1 Followers
2 Following
richardbrockbank1

richardbrockbank1

Currently reading

The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry: Volume I: Spenser to Crabbe
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne, Anthony Bonner
Lord Jim
Joseph Conrad
Aesop's Fables
Aesop, Laura Gibbs
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
Yosemite and the High Sierra
Ansel Adams, John Szarkowski, Andrea G. Stillman
Transcendent
Stephen Baxter
The Official Highway Code
Department for Transport, Driving Standards Agency
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within
Stephen Fry
The Nation's Favourite: Poems
Griff Rhys Jones
A Man of Means - P. G. Wodehouse,  C.H. Bovill Roland Bleke, the hapless lottery winner, repeatedly gets into scrapes, usually involving marriages he doesn't want to go through with, in this entertaining series of six short stories.

Very humourous and pleasingly redolent of gentler times.
Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories - P. G. Wodehouse My first Wodehouse and I loved it. I was in the mood for something less weighty than Lord Jim one humid, exhausting night in the middle of the July 2013 English heatwave, I alighted on Wodehouse's complete works as my next iBooks buy (for a ridiculously low price), having seen and enjoyed Jeeves and Wooster on TV and occasionally heard Stephen Fry trumpeting Wodehouse's writing in the media. A glance at my recent purchase Who Else Writes Like? showed that he and Fry share similar styles and that Wodehouse is a crossover writer (meaning, as I discovered, he also appeals to YA readers). All the better for my mind which was unable at that moment to enter deep contemplations and process highly complex imagery and plotlines.

The medicine did the trick – the seven posthumously-published short stories skip along at a merry pace, and more or less every time I thought I might be on the verge of getting bored there was a deftly brilliant comic twist, starting me chuckling out loud to myself until the story ended. My first Wodehouse, but it won't be my last.
Unreliable Memoirs - Clive James I skimmed it after the first few chapters. James' dry Antipodean wit is in evidence throughout, but I found this story of his early years rather dull overall, and I thought he placed too much importance on scatological detail and the awkwardness and, well, grossness, of his sexual awakening for my taste. The book would probably go down better with men and women of his generation who are fans of his TV work.

I used to greatly enjoy watching his review of the year every New Year's Eve with my parents, and I think I'll probably enjoy Flying Visits, my next read by James, a great deal more.
SPOILER ALERT!
The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury A terrific book. Bradbury seems to have written The Martian Chronicles extremely quickly yet with incredible lucidity, with a wonderful ear for dialogue and with a poetic swirling vortex of imagery taking in assorted everyday and exotic objects, people and animals, fire and chemical reactions and strange telepathic, shape-shifting beings, myriad forms of machinery and technology, and a spellbinding combination of natural beauty and impressionistic Martian cityscapes straight from his imagination. It's a testament to his genius that he churned out so much of this high-quality fiction — I can't wait to read more, or hear it narrated on BBC radio.

Bradbury's colonisers of Mars are ordinary Americans, not highly-trained astronauts and scientists, and they profane the ancient planet with their hot dog stands, beauty parlours, mines and quarries and drugstores. There are a few good people among them and many more who are innocently carried along by the current and who fall victim to their more corrupt brethren or the culture clash to end all culture clashes, between the humans and the impossibly graceful, philosophical, telepathic Martians who are dying from exposure to Earth diseases. The stories, a mixture of impressionistic sketches and longer form short stories of perhaps 20-30 pages, take a sombre turn as Earth comes ever closer to nuclear war and the home planet enters the colonisers' thoughts again, "anaesthetised" as they have been by the vast distance of space between the two planets. I won't spoil the ending but this is not a book you'd like to leave half finished. I definitely want to reread this.

Now for the critical side: if you are looking for hard science or something which might be a realistic idea of the future, you won't find it here. For one thing, the book is set mostly from around 1999 to the early years of our new (ish) century, and for another, Bradbury, writing in 1950/51 did not anticipate the PC revolution (and beyond into smartphones and tablets, Japan and so on). But the author wasn't trying to painstakingly create a believable reality: the believability comes from the way he puts humanity and human civilisation on the page — idiosyncratic and brilliant, and the science fiction part is as much to entertain the reader and support the story's prophetic warning than to convince us of how life will be (could have been). Also, due to the simplicity of the style I'd recommend this to younger readers, but anyone young at heart or who just likes a good story will love it, whether they be nine or ninety (or indeed 11 or 110, for that matter).
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott I wish I had read this when I was a boy, as it's aimed at a younger audience who have most to benefit; however, even at 36 I was able to learn a lot from the simple, innocent and absorbing story of the Marches and Laurences. The book follows four sisters living in New England: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, whose father (to begin with) is away helping the Yankees fight the Confederates in the civil war. The lives the young characters lead, though sometimes glamourous or otherwise enviable, didn't cause bitter covetousness in me, but did promote recognition and recall of some of the most treasured moments in my life, and left me feeling optimistic, with raised spirits. My favourite characters were Jo, Laurie and Amy, and it was very satisfying to recognise some of my own traits and those of my friends and family in virtually every character in the book – clearly a testament to Louisa May Alcott's writing skill. The romantic moments too were very nicely judged, being pleasingly decorous, yet completely convincing at the same time, helped along by the gentle and subtle wit.

The humour and pathos that suffuse nearly every chapter deftly leaven the morality tales (don't be put off by that term – although the characters are decidedly pious Christians the book doesn't "moralise" in the overbearing contemporary sense that we all experience, from sniffy lecturing, tutting and unwelcome buttonholing on one side to the ignorant braying of the terminally spoilt on the other). The religious theme, exemplified by fairly frequent allusions to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and occasional references to God and the Bible, doesn't intrude on the enjoyment of the novel in any way for anyone who knows their own mind and is capable of enjoying a great story well told. Actually, not having read The Pilgrim's Progress (spiritually nonconformist, apparently) was much more annoying (read: just a little bit) than any dissonance involved in reading a 150-year-old novel written in another country. Note that there is no Deus ex machina in evidence – the characters solve their own problems, sometimes with religious inspiration, sometimes without.

Towards the end I was listening to Tosca and imagined how it might have sounded if Puccini had written music to describe the book's many touching episodes, like Beth's passing, and Laurie's and Professor Bhaer's proposals (I don't think this would confuse chronology's strict stipulations, but it would require time travel). He wouldn't be able to turn it into a melodrama, but some bars of his very playful and romantic music could perhaps be adapted. Little Women is as sweet and heartfelt as the sweetest parts of La Bohème, but nowhere near as tragic (and, of course, a very different story).

A word about the language and literary techniques: descriptive passages are relatively rare, but make a good balance of richness and conciseness when they occur, and are neither impressionistic nor obsessively detailed. I enjoyed looking up the names of many types of fabric, plants and flowers throughout the book – this was a very welcome tactility and sensuousness as an antidote to our world of computer screens, plastic keyboards, and incessant social media status updates. The overall tone is motherly (if I had to describe it one word) but respectful rather than overindulgent or cosseting. The author occasionally breaks the fourth wall, which doesn't jar in the slightest, as some of the more formulaic "Dear reader" asides sometimes can. To compare with film, the use of this device is most similar in feel to The Princess Bride, where the narrator is wise and kindly, and possesses the power of gentle ironic wit. The language is elegant and clear and relatively simple, and might seem somewhat formal to inexperienced readers due to the books age, but one thing it isn't is stuffy and stultifying. There are some dated and archaic words, some of which seem worth bringing back into use, my favourite being "hobbledehoy" (a clumsy or awkward youth).

As I got closer to the end of the book, I wondered if the ending was going to be disappointingly sugary. I thought it might be best for the author to stop more or less abruptly, allowing the reader to imagine the rest of the story, because by the time we reach the last 40 pages or so we know that the characters will live happily ever after. Louisa May Alcott didn't leave a cliffhanger, but fortunately the ending doesn't feel too saccharine, happy though it is, thanks to her characteristic gift for humour. This is book one of a trilogy, so there is more of the story for those who decide they want it. For myself, I'm not sure at the moment, having so many other books I want to read, but it's a nice feeling to know that Little Men and Jo's Boys are out there (well, actually, already downloaded for free to my iTunes account), and that they are just as well liked by the people who've gone on to read them.
CompTIA A+ Certification All-In-One Exam Guide: (Exams 220-701 & 220-702) [With CDROM] - Mike Meyers This is a really well-written book. Logical, systematic, detailed and comprehensive yet light, engaging and conversational in tone. Mike Meyers is obviously an excellent technical writer and I hope to read more of his books if that coincides with my ambitions in IT. Only gripe is that the there is only one of each practice exam included on the accompanying CDROM, and while more are available on the website I feel their price is very steep.

The Redbreast - Don Bartlett, Jo Nesbo, Jo Nesbø Being a fan of 'Nordic Noir' TV series like The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, I thought I was in for a treat with this book, the first Scandinavian crime thriller I've come to in written form. However, this is a formulaic and dull book which bored me so much I only got one eighth of the way through before exasperatedly giving up. The book builds up tension in exactly the same way as does watching repeats of Homes Under The Hammer on daytime TV, possibly followed by a trip to the newsagents to buy some milk and instant coffee granules. No doubt the murders, which I didn't get to, are graphic, but I would guess the lack of supporting atmosphere and kinetic drama would probably make them seem rather the product of a slightly sick mind than a vital part of a driving narrative.

Nesbo's descriptions include frequent, unintentionally hilarious and irrelevant details that make you wonder if he copied and pasted from quasi-randomised Google searches.

"Harry kicked the waste-paper basket beside his desk and it smashed into the wall next to Ellen's chair and rolled across the linoleum floor, spreading its contents everywhere: discarded attempts at reports (the Ekeberg killing); an empty pack of twenty cigarettes (Camel, tax free sticker); a green Go'man yoghurt pot; Dagsavisen; a used cinema ticket (Filmteateret: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas); a used pools coupon; a music magazine (MOJO, no. 69, February 1999, with a picture of Queen on the cover); a bottle of Coke (plastic, half-litre); and a yellow Post-it note with a phone number he had considered ringing for a while.
Ellen looked up from her PC and studied the contents of the bin on the floor.
'Are you chucking the MOJO out, Harry?' she asked.
'Fuck!' Harry repeated."

The overall impression is that the book is written like (I imagine) a bad screenplay, lacking anything more than perfunctory and superficial inner thoughts and motivation of the characters, and with the descriptive detail of an archive of football results. Hardly an attempt at a readable novel at all.

I'm extremely disappointed, and only hope my Henning Mankell books bought from my local library are better-written.
A History of Britain: The Wars of the British 1603-1776 - Simon Schama I've found Simon Schama's trilogy very difficult to read, I think for three reasons. Firstly, he expects the reader to know a great deal about the subject, in very fine detail – it feels like a book for historians rather than the general reading public. Second, the language seems to me to be a rather flowery mix of the sort of old-fashioned "prestige English" that politicians habitually use when making announcements to the public and some "down with the cool kids" informality which I find gets in the way of picking out the important facts. Thirdly, the narrative jerks around constantly, going off at tangents that are too esoteric for my liking (see the first point).

It probably all makes sense to better informed readers, and the number of four and five star reviews seems to confirm this. I'm going to look for a more traditional, systematic approach with a more rigid chronology rather than keep confusing my poor self with these books. I'm looking at John Burke's An Illustrated History of England to start with, maybe followed by Andrew Marr's History of Britain. My copy of Burke was published in 1985 so I should probably ask someone what new or changed information has since become available. Hopefully I'll return to Simon's books later, armed with a clearer knowledge of British history.

Consumer Guide to Prescription Medicines

A Consumer's Guide to Prescription Medicines - Barrington Cooper, Laurence Gerlis It's hard to see the use in this book other than making money for those book sellers who leave piles of books around your office every couple of weeks – it's a comprehensive list of prescription medicines, with each entry including strengths available, dosage, availability, active ingredients, brand names, side effects, cautions, those who the medication shouldn't be used for, and drugs or supplements where caution is needed if taking with the medicine. It seems slightly unfair to criticise the book for doing exactly what the title states, but there's no insight into any of the medicines, they're listed alphabetically rather than sorted into functional groups, e.g. Beta blockers, painkillers, and the information your doctor gives you when prescribing the medicine and the information on the PIL will be more thorough, AND you can find more up-to-date reference material on the NHS website, which will also put things in proper context. I said 'exactly' what it states on the cover, but in actual facts the writers claim "Key medical terms explained". I just looked through the whole book and couldn't find any. They are used, yes, but nowhere are they explained. If you want to learn about medicines, take a proper course in pharmacy, pharmacology, nursing or medicine. This book will just waste your time. Best use would be to prop up a corner of your armchair, something to fling on the floor in moments of rage, or just to line your pet rodent's cage.

The Beauty of America

The Love of America - Edmund Blair Bolles It might be debatable how useful the text is thirty-four years later (pleasant and informative without being overly dense), but this is a lovely book to flick through, with perhaps one or two hundred beautiful photographs, all with informative captions. You won't comprehensively learn about US geography, history and culture from one coffee table book, but it's a decent overview, and may be useful to keep to refer back to when reading actual textbooks. Don't be put off by the fact this came out in 1979, before today's digital photography explosion had even been dreamed about. The photos are of extremely high quality for their time, now having a pleasantly nostalgic aspect for me at least, and the subjects are expertly chosen.

NB My copy is called The Beauty of America, not The Love of America.
The History Of The Kings & Queens Of England & Scotland - Edmund Swinglehurst, Rodney Castledon Not useful for study purposes. Could perhaps be used to introduce very young children to British history, but it would be worth checking for better options first. Illustrations are reasonably good, but have little context.
SPOILER ALERT!
Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift, Robert DeMaria Jr. Gulliver's Travels is the satirical tale of the fictional seafarer, Lemuel Gulliver, an ordinary everyman (although, oddly, he can learn any new language in a matter of days or weeks). The tale takes the form of his narration of his adventures in the bizarre lands, with even stranger inhabitants, where he ends up though various misfortunes such as shipwrecks, piracy, and so on. The author, Jonathan Swift, uses the differences between England and Europe and these strange, outlandish, places to satirise "civilised" government, society and human nature. The peoples, races and tribes he encounters range from six inch-tall and sixty feet-tall humans, through human-like but excessively contemplative beings, to a race of wise and virtuous horses who have enslaved the savage humanoid "Yahoos" in their land. It was written in the 1720s, before the whole world had been mapped, and over one hundred years before Darwin's theory of natural selection came about. I've wanted to read it since childhood but never found the time. Now I have, and the very short summary is that I can say it was interesting and sometimes almost profound, but I won't be in a hurry to read more Swift. Here's the long version:
I can think of quite a few positive aspects of the book or things to be gained from reading it:
Firstly, it is recognised as a classic of English literature, which is easily a good enough reason to read it.
Secondly, I found it was a very good way to learn meanings of unusual and archaic words, using the built-in dictionary on my iPad, and it felt like an achievement to get used to reading prose from the early eighteenth century.
Third, although the quality of the writing isn't exactly striking, there were some quite humourous passages, such as the tales of the Laputian "Projectors'" foolish experimental "Academy", which was, according to Wikipedia, the first time society's pursuit of goals through science had been satirised. I couldn't help thinking of tech start-up bubbles in the modern world — the "next world-conquering social network", World of Warcraft, Second Life and so on, and legions of hopeful investors (often) wasting money in droves. Of course, scientific research has proved to be one of mankind's greatest strengths, but Swift's absurd scientific scenarios are one of the book's highlights.
Lastly, some of the ideas about government are thought-provoking, and chime with still-relevant discussions today. There is sometimes pleasure in the book's slanting approach to these ideas.
Now, on to the (longer) negative side:
Firstly, a matter (possibly) of taste, or fashion: much of the writing is unpleasantly and pointlessly scatological; I couldn't help believing Swift was probably a rather unpleasant, bitter man when his writing needed to stoop to unnecessarily filthy levels to make it's point.
Second, many 'practical' problems of believability with the outlandish worlds mean much of the novel is too far removed from what an educated reader could, in my opinion, allow him or herself to imagine. None of it "rings true" in the mind, and I say this as someone who finds it relatively easy to believe in fictional stories. Compare and contrast modern science fiction writers such as Iain M. Banks, John Wyndham or the great Arthur C. Clarke, and the somewhat earlier H.G. Wells: their worlds seem far more believable, and are really beautifully described, too. If there were some purple descriptive passages or exciting drama in Gulliver's Travels, this "credulity deficit" would be more forgiveable. However, it's fascinating to ponder whether an educated reader in Swift's day would have been able to suspend disbelief and would have had a better experience by doing so.
Thirdly, the narration itself is plodding and dull, with a near-complete absence of descriptive passages, dialogue, or any emotional content whatsoever. Swift has Gulliver go some way to explain this in the concluding chapter by claiming the plainness and simplicity is necessary to avoid accusations of lying against Captain Gulliver, but on this evidence it's easy to doubt that our eighteenth century churchman was capable of writing a really captivating narrative: he seems to be making a feeble and transparent excuse for the lack of colour in his writing. Yet I do feel he probably was a sensitive man (if bitter) who did feel strongly against injustice and wastefulness, and (who knows?) perhaps was tormented by the impossibility of changing things for the better. But since I know very little history of the period, the last part is pure speculation. Perhaps, in the same way that music evolves over time to become a more and more expressive medium, so does fiction, and therefore good novels are simply better nowadays.
Finally, I really did wonder if there was a positive goal to the satire, or whether Swift just wanted to let off steam in a 'clever' way. It's a profoundly depressing story for anyone who likes humanity, with an atmosphere of negativity throughout. I read (Wikipedia again) that it was very popular on it's release, and obviously it still is, relatively so, all these years later. But it's so hard to make satire that is positive, and it feels clunky now compared with the sharp, hilarious incisiveness of BBC's HIGNIFY and The News Quiz, as well as Private Eye.
To conclude, I would advise anyone who hasn't read Gulliver's Travels to do so when they can, but it doesn't need to be at the top of your reading list unless you have a special reason for it.
The Valley of Fear -  Arthur Conan Doyle A good, at times gripping, story featuring the famous detective and the first (brief) mentions of Moriarty, his arch-enemy. As with most of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, I was disappointed by what I feel is a certain blankness (characters and locations often not adequately described, and a general pulp fiction sort of vibe). However, some of this impression could be a product of my own ignorance of the language and history of the Victorian times in which the stories were set — while reading them, I often wish I had had the opportunity to take part in some immersive Victorian 'event' as part of my education. There is actually a yearly Dickens festival in a town not far from me where much of the town is said to get in dress and character, so maybe that's something I should try. On the other hand, it might be the twee-est festival in southern England.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second, and there were plenty of quotable paragraphs sprinkled throughout, signifying that, while this isn't literature, it's at least intelligent writing worth reading.
The Hound of the Baskervilles -  Arthur Conan Doyle I get a strange feeling when reading Sherlock Holmes novels. The shock value or exoticism of the crimes is so tame by today's high standards, the attitudes of the main protagonists so irritatingly Victorian, and the language used so old-fashioned and stiff (for the most part) that I find myself wondering whether the stories aren't just a bit pointless today, except as novels to be studied for their prominent role in the history of crime fiction and influence on forensic investigation (though my own meagre research hasn't shown any confirmed influence on forensics). To me, the mental challenge of trying to solve the mysteries is made almost infinitely harder by my unfamiliarity with Victorian Britain (admittedly, my own shortcoming) and I suspect the solutions are made excessively abstruse so Holmes' brilliance can be played up to maximum effect. A real-life academic once estimated Holmes' IQ to be 190, so I can feel a little vindicated. Furthermore, Conan Doyle assumes such a familiarity with London on the reader's part that the (beautiful and atmospheric) extended descriptions are saved only for the more unusual locations, such as Dartmoor and Baskerville Hall in this story. There is also a sort of blankness to the characters, with very little attention paid to their faces, clothes, and general appearance, and they show a disappointing lack of psychological credibility.

The world of the Sherlock Holmes novels is incredibly dated technologically and socially, seeming even much more so in 2012 than it would have done twenty-five years ago. This shouldn't matter, because Conan Doyle could hardly have helped when he was born, but somehow it does. Crime and policing has moved on, and we now have a wealth of superb detective fiction, TV series and films, what with the "Nordic noir" renaissance, and the BBC series Silent Witness and Waking the Dead. The dated feel would matter less if Conan Doyle had put his heart and soul into the novels, packing them full of profound insight about criminal psychology and the human condition that could still teach modern readers something useful, but I don't think that that is the kind of writer he was. The stories are basically light fiction novels told with flair and wit, and with a truly original idea for the central character. As such I recommend them to serious detective fiction aficionados or those fascinated by Victorian Britain only. If you want to read Conan Doyle, try The Lost World, in my opinion a much better adventure than any of the Holmes stories I've read and one of my favourite books of all time.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery - Alan Bradley Flavia reminded me of myself at her age (not that I knew as much as her, but I was a precocious science whiz with a sense of adventure). I loved this book, with its combination of light-hearted wit, imaginative storyline, and memorable characters and interrelationships. There is a dark side to some of the writing and relationships (Flavia's unhealthy interest in poisons and her filial quarrels with her sisters) that gives the story a satisfyingly realistic aspect, even though the outlandish plot is clearly in the 'entertainment' category of detective fiction (a good thing, as I presume the novel is aimed at "Young Adults"). There are some thought-provoking and challenging discussion points at the back for school or book club readers.
The Sign of Four -  Arthur Conan Doyle A far less engaging mystery than A Study in Scarlet, with a ridiculous love story to boot, this Holmes novel is too dated to be enjoyable today. While there are three or four memorablly quotable short passages during the first ten chapters or so of the book, and the way Bartholomew Sholto discovers the treasure is inventive, the depiction of India is racist and virtually the whole story failed to excite any emotion in me other than distaste, and certainly not a redeeming intellectual interest. The descriptive writing is maddeningly run-of-the-mill (by Conan Doyle's standards), and the supporting cast, including the diaphonous dress-wearing Miss Morstan, are crudely drawn and stereotypical. It even feels like Watson and Holmes' parts were written without enthusiasm from the author.