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Shades Of Grey - Jasper Fforde 26/02/2012

Life Isn't Always Black and White

Shades Of Grey - Jasper Fforde Jasper Fforde, author of what must surely be some of the quirkiest and most original fiction around at the moment, has done it again. Not content with creating three other vividly imagined and quite different universes for his Thursday Next, Nursery Crime and Dragonslayer series of books, he has come up with a fourth in the shape of Shades of Grey. If I call Shades of Grey a fantasy novel, I am sure to put many readers off; likewise if I refer to it as being high concept fiction. The book is both, but please don’t let such labels put you off trying it, as it has to be one of the most fascinating fictional universes I have entered in a long time and it is well worth reading. Shades of Grey is set in society that has grown up several centuries after “the Something that Happened” to the Previous, yet for a post-apocalyptic world everything is calm and well-ordered. Perhaps too well-ordered. Sometime in the past were set down the Rules, which everyone has to adhere slavishly to, lest they are given demerits for committing infractions. Acquire too many demerits and you find yourself packed off to Reboot, a place where you are re-educated to respect the way things are done, dress properly and go about discharging your Civic Responsibility to the Collective. Yet the really interesting thing about this society is way that colour works. Unlike us, the people who inhabit this world perceive it in black and white, and have no night vision at all; in their twentieth year, each resident ... 15/01/2012

Teutonic Taxis It is not often that you book an airport transfer with a company that proudly announces it has saved over 8.8 million kg of CO² since it was founded. But then German Transfer isn’t your usual sort of airport transfer company. They claim to be the leading “transfer brokers” in Germany, and as a brokerage this makes them a little bit different to other airport transfer services I have used in the past. Rather than simply booking your journey to one of their own cars, they instead use one of their contractors to provide the service for you. What is so special about this? Well, it allows them to “optimise utilisation of transfer journeys, resulting in fewer cars on the road”. In other words, if your transfer booking can be combined with someone else’s booking, it will be. This means that they can run a more efficient, greener service. How very Germanic. I found out about German Transfer when I was browsing the Berlin Airport website, looking for information about how to travel to my hotel once I had arrived in the city. Public transport connections looked to be good, but my hotel was some distance away and my flight arrived rather late in the evening, so I decided the best way to go would be to book a transfer to and from my hotel. The airport’s recommended partner was German Transfer. At first I thought that this might make my transfer more expensive, but after requesting a quote from the company through their website and shopping around a bit online, I found they were actually ...

Bred of Heaven - Jasper Rees 08/01/2012

Welsh Wanderings

Bred of Heaven - Jasper Rees "Some are born Welsh. Some achieve Welshness. I am going to thrust myself upon Wales". Jasper Rees is a thoroughly English man; born in London, educated at Harrow, and brought up to cheer whenever he crossed the Severn Bridge in an eastward direction. But despite this background, he admits to an "unfilled sense of ancestral belonging" whenever he crosses the border to visit his grandparents in Carmarthen. This is what the Welsh call hiraeth - a deep longing to be somewhere (the nearest you can get to it in English is probably "homesickness", although the translation isn't quite literal). Jasper's hiraeth led him to establish Project Wales, an attempt to explore his Welsh ancestry, to reclaim his roots and to live up to his surname by way of a book deal that produced the wonderfully titled Bred of Heaven. So how do you set about doing something as nebulous as reclaiming your ancestry? Well, asking Welsh celebrity Bryn Terfel what he considers it takes to count yourself as properly Welsh seems like a good place to start. Bryn, as you might expect, sets the bar very high (he even reads the Mabinogion to his young children every bedtime), but ultimately he thinks Welshness boils down to one key defining characteristic: a willingness to learn and use the Welsh language. This, then, forms the first step in Project Wales. Jasper succeeds in finding a college in London that teaches an evening class in beginner's Welsh, and attempts to wrap his cut-class accent around Welsh words. ...

Amazing Tales for Making Men Out of Boys - Neil Oliver 02/01/2012

Where Have All The Good Men Gone?

Amazing Tales for Making Men Out of Boys - Neil Oliver “There was a time not so very long ago when boys were taught to be men” writes author, archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Oliver, and “part of the education of boys came from reading tales of brave and selfless deeds”. Not so any more. “It’s rubbish being a British man at the moment…nowadays the rest of the world sees British men as the performing seals of George W Bush’s Wild West Show. We’re the sick men of Europe too with our lazy fat guts and our binge-drinking.” He also opines that nothing grand or challenging that we do now is simply for the sake of it; nothing is important unless it is done live on air or filmed to be broadcast to the masses – perhaps a strange complaint from a man who makes his living from such media. But while being an archaeologist in Scottish winters, growing hero hair and appearing on TV in armour and wielding swords may be a little bit manly, Oliver is more interested in manliness on a much grander scale and how stories about such manliness could be an antidote to his despair for the youth of today. Following on the heels of the Dangerous Book for Boys, he therefore presents his own collection of material in Amazing Tales For Making Men Out Of Boys, intended to inspire younger male readers in particular. I have recently read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, so you could think of this as its ideal partner – How To Be a Man. As far as Oliver is concerned the greatest hero and manliest man of them all is Robert Falcon Scott, the man synonymous ...

How To Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran 24/12/2011

How To Be a (certain type of) Woman

How To Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran How To Be a Woman may seem an oddly titled book for a 33 year old woman to be reading – surely with 33 years of practice I must have figured it out by now? Yet despite this ample experience, being a woman is something I feel I’m a bit rubbish at. I only own one dress (the one I got married in, never to be worn again). I only own one pair of heels that I can’t walk in (putting me apparently way below average on this count). I never wear, and never have worn, make-up (not even on my wedding day – I drew the line at having to wear a frock). I don’t have a handbag, either (why would I need one when I have a perfectly serviceable rucksack and pockets in my clothes?). And the biggest failing of all – I don’t want babies. While it seems quite straightforward to be a man (they even come with a Haynes manual these days), being a woman seems to be more complicated and involve a lot more faffing around. So, who better to explain it all to us than Caitlin Moran, someone with abundant experience of (a) being a woman, and (b) writing about it in a funny, engaging manner that makes you feel that you would instantly be best friends if you ever happened to meet her. How To Be a Woman is described as being part rant, part memoir, and part The Female Eunuch rewritten “from a barstool”. Yes, that’s right: a lot of How To Be a Woman is about FEMINISM. Before a lot of you flee before the very mention of this word, let me say that Moran is far from being one of those scary, aggressive men-hating ...

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman 18/12/2011

The Truth is in Here

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman The paranormal, it seems, is a subject with seemingly limitless fascination for us, and is something which people continue to hold on to as part of their belief systems. A Gallup poll taken in 2005 indicated that 30% of people believed in ghosts and 15% claimed to have seen one. Another survey taken in 2008 had 58% of respondents stating they believed in the supernatural – more than believed in God (54%). Professor Richard Wiseman states in his latest book Paranormality that between 40% and 50% of people in the UK (and between 80% and 90% in the US) claim to have had some sort of paranormal experience. These are extraordinary figures. For all that we live in a well-educated society where science is more readily accessible than ever before, belief in the things that go bump in the night is still remarkably persistent. As an arch-sceptic and Britain’s only Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology, Wiseman has investigated the paranormal for over twenty years, and all his experience has been poured into his latest book – Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There. If you are expecting this to be a stern academic text with the Professor chiding us credulous members of the public for being so gullible, you would be wrong. This is a cheerful pop-science book written for those of us who find science interesting, but don’t have the time, degrees or access to peer-reviewed journals that keeping up with latest developments in fields of interest would require. Here is a lot ...

For Richer, for Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker - Victoria Coren 10/12/2011

Until Debt Us Do Part

For Richer, for Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker - Victoria Coren "My brother's a poker player, but he isn't a gambler, not really. That's no thanks to Grandpa Sam. When we were little, Sam gave us a comprehensive education in blackjack, which he called pontoon. Here was the lesson: he was always the dealer and we always lost". From such beginnings, Victoria Coren has ended up doing rather well out of cards. She has learnt to play well enough to join a professional poker team and collect career winnings of $1.5 million, and has become the first female European champion at the game; this book is the story of those wins and how she got there from being a shy, awkward and unhappy schoolgirl losing to her grandfather at blackjack. (Incidentally, my granddad also taught me to play pontoon when I was little, but lacking a slightly disreputable older sibling to later teach me the rules of poker, I have not become a millionaire player. Or a millionaire anything for that matter. Indeed, the only card game I play these days is the odd game of freecell or solitaire on my laptop when I am supposed to be doing other things. Like writing book reviews.) While Coren is also a writer and broadcaster in a range of other areas apart from poker, prior to reading this book I'll confess that I had only heard of her previously from watching the rather pleasantly genteel show "Balderdash & Piffle" about the history of words and their incorporation into the Oxford English Dictionary, which she presented for two series a few years ago. She came across as being a ...

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America - Barbara Ehrenreich 05/11/2011

Down and (Almost) Out in America

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America - Barbara Ehrenreich America has long been billed as the land of opportunity, a place where the streets are paved with gold and anyone who is prepared to work hard enough can buy themselves a part of the American dream. "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that `hard work' was the secret of success," Barbara Ehrenreich writes. "No one ever said that you could work hard - harder even than you thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt." On 22nd August 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act brought about major welfare reform in the US. Couched in terms of promoting a work ethic amongst those in receipt of welfare payments, this act brought about significant change to the American poor, removing any automatic entitlement to payouts and restricting any that were received to a lifetime limit of five years. This reform meant that almost overnight, four million women (many of them with children) had to enter the work force in low-paid entry level jobs. Discussing this act with an editor over lunch at a pleasant French restaurant, essayist Barbara Ehrenreich idly wondered how such people – newly stripped of any safety net – survived on the wages paid by employers for such unskilled work. Her editor agreed that it was a good question and who better than Barbara to undertake the undercover work necessary to begin answering it? So was born a project that has become something of a landmark in investigative ...

The Vault - Ruth Rendell 22/10/2011

The Return of Wexford

The Vault - Ruth Rendell If you are a fan of Ruth Rendell’s work, you will have noticed that recently two unthinkable things have happened. Firstly, in The Monster in the Box, her much loved character Chief Inspector Wexford retired, and then in her latest book The Vault, she has produced her first sequel in her catalogue of over seventy titles. The Vault is not just unusual in being a sequel, however, it also brings the two distinct strands of her work (the Wexford novel and the stand alone crime thriller) together into an intriguing and compelling whole. Reg Wexford (plain old Mr these days) is taking some time to adjust to no longer being a member of Kingsmarkham’s police force. Making an effort to keep himself busy, he and his wife Dora start dividing their time between their country home and their daughter’s vacant “coach house” in London. They plan day trips and outings, read books and visit family, and Wexford takes to walking around the city a lot, enjoying the exercise he used to struggle to find time to take when he was working. It is while on one of his long walks that he bumps into Tom Ede, a man he once knew as a young constable. Now a Detective Superintendent, Tom is a man burdened with a difficult case and takes the opportunity of meeting Wexford to invite him to use his years of experience as an unpaid advisor to his investigative team. It will come as no surprise that Wexford is keen to get involved in the police work he so misses, even as someone will no official standing or ... Mastercard 09/10/2011

One Amazon Mastercard...And You're Done Mastercard You can view credit cards in one of two ways: (1) they make modern life easier by removing the need to be forever looking for the nearest cash point, providing payment flexibility and offering a way of managing your money, or (2) they are instruments of evil that tempt us into purchases we otherwise wouldn’t have made and help us rack up huge levels of debt, which the card companies then charge us painful amounts of interest on. As the sort of person who is able to pay off their full bill each month, I fall firmly into the first camp. I like having a credit card; I find it convenient, invaluable for online shopping and more secure than carrying a lot of cash with me wherever I go. They are also fantastic in emergencies – as I found out the time my car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Why This Card? Up until a year ago, my credit card of choice had been the Halifax Ipoints card – I had had it for about 8 years and it had suited my needs excellently over that time. Unfortunately, last year some changes at the Ipoints website (including a rebranding of their online loyalty scheme as “maximiles”) meant their contract with Halifax was abruptly terminated, and I was given short notice that I would no longer receive Ipoints as a reward for purchasing items on my card. No bonus meant no more Halifax credit card as far as I was concerned, so the hunt was on for a new replacement, ready to take over the place of my Halifax card the moment I stopped earning Ipoints for using it. ...

Screwpull Wine Cooler 17/09/2011

No Screwpulls at Recommending This!

Screwpull Wine Cooler Here is a conundrum for you. In a few days time, you are going to spend the night in a nice country hotel for your wedding anniversary. As part of said night, you wish to enjoy a nice, cold bottle of fizz with your Other Half in the privacy of your room. Do you: (a) Order your wine from the hotel? This will address the "cold" part of your requirements and will be served to your room, but will set you back about the same amount of money that you spent on the room itself. Or, (b) Take a bottle of wine in with you? You have a good half-price bottle of fizz picked up in a recent supermarket promotion, but there will be some hours between removing the bottle from your fridge at home and serving it in the hotel room - and you know the hotel does not provide fridges in the rooms because you have stayed there before. So which is it to be? Affordable warm wine or perfectly chilled but outrageously expensive wine? Well, fortunately there is secret option number three - go online and find a method of keeping your wine cool between home and hotel. The Solution Searching online for "wine cooler" will reveal about 8.3 million hits, although in all fairness most of these seem to be wine-orientated mini-fridges, which are not all that useful when one is trying to slip a bottle of wine into a fancy hotel without the staff noticing. Something inexpensive, effective and, above all, portable was required. The option I chose after some deliberation was the ...

Silbury Hill, Marlborough 08/09/2011

The Mysterious Mound of Marlborough

Silbury Hill, Marlborough The landscape around Avebury in Wiltshire is one of extremes and excess; longer, higher, larger, most numerous and most concentrated are all terms that can be easily applied to the abundance of ancient sites that crowd into a relatively small area between Marlborough and Calne. Silbury Hill occupies a unique place even in this special setting – as well as being the largest surviving prehistoric man-made structure anywhere in Europe (indeed, nothing higher than it was made in Britain until the middle ages), it could creditably lay claim to being the most puzzling of them all. There it sits next to the A4, towering over passing traffic and the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside like a giant upturned pudding bowl. It is an outlandish sight, even in a landscape liberally peppered with the results of ancient activity, the purposes of which have been lost in the mists of time. The hill is in fact over 4,000 years old, with building having begun on it around 2,400BC. This time was an age of short (by our standards) life-spans and of great effort needing to be expended just to keep alive - yet people were also motivated to take on tasks which, given the resources available to them, must have seemed barely achievable when they started. Silbury Hill is a prime example of this. The mound is 37m (121 feet) in height, 30m (98 feet) wide across its flat top, and 500m (1640 feet) in circumference around the base; these are staggering proportions for something built not just ...

Pacific Tv Tie In - Hugh Ambrose 01/09/2011

Band of Brothers: The Pacific Campaign

Pacific Tv Tie In - Hugh Ambrose It can't be easy writing a history book when you are the son of Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose senior was a writer of many popular books - including the famous Band of Brothers tome that was the basis for Steven Spielberg's HBO series of the same name - on a grand scale. Slate referred to him in 2002 as, "a history factory, using his five kids as researchers and assistants to streamline the production process". It was in this production line that Hugh Ambrose learned his trade as a writer of popular American history. It may seem that the only obstacle in junior's way was the hard task of living up to his father, but personally I read this book just hoping that the plagiarism scandals that dogged the last part of Stephen's life were not part of the apprenticeship that Hugh served. Hugh Ambrose has claimed that he did not set out to write "Band of Brothers 2" when he wrote The Pacific, although that is largely what it is (all the more so given the same production team made a series of the same name, using Ambrose as the historical consultant, and have named this the "official companion book" for the series). There are some quite significant differences between the book and the resulting miniseries, but this seems to be largely due to the ways the different media need to work to tell an effective story. Both are good, but in different ways. This may seem an odd choice of reading for me given my general disinterest in modern history, and indeed the Pacific campaign of World War 2 was ...

Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) 17/08/2011

Tales of Treasure and Kings

Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) When the Pretty family moved to Tranmer House on the Sutton Hoo estate in 1926, it seemed doubtful that their actions were ever destined to become anything more than an inconsequential footnote in the history of Suffolk. Just four years after their move to the house, however, Frank Pretty died, leaving his wife Edith and their young son Robert alone in the 15-room Edwardian mansion. Edith took solace in spiritualism, travelling to see mediums in London on a regular basis as she attempted to make contact with her late husband. It was this growing interest in spiritualism that probably made Edith take more notice than many would have done of a guest’s reported sightings of ghostly soldiers around the strange field of mounds that lay on her estate. Put together with persistent local rumours that treasure had been found at the site in the past, Edith thought it was high time that some serious investigation took place. As it turned out, Edith’s decision was to be anything but inconsequential. In the summer of 1938, she commissioned local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mysterious mounds that lay within sight of her house. Aided by the estate’s gamekeeper and gardener, Brown spent two months digging up three of the mounds – all, it turned out, had been robbed, probably in the 16th or 17th centuries. They did, however, find a gilt bronze disc that suggested that the mounds were Anglo-Saxon, rather than Viking as first thought. Not to be put off by the ransacking of the ...

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins 03/08/2011

Delusion or Illusion?

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins “We are all atheists about most of gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further”. Richard Dawkins A couple of years ago, Channel 4 screened a two-part documentary on religion by Richard Dawkins, entitled “The Root of All Evil?”. While Dawkins openly admits he was somewhat sceptical about the name chosen for his programme by the producers, he did endorse an attention grabbing advert for it that some of you may recall seeing in newspapers at the time: it featured a view of the New York skyline complete with the towers of the World Trade Centre and the line “imagine a world with no religion”. This deliberately provocative advert would have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Dawkins. A biologist at Oxford University, he is almost as well known for expounding his atheist views on the world as he is for his scientific publications (notably “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker”). “The God Delusion” is one of Dawkins’ more recent books, and unleashes his considerable intellect on the subject of religion, extending the powerful arguments he had previously put forward in his documentary, and in earlier papers and debates. However, there is a notable difference to his earlier discussions of atheism: “my earlier books did not set out to convert anyone...this book does,” he declares. Four Messages Dawkins writes that religious faith qualifies as “a delusion”, at least insofar as the term is commonly understood: a persistent ...
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