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The Horologicon

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I WANT SIX STARS!!!Humorous writing is probably the most difficult style to do well. So often, what amuses for a couple of pages begins to pall after a couple of chapters: NOT when the author is Mark Forsyth! If you are fortunate enough to have read 'the Etymologicon', you will know what I mean (and if you haven't, you are even more lucky because it is a treat still to come).Mr Forsyth does not believe in giving his books easily remembered titles but, judging by the sales of his aforementioned previous opus, that does not affect the buying public. 'The Etymologicon', was a stroll through the back waters of the English language picking out forgotten words in a random, scatological manner; this time, our intrepid author sets out through the average day, describing a person's activity in a host of words that one simply wonders how one could possibly have attained whatever might be one's present age without acquiring (I bet Mr Forsyth could put that clumsy sentence into a couple of words of which, you and I have never had the pleasure).There are few authors who have the ability to make me laugh out loud, this is one of that select bunch so, beware where you read him (This is not a book to take into church to alleviate the agony of vicar's interminable sermon!) Rather like watching an episode of QI, it is a book that is packed with explanations of these obscure etymological mysteries and as one reads, that little voice inside the head is on a continuous repeat cycle saying, "Ah, I must remember that!" and, if you are anything like me, each nugget will have seeped from the concious before the page is turned - meaning that one can go back to the beginning and experience the pleasure of this book all over again!Whether you decide to read cover to cover, or dip in to its pages in a spare five minutes, this book is a delight. I hope that there is a third, fourth, fifth (ad infinitum)... book in the pipeline: I would place my order now.
The Gnostic Gospels

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This must have been a very difficult book to write: I know that it was a hard one to read. The twenty-first century is hard enough on any established religion, without doubt being cast from within: on the other hand, the Gnostic Gospels were a time bomb waiting to inflict its damage from the moment, around 400 A.D., when a group of "leading Christians" made the decision to crop the texts to be included within the Bible.The Gnostic Gospels are a very strange collection of texts; some are not too disparate from their Synoptic cousins but some suggest that Jesus was not human, did not rise bodily from the grave and/or that He did not offer eternal life. These may seem to be odd arguments to make, if one believes Jesus to be the Son of God and I find it almost impossible to read these Gospels with an open mind: however, that does NOT mean that they can, or should, be easily dismissed. These books have as much right to exist as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - the latter of whom very nearly met the same fate as Thomas, Mary et al! Elaine Pagels walks the line in an admirable fashion. She gives respect to these works, but at the same time, is understanding to the orthodox view. The chief reason for the cognoscenti to cull the Gospels was to make a credible, flowing text with everyone pulling in a single direction. Almost inevitably, the chance was taken to remove Mary (a woman claiming to be Christ's favoured disciple, what ever next?) and to hone the life of this maverick prophet into a form acceptable to people of the age. It is undoubtedly true that this sanitised version allowed Christianity to flourish and, with one more compromise (selecting Constantine as leader of the church on earth), Christianity spread to the four corners of the planet. Times change, and views that were normal become staid, it is no longer stretching credulity to think that a woman might have been a significant disciple, to question Christ's status is not punishable by death and, perhaps we need to address these issues. This is a very good book for someone, such as myself, who knew next to nothing about the Gnostic Gospels. It introduces them, gives an historical backdrop and leaves the reader to make the final decision as to whether these texts have anything to offer. I believe, that anyone believing in God, or with an interest in religion should read both the Gnostic Gospels and also, this excellent explanation of them.
Chaucer: Ackroyd's Brief Lives

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What makes a Peter Ackroyd biography almost guaranteed a five star rating? I think that it is the fact that one knows that the author will have done as much research as is humanly possible upon his subject; not for Mr Ackroyd, a quick skim through a few easily accessible documents. Then, having soaked up every known fact about the person (or place!) about whom he is going to write, he sifts their accuracy with an almost computer like lack of personal slant. What appears on the page is as near to the true story as one is ever likely to read. Peter Ackroyd writes with such authority, that were he to say that I were dead, I should purchase a coffin immediately.So, we can take it as read that this is a good biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, but as he died way back, in the mists of time; were the details available to give a rounded view of, not just Chaucer the poet, but also, Chaucer the man? Again, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!". This book is part of a series called, 'Brief Lives' and, whilst it is true that the book reaches only 163 pages, do not be fooled: it contains all that the average reader requires in a biography. Having read same, I feel that, were Geoffrey Chaucer to walk through my door, I would know as much about him as his mum.I was vaguely aware that Chaucer was employed by the state machinery, but had no idea as to his importance to fourteenth century British statesmanship, or that in his day, he was known as a King's man who wrote a bit, rather than a great writer. He is, of course, most famous, nowadays, for writing 'the Canterbury Tales'. Time is given to an explanation as to why this work should be given credit and an insight into both Chaucer's thinking and the general view of the literary world, at the time that they were produced. My ultimate test of any literary biography is; does it instil the urge to return to the subject's work? Suffice to say, that my Canterbury Tales looks a little more dog-eared now than it did! This book is both a pleasure and an education: thank you Mr. Ackroyd!
Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

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I thought that this book might be fairly interesting to read: I was wrong! It is one of the best books that I have read all year.Like many people. either born in Britain, or with an interest in British history, I had a passing knowledge of the main events affecting the UK from the 17th to 21st centuries: I knew about Suez, the World Wars, Trafalgar, the Battle of the Nile, Invasion of and expulsion from the United States and other incidents that have helped to shape this great country of ours. Where this book is so useful, is that it stitches these historical events into a single fabric. John Darwin is above turning this story into a political diatribe, either in favour, or against the British Empire; rather, he shows how, through happen-stance, as often as shrewd political calculation, events conspired to allow the creation of an extraordinarily elastic empire. He also gives a plausible, although he is the first to admit, not necessarily a definitive explanation of its decline. So many authors, nowadays, make the fatal mistake of judging the past by the moral codes of today. Mr Darwin avoids this trap by the simple expediency of not judging at all. He merely relates the story, the reader is free to insert his/her own opinion on the rights and wrongs of the situation.I find this type of history absolutely fascinating: after all, if one does not understand how we got to where we currently stand, how can we make valid decisions as to where we should be heading? I thought that I would enjoy it, I did not expect it to be quite so "unputdownable". Anyone with political aspirations, an interest in British and world history, or indeed anyone able to appreciate a darned well written book NEEDS to read this. Definitely high upon my top ten books of the year!
The Impossible Dead

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I like a good crime thriller, as a form of relaxation, but I cannot abide those books which have clearly been written by someone who thinks that the genre is easy. Ian Rankin takes as much care about his books as the most pernicity professor writing the definitive history of the ancient Greeks.Having taken DI Rebus as far as he wanted, Rankin began a new series of books based upon the Police Complaints Division. He provides us with a trilogy of detectives; Malcolm Fox, Tony Kaye and Joe Naysmith. They are each given a character and act according to it - a nice change from lesser authors whose hero fluctuates more than the New Scotland Yard sign in a gale. The characters develop, gradually, as one reads, rather than receiving a briefing at the beginning of the first book and then, the job done, they either roam like robots, or totally ignore their character report. These may be the distillation of real people, but they are eminently believable.The story is a little less plausible than the characters but, does one really want to read true to life? In my case, no: this is escapism and, whilst it may not be the story on the front page of a newspaper, the tale holds credibility within its own domain. Characters are not parachuted in at the last minute to allow the story to work and there are clues in the text as to who the arch villain might be, far in advance of the final chapter, when I began to see the light. The book gets into its stride promptly, but does not follow the annoying modern trait of throwing the reader into the story half way through, with flash backs and a thousand other predictable tricks to bring one up to speed. As one would expect from Ian Rankin, it is well written. I did not come across any grammatical errors and Rankin uses language respectfully: he does not feel the need to show off by using an obscure word when a more straight forward one would suffice and yet, he will not shy away from a back water of the OED, if it is necessary.This book is entirely up to the high standard that I expect, each time I pick up an Ian Rankin book. It kept me riveted from page one until the last full stop and receives my highest recommendation.
Great Apes: Reissued

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I have listened to Will Self expound with erudition upon a host of subjects via the wireless. I have found myself agreeing with his point of view on many occasions and, when I did not, I still found much to commend itself in the manner of his argument. I have not, however, previously read any of his literary output and so, when the excellent Kindle offered 'Great Apes' at the bargain price of 99 pence, I felt that it would be churlish to decline - even allowing for my, almost usual, state of impecunity. This was a mistake. I found the book to lack any characters or discernible story. Will Self has, it seems to me, written an entire book with the sole purpose of lampooning a certain London based upper middle class genre. Even if one agrees that they are as contemptible as Mr. Self appears to believe, it is a group which has been targeted before. This book really adds nothing new to the table and for an intellect of this height to train its guns upon such a sorry target, leaves my British love of the underdog sympathising with the impaled. I did not connect with this book at any stage.
Titian: His Life and the Golden Age of Venice

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I love this modern age when books may be ordered over the ether; it means that living in a quiet hamlet, such as Hemsby, does not impede one's ability to read the best literature available. It does, however, have one problem: the books are not always as one imagines them to be.I saw the title, "Titian His Life" and I expected one of those books crammed with good illustrations and half a dozen words. when it arrived, thanks to a postie with a newly acquired hernia, I was amazed. This is a serious piece of historical biography and my first thought was, "Do I, as an interested party, rather than a serious student of the arts, want to read such a hefty biography?"Fortunately, I am a tight wad and, having bought it, I was not about to waste my money: thank goodness for meanness! This is one of the best books that I have had the privilege of reading in many a month. Not only does one get a detailed, but never boring biography of Titian, but also an insight into life in sixteenth century Europe. This book adds to my understanding of both the history of the period and the significance of, not just Titian, but also the other luminaries of the age.I would imagine that this book would be considered essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of painting, but if that is not you, please do not be put off from undertaking this monster book: it is an effort that will reward all who so do and I would like to thank Sheila Hale for a fortnight of pure pleasure!
Hiss and Hers

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I managed to acquire this book in audio format. It is read by the excellent Penelope Keith, who, several years ago, was my first introduction to the Agatha Raisin stories, when I chanced upon a reading on BBC Radio 4 Extra. She was, consequently, my first impression of Agatha but, I genuinely believe that it would have been Ms Keith's voice that I would have put to the feisty detective even were I to have encountered the books, prior to the radio series. I might well have had the actress in my mind's eye too, even allowing for the fact that she is rather more attractive than the description of our eponymous sleuth. If you are new to this series of crimes, you will soon decide as to whether they are to your taste, or no: they are gently humorous tales without graphic detail of horrendous torture, mutilation and painful death, as seems almost a pre-requisite of most modern day crime fiction. Police procedure is also noticeable by its absence. The characters, whilst exaggerated versions of real people, are much more important, and the crime is, inevitably, solved by Raisin's understanding of the criminals mindset. Do not buy these books if you are after glamour, fast moving World wide trips to the exotic and explicit scenes of a sexual nature because, you will be seriously disappointed. Mrs Raisin has a very different temperament to Agatha Christie's Marple, but the idea of events unfolding within a quite St Mary Mead type village are very similar.I thoroughly enjoyed this story, as I have other books in the series. Ms. Beaton has that ability, shared with the best detective fiction writers, of being able to lead the reader up the garden path and then, allowing him/her to arrive at a solution, a paragraph or so before the detective. I shall not give any details herein as to whom the murderer of George Marston, the philandering gardener, might be; I would be amaze, however, were you to rumble the denouement ahead of the final chapter.Personally, I should have bought the paper version of this work, as I prefer to read than to listen but, the six one hour discs are superbly narrated, as one would expect, by Penelope Keith (I haven't let slip my attraction to this actress, have I?) and the inclination to spend an entire day listening to them, one after another, was almost, too great to resist. I must, guiltily admit that I shall listen to these discs more than once - I am blessed with a brain that can remember all sorts of trivia, but which manages to obliterate all reminiscence of the last few pages of a whodunnit within a few days!A good entertaining read/listen - first class!
From 0 to Infinity in 26 Centuries: The extraordinary story of maths

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I am uncomfortable with mathematics: it is the religion like certainty that the subject demands which I dislike. If I were to say that Graham Greene was a great writer, you could, legitimately, agree or disagree and, so long as your argument is based upon more than, "Oh no he isn't, you fool!", it is as significant as my opinion. On the other hand, were you to dispute a mathematical theory, you are, unquestionably wrong. I, therefore, approached this book with some trepidation. I need not have worried, this is a very gentle introduction to the mysterious world of mathematics. A fair amount of the information was already known to me. This does not mean that I wasted my time reading it, the order and time scale of the main events, plus a decent amount of new facts, made this an enjoyable and educational read. My first thought upon picking up "From 0 to Infinity in 26 Centuries", was that I was impressed that Mr Waring felt able to tell the story in a mere185 pages. Whilst I am no expert (!), I think that he accomplished the task remarkably well. The book is a series of concise tales of the major events and protagonists. He also deserves great praise for leaving me feeling that I understood the principles involved.This is not a book for the mathematics professor in your life, but it is a wonderful introduction for the younger enthusiast or, the uninitiated, such as myself. Thank you, Mr Waring, for easing my paranoia of all things mathematical!
Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan

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This is a book which could only be written by someone with a foot in both camps. Tamim Ansary is an Afghan who has spent many years living in America. He produces an excellent book which neither denigrates one, or the other culture and provides an insight to Westerners as to the mindset of the Afghan people. Mr. Ansary is a realist but, quietly confident that, left to her own devices, Afghanistan will develop into a modern country. This, of course, leads to interesting questions: is it acceptable to stand aside and watch women being exploited because it is for a country to progress at its own speed? Strangely, this seems to be considered permissible but, when South Africa held a racist position, liberal voices did not suggest that we should allow them to come to terms with their racial mix at their own speed. There is a fine line between interfering within another country's affairs, and accepting intolerable behaviour.This book explains what any rational person must know: that the ordinary Afghan is not a ranting, gun toting thug, desperate to kill the infidels. The most important point of which it reminds us, is one that journalistic shorthand so often leads us to forget - namely, that the Taliban is not a highly organised single military unit, but a term used to cover everyone who stands against the country's government and which ever major power is poking their nose in at the moment. The reasons for dissent may be as varied as the uneducated country folk fearing that the 'sophisticated' townies are destroying the religious beliefs that are held so dear, or an argument between two opium producers. Tamim Ansary is too wise to wrap this book up with a final chapter setting out a couple of simple stages that will lead to an enlightened Afghanistan living happily ever after, but he does offer a glimmer of hope that things may, slowly, be moving towards a better tomorrow: let us all prey that he is correct.
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