Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 


A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood

The living-room is dark and low-ceilinged, with bookshelves all along the wall opposite the windows. These books have not made George nobler or better or more truly wise. It is just that he likes listening to their voices, the one or the other, according to his mood.


Christopher Isherwood - A Single Man 

Booklikes-Opoly - BrokenTune's Game Updates

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood

July 23rd:


Ongoing Free Friday read: Angels in America


Bank account: $199

Dice roll:



4 6

Timestamp: 2017-07-23 01:04:38 UTC


....which takes me to: "Water Works" Sq. 23 - Read a book with water on the cover, or where someone turns on the waterworks (i.e., cries) because of an emotional event.



I am not sure about whether there is crying in this book, but the chances are that there is, so I am going for Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man. I love the film but never got around to read the book, yet.


-read more-

Around the World in 80 Days

Round The World In Eighty Days - John Kennett

"A true Englishman doesn't joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager," replied Phileas Fogg, solemnly.

With this we're off to the one of the best adventure stories... And no matter how often I read this book, I still get excited about whether they will make it back to the Reform Club in time. 


Anyway, while Phileas Fogg is of course the originator of the bet and the driving force behind the trip. Having meticulously planned the route and conveyances that would allow him to circumnavigate the world, of course nothing goes to plan...


Verne's writing is fantastic in this one, because it is both funny, sensitive, and informative, and you just want to be on that trip.


But the absolute best part of the book is Fogg's man Passepartout. 

Passepartout was by no means one of those pert dunces depicted by Moliere with a bold gaze and a nose held high in the air; he was an honest fellow, with a pleasant face, lips a trifle protruding, soft-mannered and serviceable, with a good round head, such as one likes to see on the shoulders of a friend.

He is the absolute hero of the story even though the original meeting between Fogg and Passepartou indicates that he had other plans for his time in Fogg's employment:

"You are a Frenchman, I believe," asked Phileas Fogg, "and your name is John?" "Jean, if monsieur pleases," replied the newcomer, "Jean Passepartout, a surname which has clung to me because I have a natural aptness for going out of one business into another. I believe I'm honest, monsieur, but, to be outspoken, I've had several trades. I've been an itinerant singer, a circus-rider, when I used to vault like Leotard, and dance on a rope like Blondin. Then I got to be a professor of gymnastics, so as to make better use of my talents; and then I was a sergeant fireman at Paris, and assisted at many a big fire. But I quitted France five years ago, and, wishing to taste the sweets of domestic life, took service as a valet here in England. Finding myself out of place, and hearing that Monsieur Phileas Fogg was the most exact and settled gentleman in the United Kingdom, I have come to monsieur in the hope of living with him a tranquil life, and forgetting even the name of Passepartout."

Such a great read.

Reading progress update: I've read 6%.

Round The World In Eighty Days - John Kennett

He lived alone, and, so to speak, outside of every social relation; and as he knew that in this world account must be taken of friction, and that friction retards, he never rubbed against anybody.

Oh, Jules...

Queen Lucia

Queen Lucia - E.F. Benson, Wanda McCaddon

The ruler of Riseholme, happier than he of Russia, had no need to fear the finger of Bolshevism writing on the wall, for there was not in the whole of that vat which seethed so pleasantly with culture, one bubble of revolutionary ferment. Here there was neither poverty nor discontent nor muttered menace of any upheaval: Mrs Lucas, busy and serene, worked harder than any of her subjects, and exercised an autocratic control over a nominal democracy.

Late to the party, but I only recently discovered the 2014 Mapp & Lucia tv series with Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor - it was hilarious. I know there is an earlier version with Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales but that one never grabbed my interest.


Anyway, I am on a mission to read some of the original books that the series is based on and Queen Lucia is the first one of the set.


Now, if you look at the 2.5* rating you might think that I did not like the book, but that is not exactly true. I did like the book: the slow pace and very subtle humor, the caricature of a group of characters who are doomed to be outpaced by the world and yet cling to their own idea of it. It is a book full of delicate deliciousness.


But,...I could not help but compare it to P.G. Wodehouse - and Queen Lucia just lacks all bite when compared with any of the characters in the Jeeves and Wooster novels.

Maybe the comparison is not warranted or even unfair - as a book shouldn't be compared with a contemporary for merit - but I was distracted by my wish to be reading Wodehouse instead.


The other thing is that Queen Lucia needs an equal counterpart like Miss Mapp, but Miss Mapp does not appear until later in the series.


So, while it was a light and enjoyable read to get to know the characters of Lucia and Georgie - and the world they inhabit - there was just something missing in this first book in the series.


I look forward to the next book in this series.



BL-Opoly Free Friday Read #4: Angels in America

Angels in America - Tony Kushner

For my new Free Friday read, I am going to pick Angels in America:


America in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell.,


The play is currently being performed at the NT (Lyttelton Theatre) in London and is being broadcast live across some cinemas. 


I, unfortunately, missed Part I last night as I had to work late, but am hoping to catch Part II next week. 


(Just to clarify: I have the paperback at home and am planning to read this before going to see Part II. I was going to see Part I first and then read the script, but that obviously didn't work out.)

The Log from the Sea of Cortez

The Log from the Sea of Cortez - John Steinbeck

Late, late in the night we recalled that Horace says fried shrimps and African snails will cure a hangover. Neither was available.

I called a stop to this @ 63%. I skim read to the end to see if the log ever changes into something that has a structure - or a point.


It may be that I am not in the right mood for this book, but from everything I have read, I get the impression that to be in the right frame of mind to read this book I would have to be on that boat, with a beer (not the first of the day), and develop a sudden liking for pointless meandering, unsubstantiated general philosophising, and killing things just to collect them. 


And I just can't.

Reading progress update: I've read 32%.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez - John Steinbeck

This is nowhere near as interesting as I first thought. :(

Reading progress update: I've read 17%.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez - John Steinbeck

The medical kit had been given a good deal of thought. There were nembutal, butesin picrate for sunburn, a thousand two-grain quinine capsules, two-percent mercuric oxide salve for barnacle cuts, cathartics, ammonia, mercurochrome, iodine, alcaroid, and, last, some whisky for medicinal purposes. This did not survive our leave-taking, but since no one was ill on the whole trip, it may have done its job very well.

Steinbeck cracks me up. Here we have a book about a scientific expedition but he still injects some fun in it. So far, the science bits have been speculation and conjecture, but at the end of the day, Steinbeck was more of a poet than a marine biologist. Unlike Thoreau, tho, he knows it, too,

The Invention of Nature - Reading Update: Part 5

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

I am a little sad.


This was a fascinating book, and I loved the chapter that described the last years in Humboldt's life and the political changes that he was surrounded by, even tho for Humboldt the novelty of revolution had worn off because he had seen and been in the midst of so many of them.


As for the remaining chapters on Perkins, Haeckel, and John Muir, I am in two minds: We did not really need them to understand Humboldt and his times. But, they do illustrate - again - the far-reaching impact Humboldt and his work have had on a future generation that would lead to the birth of environmentalism. 


I appreciate the link that Wulf creates between the extraordinary Humboldt and the subsequent discussions that are still current affairs more than I criticise Wulf for meandering a little in the last three chapters


What a book! What a guy!

The Invention of Nature - Reading Update: Part 4

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

At the end of July, more than three months after leaving Berlin, Humboldt reached Tobolsk – 1,800 miles from St Petersburg and the most easterly point on the prescribed route – but it was still not wild enough for his taste. Humboldt had not come this far only to have to turn around. He had other plans. Instead of travelling back to St Petersburg as previously agreed, Humboldt now ignored Cancrin’s instructions and added a detour of 2,000 miles. He wanted see the Altai Mountains in the east where Russia, China and Mongolia met, as the counterpart to his observations in the Andes. As he had failed to see the Himalaya, the Altai was as close as he could get to collecting data from a mountain range in Central Asia.

I'm finding it hard to put this book down. He is such an unlikely rebel, and yet...he gets away with it.


Having been denied access to the Himalayas by the East India Company, and having returned to Berlin, Humboldt is dying to get out again.


I was so relieved when I read about his travels through Russia. Not only because the parts where he travels have been my favourites of the book, but also because I really hate seeing him cooped up.


And of course there several passages where I caught my breath, most notably where he basically upsets Cancrin, the czar's official delegate, by wanting to see the true living conditions of the eastern peasants and, the second, where he is so set on reaching his destination (also against the will of Cancrin) that he rode straight through a region plagued with an anthrax epidemic. Anthrax!!! WTF, Alex?

"As they sat in silence, hot and cramped behind tightly shut windows in their small carriages, they passed through a landscape of death. The ‘traces of the pest’ were everywhere, Humboldt’s companion Gustav Rose noted in his diary. Fires burned at the entrances and exits of the villages as a ritual to ‘clean the air’. They saw small makeshift hospitals and dead animals lying in the fields. In one small village alone, 500 horses had died."

I guess the views would have have been worth it:



As for the other parts, I enjoyed learning about how much Humboldt had influenced Darwin. I had never expected this.


I am, however, puzzled by the chapter about Thoreau. Not only was this the least interesting to me, but I found the description of Thoreau quite annoying.


While Humboldt and Darwin were scientists who were able to write well, Thoreau merely strikes me as a - somewhat lofty and self-indulgent - writer, but not really a scientist.

What was the point of including this chapter other than to illustrate Humboldt's influence across several continents?

The Dinosaur Hunters

The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World (Text Only Edition) - Deborah Cadbury

‘Let us not search further for the mythological animals,’ said Cuvier. ‘The mantichore or destroyer of men which carries a human head on a lion’s body terminating in a scorpion’s tail, or the guardian of treasures, the Griffin, half eagle– half lion … Nature could not combine such impossible features.’ The teeth and jaws of a lion, for example, could only belong to a creature that possessed the other attributes of a powerful carnivore, a muscular frame and skeleton that would confer enormous strength. The Sphinx of Thebes, the Pegasus of Thessaly, the Minotaur of Crete, mermaids – those half-women half-fish that lured sailors to their death with the sweetness of their song – were all myths that crumbled under Cuvier’s scientific scrutiny. ‘These fantastic compositions may be recovered among ruins,’ he said, ‘but they certainly do not represent real beings.’

The Natural History Museum in London is one of my favourite places. It is an amazing building that houses one of the most comprehensive collection of exhibits chronicling the natural history of the world. It is one of those places that makes you think about something new every time you visit.


But the museum does not only house history - the museum itself came about as the result of the endeavours of Britain most influential scientist of his time: Richard Owen.


The Dinosaur Hunters tells the story of the early days of paleontology and how the hunt for fossils led to the emergence of new ways of thinking about the world.

The book starts off with the story of Mary Anning, who was the extraordinary woman from Lyme Regis that found some of the fossils that sparked the discussions about pre-historic life.



Two of Anning's most famous finds were an ichtyosaur and a pleisiosaur. The pleisiosaur, was the one that caused the biggest stir as the most famous scientist of her time, Georges Cuvier, claimed it to be a scam at first. He later had to reverse his position and give credit to Anning for finding a hitherto unknown species.


I'm a big fan of Anning ever since reading Remarkable Creatures, and was delighted to read more of her story - especially more referenced factual accounts - in The Dinosaur Hunters.


Having laid the foundations with the story of Anning and Cuvier, Cadbury goes into the main part of the story - the rise of Richard Owen, who came from a humble background (compared to some of his competitors) and managed to "work" his way to the top of the scientific society. 


I'll use the word "work" with reservations.


Owen's story is told by way of contrasting his life's story to the biography of another naturalist - Gideon Mantell.


A contemporary of Mary Anning, Mantell was a young geologist who caused quite a stir with his


"romantic description of ‘former worlds’ buried in the rock. Each stratum enveloped evidence of a vanished existence, and the geologist could ‘begin to fathom the different revolutions which had swept over the earth in ages antecedent to all human record or tradition’."

At a time when most scientific societies and universities in the UK were linked to or governed by men of the church, Mantell's ambition to ‘to unveil God’s secrets … and unravel the mysteries of the beautiful world through which he was destined to pass’ did not meet with much enthusiasm. It was only on Cuvier's enthusiasm that Mantell found access to the scientific community in London, where he a developed a professional rivalry with a young and ambitious Richard Owen over the classification of a new find of fossils which Mantell had discovered and which he referred to as that of a megalodon or iguanosaur.


And here is where the book turns to Owen:

"For Owen they embodied a form where the ‘Reptilian type of structure made the nearest approach to Mammals’. He decided they needed a special name, in recognition.


Over the next few weeks he discussed possible names with geological friends and philologists. Keen to capture the characteristics that set these beasts apart from any that had ever existed, he seized upon the idea of using the Greek words deinos, meaning ‘terrible’ or ‘fearfully great’, and sauros, meaning ‘lizard’. Deinos, a word used by Homer, also implies ‘inconceivable’, ‘unknowable’.

Back in his study in the Royal College of Surgeons, he added these observations to his report of the previous August.


The combination of such characters, some, as the sacral ones, altogether peculiar among Reptiles, others borrowed, as it were, from groups now distinct from each other, and all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or suborder of Saurian Reptiles for which I would propose the name of ‘Dinosauria’.


In these few words, as he quietly redrafted his paper on that fateful afternoon, Richard Owen sealed the fate of Gideon Mantell. In this giant conceptual leap as he defined the characteristics of his ‘Dinosauria’, he cast the spotlight on his brilliance at interpreting the fossil record. Although Mantell had known of the existence of fossil reptiles for years, in coining the term ‘dinosaur’, and presenting them as a distinct group of the most advanced reptiles that had ever lived, Owen was to receive the credit for their discovery."

Owen never made any attempts to correct this. He took credit for Mantell's discovery and even copied parts of Mantell's mistakes into his own publications.


While this discovery firmly established Owen as the ‘the English Cuvier’, Mantell suffered a number of personal tragedies, and while he continued to his scientific work (on top of his medical practice, which paid the bills but failed) he was never able to discredit Owen or eclipse him.


As if it had not been enough for Owen to claim credit, for Mantell's work, he also made every effort to destroy him professionally. Not only during Mantell's life time, but also after his death (from a broken back which was misdiagnosed as a tumor).

"Owen’s own reputation was secure. He was, rightly, acknowledged as Britain’s foremost anatomist and an international authority in his field. Yet unlike Mantell, who had been compelled to earn his living as a country doctor, Owen had been fortunate enough to be able to devote his working life to the subject he loved.

By the time of Mantell’s death, Owen’s breadth and depth of knowledge of anatomy far surpassed Mantell’s.

Yet Owen’s achievements and international acclaim seemed to unleash an even greater, almost fanatical, egoism and a callous delight in savaging his critics. Although Mantell’s legacy posed no threat to Owen’s eminence, his death provided an opportunity for him to display a sadistic streak that was needlessly channelled into crushing Mantell’s reputation."

Owen, however, was not only a plagiarist but also a historical revisionist.

He was also a coward.

When Darwin published The Origin of Species, he

"was extremely anxious to know what position Richard Owen would take on his ideas. Even friends of the family wrote to enquire about Owen’s verdict. ‘Dead against us, I fear,’ Darwin replied. To his relief, Owen’s immediate reaction was not hostile, but ambiguous to the point of even seeming favourable."

However, he soon after changed his mind when it became evident that Darwin's work caused excitement and discussion within the scientific community that posed a threat to Owen's own fame. Owen finally settled to pursue a line of creationism and set out to discredit Darwing, just as he had done with Mantell.

"Darwin was worried. He considered Owen’s review highly damaging. As a close friend of Prince Albert, and embraced by the powerful Anglican hierarchy, Owen was a powerful enemy. ‘It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me,’ Darwin wrote to a friend; ‘the Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book has been talked about.’ Even though Owen was not a Creationist the sides became polarised, with Darwin and his supporters, ‘the Devil’s Disciples’ Huxley and Hooker, standing in opposition to Owen, who was trying to uphold traditional values.


Their ideological clash came to a head on Saturday 30 June 1860. It took place in Oxford, the home of the clergy and the chosen site for the annual meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Only twenty years previously Richard Owen had been the undisputed star of the organisation, the chosen protégé of the BAAS. Now, according to the legend in part created by the Darwinian camp, the BAAS meeting was to prove a decisive turning-point for the supporters of the old order. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce – uncharitably nicknamed ‘Soapy Sam’ – was due to talk on botany and zoology. Professor John Draper, of New York University, had been invited to lecture on Darwinism. Richard Owen, who had stayed with the Bishop the night before, was widely believed to have crammed him ‘up to the throat’ with the best arguments against Darwin. Rumours were flying that the Bishop intended to ‘smash Darwin’. This was to be an ‘open clash between Science and the Church’. Almost a thousand people crowded into the library to witness the fight. Darwin himself was too sick to attend."

The open clash escalated caused years of open debate and attack. What Owen had ignored at his peril was that Darwin had support that Mantell did not have. And this support set out to take apart Owen's own theories one by one. And in an ironic turn of events, they started to dismantle Owen's influence and memory.


So, while the Natural History Museum originally featured a statue of its founder, Richard Owen, today's main hall prominently features the famous statue of Darwin. Owen is still there, but he is hidden in one of the wings.

Serves him right.


This was a fascinating book which combined biography with the wider social and political context. The only slight problem I had with it is that the story jumped back and forth somewhat and that some of the descriptions were quite long.



Game, Set and Murder

Game, Set and Murder: A Mystery For Di Costello - Elizabeth Flynn

Petar Belic raised his racquet high in the air, his body arched back in the service motion recognizable to thousands of tennis fans around the world. His long, evenly tanned legs stretched upwards taking his feet off the ground. The sun glinted on his gold bracelet as his arm came over his head. His opponent had just enough time to register that it was going to be a smash as the racquet bore down. A nanosecond later the ball whizzed past him in a fluorescent yellow blur, crashed onto the service line and bounced out of court.

Oh, this book had so much promise...and then it caught the net a few times and slowly double-faulted its way to end. No tie break, no deuce, it just fizzled out.


I'm sorry, I just had to. It's the Wimbledon finals weekend and this book was just so lame. The only other thing more disappointing this morning was that my tv (or rather my freesat box) kicked the bucket - which means I have an hour to find a new one or watch the men's final at either a friends or at the tennis club...


Back to the book: the writing was lame, there was no atmosphere, and the D.I. dealing with the case was new in the job and pandered to constant patronising by her colleagues. Blergh.


What was the point that killed it off completely was the pretty huge mistake at the very end of the book where the solution is presented.


Stealing a diabetic's insulin will not give them a hypo. Pretty much the reverse actually. Diabetic coma induced by skyrocketing bloodsugar levels perhaps, but not a hypo.

The Invention of Nature - Reading Update: Part 3

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

Part III - Sorting Ideas - tells about Humboldt's return to Europe, where he is received as a hero. At the same time, tho, Europe is in the middle of drastic changes brought on by the Napoleonic Wars.


Also on a personal level, Humboldt has to make adjustments as he is basically broke and needs to take on "a real job". 


I must say I really like how Wulf contrasts this part of the book with the previous part that was all about the big adventure. In this part, we can literally feel how Humboldt is slowly suffocated by the demands of living in a society that has so many demands on him. 


He's trying to spread knowledge of his discoveries and further his cause (to learn more about the world and then share it with the scientific community) but politics are now a major stumbling block.


He was just too far ahead, too egalitarian, and too liberal for his time!


Who'd have guessed Humboldt fell out with Napoleon???

Who'd have guessed Humboldt's reputation as a rebel would deny him access to India?

Who'd have guessed Humboldt was considered a rebel?


That part can't have been that easy for his brother to deal with, either, seeing that he was a Prussian diplomat.


What is most impressive and even whiplash inducing to just read about, tho, is how crazy busy Humboldt kept himself. He was like a squirrel on speed running from one appointment to the next, always on the go, attending up to five different salons per night on several days of the week. 


By the end of this part of the book, I can understand why he was longing to travel again. It seems that his mind is more focused and he is more at ease when he is off exploring.

Nonfiction Science Book Club Reading List

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements - Sam Kean Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime - Val McDermid Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution - Rebecca Stott
Reblogged from Themis-Athena's Garden of Books:

You may have seen MbD's posts on the new nonfiction book club and the suggestions for future reads floating down the dashboard in the last couple of days:


There's now a list containing all the books that have been suggested so far:


The discussion group is currently still named for the buddy read that inspired it, "The Invention of Nature" -- the group page is here:


-- and the corresponding book club page is here:


Do take a look and see if you'd be interested in joining!

Reading progress update: I've read 372 out of 372 pages.

The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World (Text Only Edition) - Deborah Cadbury

So, Richard Owen, the driving force behind the creation of one of my favourite places (the Natural History Museum in London), was one arrogant, self-aggrandising, jealous, plagiarising, credit-stealing, ... arsehole.


Good book, tho.


Full review to come later. Right now all I can do is swear at Owen.


I read this for BL-Opoly - "Paradise Pier" Sq. 28 - Read a book that is set during Victoria's reign or that is tagged steampunk on GR."

Currently reading

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Progress: 6%
Angels in America by Tony Kushner
Progress: 22/289pages
Der Kämpfer im Vatikan: Papst Franziskus und sein mutiger Weg (German Edition) by Andreas Englisch
Progress: 77/374pages
Das Wunder des Baums by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Progress: 19/295pages