Monday, January 30, 2006

More book reviews

Blenheim: the battle for Europe - Charles Spencer
I hadn't realised, when I first picked up this book, that the author was the Charles Spencer who is Earl Spencer and brother of Princess Diana. However, he has written a very entertaining and informative account of the events leading up to, and about the battle of Blenheim itself. Having become interested in this period of history (and the character of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough) through Neal Stephenson's monumental Baroque Trilogy (which is mostly fiction), I found the pace of the writing almost as entertaining as fiction: this is certainly not a stuffy, academic book, though Spencer quotes liberally from many sources. In Britain, Marlborough is almost a forgotten figure, as Spencer claims, but the I found the most fascinating character to be Marlborough's co-general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, whom I had not heard of before, and who seems, from this account, to have been just as instrumental in winning the battle. Spencer argues that the outcome of Blenheim, and the surrender of several crack French battalions, demoralised the French, and was the main turning point in saving Europe from the expansionist ambitions of Louis XIV.

The book puts the background to the wars, and the battle itself, into its historical context, explaining the variable loyalties and intrigues of the leaders of the states involved. Spencer also comments on the increasing professionalism of military life, and attributes this largely to Marlborough's reforms, partly in imitation of the French reforms, and partly to match the Dutch troops which William III had brought to England on his accession. There are interesting details about the appalling standards of medical care, the difficulties in feeding an army on the march, and the problems of politics at home and diplomacy abroad. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in history, not just military history.

Indiscretion - Jude Morgan
I found this book at Heathrow airport, and read it on the flight to Cairo. It's a Regency set novel, featuring as heroine, the wonderfully named Caroline Fortune, who is inevitably known as Miss Fortune. Her father, a former military man, and to whom she is attached, loses what little money remains to him, and Caroline takes a place as a companion to a wealthy widow, Mrs Catling. Life with this lady is not unpleasant, though Caroline has to endure Mrs Catling's bouts of ill-temper, and her cruel behaviour towards her nephew and niece, the Downeys, who have expectations of their aunt.

I won't talk too much of the plot, which takes sudden turns which would spoil your enjoyment of the book if I mentioned them. However, Caroline is a witty, wonderful character, who copes realistically with her problems, and her relationships with her aunt and uncle. The book is witty, well-written, and there is a beautiful sense of period infusing but not overpowering the story. There is some sense of inevitability in the plot, but everything is tied up in a very satisfying way at the end.

My Lord John - Georgette Heyer
Georgette Heyer's last, and unfinished novel, telling the story of John, Duke of Bedford, Henry IV's third son. At times, the book is confusing, with titles changing, and people being referred to by more than one sobriquet, but sheds a great deal of light on a forgotten character of English history. John's achievements probably rank alongside those of his brother, the more famous Henry V - however, Heyer never managed to write about Agincourt or the subsequent battles in France under John's generalship.

Although better known for her Regency novels, Heyer is equally at home in the Middle Ages, and her use of authentic, archaic words and phrases gives a great sense of the period. In the early part of the book, she manages to convey the uncertainty and fear which even great men would live with, given the rule of Richard II, who saw rivals and traitors everywhere, and whose rule, or lack of it, encouraged such jockeying for position. She also describes Henry IV's change in personality from when he was merely Henry of Bolingbroke, to when he had deposed his cousin and assumed the throne himself, and found that kingship was not as easy as he'd thought.

If you don't like unfinished works, this is not the book for you, as the recent re-issue stops midway through a sentence. If you can cope with that, however, read it in conjunction with Anya Seton's Katharine, set at a slightly earlier time, for a contrasting viewpoint of this period.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The world's favourite airline?

Flying isn't my favourite way of spending time. I hate take-off and landing as the change in pressure badly affects my ears, particularly in the smaller aeroplanes. And would anyone choose to spend time in a cold, dry, noisy metal tube for pleasure? Even if they do show you Wedding Crashers or obscure Arabic-language films en route. I have been travelling frequently over the past couple of months with British Airways - due to my trips to Egypt (another one coming up next week). The flight is long enough for them to serve food and show films: I should also thank whoever plans the entertainment channels for introducing me to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

However, they herd you into the aircraft, and make you file past the First Class (except they don't call it that any more) seats which look so comfortable, being fully reclining and with loads of leg room, taunting you with what you aren't getting. And then you see the full horror of what you'll really be spending four hours sitting in: Economy Class (except that's now been rebranded - I'm a World Traveller, don't you know). This is sadism of no uncommon order. If they let you come in the back way there would be none of this seat envy, and I could endure the flight with more equanimity.

At least I'm not flying any further afield: four hours I can cope with, but any longer and I think I'd be succumbing to air rage.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Book review: Skinny Dip

Skinny Dip - Carl Hiaasen

I read this yesterday evening (after finishing a 1969 Elizabeth Peters mystery) and stayed up till after 1am this morning to finish it. Not that I was really aware of the time, because it was a cracking read. The plot certainly isn't original, being a virtual re-hash of Hiaasen's last three books. You can tick off the standard elements: feisty, pretty, young-ish woman with scumbag husband, ex-husband, ex-boyfriend (delete as applicable); older retired cop (Hiaasen's alter ego, probably); humane and decent cop; rich guy with an interest in screwing the Everglades; bizarre supporting characters. Yes, they're all here. But somehow, such is the pace and verve of the writing, that you forget that you've met Joey and Mike before in different guises, and that the story is yet again about the environmental destruction of Florida. Not that I'd bemoan the fact that Hiaasen is evidently passionately concerned about his local environment and wants to draw attention to its destruction, and the vested interests in government which conspire to do nothing about it.

The opening scene, when Joey is thrown off a cruise ship by her horrible husband, Chaz, is superb - you start rooting for her immediately. But it's the more minor characters who are memorable (like Janet Evanovich's, who also writes comic crime novels, though hers are laregly set in New Jersey). Tool, the bear-like "bodyguard" who is convincingly described and whose change of heart is wonderful; Maureen, the eighty-something cancer patient who starts Tool's refomation; Medea, the hippie lover of Chaz who proves that she won't stand for any crap; Corbett Wheeler, Joey's sheep farmer brother; and the Captain, one-eyed mad hermit of the Everglades, who incidentally provides the creepy, Handful of Dust ending and Chaz's just deserts. There are some great comic scenes, particularly with Rolvaag's encounters with his mad, dog-loving neighbours (he owns two pythons of whom the residents of his building are terrified), and Chaz's attempts to get laid after Joey's "death".

One of the great things about Hiaasen's books, and Skinny Dip is no exception, is the satisfying way in which the rotten characters meet their come-uppance. He really makes the punishment fit the crime. Lives unravel, love is found, money changes hands, and the reader is entertained all the way. So why fix it if it ain't broken?


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Pen love

It was some time ago when I discovered the ultimate pen: the Pilot G-Tec-C4. It has a wonderfully fine line and is excellent for writing small text, though its only drawback is that the ink takes rather a long time to dry. I prefer the natty brown, which is distinctive amongst the office blacks and blues, and yet also photocopies well.

However, the other problem with the pens is that you can't buy them easily anywhere. Most high street shops which stock stationery don't stock these pens, and if they do, don't stock brown. The last lot I got were bought at Selfridges! So I decided this week, my last pen running out rapidly, to buy some new ones, and searched the web for suppliers. There seem to be hundreds of office supply firms trading on the Internet, and prices and availability varied amazingly. Eventually I ordered a variety pack (all ten colours available plus two free of your own choice - I chose brown) from the wonderfully-named
Cult Pens based in Dartmouth (Devon). They arrived this morning, and I am now consumed by pen love. They will be guarded from possible depredation by my colleagues, and I will carefully choose which colour to use. I'm getting quite fond of the light blue already...

I'm such a sucker for stationery. I don't quite know what's so satisfying about clean white paper (not ruled, though I quite like squared paper) and pens and pencils, as I do most of my writing by computer nowadays.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I've been watching a lot of old TV shows recently, courtesy of DVD box sets received as presents at Christmas and for my birthday (thanks to S and A!). The Muppet Show, despite featuring a lot of guest artistes that I've never heard of (Miss Juliet Prowse, anyone?), and being broadcast in the late 1970s, I had worried that I would not find it as enchanting as when I watched it during my childhood. Some shows prove to be boring when watched as an adult - Bagpuss springs to mind - but The Muppet Show isn't one of them. The jokes are still funny, and the puppets' expressions are expertly done. Waldorf and Statler (the elderly hecklers) probably get the best lines, but there are great musical and sight gags as well as the verbal ones. And the theme song is ludicrously catchy!

And the other TV series I've been re-watching is The Professionals. I never watched these when they were originally broadcast, being too young, and so came to them as an adult. It's difficult to justify liking it in these politically correct and post feminist days, but if you can watch them as a relic of the late 1970s, and not try to apply our own standards, they are quite fun. There's a lot of shooting, and fighting (and the occasional gratuitous shot of a barmaid's boobs), but there are other issues which are still relevant today - like how to counter terrorism - as well as those which are out of date - like the dealing with the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. The most startling episode to watch was one dealing with racism - which wasn't shown at the time of the original run because of its subject matter - and the attitudes on display from certain of the main characters is quite shocking. I'm unsure whether the show undermines its main point by its ending, or whether it points the irony. You do actually feel liking and sympathy for Bodie (Lewis Collins) and Doyle (Martin Shaw), despite the violence and womanising, because they can show surprising sympathy and humanity themselves.

Anyway, on with Arrested Development, series one...