November 27th, 2011

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#115 The Secret Life of Bletchley Park - Sinclair McKay (2010)

Bletchley Park was where one of the war’s most famous – and crucial – achievements was made: the cracking of Germany’s “Enigma” code in which its most important military communications were couched. This country house in the Buckinghamshire countryside was home to Britain’s most brilliant mathematical brains, like Alan Turing, and the scene of immense advances in technology – indeed, the birth of modern computing. The military codes deciphered there were instrumental in turning both the Battle of the Atlantic and the war in North Africa. But, though plenty has been written about the boffins, and the codebreaking, fictional and non-fiction – from Robert Harris and Ian McEwan to Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing – what of the thousands of men and women who lived and worked there during the war? What was life like for them – an odd, secret territory between the civilian and the military? Sinclair McKay’s book is the first history for the general reader of life at Bletchley Park, and an amazing compendium of memories from people now in their eighties – of skating on the frozen lake in the grounds (a depressed Angus Wilson, the novelist, once threw himself in) – of a youthful Roy Jenkins, useless at codebreaking, of the high jinks at nearby accommodation hostels – and of the implacable secrecy that meant girlfriend and boyfriend working in adjacent huts knew nothing about each other’s work.

I recently watched a documentary on BBC2 about the WW2 codebreakers, and my reaction to the fascinating subject was to immediately go to and find book that would tell me more. This was the book I bought, and I am glad that I did. This really is a fascinating book, that lifts the veil on an extraordinary place and the dedicated men and women who spent the war years undertaking such crucial work. One of the things which both amazed and impressed me the most, was the level of secrecy that was needed, for Bletchley park to be able to exist at all. The thousands of people who worked there - kept silent - with each other, and with their families after the war - right up untill the 1980's. Additionally the people of the surrounding areas who provided "billets" for these hordes of Bletchley workers, not only kept quiet - but didn't even ask their boarders what it was they were doing up at the park. In the world we are living in now, such secracy is unimaginable. I must admit - some of the mathematical, engineery, code descriptions and details - went a tiny bit over my befuddled head - however this is a very accessible book, and certainly not academic or dry. Even the sections I found hardest to understand - and there were only a couple - were still strangely fascinating to read - and I know I have come away from the book with a much better understanding of code breaking than I would otherwise have ever had. The majority of the book however, and what makes it so readable, is about the people who worked there, the society girls, the brilliant ox-bridge minds, the factory workers, the romances, the dances and plays, the miserably cold huts and the revolting food.
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Books 64 & 65 for 2011

Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs. 370 pages.
I've read all of the previous Temperance Brennan books to Rob and we've both enjoyed them a fair bit. Reichs has her faults as a writer, not least the enormous and sometimes largely irrelevant infodumps she like to regale her readers with, but this book seemed not to be up to her usual standard. To begin with, we thought this was because the two previous books I'd read to Rob had been by Lois McMaster Bujold and Terry Pratchett, either of whom could teach Reichs an entire college course on how to write well, but eventually it seemed that it wasn't just the contrast that was the problem.
The biggest issue we had with the book was a major plot point, so I'll stick it under a cut as there'll be major spoilers.

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Glory in Death by J.D. Robb. 312 pages.
In contrast, this second book in the Eve Dallas series is quite a bit better than the first. There's still the occasional rapid perspective change, but not nearly as many as in the first book and the relationship between Eve and Roarke is less irritating, although he can still be annoying.
This time, a high-powered prosecuting attorney is found dead in a dodgy neighbourhood and Eve is assigned to the case. Suspicion points toward the victim's family, but then a second woman is murdered and Eve is under pressure from all sides to catch the killer.
Much more fun than the Reichs book.
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Books 124-125: Snowdrops and The Sisters Brothers

Both these novels were short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Two very different books but both engaging reads.

Book 124: Snowdrops.
Author: A.D. Miller, 2011.
Genre: Russia. Contemporary. Literary Fiction. Psychological Thriller
Other Details: Hardback. 273 pages.

The “snowdrop” of the title is Moscow slang for a body that is discovered after the spring thaws and this slender novel opens with one such discovery, though we don't learn for some time the identity or context.

Nick is an English lawyer, who is working in Moscow during the early years of the 21st century. He is in his late 30s, affluent but without direction. One night when travelling home on the metro he assists a beautiful young woman in beating off a mugger. He is instantly bewitched by her and soon becomes entangled in her world, which includes her ever-present younger sister, Katya.

Miller served as Moscow correspondent for The Economist for some years and is an expert on the complexities and contradictions that form post-Communist Russia. This is a dark novel that seems to capture almost perfectly modern day Moscow. Not that I've ever been there but it is easy to see that Miller has walked those streets and interacted at many levels of society.

It certainly is an achievement for a first novel and is tightly written. I enjoyed it, if that is the right word, though mainly for its powerful evocation of post-Communist Russia than the plot as such.

A.D. Miller's Page on 'Snowdrops' - Q&A and pod cast discussion.

Book 125: The Sisters Brothers .
Author: Patrick de Witt, 2011.
Genre: Black Comedy. Historical Fiction. Western Noir. Picaresque.
Other Details: Trade Paperback. 336 pages.

The setting for this novel is the Wild West of the 1850s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious professional killers, currently in the employment of the powerful Commodore. Their current task is to travel to California to hunt down and kill Hermann Kermit Warm. They don't need to know why this man is marked for death, just to fulfil their mission. Along the way they have a series of encounters: some violent, some comic. Eli Sisters is the novel's narrator, who aside from recounting their experiences in a laconic, deadpan style also is going through an existential crises questioning his vocation.

This was a quirky black comedy that certainly entertained me even if I had to look away from some of the scenes involving animals. The Man Booker site described it as the kind of Western the Cohen Brothers might write and I'd agree. Canadian writer Patrick de Witt takes the tropes of the classic Western and has a lot of fun playing with them. I adored its cover art, which deserves an award in itself.

Although I enjoyed this novel, it did strike me as a bit odd for it to be short-listed (or even long-listed) for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It was great fun and an easy read but for me somewhat lacked the literary gravitas or universal themes that I associate with this major literary award. This year I understand this controversy over the 'readability' (or commercial potential if we are being cynical) for submitted novels has been very strong.
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At the urging of our friend Mark, I pulled out and read Practical Demonkeeping, a novel by Christopher Moore. It's an amusing fantasy set in a California coastal town, and a man and his enslaved demon come to town. Thanks, Mark!
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Books 17, 18 and 19 - 2011

Book 17: Goddess of Light by P.C. Cast – 329 pages

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This is the third of the Goddess Summoning series, starring the mythological twins Artemis and Apollo, an interior designer called Pamela and a rather bombastic science fiction author. This was an enjoyable enough read, but I didn’t necessarily like the characters. Apollo was paternalistic and chauvinistic, Artemis arrogant and a meddler, Pamela kind of pathetic and easily led, and the author (who’s name fails me) somehow managed to not notice all that was going on, which just seemed ridiculous. Also, it kind of annoyed me how Cast described Vegas. Yes, I know its seedy, I’ve been there, but its definitely got its own charm about it, that I didn’t think Cast quite got across. Finally, the ending was way too convenient, wrapping everything up when five second before there’d been no foreseeable resolution – a little to deus ex machine if you ask me. Ultimately, it wasn’t the best of the series but it wasn’t the worst.

17 / 50 books. 34% done!

6687 / 15000 pagess. 45% done!

Book 18: Abandon by Meg Cabot – 304 pages

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Last year, Pierce died - just for a moment. And when she was in the space between life and death, she met John: tall dark and terrifying, it's his job to usher souls from one realm to the next. There's a fierce attraction between them, but Pierce knows that if she allows herself to fall for John she will be doomed to a life of shadows and loneliness in the underworld. But now things are getting dangerous for her, and her only hope is to do exactly what John says ...

This is another go at the retelling of the myth of Persephone and Hades, though with a darker turn than Goddess of Spring which I read a few books earlier. This one is a teenage version in which the main character dies temporarily after a ridiculous swimming pool accident and manages to escape Hades and wake up. Though in this version, Hades is neither Hades nor the forever ruling God of the Underworld but something akin to an heir to the role (though who he inherits it from remains to be established – something for Book 2) and he goes by the name John Hayden – I mean seriously, she could have at least made his first name Hayden! It’s not a bad book, it reads reasonably well, but John was all over the place, temperament wise, and Pierce (this version’s Persephone) was strangely attracted to him, in an almost Twilight fashion. There was a mystical necklace (there’s always a talisman), an atypical setting (Florida Keys) and estranged, divorced parents…not to mention the usual teenage hijinks that bring everything to a head. I can see that Cabot is looking towards the sequel, and I’ll read it, as it isn’t bad per se, more just done before. It could have been darker, more plot driven and less Edward Cullen dramatic and been a much better story, though not necessarily a pass up because of the lack of these qualities.

18 / 50 books. 36% done!

6991 / 15000 pages. 47% done!

Book 19: Goddess of the Rose by P.C. Cast – 342 pages

Description from
It's not green fingers that have kept the Empousai family's roses blooming for centuries - it's the drops of blood that their women secretly sacrifice for their gardens. But Mikki would rather forget this family quirk and lead a normal life. Until the day she unwittingly performs a ritual and ends up in the strangely familiar Realm of the Rose. As its goddess, Hecate, reveals to her, Mikki has the blood of a high priestess running through her veins. And the realm has been waiting for her ...In a long ago flash of temper, Hecate cursed her Guardian beast with a slumber that only her priestess can undo - and Hecate is counting on Mikki to set things right. At first the beast terrifies Mikki - but soon he intrigues her more than any man ever has. But the only way he and the realm can be saved is for Mikki to sacrifice her life-giving blood - and herself ...

Beauty and the Beast was one of my favourite Disney movies as a kid (it has epic music – Angela Lansbury and the little Teacup singing ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – oh I love that song!) though the beast at the beginning always scared me (and since re-watching as an adult – well Gaston was akin to a stalker now wasn’t he?). I actually hadn’t realized the age of the story of the beautiful girl and the rose and the beast and the witch and all that, and it was only in picking up this book that I learnt that. This one doesn’t really fit into the rest of the ‘Goddess’ series either as it seems to live within a slightly different pantheon – this time it employs the goddess Hecate. I quite liked this one, especially the beast. I have an affection for atypical male leads – though it bugs me when they’re overly romantic or sensitive (you can be sensitive and still have it come across ‘manly’ – take Booth in Bones as an example, who balances the two perfectly!). For the most part, Cast got it right in this one, and I especially appreciated the almost violent nature of their sexual relationship, as these affairs often descended into soppy messes once the sex comes into it (Laurell K. Hamilton is the Queen of violent sex to my mind, though she often takes it a bit too far into ridiculously unbelievable). Somehow soppy romance just doesn’t fit when you’re dealing with blood letting and horns! Ultimately, though the end seemed a little too neat (I like it when the ending isn’t a 100% happy – feels more real), this was one of my favourite of the series.

19 / 50 books. 38% done!

7333 / 15000 pages. 49% done!

Currently reading:
- The Iliad
by Homer – 408 pages
- Great Big Beautiful Doll: The Anna Nicole Story
by Eric & D’eva Redding – 239 pages
- The Shadow Runners
by Liz Maverick – 327 pages

And coming up:
- The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Volume 3: White Gold Wielder
by Stephen Donaldson – 500 pages
- The Other Queen
by Philippa Gregory – 437 pages
- The Odyssey
by Homer – 324 pages

Edit note: I'm not quite sure why the colour part of the progress bars aren't working? Anyone got any suggestions?
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