 1771 in London and the English countryside though a little burdened by the sexual mores of the mid-1970s when it was published.  It is adventurous and intriguing and well conjures up the contrast between the squalor and decadence of the era.

Overall this is an interesting collection and may expose readers to some forgotten historical detective authors, especially from the mid-20th century who may now be pretty much neglected.  You feel a number of the characters have not been taken far enough and it would be nice to see them revived today in full-length novels, just as long as none of them feature a locked room murder or robbery!

Non-Fiction
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 480BC - 1757' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This book was published in three volumes entitled 'The Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence Upon History' from 1954-56.  In 1970 John Terraine was asked to edit them down to a two-volume set.  This book was from the 1981 edition of that set.  Abridging is always a challenge, but I think it was handled particularly poorly in this case.  As well as the particular battles, Fuller wrote connecting text taking the reader through the centuries between each set of conflicts, explaining developments in Europe and noting innovations in warfare.  What Terraine has done is cut this down to much briefer sections, clearly written in his own voice and at times referring to Fuller in the third person and even quoting him in what is supposed to be Fuller's book.  Thus, we end up with three types of chapters.  The chapters about the actual battles are the best, followed by the linking chapters by Fuller which precede them.  The worst are the forward linking chapters by Terraine which are a mess and cause confusion, plus a horrible jarring in voice.

Being a book of the 1950s, it assumes all readers can speak French and Latin as well as English and Terraine did nothing to alter this even in the 1980s.  So you may need to translate certain passages.  Especially in the early chapters about the Classical World, there is a tendency to rely on florid quotations from Victorian historians and some of these are overblown.  There are a reasonable number of line-drawn maps, my favourite and they do act to clarity.  Sometimes Fuller goes off on grandiloquent commentary, somehow seeing the conquest of Granada as unleashing global exploration but when focused on specific battles, he is very perceptive and many of his portrayals of the battles are more incisive than those by modern readers.  His commentary on the Battle of Hastings 1066 and the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 are excellent. He is also very good at showing how Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough and Frederick the Great were revolutionary in how they carried out war.  Prejudices do creep in at times: he is incredibly hostile to Calvinists and Lutherans, seeing them as nastily political rather than religious movements.

I turned to this book as I was interested in potential counter-factual analysis and stories.  Though Fuller does not go into this in depth, he does show why he thinks the battles were decisive. Despite the title, he actually starts in 1479BCE. In some places it is surprising which battles he does not include, such as the Battle of Poltava 1709, but he does note these.  His writing on complex conflicts like the Thirty Years' War and Seven Years' War are sound, but can be breathless at times meaning you need to read back over to find out which general went where.  Though a densely written book (with small print in my edition - hence taking me 19 days to read), it sweeps along briskly and is thought provoking.  I have the second volume, which runs 1792-1944, to read later in the year.

You may be interested to know which battles Fuller feels were decisive in this context:

Battle of Megiddo - 1479BCE; Battle of Marathon - 491BCE; Defence of Thermopylae - 480BCE; Battle of Salamis - 480BCE; Battle of Plataea - 479BCE; Battle of Arbela - 331BCE; Battle of the Metaurus - 207BCE; Battle of Zama - 202 BCE; The Teutoburger Wald Campaign 9CE; Hunnish invasion of France 451; Muslim invasion of France 735; Battle of Hastings - 1066; Battle of Crecy 1346; Siege of Orleans 1428-9; Siege of Constantinople 1453; Conquest of Granada 1491-2; The Armada Campaign 1588; Battle of Breitenfeld 1631; Battle of Lützen 1632; Battle of Blenheim 1704; Battle of Rossbach 1757 and Battle of Leuthen 1757.

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.

Rating:
*****

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.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Books I Read In April

Fiction
'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.

Rating:
*****

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.

Rating:
*****

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Books I Read In March

Fiction
'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.

Non-Fiction
'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.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Biscuit Blog: Memento French Mixed Berries Butter Biscuits

Memento French Mixed Berries Butter Biscuits

I am finding that Aldi likes very long titles for its biscuits.  These are from its Memento range of upmarket biscuits.  As can be seen from the illustration, the box contains a number of sub-packets each holding four biscuits.  These biscuits are pretty small as you can see from the picture.  They do have dried fruit in them but also, it seems, a rather artificial fruit flavour added on top.  I do not think the latter was necessary.  The biscuits are not buttery in flavour but have a reasonable level of snap for this kind of biscuit and are reasonably moreish.  Thus, they are not bad, but they certainly do not have the flavour whether in fruit or biscuit that you would expect to find in a genuine French equivalent.

Rating:
*****

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Books I Read In February

Fiction
'The Russia House' by John Le Carré
Inadvertently I seem to have been working backwards chronologically through the Le Carré books I was given.  This one was published in 1989, though the edition I have has afterwords written in 2001 and 2010.  I remember seeing the 1990 movie and finding it very boring.  The book is no different.  As I have noted before, it seems that Le Carré feels it is sufficient to create a middle-aged, upper middle class man with an reasonably interesting history and then let him potter around in the spy world.  Somehow, we are supposed to be intrigued by that.  This book features Bartholomew 'Barley' Scott Blair who works for a fictitious publishing house of the kind which was probably extinct even by 1987 when the book is sent.  His company tries to sell to and buy from the USSR.  He comes into contact with a scientist who offers intelligence on failings in Soviet missile systems.  The book largely is about Blair being questioned about the information provided and being established as a pretty ineffectual go-between.  There is a lot of questioning and very little action.  Blair falls in love with a Russian woman who passes on the scientist's message and there is some reference to the loosening of the Soviet system in the light of perestroika.

When Le Carré wrote in the 1960s he kept his books short and tight.  However, certainly since the 1980s, perhaps prompted by publishers, they have become incredibly flabby.  My edition was 453 pages long and even with the lack of action, in 200 pages it could have been tense and engaging rather than a slog.  However, there are some problems with this book even when compared to the other three of his I have read recently.  It has a false start as rather than the information going to Blair when in Moscow it goes to another middle-aged publishing representative Nicholas Landau.  Landau passes it on to British intelligence after a couple of chapters then disappears from the book and it seems to start again with Blair.  I almost fell into the same situation with a novel I am currently writing and now see why it is a bad approach.  The second major flaw is that for some of the book the author narrates then sporadically another character, Horatio dePalfrey [sic], a legal advisor to British intelligence narrates.  Why Le Carré felt the need for this additional layer, a man who rambles on about his mistress irrelevantly, I have no idea.  He fades in and fades out suggesting more uncertainty on the author's part just about what was going on in this book.  It is very poor and an embarrassment in front of what he was writing twenty years earlier.

'Babylon Berlin' by Volker Kutscher
Having now written 17 novellas and a novel featuring a detective in 1920s Germany I was naturally attracted to reading this book.  It was published in German in 2007 but is now available in translation.  It was the first in the Gereon Rath series of detective novels, which have now reached six in number.  This book is known as 'Der Nasse Fisch' ['The Wet Fish'] in German which is police slang for an unsolved case, but this year a series is appearing on German television using the English title.

Kutscher is excellent at the period detail and really conjures up Berlin in 1929, with meticulous detail about various buildings coming and going and the brands in use at the time.  Perhaps as a result of this being the first book in the series, at times you feel he is taking his detective on a tour of the city.  It would really help to have a map of 1929 Berlin to ascertain precisely where everything is in relation to each other.  This factor does not help with the clarity of the novel.  I like a good twist in a detective story, but Kutscher piles twists on thick and fast.  He throws everything into the mix.  There are Communist riots, there are raids on night clubs of the more and less seedy variety, there are conspiracies not simply by the Stahlhelm, the S.A. and elements of the police, but also involving a spectrum of Russians from the Black Hundreds, through the Okhrana to a Leninist anti-Stalin group and perhaps the O.G.P.U., though people still refer to it as the Cheka.  There is even a drugs dealer with a Chinese assistant.  I appreciate Kutscher's effort and I wonder, even though he had published four crime novels before this one, that he worried that he would not get another chance with his Rath character.

A couple of other factors do not help with clarity.  One is that Rath jumps between different senior police officers of various branches, even getting to travel with the Berlin Commissioner of Police at one stage.  The various 'jurisdictions' are not clear.  I know he is supposed to be uncertain who to trust, but with so many 'players' in the game, it leaves you rather bewildered.  Some were real people like the famous cake-eating detective, Ernst Gennat, whereas others are fictional.  I wonder how this is going to be done on screen to ensure the viewers can follow what is happening.  Another issue, more an irritation than anything else is the translation by Niall Sellar.  It is translated partly into British English, i.e. with the police ranks and reference to a 'pub', but partially into American English, i.e. with a 'recess' in a school.  I would also argue that his rendering of the various Meldungen, by which the population of Germany have long been monitored, as 'passports' does not help with clarity.

There are elements of this novel that I enjoyed and I hope that the series gets to the UK.  However, overall I feel that Kutscher has tried too hard and as a result the novel is less than the sum of its parts.  It ends up reading like one of those 1970s airport thrillers about White Russian or Nazi gold rather than a decent detective novel.  Though I complain about Philip Kerr jumping around in time with his Bernie Gunther novels set in Germany in the same era, he has greater control over what is going on in his stories, though he too seems obsessed with shoehorning in real people.  I do not know if any of the subsequent Gereon Rath books will be translated, but if so, I will not rush to read them as getting through this one was a labour rather than a pleasure.

'The Wee Free Men' by Terry Pratchett
This is a children's book that was given to me some years ago by a girlfriend.  The protagonist as a nine-year old girl, Tiffany Aching who lives on a farm in chalk downs somewhere on Pratchett's Discworld; a very English-style setting, the kind of terrain I really love.  Her brother is abducted by a Queen of Fairyland and Tiffany, realising that she might be a putative witch sets off to rescue him.  She is aided by six-inch high Nac Mac Feegles, who are brownie-like creatures, immensely strong and fast, mostly male, heavily tattooed and for some reason, who speak in a kind of Scottish dialect; emphasised by the fact that they call themselves 'pictsies' so referencing pixies but also the Picts who occupied what is now Scotland in Roman times.  He does mine the kind of stereotypical Glaswegian hardman trope extensively, triggering off bizarre thoughts of a Pratchett version of 'Trainspotting'!

I have complained recently that I have found Pratchett books published in the 21st century to be laboured.  They make good points but go on too much, losing the wit and quickness of his 20th century.  They were light rather than seriously humorous.  This book was first published in 2003, but because it was aimed at a younger audience, it is far tighter and does not waste time in the way that was an increasing tendency for the 'standard' Discworld novels.  It was the first Pratchett book that I have laughed out loud to for a good number of years.  It is deftly done and there are jokes that only adults, and in some cases only middle-aged adults ('We willna' be fooled again' referencing a 1971 track) would get.  The book is brisk and rich in imagery.  Like the best fairy tales, it does have shocking scenes.  It both subverts the genre it is founded in, but also takes a shot at our own society, especially how it supports/demonises the elderly and 'others', but does this deftly in a way Pratchett seemed to lose when driven to write lengthier novels.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt it represented what is best in Pratchett's writing.  It is the first in a series of five books published 2003-15; I have the next two and will not set them aside given how much I enjoyed this one.

'Rebel' by Bernard Cornwell
I have read all of Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series about an English rifleman set during the Napoleonic Wars and aftermath.  Thus, I was pleased when I was given the four books in his Starbuck series, featuring the American Civil War.  The books are centred on Nathaniel Starbuck, the son of an ardent preacher from Massachusetts who seems to constantly fall into troubles pursuing women he is attracted to.  He abandons study in a seminary and follows one woman into Virginia where he happens to be when the American Civil War breaks out in 1861.  Massachusetts was part of the Union side and eastern Virginia was in the Confederacy.  He ends up in a regiment commanded by the father of one of his Virginian friends and entangled in the rivalries between the various officers and men and their families.  The book ends with Starbuck being involved in the 1st Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

Cornwell is excellent as always in terms of historical detail such as the climate, what people wear, their weapons, what they eat (though at times the variety of food features seems massive), even their behaviour and language.  I would challenge his portrayal of the obsession with slavery at the start of the war, given that it was not until 1863 that President Lincoln declared slaves to be free (and was ambivalent about that step) and some slave states fought on the Union side.  At the early stage it was more about a federal versus confederal system in the U.S.A.  The major problem with this book is that almost every character is highly unsympathetic.  Violence, one might expect.  However, everyone is self-deluded, self-righteous pompous and arrogant; self-seeking and corrupt.  The women are mean and self-obsessed.  Though quite a lot of characters feature you very often simply want them out of the story to spare you from having to read about them.  When the 'hero' guns down another character on the say-so of a horribly manipulative woman, you are grateful that at least one nasty character has gone.

I wonder how the book was received in the southern U.S.A. as no southern character has any redeeming features.  Many of the northerners are shown to be unpleasant but not as irredeemable as the confederates shown, even the women.  This makes the book very hard going.  At least in the Sharpe books you had Richard Sharpe and the men around him, that you could root for throughout the books, even if they make mistakes.  In this book, Starbuck (and I have a major problem with that name) is self-flagellating for imagined evils which makes him tiresome and yet, then, he feels free to carry out murder to the sake of this nasty woman.  I do not know if Cornwell was seeking to counteract books that lionise the Confederacy but overall he has written a novel, which despite its attention to detail, is very difficult to engage with because so much of the cast are not people you would ever want to spend time with.

Non-Fiction
'The English Village' by Dennis R. Mills
This seems to be another of these 1960s history books I picked up with charming line drawings in it.  The tone is enthusiastic rather than earnest.  It guides readers, especially children, on how to analyse English villages.  There is a real emphasis on 'English'.  The term is used to refer to the Anglo-Saxons and the author seems to feel that there is nothing much of importance that happened in villages before then, though the Romans and the 'British' left some elements that could be encompassed in an 'English' village.  The Scots only get a mention as raiders and even when featuring a Cornish village, the Celts receive no mention at all.  While nowadays someone would use a computer to do the illustrations, much of the analysis and even many of the sources cited, would still be applicable today.  The book's points are well illustrated with real examples and even draws on Mills's family background and field work.  The enthusiasm extends right to the end of the book where Mills seems to forget this is a book about historical analysis and encourages readers to engage with a village and get involved in local politics to improve it.  Both an interesting and relaxing read, which betrays assumptions of the time (especially jobs being created and done by men) but provides a pleasant slice from a time which, even if in turmoil, still could aspire to both tranquility and progress.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Biscuit Blog: Memento Half Covered Fruit And Nut Cookies

 Memento Half Covered Fruit And Nut Cookies

I have finally located a branch of Aldi reasonably near my house so have rushed in an bought a range of their biscuits to try.  These are from their Memento range of slightly posher biscuits.  I was intrigued by the 'half covered' in the title, but I guess they have been very precise and you would not be misled.

I must say, they are very thick and they are tasty with creamy milk chocolate and a mix of currants and chocolate chips.  I could not detect the nuts mentioned in the name, but they were still tasty. They do not have a snap, but do not fall apart the way some 'cookies' do, especially ones with fruit or nut elements within them.

I hope this is a sign of good things to come from Aldi as I work through what they have on offer. 

Rating:
*****

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Three Eagles: A What If? Novel of the U.S.A., Mexico and the First World War

The Three Eagles: A What If? Novel of the U.S.A., Mexico and the First World War
 
 
Today I self-published a new what if? novel on Amazon called 'The Three Eagles'.  I have long wondered why, having won the 1916 election on the slogan 'he kept us out of the war', Woodrow Wilson decided to enter the First World War in April 1917.  It was 23 months after the RMS 'Lusitania' with 128 US citizens on board had been sunk by a German submarine and it is clear that, despite the popular view, it had minimal impact on US foreign policy. 
 
Wilson decided to go to war despite him proposing peace terms to both sides of the conflict.  He seems to have been put out by the fact that both the Allies and the Central Powers, made no genuine proposals and simply put forward their list of objectives.  Two factors, however, meant that the USA entered the war on the side of the Allies, though it largely kept its armed forces separate and did not become a formal ally of Britain or France.  The first was the resumption of German U-boat attacks on neutral shipping, notably US ships.  The Germans had curtailed this on two previous occasions following requests from President Wilson but at the start of 1917 reneged on this.  The second was the Zimmermann Telegram sent to the German ambassador in Mexico to encourage the country to attack the USA.  Wilson was always more concerned with Mexico than Germany and US marines had occupied locations in Mexico in 1914 and he sent the so-called Punitive Expedition in 1916 commanded by Brigadier General Pershing to try to catch Pancho Villa, a revolutionary whose men had been responsible for raids into the USA.  The Expedition achieved little and Pershing was sent to Europe to command US troops dispatched to France, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
 
One important fact to remember is that in 1917, the US Army was very weak; smaller than that of Serbia.  Many troops had equipment and uniforms left over from the American Civil War which had finished in 1865; on reaching France they were largely kitted out by the French Army.  As the AEF received their own portion of the Western Front they were kept apart from the seasoned British, French, Belgian and Portuguese troops, so they had to learn from scratch.  Consequently US casualties were seven times higher than other units fighting on the Western Front.  Involvement in the war even for such a short time, meant the USA paid a heavy price.  However, the presence of US troops and the food and war materiel that accompanied them, gave heart to the Allies, particularly the French.  US troops were particularly important in defending Paris in May 1918 when the German Kaiserschlacht Offensive almost went further than German troops did in 1914 when they almost won as it was.  With no US troops in France in 1917-18, it is likely that the French and probably the British troops too, would have suffered widespread mutinies and the German Army would have reached Paris in May 1918.  They had already beaten Russia into surrender in March 1918.
 
Thus, this book works from the basis that the Germans avoided upsetting Wilson for a third time and he was left to carry out further action in Mexico, where just as on the Western Front in our world, the ill-equipped small US forces struggled against battle-hardened Mexican troops and the various revolutionary armies.  Meanwhile with the Germans having won a last gasp victory in Europe, they have not gained all that the nationalists fantasised about, but have been able to secure the worldwide empire that the Kaiser had dreamt of.
 
This is the counter-factual background, which, as with all my writing, has been carefully researched.  As with my other what if? books and stories, however, it is the impact on characters that interests me rather than labouring through details of battles.  This book is in three sections, the first features a National Guardsmen sent to occupy a Mexican oilfield in 1917; the second sees a US spy investigating a new German submarine base on the Gulf coast of Mexico in 1920 and the third is set in 1923 covering a pilot sent to root out one of the remaining revolutionaries operating in northern Mexico.  If you enjoy a alternate history setting as the background for adventure stories, then I trust this novel will appeal to you.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Biscuit Blog: Asda Rich Tea biscuits

Asda Rich Tea biscuits

These Rich Tea biscuits, not as small as some you find and in the packet you get two sub-packs of biscuits.  They are very dry in taste and lack much of the richness that you would expect.  They almost work like cracker biscuits would in your mouth.  Thus, while good value for money, I would use them as biscuits for cheese rather than as a sweet biscuit.

Rating:
*****

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Books I Read In January

Fiction
'Get Wallace!' by Alexander Wilson
I have often be interested in what were called 'Classic Thrillers', there was even a series of reprints with this title, written in the early 20th century and inter-war period.  This is the fourth book in the series of eight published by Wilson 1928-39, featuring the fictional Sir Leonard Wallace as head of MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency.  Wilson was a bigamist and philanderer who created four families.  Drawing on his knowledge of South Asian languages, he worked for MI6 between 1939-42 when he was sacked, it appears as a result of fabricating evidence of spying and lying about a burglary; his last novel was published in 1940 though he lived on until 1963.

One thing about classic thrillers is that they can be very much of their time.  This is not an issue in terms of the threats they address, though they can be informed by racist and sexist attitudes.  The greater problem is that they are often restrained in the threats they present and the dialogue is often very gentlemanly even between enemies.  Those traits certainly feature in this book.  There are some characteristics which stand out from other thrillers of the period but ironically their impact is muted. Wallace has only one arm though this does not hinder his activities.  He is married and has a son who are targeted by assassins in this novel.  His Rolls Royce has a facility to allow him to disappear into its boot.  In many ways, despite references on the cover to him paving the way for James Bond, he is most like George Smiley the character in a number of John Le Carré novels, especially as he is as much a manager as an operative in his own right.

The story is around a spy ring successfully stealing secrets from British, French, German and Soviet military institutions making use of highly convincing impersonations of leading staff (an approach used in 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1915) too) and then selling them to the highest bidder.  At the heart of the plot is the traditional father-daughter criminal team, Stanilaus and Thalia Ictinos (similar to the set-up of Fu Manchu and his daughter in the Sax Rohmer novels published 1913-73.), though they are Greek and Thalia is largely excused her crimes at the end of the novel.  They have recruited a number of British criminals on the run to staff the operation.  It is based on the Isle of Sheppey in Essex and most of the action takes place in the Thames Estuary and London. The error which leads Wallace right to the criminals' location is really feeble.

The elements which might be seen as atypical include the simple shooting dead of one of Wallace's men and the fact that Stanilaus Ictinos is really just an operative for a respected big businessman, characteristics which you might expect in a novel today.  However, these in themselves might have startled a reader in 1934, but are so weakly handled in this book as to drain them of tension.  There is a lot of chasing around Essex and in London without any real tension.  There is one reasonable fight aboard a ship in the estuary, but we are never in any doubt that everyone will come out of it successfully, even the quirky, quoting lieutenant of Wallace's, Cousins or the MI6 heavy Shannon.  I guess the lack of genuine tension, the very earnest dialogue and rather tiresome pursuits is why Wilson has been forgotten when, in contrast, people keep remaking 'The Thirty-Nine Steps'.  Overall, interesting but not very engaging.

'The Secret Speech' by Tom Rob Smith
This book is horrendous and I advise you not to buy it.  That is the simple summary of this review.  This is the second book in a trilogy which began with 'Child 44' (2008), detective stories set in the USSR in the mid-20th century.  I had seen the 2015 movie of the book.  I have also read novels by Ivy Litvinov, Martin Cruz Smith and Stuart Kominsky also set in the USSR and Josef Škvorecký set in Communist Czechoslovakia.  I had found the tension between solving a crime and dealing with the state and party's view of the 'truth' enthralling.  'The Secret Speech' is set largely in 1956 following the so-called 'secret speech' by Nikita Khrushchev denouncing the extremes of the regime of Josef Stalin, 1928-53.  These revelations lead people who have been persecuted under Stalin to seek revenge, unsurprisingly.  This puts the 'hero' of the trilogy, Leo Demidov, a former secret police officer, though now a homicide detective, in a difficult position.

The book is very fragmented and the sojourn to take part in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising in Budapest appears unrelated to the rest of the book.  You feel as if Smith had been told to increase the number of pages rather than actually advance the story.  Once characters return from Budapest the story comes to an abrupt halt.

The main trouble with this book is that Smith forgets he is writing a novel rather than a fictionalised social history of 1950s USSR and especially the Gulag system.  There are really no sympathetic characters in the novel, those that have a crumb of humanity are shown as self-righteous and indeed selfish to the detriment of others.  The bulk of characters, whether officials, criminals or members of the public are shown as utterly corrupted by the system that they are in.  Even Demidov's adopted 14-year old daughter appears despicable.  Thus, we are tossed from one nasty character in unpleasant circumstances to another, to another.  This book can be condemned as suggesting that all Russians of a certain generation did not have a redeemable quality between them.  Furthermore, the scale of cruelty and torture in a whole range of forms, makes this book verge on 'torture pornography'.

Overall it is a very unpleasant read and I will be staying well clear of 'Agent 6' the final book in the trilogy and I can only hope that Smith stays away from writing any more novels in the future or that he restricts them to sale to sado-masochist perverts.

'Son of the Tree' by Jack Vance
This book was published as a magazine story in 1951; the copy I have was produced in 1974 when it was still possible to have a 128-page book (selling for 30p) put out on sale.  I have not read other work by Vance but was reasonably impressed by the book.  It is a simple tale set sometime in the distant future when humanity has colonised many parts of the galaxy and in many cases has evolved into a range of forms.  It features Joe Smith who is following after a man who is the rival for the affections of a woman back on Earth.  By the time the book opens Smith has got so far through space that Earth is believed to be a mythical rather than real place.

The book has charms of old science fiction of the kind I noted when reviewing stories by John Wyndham last year.  Despite the fact that humanity has spaceships able to travel between the stars, they still use slide rules and women take men's surnames when they marry.  Vance is so locked into his own time and culture that he has included these things without thought.  Despite this, he does well in creating interesting societies and a brisk story featuring cultural imperialism.  Smith arrives on Kyril a theocracy where the Druid class are supported by a mass of peasants; the religion focuses on the worship of an immense tree stretching right up into the atmosphere.  The leaders of Kyril are rivalling with those of the oligarchy with two factions, Mangtse, to have influence over Ballenkarch, a planet being united under a leader who turns out to have come from Earth.  The construction of the societies and their factions and the use of individuals, often acting unknowingly on the behalf of others is well handled.  There are twists at the end which seem rather rushed and highly improbable which rather undermine a good story; Smith also seems to be forgotten in the closing sections of the story.  Perhaps this is intentional because throughout you have felt his quest was rather forlorn anyway.

Overall I enjoyed the story despite it feeling dated.  Vance quickly conjures up interesting details and portrayals of societies in a science fiction setting.  If I stumble across any of his books in the future I would certainly take a look at them, which, as you will know, is not something I say often these days.

Non-Fiction
'A Short Economic History of Modern Japan' by G.C. Allen
The first word of caution is about the definition of 'modern'.  This was the third, updated version of the book published in 1970.  However, apart from some additions at the end, really it differs little from the first version published in 1945 which only went from 1867-1937.  If you accept that it really simply focuses on those seventy years, then this book is pretty good.  Allen intentionally avoids a deterministic approach which was too common in writing about Japan in the late 20th century.  He neither sees state intervention nor private enterprise or the zaibatsu which straddled both, as providing the 'answer' to Japan's economic success in this period.  Indeed he skilfully shows how diverse the Japanese economy remained, embracing both tiny, specialist industry alongside conglomerations.  He does well in reminding the reader of the role of agriculture and craft industries alongside the pressing forward of heavy and then consumer industry.

Allen highlights the weakness of the Bakufu economy before the Meiji Restoration, but also the ground work laid for future success, notably in terms of high literacy levels and a compliant workforce feeling as if they belonged to a family with their employers, that were able to benefit Japanese industry in the following decades.  He also highlights the flaws in the Japanese government's approaches to banking and currency.  Another strength is how he shows Japan's growing empire was woven into the economy of the Home Islands and what each could provide the other.  Overall, this is a comprehensive and importantly, nuanced book.  However, the limits of its chronology need to be recognised.  The revisions were not genuine revisions and despite some efforts to add material on the post-war situation, aside from the Occupation period, it is poor.  Furthermore, because so little is included on the Japanese wartime economy there is a unfortunate disconnect between what happened 1937-45 and how that aided or hindered what followed.