Stalking Sapphire

Reading challenge book 8 – A book written by an author with your same initials

Stalking Sapphire, by Mia Thompson

Amazon link here

Despite having taken my husband’s name and being pretty happy about it, I still automatically write my initials as MCS. For this challenge I had the great idea of cheating and reading a book by Alexander McCall Smith, but hubby was unimpressed. Hence I went for MT.

There are a number of famous people with the initials ‘MT’: Mike Tyson; Margaret Thatcher; Mary Tudor. Famous authors with the initials MT, however? The only one I could find was Mark Twain, and sadly, I’m not a Mark Twain fan. I have bad memories of written-out accents, which is really not my thing. So, I took to Amazon. There may not be very many famous authors with the initials of MT, but there are lots of authors of diet books, erotica, shifter-erotica (yes, that is a big thing). Despairing, I weighed up a book that looked promising but was expensive against the cheaper, silly, Stalking Sapphire, and decided to save my pennies. I probably just about got what I paid for, maybe; this book was bad! Although it has a 4-star rating on Amazon, which just shows that Amazon ratings aren’t that helpful.

A review on Amazon describes Stalking Sapphire as a ‘Dexter of the debutante set’, which to be fair, is probably where Mia Thompson got her idea. To fill in the detail, Sapphire Dubois is a poor little rich girl who hates her meaningless, frivolous OC-style life. So she lives a shallow lie, while giving her life meaning by hunting down serial killers in secret.

Possibly I wasn’t concentrating when I read this book, which is totally my bad. However, I never really understood why she couldn’t walk away from the life she didn’t like. There was a thing about her disappointing her wealthy family, but she’s portrayed as intelligent so presumably she could build a new life that matters, even if starting with nothing? Sorry Mia if I’ve missed something obvious.

I said that she’s portrayed as intelligent. Maybe that’s not fair. Early on she captures a serial killer by luring him into the woods into a pit trap, where the trap is marked by a ‘big X spray-painted in bright red’. She then uses her bright pink iPhone to call the police, but disguises her voice with a modulator. The iPhone is her personal cell phone, which is one of the props of her fake life.

 

Would you use your own cell phone to make a ‘secret call’ to the police? I admit that I’m not current on the technology needed to trace mobile phones, but my guess is no, that would be a bad idea.

What else? Aston, a hardcore detective from the rough streets of LA, has been transferred to Beverley Hills, which he hates as there’s no real crime and therefore he perceives his job as meaningless. He and Sapphire meet and have a one night stand, where she loses her virginity (yes really. There’s this whole thing where she has a fake boyfriend as another prop for her fake life; she doesn’t sleep with him, because she doesn’t like him, but he cheats on her lots so that’s okay.) Aston is intrigued by her and begins to suspect that she is hiding something.

In a deeply unexpected plot twist, Sapphire is being stalked by another serial killer, who sends her threatening mail and parcels. This serial killer knows his stuff. He’s seen through her disguise of high heels and party dresses and knows what she did last summer does in secret. Aston is therefore assigned to provide police protection to Sapphire. Despite being sent amputated fingers in a gift box, she still doesn’t tell him or anyone about her secret life, because she can hunt down the new serial killer and fix things herself. Never mind about the poor lady who’s having her fingers cut off – Sapphire can handle it! Yada yada yada, I can’t be bothered to keep outlining the plot. It’s silly.

So, a debutante Dexter? I think Dexter is great – dark, gritty, compelling. In comparison, Stalking Sapphire is pink Lego – i.e. Mia Thompson has taken something that was pretty awesome and accessible to both genders, and tried to make a girls-only version. Except Stalking Sapphire is lamer, because pink Lego is still Lego and therefore kinda cool. However, to give the book credit, I think it could be made into an entertaining made-for-TV movie for watching with your friends, a lot of booze, and mocking.

So no, I won’t be buying the sequels. And yes, I got what I deserved for being cheap and only spending 49p on a book. Mea culpa.

 

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Coriolanus

Reading challenge book 36 – A book more than a hundred years old

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare

Amazon link here

I chose to read Coriolanus because it is one of the plays being performed at this year’s Cambridge Shakespeare Festival and I was wholly unfamiliar with it. It’s a tragedy, set in ancient Rome, and was one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote.

I read Coriolanus on Kindle, in an edition that had no annotations whatsoever, and I have to confess that I found it hard work, more challenging than Shakespeare’s plays. I’m in the habit now of using the Oxford English Dictionary on Kindle to look up words as I read, but many words from the play weren’t included . Plus, Coriolanus – despite a gory battle scene early on – struck me as including more debate and less action than some other plays, which probably added to the challenge. Still, my opinions might have been difficult if I’d forked out for a better edition.

The protagonist, Coriolanus, is a Roman patrician and a renowned warrior, who is at his best on the battlefield where he is unbeatable. The flip side of this is that he is very sure of his own worth, sees no reason to compromise or sweeten his words, and disdains the Roman people. This is an attitude he has inherited from his mother, who extols courage and glory above all else, and appears to also despise the plebs.

In this play we see Menenius, his closest friend, and Caminius, his general, extolling Coriolanus’ virtues. However, the majority of his valour is ‘off-camera’ and much more ‘screen-time’ is given to his tirades against the common people and his refusal to amend his views. He sees his inflexibility as one of his best qualities, and possibly the ideal nature of a Real Man. This is his undoing; ultimately two of the tribunes appointed to speak for the Roman citizens, Brutus and Sicinius, are able to use his views and words against him, and banish him from Rome midway through the play.

There is real some humour when Coriolanus speaks of the common people. His first words of the play are in the first act, where the plebs are protesting against grain shortages and are calling for Coriolanus’ death, as he is the most hated of all the Roman patricians. Menenius has been speaking to them and calming them down when Coriolanus stalks in and demands:

“What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?”

He continues in this vein and gets more and more insulting as the play goes by; when the common soldiers flee the forces of the Volsces, their enemies, he remarks:

“You souls of geese that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat! … All hurt behind; backs red, and faces pale with flight and agued fear!”

For me, it wasn’t clear whether Shakespeare intended the audience to sympathise with the Roman people or Coriolanus, and I think the play could be performed to support either view. Coriolanus accuses the plebs of being fickle, influencing the senate with their short-term demands, not being able to think for themselves, and to some extent, these behaviours are portrayed in this play. The plebs call for Coriolanus’ death; they are dissuaded; they reluctantly agree to support him as consol; they are influenced by their two tribunes and change their minds; they support Coriolanus’ banishment, and then when he threatens the city with the Volsces, they deny that they supported the banishment.

The plebs’ actions appear to support Coriolanus’ opinions, until one might consider that his fault lay not in his opinions, but in speaking them too loudly. At the same time, he’s not a good bloke, and in modern society Coriolanus would definitely run for office under the UKIP banner.

 

Unlike some other of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Coriolanus’  head count was not significant, although the play does end with Coriolanus’ death.

I’m looking forward to seeing this play performed. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned, to see which, if any parties, are cast in a sympathetic light. Another challenge will be that the play is written against the background of crowds: crowds of the plebs, protesting and calling for Coriolanus’ execution; groups of soldiers in battle; and elections held in the Senate (where presumably there would be a quorum present). The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival normally has relatively small cast sizes, with actors playing multiple roles, as was common in Shakespearean times. To me, the portrayal of numbers against a few privileged noblemen is important, so I look forward to see how this is done.

Finally, a fun fact – Coriolanus was very popular in Nazi Germany! Quoting my DK Big Book of Shakespeare,

“Coriolanus’ position as a powerful leader battling against a failing democratic system was emphasized. Germans were encouraged to see Hitler as a similar figure – with the implication that, to avoid the play’s tragedy, it was necessary for the masses to follow him unwaveringly.”

Amazing.

Would I recommend Coriolanus to readers? Not necessarily above his other plays, though it may just be that I didn’t ‘fuse’ with the story. I particularly enjoyed Menenius’ speeches – there is a wonderful analogy of Rome as the human body, with the Senate as the stomach! – but I didn’t recognise any memorable quotes. More importantly, I found the progression of the play’s plot, without the context of the performance, unsatisfying. But that’s just my opinion, and I do look forward to seeing Coriolanus performed.

QED – original fic

I wrote this last year because I’m a massive dork. I know I shouldn’t say this, but reading this again made me laugh a lot. Any physics errors are completely my own fault.

 

QED

Electron had always been confined in metal with other repellent electrons. All the negativity made Electron unhappy. When Electron met Photon it had the most energetic encounter since its creation and sped away from metal. Electron was free.

Electron was free but still negative, even though it moved faster than it had ever travelled before. Electron couldn’t maintain its constant velocity; it slowed when it emitted photons but moved faster when it absorbed incoming photons. Although its interactions with photons were exciting, Electron was still unhappy.

Some time later (depending on your frame of reference) Electron felt something different, something wonderful, something completely opposite to all its previous experiences. Something positive. Electron was confused, because although it could feel the other particle’s momentum, Electron couldn’t detect where it was.

Electron was unable to control itself and emitted a photon too early. The photon interacted with the positron and Electron forcibly scattered, moving away from the positron and much slower now, a metaphor for its unhappiness.

Electron would have felt more negative than ever before if its charge were not constant.

Electron continued moving and regained some of its velocity through absorbing other photons, but these excitations couldn’t change its nature. Electron was negative. Electron was alone.

Electron felt the presence of another positive particle and desperately wanted to move towards the positron, but still couldn’t control its path. It hoped that this time would be different.

Electron felt Positron move closer with all that wonderful positivity, drawing Electron in. Then Electron collided with Positron, negativity meeting positivity, and all the negativity disappeared. Electron’s universe exploded in light, and both Electron and Positron were gone. Only their energy and momentum remained as two new photons travelled through space, soon to begin the adventure all over again.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Reading Challenge Book 6 – A Pulitzer-Prize winning book

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

Amazon link here

I didn’t actually realise this was a Pulitzer-Prize winner when I started reading it, so the revelation was pretty convenient for my reading challenge. After reading Hiroshima and Gods of Metal, I was looking for a history of the development of the atomic bomb. TMotAB more than fulfilled this brief! It is quite extraordinary.

TMotAB explores the history of atomic physics from the beginning of the twentieth century, through the discovery of the electron, the postulated ‘plum-pudding’ model, the discovery of the neutron, to the realisation that uranium was capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction. This history provides a huge amount of detail about each scientist who was involved, their family and educational background, something of the circumstances supporting their significant work, and detail of the hypothesis/discovery itself.

Once this discovery was made it outlines the challenges that scientists faced in bringing their discovery to the attention of the US government and in getting its support (and funding) for the Manhattan Project, then the practical challenges – engineering and chemical of developing the atomic bomb, or specifically, of manufacturing and isolating sufficient weapons-grade atomic material.

But TMotAB is not just a science book. It also considers the history of the use of weapons from WWI onwards, and the gradual shift of opinion that has led to a concept of ‘collateral damage’.

That’s a lot of material, and I think it took me three weeks to read this book. The science was hard – I found myself dipping into Wikipedia to clarify concepts – and I haven’t maintained a firm grasp of the history in my mind. I see myself re-reading this book at some point in the not-so-distant future, to try and embed some of what I’ve read.

What were my key take-aways? 

Fallout is scary, but nuclear winter is scarier

A study in 2008 investigated the likely result of a theoretical regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, involving only 100 Hiroshima-scale nuclear weapons (conservative). They considered it likely that such an exchange would be targeted on cities which by nature happen to be filled with combustible materials. This would lead to firestorms which would inject massive volumes of black smoke into the upper atmosphere, spreading around the world and cooling the earth for long enough to lead to worldwide agricultural collapse. The death toll from the initial strikes would maybe be 20m, but the agricultural crash leading from the earth’s cooling would be much, more severe (the study mentions deaths of a billion).

One of the authors of the study gives a TED talk about it here. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his analysis, but the central portion discusses the information I’ve recapped here in more detail.

Bohr was a wise old bird, and the Cold War was inevitable

As the Manhattan Project progressed, one of the key decisions that the USA had to make was when to inform the USSR about their nuclear development program. The UK already knew about the program, having shared its early research with the US and strongly encouraged it to pursue development. The Soviet Union… not so much.

Relations between the USA and USSR were strained. Towards the end of the war, the extent of the USSR’s ambitions in Eastern Europe, particularly its plans for Poland, became apparent. The USSR was assessed by Truman’s advisers as being the only nation which had the technological and financial capabilities of developing nuclear weapons. As these and other tensions grew, the USA hoped that it could conclude its war in the Pacific without the USSR’s involvement, so that post-war, it would be supreme in the Pacific sphere. The USA feared that if Stalin knew about the atomic bomb, the Soviet Union would accelerate its timetable for involvement in the Pacific, increasing its post-war influence there.

Arguably, the US government took a short-term, WW2-centric view when determining its use and disclosure of the atomic bomb. However, certain scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, such as Leo Szilard and Niels Bohr, were already considering the wider picture and the longer-term consequences of the government’s decisions.

Imagine a world where America built the atomic bomb, but then instead of deployment, shared the knowledge of its existence and capabilities with the rest of the world . Imagine that other world leaders were able to think beyond the instinctive reaction of ‘These new weapons will make me all-powerful’, and realise that a world where everyone has nuclear weapons is less secure than a world where no one has them. Imagine that all countries banned the development of nuclear weapons, and that their munitions research was made sufficiently transparent that no country could develop its own nuclear weapons without discovery. Imagine that this scientific transparency led to wider, social transparency, where social conditions in every country were open for judgement and comparison, exposing the inequality in the world and alleviating it.

This was Bohr’s vision. It was clear to him that if the USA delayed informing the Soviet Union of its development of nuclear weapons for long enough, this would lead to serious distrust between the Allies, which would increase the risk of a nuclear arms race. He shared his concerns and suggestions with Churchill, FDR and then Truman.

But ultimately the USA put its national interests first, and the Soviet Union independently found out about the Manhattan Project following reports of the Trinity testing in July 1945. And it turned out that hiding massive military secrets from a paranoid dictator didn’t build the level of trust necessary to support a long-term truce.

Bohr’s vision was idyllic. It was also misunderstood by others and then misrepresented to the key stakeholders in the US government. It never had a chance.

 

The people

The history of nuclear science wasn’t just told through discoveries but also through the personalities of the players, and this helped bring this history to light. Previously I hadn’t realised how many Jewish scientists were in the European scientific sphere pre-WW2. During the war Born and a number of other scientists worked tirelessly to help find positions for Jewish scientists within non-occupied countries (Britain took on the largest number of scientists).

This paints a picture of how Europe’s science program lost out and how America and other countries benefited – for example, one hundred refugee physicists emigrated to the US between 1933 and 1941. Other up and coming scientists potentially had their careers destroyed. After Bohr left Denmark, Einstein wrote to him saying, “I am glad that you have resigned your positions. Thank God there is no risk involved for either of you. But my heart aches at the thought of the young ones.” It’s probably silly to be moved by this when so many people in Europe died, but it’s just one (small) illustration of the upheaval to people’s lives.

Thank God for computers

Reading about the Manhatten Project inspires me with a sense of awe similar to reading about the work at Bletchley Park, or the development of the US’s space programme. The intense, coordinated effort of so many people to innovate and achieve the seemingly unachievable astounds me. Especially as they did it all with slide rules.

Okay, that’s blatantly not true for the space programme, but the technology we depend on every day just didn’t exist. If you look at the achievements made, where basic technology was shored up with pure genius, it’s frankly a bit bonkers.

Physics + Chemistry = OTP

The history gave me a better understanding of the relationship between physicists and chemists in the discovery of fission. Discoveries were two-directional: chemists designed experiments to attempt to verify physicists’ theories, and physicists used unexpected experimental results to develop their theories of the atom. I hadn’t previously appreciated that uranium is the largest naturally-occurring element (thereby a good candidate for sustainable fission).

Interestingly, some scientists (e.g. Leo Szilard) predicted the possibility of sustainable nuclear fission very early on in the history of nuclear discoveries, but were unable to identify any elements where it occurred through experiment alone. Other scientists discovered fission through experiment but didn’t realise the implications of their experiments.

Chemistry is hard

I don’t think I had any sense of what chemistry was like outside of school, and how hard it could be, until I read this book. A good example is the difficulties that scientists experienced when trying to identify the by-products of the fission of uranium.

By bombarding uranium with neutrons, scientists were able to initiate and detect beta decay. This suggested to them that the product of this reaction might be an element with a higher atomic number than uranium (i.e. the as-of-yet undiscovered plutonium). Chemists then tried to prove this experimentally.

Fermi performed his own research into this, using his knowledge that the fission product was a beta-emitter. His first step was to take his sample (i.e. the original uranium compound plus its fission products) and dissolved them in nitric acid so that they would be in solution. Then, in a series of experiments, he added another chemical (known as a carrier) to the solution, to initiate a chemical reaction and create a precipitate that could be separated from the solution. He finally tested the precipitate for radiation. Given that the fission product was a beta-emitter but the uranium compound was not, he knew deduce that if the precipitate were also a beta-emitter, the fission product had been separated from the uranium solution by the chemical reaction and precipitation.

By performing this experiment with a number of different chemicals, and using his knowledge of the reactions of these chemicals with elements in the periodic table and their related compounds, Fermi was able to prove by exclusion that the fission product was not uranium, protactinium, actinium, etc. Not what it actually was. That’s ridiculously hard work, especially given the time-pressure caused by the fission product’s half-life of only 13 minutes.

Everything I’ve just described is trivial compared to the process for separating plutonium from irradiated uranium.

Separating isotopes is harder

So separating chemicals is hard. What about separating isotopes? Think about U235 and U239 – they have extraordinarily similar chemical properties, and their mass is less than 2% different. Scientists were able to propose three key methods of separation, which relied on this mass difference, but as the difference was so small the methods had to be used iteratively – repeated over and over again – to achieve any level of enrichment.

Who would I recommend TMotAB to?

To read this book, you would have to have a genuine interest in the history of nuclear physics, otherwise it’s just too dense. Similarly, if you’re the kind of person who describes yourself as ‘Oh, I was always terrible at maths,’ I suspect this might not be the book for you – not because there’s any hard maths involved, but because I suspect most people wouldn’t find the science interesting if they’re not at all maths-inclined. Lastly, there is a definite time-investment to reading TMotAB – I wouldn’t pick it up if work, or anything similar, is taking up all your time.

 

The Libriomancer

Reading challenge book 7 – A book with a love triangle

Libriomancer, by Jim C Hines

Amazon link here

Libriomancer is an urban fantasy book, which is one of my favourite genres. I was originally planning to use this for my ‘book with magic’ category, but in retrospect I decided to allocate it to the love triangle category instead. Libriomancer is not a romance, but it does include a love triangle as one element of the plot, and I thought this would be a harder category to fill for my challenge.

What is a libriomancer?

Libriomancers are people who love books and stories and fully use their imaginations to ‘experience’ a book when they’re reading – sight, smell, touch, everything. This love and sense of make-believe gives them the magical ability to reach into a book and extract objects from that book’s universe; although the ability only applies to the books they really know and love, so therefore is broadly linked to genre. For example Isaac, the protagonist, is a devotee of scifi and fantasy books, and therefore couldn’t just select a random book about zoology and pull out an owl’s feather.

There are limitations to this power. The object a libriomancer pulls from the book must be smaller than the book itself. By reaching into books, a libriomancer effectively creates a portal between the book’s world and our own. If the book is over-used, it ‘chars’, increasing the risk of a weakening of the boundaries between these two worlds. Similarly, if a libriomancer uses their power too much, there is a risk that he will be possessed by elements of the book (i.e. the books may be able to reach back through him).

There are other constraints, which I won’t list out here, which work well in the context of making libriomancy a very useful ability, but not one so powerful that it renders the challenges faced by the characters as trivial.

What kind of job opportunities are there for a libriomancer? 

Libriomancy was discovered/invented by Gutenburg (yes, printing-press Gutenburg), who then founded the society of the Watchers Porters.

(Note – there are some tenuous analogies that can be drawn between Libriomancer and Buffy, which I think are hilarious, so I’m going to run with it. Apologies in advance.)

The Watchers Porters are hierarchical – broadly speaking, there is a central council that determines the overall strategy of the Porters, headed by Gutenberg (he used libriomancy to take the Holy Grail from the Bible, so is remarkably long-lived), and various lower ranks of  watchers Porters, who receive assignments from the Council. In particular, Porters can act as:

  • Librarians (no use of magic but get to index the cool books and determine which are ‘locked’ to libriomancy);
  • Field operatives (think Wesley, the Rogue Vampire Hunter, but with book magic and also effective); and
  • Researchers  (awesome watchers ahoy!)

The objective of the Porters is to preserve the secrecy of magic, protect the world from magical threats (fight the forces of darkness?), and work to expand the Porters’ knowledge of magic’s power and potential.

That may be the universe, but what happens in the book?

The book opens with Isaac, the protagonist, being attacked by vampires. When he manages to escape, he finds out from a Porter contact that some unknown evil party (the First Evil), who appears to have allied with vampires, is killing off all the Watchers Porters. The nature of the attacks suggests that  there is a traitor within the Porters’ ranks.

Isaac is a former field operative who was demoted to librarian due to unauthorised use of magic, and is therefore right on the periphery of the Porters, so cannot be the traitor. He is therefore charged by one of the surviving Porters to find out who is responsible for the killings. He cannot rely on the other Porters and must perform the investigation alone, except for the company of his pet fire-spider, Smudge, and the help of Lena, a bokken-wielding bad-ass dryad.

Where’s the love triangle?

IRL, back in the sixties, John Norman wrote an series of books based in the Gor universe; these are nominally science-fiction but are infamous for his pet fantasy theory portrayal that deep down, all women are second-class citizens and want to be submissive sex-slaves. Yes, they are widely acknowledged as being awful books, and yes, John Norman was probably writing one-handed.

Lena, the dryad in this book, came from a copy-cat rip-off of the Gor series in which nymphs were written to be the ‘perfect partners’ for men. Their nature was such that when they find a partner, their personalities and appearances change to fill their partners’ fantasies. Though Lena lives in our universe, she is constrained by her nature according to her book, which means that she can’t choose not to take a partner and she can’t choose how her personality will change when she does. Her only choice is to choose who she will bond to. Early on in Libriomancer she says, ‘there are a lot of people out there who… well, their fantasies aren’t something I ever intend to become’.

Hence, when Lena’s lover is kidnapped by vampires, she needs to find a new lover before she is drawn to someone else. She seeks out Isaac as she knows him and thinks he’s a good guy, and because she knows that he’s physically attracted to her and is therefore more likely to agree to a relationship with her. Lena’s feelings for her ex-lover are still there, but she accepts her nature and wants to find the best alternative.

For his part, Isaac is very attracted to Lena, but is disturbed by the non-consensual elements of her nature and doesn’t want to take advantage of her. However, Lena is both sexy and smart as well as being a bokken-wielding bad-ass, and throughout the book, his feelings for her develop.

Their relationship is sensitively written, as is the conflict that Isaac feels. Lena doesn’t appear weak or needy; rather she accepts herself and instead of fighting against her situation, she works with it. As I’ve said, Libriomancer isn’t a romance, but the relationship between Isaac and Lena complements the overall plot.

 

What did you like?

For me, this book was a squeefest: total cat-nip for anyone who loves reading, especially fantasy and sci-fi fans. The core idea of loving books so much that you can do magic really worked for me. There are frequent references to specific books throughout – e.g. Feed by Mira Grant, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Odyssey,  and the overall attention to detail was delightful.

For example, right at the start of the book, Isaac meets three vampires and is able to identify them because they sparkle. When I read this, my heart sank and I didn’t This made my heart sink, and so much so that I didn’t pay attention to their name, ‘Sanguinarius Meyerii’. But then the author spells it out:

“I studied the trio more closely. I was certain I had never seen them before. Relatively young, since Meyerii had only begun popping up back in 2005.

I had read pretty much every vampire book ever written in English, German, Spanish and French. In recent years, authors had whittled away many of the more monstrous vampiric traits. More to the point, they had eliminated many weaknesses as well. Going after Meyerii with sunlight, garlic, or stakes to the heart was about as useful as trying to tickle them to death.”

I’m going to say it again: adorable. The way that the author poked fun at the Twilight and the genre in a nerdy way completely hooked me in.

While I loved the universe, for me the plot didn’t quite live up to it, although there weren’t any obvious holes. It somehow it wasn’t the right flavour for me, like chocolate ice cream, which I will eat if it’s given to me and be okay with, but I would never choose to order. But, it wasn’t bad and due to my love of the universe, I expect to read at least one of the three sequels. I’d recommend Libriomancer to anyone who enjoys fantasy or science-fiction.

 

 

The Famous Five and the Blue Bear Mystery

Reading challenge book 5 – A book from your childhood

The Famous Five and the Blue Bear Mystery, by Claude Voilier (!)

Amazon link here

Enid Blyton wrote the original Famous Five series, which had twenty-one books, but, what many people will not know is that there was another Famous Five series! Written by Claude Voilier, in French! And then translated into English, because the English public just couldn’t get enough of the Famous Five!

You may mock, but I was a die-hard Famous Five fan when I was little, and I couldn’t get enough of the books. I remember spending all my pocket-money on the Famous Five books, and I accepted (mostly) unquestioningly the fact that there were two series of Famous Five books – even though some of the books in the second series were uncannily similar to the originals! (Very suspicious! Seriously though, there were a couple that pretty much had the exact same plots – how Voilier escaped plagiarism charges, I’m not quite sure!)

So, as a teeny person, I read all of the original series and all of the bizarre French series, except for one – you’ve guessed it – the Blue Bear Mystery. Mum and I couldn’t get it anywhere, despite visiting book shops all across London which not only didn’t stock the book but were unable to order it in.

A mystery indeed!

My mother assumed that it had been withdrawn because it was horrifically un-PC in some way and, eventually, I resigned myself to never reading it. But then came along this book challenge and I realised that with the power of the interwebs, I could fulfil my destiny!

It’s probably not surprising that after twenty-five plus years of anticipation, I was underwhelmed!

First off, the blue bear was not (as I had hoped) a polar bear dyed blue and smuggled out of a circus or something similar, but was a little teddy-bear that Julian bought for Anne that just happened to contain a Clue! The rest of the plot was pretty prosaic – biking around the countryside, investigating a Mystery, discovering stolen paintings, etc etc. There wasn’t any ginger beer. Timmy said ‘Woof!’ multiple times – apparently dogs don’t bark in Enid Blyton land, but they don’t exactly have a wide vocabulary either.

Enid Blyton is now seriously out-of-fashion, so why did I enjoy her books so much as a child?

Some of her books showed incredible imagination and creativity, such as the Faraway Tree series. While some series like the Famous Five were predominantly set in England or the wider UK, heroes and heroines from other books travelled to exciting and exotic locations such as Egypt (at least, I think) and far-off war-torn countries. All of her books allowed the children starring in them a significant degree of freedom – to explore the woods, go camping for a week, and to be captured by an African cult living inside a mountain for sacrifice.

There were some wonderful descriptions of pets and affectionate human-animal relationships within Enid’s books. George and Timmy, Jack and Kiki, Philip and every animal he ever met… Huffin and Puffin in the Sea of Adventure! While obviously not a naturalist, I think it’s fair to say that Enid Blyton loved animals and passed on that love to her characters.

Finally, who could fail to love the descriptions of midnight feasts which included fruit cake, tinned peaches, slabs of chocolates, and lashings and lashings of ginger beer? My childhood was full of sleepovers where my friends and I would try to stay awake until midnight for a midnight feast. (Most of the time we didn’t manage and ended up having six in the morning feasts instead.) I was lucky in that my parents were much more tolerant of such attempts than hose of most of my friends!

So, who would I recommend this book to? Sadly, I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone. But I do have a lot of nostalgia for my days of reading Enid Blyton, and if I had a daughter, I hope that she would love the Mallory Towers series as much as I did.

 

Hiroshima

Reading challenge book 4 – a book with one-word title

Hiroshima, by John Hersey

Amazon link here.

In my last review, I wrote that Gods of Metal was published to commemorate the 70-year anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. This book was similarly published by Penguin. Hiroshima was originally published by the New Yorker in August 1946 as an extended article which comprised the full content of that edition. It describes the experiences of 6 Japanese citizens who lived in Hiroshima, both immediately after the bombing and in later days and months. There is no explicit social commentary; the description of their experiences is enough.

There can be a risk that narratives of atrocities edge into tragiporn territory, but for me, this wasn’t an issue with Hiroshima. I remember discussing the bombings in GCSE History and blithely noting that fewer people were killed in the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki than in certain other battles at the time. Taking a numbers point of view (my speciality), the reduction in loss of life appeared to justify the bombs’ use.

Now, I’m not sure that I would entirely discard that conclusion. I can however at least recognise it as being simplistic.

What horrified me about these recollections?

The people’s ignorance of what was happening. The Japanese people didn’t know what a nuclear bomb was, didn’t understand what had happened (although the USA subsequently broadcast their use of nuclear weapons, the Japanese government attempted to cover this up), didn’t know about radiation sickness. Survivors revisited the city centre because they didn’t know not to.

From having done a little reading into this, my understanding is that individual scientists at Los Alamos knew that radiation sickness was a likely consequence of the bomb – they took protective measures for personnel observing the first test of the plutonium bomb. But no one took the leap that this could be either a strategic application or an undesirable outcome of using the bomb, and therefore this was probably not raised with more senior personnel (e.g. Truman). This is possibly understandable in the context of the extreme secrecy and compartmentalisation at Los Alamos, but remains horrifying.

The destruction of medical facilities and death of medical personnel. Ground zero for the Hiroshima bombing was a hospital (I don’t think this was deliberate, bombers’ ability to strike a pinpointed target at the time was limited), 65 of 150 doctors in the city were killed in the initial detonation and most of the rest were wounded, and there are similar statistics for nurses. The horror of the wounds suffered by the people – skin sloughing off to the touch, etc. – is heightened by the lack of available medical assistance.

I would recommend this book to anyone. We live in a nuclear age, and I would argue that the use of nuclear weapons is glamorised through countless portrayals of nuclear threats and detonations in books and movies. I think it’s worth remembering what hundreds of thousands of Japanese people suffered in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. This is probably a pretty mawkish point of view, but in the UK we regularly celebrate the end of World War II; I think it’s important to take a clear-eyed look at the cost of the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific region.