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

The Love Boat and Other Stories

The Love Boat and Other Stories - F. Scott Fitzgerald

We all have that exasperated moment!

There are times when you almost tell the harmless old lady next door  what you really think of her face - that it ought to be on a night nurse in a house for the blind; when you'd like to ask the man you've been waiting ten minutes for if he isn't all overheated from racing the postman down the block; when you nearly say to the waiter that if they deducted a cent from the bill for every degree the soup was below tepid the hotel would owe you half a dollar; when - and this is the infallible earmark of true exasperation - a smile affects you as an oil baron's undershirt affects a cow's husband.

(from The Smilers)

I may have to face it - I may have grown out of that phase when Fitzgerald's short stories were delightful, quaint, diversions. I still count some of them as my favourites, but more often than not reading his stories has become somewhat repetitive - telling fairly superficial stories about fairly superficial people, most of whom seem to be Princeton men, or Harvard men, or Yale men, or someone closely connected with them. Like the characters in Wodehouse's stories, they never develop, never amount to anything more real than a cliche.  


Unfortunately, many of Fitzgerald's short stories seem to feature them. Even more unfortunate was it that most of the stories in this particular collection featured them. 


Still, there are the odd gems. In this collection, The Smilers stood out for me. I liked it just as much as The Ice Palace, Bernice Bob's her Hair, The Camel's Back, or May Day, but sadly it was the first story in the collection and the rest of the stories did quite manage to live up to the quality of that first story.


Amberlough - Lara Elena Donnelly

On the face of it, I should love this novel: spies, cabaret, a setting that is an alternative take on the Weimar Republic... What's not to love, right?


However, the book just isn't working for me. I've tried to read this several times, but just get lost in the endless names and descriptions that seem to lead nowhere.


This morning, I spent a good hour and a half trying one last time if there was a way to get into the story, but all I am left with is a hankering for some original1920s/30s literature with its roots firmly placed in the Weimar Republic.


I'm not rating the book. I have a clear suspicion that it is not the book's fault that I prefer something closer to a feeling of authenticity than a pastiche any day.

The Double Helix

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA - James D. Watson

Gossip, backstabbing, petty squabbles, arrogance, snobbishness, and misogyny take a front row seat in this personal account of how the double helix structure of DNA was discovered. 


I expected more from Watson's book. 


And then there is the question about Rosalind Franklin's contribution to the discovery.


While Watson does spend some time in the epilogue to credit Franklin for her work on the subject, it seems too little, too late. He spends the entire book painting her as an uncooperative, dour, argumentative, bossy, frump with an "acid smile" in a career mostly reserved for unattractive women who have little chance of catching a husband. (He actually introduces her in the book in almost exactly those terms.)


Oh, and there is little explanation of the structure of DNA itself. It really is more of an account of his thoughts on girls, stomach pains, and on the personal lives of people Watson encountered when working on the project. 

Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor - John le Carré

Our kind of Traitor starts with a young couple on holiday in Antigua, who are introduced by the resident tennis pro to a man called Dima.

Little do they know that a random (or is it?) acquaintance at a tennis court will change their lives.

The next thing we know is that the couple is being interviewed by the Secret Service about every detail of their meeting with Dima. 


Without taking away much of the plot - which is rather thin as it is - there were elements of this book that reminded me of The Russia House, which in my estimation is still the best le Carre book I have read. And this is probably the most flattering thing I can say about Our Kind of Traitor.


However, those elements were far and few between. 


I liked the writing and the jumping from one perspective to another, but the story dragged. Badly. There is little gripping action in this - tho, if you're looking for action, don't pick up le Carre in the first place - and the suspense is mostly built on the question of whether the "transaction" will be made or not. This is not a lot to go on over 300 pages.


The description of how the characters change over the course of the events helps with the lack of plot, and le Carre's characters themselves are infinitely more rounded and enjoyable than those of many other spy thrillers, but, overall, this was not as satisfying a read as The Constant Gardner, The Russia House, The Tailor of Panama, or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (I'm not a huge fan of the Smiley series...)

The Science of Everyday Life

The Science of Everyday Life - Marty Jopson

I had started this book with the intention to comment on each chapter - or part, as each section contained smaller chapters on the various topics of the book - but as so often, I ended up finishing the book before I could summarise my notes for each part. 


I much enjoyed the buddy read of this with Murder by Death, who is infinitely more patient with books than I am. Unlike her, I am not just a bit biased by my admiration for Helen Czerski's Storm in a Teacup, I fully enjoyed - and have no regrets - about Storm in a Teacup spoiling Marty Jopson's attempt here at making science accessible to the general reader. 

It is not that The Science of Everyday Life was a bad book - it wasn't! - it is just that the brevity of descriptions and eclectic selection of topics really makes an entertaining introduction to science for people who think they don't like or want to know about science. I am just not Jopson's target reader here. (But I am, evidently, Czerski's target audience.)

For what it is, tho, Jopson does an excellent job at showing how science is the basis of everything around us - from the colour of autumn foliage to the workings of toothpaste to why sheep don't shrink in the rain (despite wearing woolly jumpers) and why people shrivel up in the bathtub.

Each topic is explained just briefly enough to gather interest but not leave you bored with pages and pages of explanation.


Again, I wish there had been more explanation and connection between the topics, but this was not in the scope of this book.


I should add, tho, that there was one chapter that left me baffled and criticising its content - the part about the boomerang did nothing for me. I could not follow the description of the experiment and could not understand the explanation that was offered for how a boomerang works. I had to google the answer and explanation here.

Reading progress update: I've read 103 out of 307 pages.

Our Kind of Traitor - John le Carré

This reminds me of The Russia House, but it is not drawing me in as completely as TRH. Also, I could really do with a catalyst to the plot right now. 


Saying that, I love the parallel plot telling of the relationship between Perry and Gail.

Reading progress update: I've read 228 out of 414 pages.

The Longest Journey - E.M. Forster

Funny, I've just been pondering my issues with Heidegger's praise of tradition and nationalism (inspired by MbD's post), when Forster offers his mockery of the same - 20 years before the publication of Being and Time:


‘Yes. Tradition is of incalculable value. And I envy those schools that have a natural connection with the past. Of course Sawston has a past, though not of the kind that you quite want. The sons of poor tradesmen went to it at first. So wouldn’t its traditions be more likely to linger in the Commercial School?’ he concluded nervously.

‘You have a great deal to learn – a very great deal. Listen to me. Why has Sawston no traditions?’ His round, rather foolish, face assumed the expression of a conspirator. Bending over the mutton, he whispered, ‘I can tell you why. Owing to the day-boys. How can traditions flourish in such soil? Picture the day-boy’s life – at home for meals, at home for preparation, at home for sleep, running home with every fancied wrong. There are day-boys in your class, and, mark my words, they will give you ten times as much trouble as the boarders – late, slovenly, stopping away at the slightest pretext. And then the letters from the parents! “Why has my boy not been moved this term?” “Why has my boy been moved this term?” “I am a dissenter, and do not wish my boy to subscribe to the school mission.” “Can you let my boy off early to water the garden?” Remember that I have been a day-boy housemaster, and tried to infuse some esprit de corps into them. It is practically impossible. They come as units, and units they remain. 

Worse. They infect the boarders. Their pestilential, critical, discontented attitude is spreading over the school. If I had my own way—’

He stopped somewhat abruptly.

‘Was that why you laughed at their singing?’

‘Not at all. Not at all. It is not my habit to set one section of the school against the other.’ After a little they went the rounds. The boys were in bed now. ‘Good night!’ called Herbert, standing in the corridor of the cubicles, and from behind each of the green curtains came the sound of a voice replying, ‘Good night, sir!’ ‘Good night,’ he observed into each dormitory. Then he went to the switch in the passage and plunged the whole house into darkness.

Rickie lingered behind him, strangely impressed. In the morning those boys had been scattered over England, leading their own lives. Now, for three months, they must change everything – see new faces, accept new ideals. They, like himself, must enter a beneficent machine, and learn the value of esprit de corps. Good luck attend them – good luck and a happy release. For his heart would have them not in these cubicles and dormitories, but each in his own dear home, amongst faces and things that he knew. Next morning, after chapel, he made the acquaintance of his class. Towards that he felt very differently. Esprit de corps was not expected of it. It was simply two dozen boys who were gathered together for the purpose of learning Latin.


I have the sad feeling that the MC, Rickie, will eventually be ground down by the institutionalism he's opposing.


The Longest Journey - E.M. Forster

Forster's description of rain:

THE RAIN TILTED A LITTLE FROM the south-west. For the most part it fell from a gray cloud silently, but now and then the tilt increased, and a kind of sigh passed over the country as the drops lashed the walls, trees, shepherds, and other motionless objects that stood in their slanting career. At times the cloud would descend and visibly embrace the earth, to which it had only sent messages; and the earth itself would bring forth clouds – clouds of a whiter breed – which formed in the shallow valleys and followed the courses of the streams. It seemed the beginning of life. Again God said, ‘Shall we divide the waters from the land or not? Was not the firmament labour and glory sufficient?’ At all events it was the beginning of life pastoral, behind which imagination cannot travel.

Yet complicated people were getting wet – not only the shepherds. For instance, the piano-tuner was sopping. So was the vicar’s wife. So were the lieutenant and the peevish damsels in his Battlesden car. Gallantry, charity, and art pursued their various missions, perspiring and muddy, while out on the slopes beyond them stood the eternal man and the eternal dog, guarding eternal sheep until the world is vegetarian.




I'm sure it cannot be an accident that he chose a pastoral scene that could be straight out of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. 


Let me just say that this book is a treat for me. I love discovering why I love Forster all over again. 


‘My farm is a mystery to me,’ said the lady, stroking her fingers. ‘Some day you must really take me to see it. It must be like a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, with a chorus of agitated employers. How is it that I have escaped? Why have I never been summoned to milk the cows, or flay the pigs, or drive the young bullocks to the pasture?’

He looked at her with astonishingly blue eyes – the only dry things he had about him. He could not see into her: she would have puzzled an older and a cleverer man. He may have seen round her.

Reading progress update: Part 3 - Marvels of Science Around the House

The Science of Everyday Life - Marty Jopson

This Part included the following sections:


- Lighting up slowly (lightbulbs)*

- End over end down the stairs (slinkies)

- Machines that can see in the dark

- Making glass one-way

- Disappearing down the plughole left and right

- Einstein, relativity and your phone*

- Different flavours of smoke alarm*

- The vanishing transistor and Moore's law*

- Wobbly crystals in your clock

- When batteries die*

- Bursting your bubble

- Bottled clothing

- Non-shrinking sheep

- Fresh air really is good for you


I really liked this part of the book, especially the parts with a *. 


The non-shrinking sheep had me at the title of the section but it turned out to nothing new. Still credit to Jopson for including sheep. :D


As with the other chapters before, there is nothing really new in these parts but some of Jopson's explanations worked really well for me. 

Reading progress update: I've read 122 out of 414 pages.

The Longest Journey - E.M. Forster

Forster on friendship -


In theory:

He was thinking of the irony of friendship – so strong it is, and so fragile. We fly together, like straws in an eddy, to part in the open stream. Nature has no use for us: she has cut her stuff differently. Dutiful sons, loving husbands, responsible fathers – these are what she wants, and if we are friends it must be in our spare time.


- And through his characters:




Dear Rickie,


I would rather write, and you can guess what kind of letter this is when I say it is a fair copy: I have been making rough drafts all the morning. When I talk I get angry, and also at times try to be clever – two reasons why I fail to get attention paid to me. This is a letter of the prudent sort. If it makes you break off the engagement, its work is done. You are not a person who ought to marry at all. You are unfitted in body: that we once discussed. You are also unfitted in soul: you want and you need to like many people, and a man of that sort ought not to marry. ‘You never were attached to that great sect’ who can like one person only, and if you try to enter it you will find destruction. I have read in books – and I cannot afford to despise books, they are all that I have to go by – that men and women desire different things. Man wants to love mankind; woman wants to love one man. When she has him her work is over. She is the emissary of Nature, and Nature’s bidding has been fulfilled. But man does not care a damn for Nature – or at least only a very little damn. He cares for a hundred things besides, and the more civilized he is the more he will care for these other hundred things, and demand not only a wife and children, but also friends, and work, and spiritual freedom. I believe you to be extraordinarily civilized.


Yours ever,


Shelthorpe, 9 Sawston Park Road,


Dear Ansell,


But I’m in love – a detail you’ve forgotten. I can’t listen to English Essays. The wretched Agnes may be an ‘emissary of Nature’, but I only grinned when I read it. I may be extraordinarily civilized, but I don’t feel so; I’m in love, and I’ve found a woman to love me, and I mean to have the hundred other things as well. She wants me to have them – friends, and work, and spiritual freedom, and everything. You and your books miss this, because your books are too sedate. Read poetry – not only Shelley. Understand Beatrice, and Clara Middleton, and Brünnhilde in the first scene of Götterdämmerung. Understand Goethe when he says ‘the eternal feminine leads us on’, and don’t write another English Essay.


Yours ever affectionately,




Dear Rickie,


What am I to say? ‘Understand Xanthippe and Mrs Bennet, and Elsa in the question scene of Lohengrin’? ‘Understand Euripides when he says the eternal feminine leads us a pretty dance’? I shall say nothing of the sort. The allusions in this English Essay shall not be literary. My personal objections to Miss Pembroke are as follows: (1) She is not serious. (2) She is not truthful.


Shelthorpe, 9 Sawston Park Road,


My dear Stewart,


You couldn’t know. I didn’t know for a moment. But this letter of yours is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me yet – more wonderful (I don’t exaggerate) than the moment when Agnes promised to marry me. I always knew you liked me, but I never knew how much until this letter. Up to now I think we have been too much like the strong heroes in books who feel so much and say so little, and feel all the more for saying so little. Now that’s over and we shall never be that kind of an ass again. We’ve hit – by accident – upon something permanent. You’ve writen to me, ‘I hate the woman who will be your wife’, and I write back, ‘Hate her. Can’t I love you both?’ She will never come between us, Stewart (she wouldn’t wish to, but that’s by the way), because our friendship has now passed beyond intervention. No third person could break it. We couldn’t ourselves, I fancy. We may quarrel and argue till one of us dies, but the thing is registered. I only wish, dear man, you could be happier. For me, it’s as if a light was suddenly held behind the world.




Forster really had something to say in this novel and is not holding back. Most of the people around our MC (Frederick "Rickie" Elliot) are horrible. I am not sure if Ansel is one of them or whether he really does care for Rickie but is incapable of expressing it. 


I'm also wondering if the axe that Forster is grinding is based on something personal to his life. It might be conceivable, as the MC is being attacked from all sides for his perceived short-comings (such as being sensitive), which seems to be a theme in Forster's novels. 


No doubt, I'll follow up with a Forster bio before too long.


I have both Wendy Moffat's "E.M. Forster : a new life" and Nicola Beauman's "Morgan : a biography of E.M. Forster" on order from the library. I am particularly curious about the Beauman bio, as I rather enjoy her editorial work and her Persephone Books newletters. 

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

This book. It's been such a disappointment: Not only is the title an exercise in how to cram several misrepresentations in less than ten words, but the writing style left me rather unimpressed, too. 


There is little that is new about the history contained in the book. It certainly is not a history of the world (Europe, perhaps, but the focus on the power struggles between Christianity and Islam, and later on the West v. the East, and the US against Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan does not make this a book about the history of world). It is even less a book about the Silk Roads.


If you picked this up in the hope of learning about the trade routes and the people who live or travel along them, you've picked the wrong book. 


Sure there were a few interesting snippets of history in this, but the authors choice of not going into a lot of detail and preferring to follow up events with other events without providing a lot of deliberations about the possible connections or effects, does not make for inspiring reading. Unless, that is, we are talking about the inspiration to look for other books.


Maybe the premise of the book was a little too ambitious? Maybe some editor should have pointed out some of the gaps ... or at least that the title does not reflect the content of the book?


Whatever the cause of its failings, I was hoping for a thoughtful insight into the history of the Silk Roads, but all I got from the books was what read like the work of a self-congratulatory academic who couldn't make up his mind what to write about and looked at history mostly through Union-Jack-striped goggles.


Previous Reading Updates:


Reading progress update: I've read 201 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 159 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 136 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 90 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 62 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 26 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 30 out of 414 pages.

The Longest Journey - E.M. Forster

Some people spend their lives in a suburb, and not for any urgent reason. This had been the fate of Rickie. He had opened his eyes to filmy heavens, and taken his first walk on asphalt. He had seen civilization as a row of semidetached villas, and society as a state in which men do not know the men who live next door. He had himself become part of the gray monotony that surrounds all cities. There was no necessity for this – it was only rather convenient to his father.

This should make up nicely for the rather disappointing book yesterday.


Btw, Rickie's father was awful.

He was never told anything, but he discovered for himself that his father and mother did not love each other, and that his mother was lovable. He discovered that Mr Elliot had dubbed him Rickie because he was rickety, that he took pleasure in alluding to his son’s deformity, and was sorry that it was not more serious than his own. Mr Elliot had not one scrap of genius. He gathered the pictures and the books and the flower-supports mechanically, not in any impulse of love. He passed for a cultured man because he knew how to select, and he passed for an unconventional man because he did not select quite like other people. In reality he never did or said or thought one single thing that had the slightest beauty or value. And in time Rickie discovered this as well.

The boy grew up in great loneliness.

I have a feeling that this one will not be as farcical as A Room with a View.

Reading progress update: I've read 201 out of 636 pages.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

"Merchants could be found crossing the South China Sea in ever greater numbers, establishing trading posts in Sumatra, on the Malay peninsula and above all on the Malabar coast of southern India, home to the world's great supply of pepper - long established as a favoured commodity in China as well as in Europe and elsewhere in Asia. By the middle of the fourteenth century, so many ships were sailing to towns like Calicut that some observers commented that all maritime transport and travel in this part of the Indian subcontinent was being undertaken in Chinese boats. An example of their typical flat-bottomed design has been recently identified wrecked off the coast of Kerala.

The lubricant in this long-distance trade was silver, which took on the form of a single currency across Eurasia. One reason for this was the innovation of financial credit in China that had been introduced before Genghis Khan's time, including the introduction of bills of exchange and the use of paper money. Adopted and improved by the Mongols, the effect was the liberation of enormous amounts of silver into the monetary system as new forms of credit caught on. The availability of the precious metal suddenly soared - causing a major correction in its value against gold. In parts of Europe, the value of silver plunged, losing more than half its value between 1250 and 1338. In London alone, the surge in silver supply allowed the royal mint to more than quadruple output between 1278 and 1279 alone.

Production rose sharply in Asia too. In the steppes, too, coin production took off as rulers of the Golden Horde began to strike coins in large quantities. New regions were stimulated too. Japan, which had relied heavily on barter or on payments in products such as rice as an exchange mechanism, shifted to a monetary economy and became increasingly active in long-distance trade."


And this is all that Frankopan has to say about the revolutionary introduction of a monetary system. Seriously, those three paragraphs are all there is.


He spends the next five or so pages on the effects of the Black Death on Europe. While I agree that this was a huge event changing everything, the effects of the plague in Europe are not what I look for in a book supposedly about the Silk Roads.


But who am I kidding...this book is all over the place.


Btw, guess what the next chapter is about?


Yup, Columbus and the exploration of the Americas.


This is where I am going to abandon ship. I'll skim/skip-read to end but that is it.


Reading progress update: I've read 159 out of 636 pages.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

The Crusades. Blah, blah, blah...


Why is this even in here? 

Oh, I see, that's right, the author previously wrote a book about the Crusades.


Reading progress update: I've read 136 out of 636 pages.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

"The Rus' were ruthless when it came to enslaving local populations and transporting them south. Renowned for 'their size, their physique and their bravery', the Viking Rus' had 'no cultivated fields and they live by pillaging', according to one Arabic writer. It was the local population that bore the brunt. So many were captured that the very name of those taken captive - Slavs - became used for all those who had their freedom taken away: slaves."

Right, so now the book is becoming more interesting ... and it only took 100 pages to get there. *rolls eyes*


I'm still having problems with the writing. Frankopan throws in new names and references without any explanation whatsoever. So, I've spent a fair amount of time reading this with my search engine open. 


For example, the mention of the "Rus' " in the above paragraph is the first time that he mentions them. No background is given. I am either expected to know that they are a tribe of Vikings originally based in what is now Sweden and that they had turned landward (and over time end up - apparently - founding what we later call "Russia") or I am expected to look it up.

This same thing has happened all the way through the book.

I am by no means expecting to be spoon-fed background information on everything, but other than references to literature, there are literally no footnotes in this book. It really makes for frustrating reading - and I am guessing also that this book may have made the 

bestseller lists but it probably is one that a lot of people will not actually have read after buying it. 


The last section was in fact the first section that talked about the trade network and the establishment of trade posts and routes and the impact this had on the growth of towns and cities. 

As such it was quite interesting, even tho reading about the slave trade is never easy reading.


It seems, tho, that chronologically speaking slaves were the first, ... erm, commodity ... for which there was enough demand and that made enough profit to create a thriving industry of trade.  

"Eventually, the slave trade began to dwindle - at least from eastern and central Europe. One reason for this was that the Viking Rus' shifted their focus from long-distance trafficking to to the business of protection rackets. Attention focused on the benefits that the Khazars enjoyed from the trade that passed through towns like Atil, thanks to the levies raised on all merchandise transiting Khazar territory. The famous Persian geographical treatise Hudud al-Alam states that the very basis of the Khazar economy lay in its tax revenues: 'the well-being and wealth of the king of the Khazars are mostly from maritime duties'. Other Muslim commentators repeatedly note the substantial tax receipts collected by the Khazar authorities from commercial activities - which included levies charged on inhabitants of the capital.

Inevitably, this caught the attention of the Viking Rus', as did the tribute paid to the khagan [king of the Khazars] by the various subject tribes. One by one they were picked off and their loyalties (and payments) redirected to the aggressive new overlords. By the second half of the ninth century, the Slavic tribes of central and souther Russia were not only paying tribute to the Scandinavians, but were being forbidden to make any further payments 'to the Khazars, on the grounds that there was no reason for them to pay it'. Payment was to be made to the Rus' leader instead. This mirrored practices elsewhere - such as in Ireland, where protection money gradually replaced human trafficking after being attacked year after year, records the Annals of St Bertin, the Irish agreed to make annual contributions, in return for peace."

Btw, you may have noticed that the book is still mostly about Europe. Sure the trade routes affected the Middle East and Persia, but mostly this book is not about the Silk Roads any further beyond the the Caspian Sea. I have kind of given up on reading anything about the trade or history of central, east, or south Asia.


Oh, and the next section is about the Crusades arising out of Constantinople's and the Pope's envy of the flourishing wealth in the east.

Reading progress update: I've read 90 out of 636 pages.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

So, after 40-odd pages of dense and somewhat pointless writing about about religious squabbles in the Middle East, we have now arrived at a section that seems to talk about the trade routes. Finally.


This had better be a good section because I am very tempted to DNF this sucker of a book.


Currently reading

Devil's Due by Phyllis Bottome
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