The Aeronauts – REVIEW

This is a novelty for me – I tend not to watch many films, let alone review them, but this popped up on my radar, and I decided to watch it. I spend a lot of time in the 19th century with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and I’m fascinated by lighter-than-air flight (once went up in the Goodyear airship, and wrote a book about a fictional Zeppelin), so a story about both sounded interesting.

And so it proved to be. The special effects were very well done – there were some genuinely suspenseful moments, and some moments of sheer beauty and wonder. I know a little about these things, though, so there was something that I considered to be an inaccuracy – that the balloon didn’t inflate as it climbed and the external pressure decreased. The film said the balloon was constructed of a non-elastic material – silk – so perhaps that had something to do with it, but it didn’t seem right to me that it maintained the same shape as it climbed upwards.

project-loon-israel-internet
These high altitude balloons expand at high altitude with lower ambient air pressure.

As other reviews have stated, the scenes in the balloon kept getting interrupted by flashbacks – would a linear storyline have worked better? Quite possibly, actually.

Was the acting good? Yes, it was. I don’t follow actors, but these (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) worked well together. But the casting! Yes, I appreciate diversity in casting, but… Were there ever any Indian members of the Royal Society in the mid-19th century? I think not. Black faces in the crowd, OK? Eminent Indian scientist (and yes, I know of Ramanujam), not.

But the script!!! Ouch. As I mentioned earlier, I spend a lot of time in the 19th century – I am somewhat familiar with the way in which people, especially the middle classes, behaved towards each other. Even in moments of extreme peril, would the two characters have addressed each other by their Christian names? What would be a Victorian man’s reaction be to being asked to unlace a lady’s corset? And there was a lot of (forced unintentional) physical intimacy, which would have caused considerable embarrassment on both sides, even to someone as unconventional as Ms Jones’s character.

Basically, the lack of realistic characterisation spoiled the film for me. While I enjoyed the premise and the cinematography, the dialogue and characterisation spoiled it for me. Maybe I’m just fussy, but this worked for me on the same level as the RDJ films which use the name of “Sherlock Holmes” – an entertaining romp set in a fictional past, while pretending to be historical.

Four stars (out of five) for entertainment, one for period feel.

Fracture – REVIEW


Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938
by Philipp Blom

A slightly sideways look at history between 1918 and 1939 – taking in some of the principal social and political events of that time. Blom seems to be one of those historians who sees this period as a time of relative calm in the Second European Thirty Years’ War (1914-1945), given the conflicts in most Continental European countries.

I learned a lot, for example, about the political violence in Austria post-1918, and about this history of Italy, particularly the influence of d’Annunzio’s style and tactics had on Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. The social structure of Prohibition, and the pernicious racism in the USA which ironically coexisted with the rise of African-American culture in the form of jazz also play a part in the story, as does the decadence of the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles.

However, the conclusion may seem particularly shocking to many, especially those right-wing libertarians who worship the god of Mammon. Blom pours scorn on what he sees as the myth of the neoliberal free market, which he blames for many of today’s ills and insecurity, and which he dismisses, saying “the gospel of the free market is just as ideological as fascism or communism. The belief in the seemingly unideological power of the market has helped only a small minority, creating for the rest a world in which hundreds of millions of people live less well and more precariously than their parents.”

He builds a convincing case for this view in the previous chapters, and to me, there is much to be said for it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the book is worth reading, whether or not it agrees with your views, if only for the stories it tells.

View all my reviews

The woman who fooled the world – REVIEW

The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness IndustryThe Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness Industry by Beau Donelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very frightening expose of how easy it is to fool many people by telling them what they want to believe. This book deals with the “wellness” business, but the same principles can be applied to financial and political scammers as well.

“Woo” and political “woo” (Brexit, Trumpism, etc.) have many things in common – an audience who are desperate for some good news, believing the existing system has failed them, and welcome any kind of relief from what is troubling them, however ludicrous and outrageous the claims and methods may seem to be.
View all my reviews

If Only They Didn’t Speak English (John Sopel) – REVIEW

A book that looks at America and Americans – the premise of the title is that the USA is a very foreign country indeed – very far away from the UK in many deeply fundamental ways, but because they speak English, we think of them as slightly eccentric siblings, rather than distant relatives with very different  worldviews to those we have in Britain.

Continue reading “If Only They Didn’t Speak English (John Sopel) – REVIEW”

Halloween is coming

Unknown Quantities is now available for pre-order and will be on sale from Halloween (the paperback will also be available on that date ). However, I will be happy to send a free ebook copy (EPUB or MOBI) to the first ten people to contact me, in exchange for a review somewhere.Unknownback@1.5x

  • Bee-bee – a rag doll who helps her owner cope with life’s ups and downs
  • What you find in a skip – it can be surprising
  • Babysitter – something nasty in the Coopers’ woodshed
  • Time thieves – they steal time and dreams and energy
  • Ships in the night – “as night turned to day, he started to understand the truth”
  • Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey – a sincere tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s classic ghost-finder
  • The story that wrote itself – sometimes an author gets help from an unexpected source
  • Gianni Two-Pricks – be careful what you take from others – even when they’re dead
  • Lady of the Dance – movement as message
  • Me and my Shadow – or is it really my shadow?
  • What Happens Afterwards? – when you die on the operating table, what’s next?

The Secret of the League – Ernest Bramah – REVIEW

I’ve held off political writing on this blog for a while, but this post is an exception, as a result of the book that I read recently.

The Secret of the League – The Story of a Social War – is a 1907 novel about a Britain in the late 1910s (no world war takes place in this world). A Labour government has been elected, and the government and Cabinet, former union leaders and shop stewards, are out of their depth.

Bramah is best known for his stories of a blind detective, Max Carrados, which I have enjoyed reading, and his Orientalist Kai Lung stories, which I find pretentious and tedious. This book is more like the former than the latter, and though the style is slightly dated, it wears better than many others of the same vintage. The basic plot could be written today, however, with a few modifications to bring it up to date.

The socialist leaders are depicted mockingly, and Bramah makes them slavishly repeat all the clichés of the Left at that time (in dialect at times). They institute a welfare state which goes beyond anything that ever actually existed, and pay for it with ever-increasing taxes on the “bourgeoisie” and the upper classes (the House of Lords has, of course, been abolished). Interestingly enough, Bramah describes the Laffer curve, some seventy years before it became part of the economic vocabulary.

To counter the excesses of the socialists, a League of Unity is set up, fronted by a once-popular politician, which works behind the scenes to prepare for a spectacular act of civil disobedience (it’s all described in Wikipedia and elsewhere, but I won’t tell you here, because the book is well enough crafted to leave you in suspense).

Suffice it to say that it is a revolt by the middle- and upper classes to overthrow a fanatical (if superficially well-meaning) government which is driving the country to destruction. Violence does arise, but as a response to the violence of the supporters of the government side, rather than being instigated by the revolters. Eventually the government is brought to its knees, having shot itself in the foot, with its Achilles heel being the handouts that the electorate have come to expect. (how many below-the-waist metaphors can I cram into one sentence?)

Though it may appear that the tenor of the book is anti-socialist, it transpires at the end that Bramah’s sympathies lie with the anti-populists, as the League of Unity offers places in the new government and there is sympathy for the ultimate goals of the socialist government, but not for their methods.

I discovered some disturbing parallels between the book and our current political state in the UK (I am writing this in the middle of the prorogation crisis just triggered by Boris Johnson). I would recommend that you read this story – a free download as an ebook from Project Gutenberg – and then add your comments here.

Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW

Sorry about the silence recently. Some of it has been an enforced silence (minor surgery with subsequent complications) and some has been connected with things I am not allowed to talk about (no, I haven’t joined MI6 or MI6 or GCHQ, but there are secrets which must remain hidden for the nonce*).

Anyway, I recently bought a copy of Hell’s Empire, an anthology of weird/horror tales around a common theme.

Imagine Them – the demons of Hades, the Empire of the Damned, the Dukes and Earls of Hell, commanding legions of the damned to battle against the heartland of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Martini-Henrys and Maxims bark and chatter against fanged, clawed horrors that rip off heads and splay intestines in obscene eldritch patterns. Continue reading “Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW”

Good Omens – REVIEW (TV series)

This is unusual for me – reviewing a TV series (on Amazon TV). I don’t watch an awful lot of TV series – I tend to get bored with them – unless they’re semi-documentaries like The Looming Tower or Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon.

However, I did note that Good Omens was available on Amazon TV. I’m never 100% convinced about Neil Gaiman’s books, but I do like Terry Pratchett, and I had enjoyed Good Omens as a book, though the end went a little too fast and left me confused. So I decided to watch the first episode of the Amazon production, and I was hooked.

Somehow, the verbal paradoxes and twisted logic of the book made it onto the screen, partly due to the voiceovers by God which played the same sort of role as The Book in HHGTTG.

What really made it for me, though, were the characters of and the relationship between the angel and demon (Aziraphale and Crowley) who came through beautifully. I went into there with almost no expectations of how the actors would come over. I had heard of David Tennant but couldn’t tell you anything about any other parts he’d played except for his role as Doctor Who (which I have never seen) and would never recognise him, and had never heard of Michael Sheen.

How can you manage to be so ignorant? you ask. Lack of interest in “celebrities” and in fictional drama, and nearly 30 years out of the country, I answer.

But what really made it for me is that the ending, complex in the book, all started to make perfect sense in the TV series.

The special effects were, of course, wonderful and the makeup and the characterisation of some of the minor characters was great (I especially liked Beelzebub, and Gabriel). Definitely worth giving up three evenings for.

John Linwood Grant – Interview

The first interview on this blog, with John Linwood Grant, writer and editor of weird fiction, sharer of space with lurchers, and creator of several strange characters who live and move and have their being in and around the London of Sherlock Holmes (who also makes his appearance in several of his works). He has also reviewed a book of mine and interviewed me – and in the interest of balance it is only fair to let him present his side of the story.

Continue reading “John Linwood Grant – Interview”

Invasion 1940, Derek Robinson – REVIEW

My introduction to alternative history was Philip K.Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I read when I was about 20. I hesitate to call it my favourite, though.That prize goes to Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which combines an interesting alternative timeline where the Nazi invasion of Britain takes place with a detective/espionage thriller. Since Len Deighton has also written some pretty good popular historical books on related subjects (e.g., Fighter and Blitzkrieg), I took his ideas as being fairly accurate.

And now here comes Derek Robinson, whose books I also enjoy, who enjoys getting to the heart of matters – at least as he sees them – which he has done in novels such as A Piece of Cake and Damned Good Show, in which he explores the myths that have grown up around the historical episodes he is writing about. So Invasion 1940 is there to prove to the reader that the Battle of Britain, though important, had very little to do with stopping Operation Sealion (the planned Nazi invasion of Britain).

Continue reading “Invasion 1940, Derek Robinson – REVIEW”

Something nasty in the woodshed – REVIEW of Cold Comfort Farm

I suppose quite a few people are familiar with this phrase (the one about the woodshed, I mean), and some people might even know where it comes from – I used it myself just the other day. However, I’d never read Cold Comfort Farm until now, and I regret not having done so before.

As a non-fan of D.H.Lawrence (as a novelist, though I do like a lot of his poetry), I particularly enojoyed the book, and it actually had me laughing out loud on the train as I read it.

Continue reading “Something nasty in the woodshed – REVIEW of Cold Comfort Farm”

Assistance needed …

I would very much appreciate a few more reviews for Balance of Powers – while I realise that it is not the world’s greatest novel, and will never be in the running for a literary prize, there are still elements of the book that really pleased me when I re-read it recently. I find it hard to believe I’m the only one who likes it.
If you haven’t read it already, and wonder what a house for sale notice has to do with a thriller featuring a Colt 45 on the cover, read on …

Continue reading “Assistance needed …”