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Brian R. Martin (London, UK)
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The Fry Chronicles
The Fry Chronicles
by Stephen Fry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2.0 out of 5 stars The rarified world of Stephen Fry, 24 May 2015
This review is from: The Fry Chronicles (Paperback)
Stephen Fry, an excellent performer and anointed `National Treasure', is in love with words. This can often produce memorable phrases, and sentences of astonishing fluidity, but sometimes one has the feeling that the choice of words is more to show the reader how clever the writer is, rather than to impart knowledge, or tell a story. Some of the words casually dropped into a sentence are extraordinary, and are not even known to the online Oxford Dictionary of English (I've checked). Do they even exist? After a while, their appearance is very irritating, as are the occasional crude `sniggering schoolboy' sexual asides.

Stephen Fry is equally obsessed by himself, and much of this autobiography (calling it a `Chronicle' says much about the author) is devoted to a public analysis of his personal problems - self doubt, insecurity etc. - hardly unique to him. For someone who makes a very substantial living doing exactly what he wants to do, and enjoys the fame and luxury this brings (Aston Martin in the drive etc.) this is pure self-indulgence. The book is mainly a list of plays he has been in, stuff he has written, and remarks about his fellow actors and collaborators, from his school day onwards. Fine, what more would one expect in an autobiography? The problem here is that Fry frankly says he is not going to say anything critical about anyone, so what we get is a very bland account of his life at University, in the theatre, and in the media, full of `luvvie' comments, where no-one stabs you in the back, or even has a bad word to say about anyone else. The result is over-long and rather boring.

Stephen Fry is capable of writing much better books than this (`Moab is my Washpot' was excellent). Read those and don't waste your time with this.


The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941
The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941
by Gavin Mortimer
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars The most destructive air raid on London, 19 May 2015
I was born in East London during the first blitz in September 1940. My father was working on munitions production during the day and was an air raid warden during part of the night. Many years later I recall playing in the brick-built air raid shelter he had constructed in our garden. I also remember hearing friends and relatives occasionally (but not often) talking about their wartime experiences, so this book reinforces and `fleshes out' those distant memories.

The book is an account of the most destructive air raid on London, which occurred somewhat later, on 10-11th of May 1941. It involved 515 aircraft dropping a variety of bombs, from numerous incendiaries, very small in weight but deadly in effect, up to 1000kg monsters. They caused massive damage to both iconic buildings such as The House of Commons and Lambeth Palace, as well as vast numbers of more ordinary dwellings; the death toll was 1486 with 1800 more seriously injured. But large as these numbers are, reading the accounts retold by the author of the devastation and battles against the raging flames, often inside unstable buildings, it is surprising they were not much higher. The descriptions are based on contemporary accounts of firemen, rescue works and others who were in the thick of the action. A criticism is that these accounts are woven together by interpolations that cannot possibly have been verified by the author, and as a result the story sometimes reads more like a novel than actual historical fact. There have also be adverse comments about some of the data cited by the author, particularly the number of losses suffered by the RAF. I have no way of knowing the truth, but they do seem unsustainably high, and there are no sources quoted to support the numbers quoted about this or anything else. This is a pity, because it sows the seeds of doubt about other `statements of fact' in the book.

A good feature is the book's balance. For example, it is often said that after Buckingham Palace suffered minor bomb damage, the attitude to the Royal Family changed in a positive way, but this is not evident from the voices of those suffering the most. Neither is the widespread looting ignored; examples of thieving by gangs of rescue workers are mentioned, and even stealing from the dead as they lay on the ground. The writing is good and the descriptions of the action are clear and give at least a partial feeling for what it must have been like to have been there. Perhaps at times there are too many descriptions, and without any maps it would be difficult for non-Londoners to orientate themselves. Overall, a book well worth reading, but not as strict history.


Building the H Bomb :A Personal History
Building the H Bomb :A Personal History
Price: £8.79

5.0 out of 5 stars The H-Bomb: the personal history of a participant., 12 May 2015
There are many books about `atomic' weapons based on nuclear fission, covering just about everything from initial theoretical speculations to their realization at Los Alamos during WW2. But the literature on thermonuclear weapons based on nuclear fusion is smaller, and what exists is often encyclopedic and technical, so not very suitable for the general reader. This short book by Kenneth Ford is therefore to be welcomed.

The author, now 89, is a distinguished physicist, still actively involved in writing and commenting on current issues. At the start of the period he describes, he was a young man, just 24, who interrupted his PhD studies to spend 1950-52 with his supervisor John Wheeler at Los Alamos as part of the H-Bomb design team. He later continued this work at Princeton University, after Wheeler persuaded the authorities to establish Project Matterhorn there to study nuclear fusion for both weapons and for power production. Although `only' a junior in the team, he was at the centre of bomb design and worked on a daily basis with the leaders in the field, including Teller, Ulam and of course Wheeler, and interacted with distinguish consultants, such as Bethe and Fermi.

Teller had long pressed for a major programme of research on fusion bombs. His insistence was a significant factor in his later break with Oppenheimer, which eventually led to Teller being ostracized by much of the physics community. But after the end of WW2, even Oppenheimer accepted the need for an H-bomb programme and teams were set up at Los Alamos, although not under the overall leadership of Teller, much to his displeasure. The outcome of this programme was the successful testing, both above and below ground, of a large number of fusion weapons, in America and elsewhere. (Strictly they should be called fission/fusion weapons, because the greater part of the explosive energy is still produced by the fission stages.)

Ford tells the personal story of his time at Los Alamos and Princeton, and an interesting story it is. Interwoven with technical information, both of basic nuclear physics and bomb design/construction (all clearly explained) and his role in the latter, are personal observations of the scientists (and to a lesser extent their families) and their interactions. The central problem was how to confine the fusion fuel at a sufficient temperature for a long enough time for fusion to take place. Many ideas had been put forward, but none worked until Teller and Ulam proposed the method that bears their names, although both later claimed `ownership `of the idea. The history is fascinating, and among the things I learnt was that Teller and Fuchs (latter convicted of spying for the Russians) had earlier proposed a not-unrelated scheme, but without the crucial ingredient of using radiation pressure in the Teller-Ulam method. It is extraordinary what was achieved, long before modern high-speed computers, where complex calculations were often made using simple electronic desk calculators at best, or later with computers with less power than a mobile phone.

Ford's book is a pleasure to read and full of interesting facts and observations. A minor criticism is that there is not much about whether the participants considered the ethics of what they were doing. There are some brief remarks about the loyalty oath that was introduced at Los Alamos and elsewhere at the time of the McCarthy Committee's activities, a little about embryonic committees of concerned scientists, and Ford himself renounced working on weapons much later in 1968 following the Vietnam War, but that is all. Teller was well known to be vehemently ant-communist, but the position of others would have been interesting to know, although to be fair this is called a `Personal History'.


Love, Etc
Love, Etc
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Love triangle revisted, 6 May 2015
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This review is from: Love, Etc (Paperback)
This book is a sequel to the earlier volume `Talking it Over', and to understand `Love etc.' it is almost essential to have read the former. There we are introduced to the three main characters, Oliver, Stuart and Gillian, and how their lives interact over a period of years. At the end of `Talking it Over', Gillian, formerly married to Stuart, is now married to Oliver, and after a brief time living in France has return to England with her husband and their two children. In the interval, Stuart relocated to New York and started a new life.

Ten year have now past and Stuart, divorced from his American wife, has returned to England. He is no longer a rather weak, colourless individual, but is more decisive and now runs his own successful organic food distribution company. His love for Gillian is unabated and he contacts her again to `rescue' her from what he sees as a mistaken marriage to Oliver. He insinuates himself into their lives, letting them rent the former marital home, and even gives Oliver a job. Although Gillian is initially resistant to these events she comes to accept them, particularly as she is the sole breadwinner with her picture restoration work. Oliver slowly sinks into a deep depression as he realises that Stuart is not going to financially support his unrealistic `projects', and his suspicions about Stuart's motives and Gillian's loyalty deepens.

The format is the same as used successfully in `Talking it Over': a series of monologues by the main characters spoken to the reader, supplemented by ones from supporting characters, such as Gillian's mother and her art restoration assistant. These soliloquies are utterly realistic. Through them we again see how each interprets their past and present lives often in very different ways. It is almost inevitable that things will not end well. Indeed they do not, although Gillian and Stuart present the interpretation of the event that provokes this in starkly contrasting ways. There is no absolute truth. At the end we are left to make up our own minds about the nature and importance of love, and the wisdom or not of trying to rekindle a former love after so long.


Talking It Over
Talking It Over
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Classic Love triangle, 5 May 2015
This review is from: Talking It Over (Paperback)
This is the story of a classic love triangle involving long-term friends Stuart, Oliver and Gillian, told in the form of monologues by each of them, addressed to the reader, with occasional interjections from minor characters. Stuart is worthy, sensible, but rather dull, working in a safe job in the finance industry. In contrast, Oliver is flamboyant, an underachiever and in love with his own voice. Throughout their lives, Oliver and Stuart have played a sort of game, where Oliver is the superior knowledgeable one and Stuart the dullard. Stuart is married to Gillian, but the happy triangle breaks up when Oliver falls in love with her, and eventually suspicion and infidelity lead to divorce and a rearrangement of the triangle when Oliver and Gillian marry. They move to France and Stuart starts a new life in New York.

The characters are very real, struggling to understand their lives that are not fully under their control. We see how each is changed by events. Stuart is initially optimistic and open, but at the close has become cynical and rather unattractive, even a bit sinister; Oliver is content with a low-level teaching job in rural France, living a quiet life with Gillian and their baby. Gillian, initially almost a bystander in the `game' between Stuart and Oliver, emerges as the architect of the relation and it is she who arranges things so that she and Oliver have to return to England.

The style has been criticized as `gimmicky', but I strongly disagree; it gives the perfect opportunity for each to describe their perspective of recent happenings in their lives, without interruption or the distraction of extraneous events. The result shows just how differently we can view the same event, and is often hilarious, sometimes moving. It is simple story superbly told and well worth reading.


Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy
Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy
by Frank Close
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.71

4.0 out of 5 stars The Intriguing life of Bruno Pontecorvo, 16 April 2015
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Bruno Pontecorvo's name is always associated with that of Fuchs and others who passed secret atomic information to the Russians in the 1940s. He fled in great haste to the Soviet Union within weeks of Fuchs' arrest, and Russia remained his home until his death in 1993. Pontecorvo was a brilliant physicist, one of a small number who were equally at home with theory and experiment. He had worked with Enrico Fermi in Rome on the use of slow neutrons to initiate nuclear chain reactions, a technique that was crucial in building nuclear reactors. Then he moved to Paris and there he openly espoused his communist views, a fact the intelligence agencies inexplicably missed when later he was security vetted.

In the introduction to the book, Close says he focuses more on Pontecorvo's later life in Russia, his scientific work, and his relations with the Russian authorities. But there is also a significant amount of information about the early days in Rome and Paris, and the time he spent in Canada and England before his defection, almost half the book in fact. These chapters cover much well known ground about the American and Anglo-Canadian atomic projects before and during the war, but supplemented by interesting new details from a thorough study of official files. They tell us a lot about Pontecorvo's character and are essential to understanding later events. New to me was his work in America in the oil prospecting industry, where, using his expertise in particle detectors, he devised a technique for detecting uranium ores, which later became of great interest to the Americans in connection with both reactor and bomb projects, and also to the Russians of course.

The second half of the book examines Pontecorvo's defection, his years in Russia, the nature of his usefulness to the burgeoning nuclear programmes there, and his fundamental research at Dubna, the Russian nuclear research centre outside Moscow. His important scientific work included seminal suggestions in weak interaction theory, and neutrino physics in particular, that became part of the foundations of the present Standard Model of particle physics, and many years later contributed to the award of Nobel Prizes in Physics. He had a very plausible claim to a share of one of these awards, but when he moved to the Soviet Union he published only in Russian language journals. These were read by few scientists in the West, and were only available in translation at least two years after publication, so his work was not appreciated and he was `beaten to the finishing line' by others. The taint of treachery would not have helped his case with the Nobel committee.

Was Pontecorvo a spy? Close carefully analyses a number of crucial events, (one of which involves the ubiquitous Kim Philby) that although all are circumstantial and individually might just about have innocent explanations, when taken together they present a very strong case that Pontecorvo did indeed pass information to the Russians. In the later period of his life his views on Soviet communism changed drastically, and in a 1992 interview he admitted to having been "a cretin" and "naïve and stupid" for devoting his life to the communist cause. However, he never admitted to having been a spy, claiming variously that he had defected because he feared unjustified persecution following Fuchs' arrest, or simply for admiration of the Soviet system. This contradicts the (undocumented) testimony of others, including that of Oleg Gordievsky (the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to defect). But the problem with spies (and former spies) of both sides is that they lie - that's what they've been trained to do - and their statements always have to be treated with suspicion. We can never be absolutely sure, but this book goes a long way to settling the argument. Pontecorvo was never charged with espionage; the only action taken against him was to strip him of his British nationality. Perhaps the evidence was deemed insufficient, or maybe MI5 was reluctant because a trial would have revealed their incompetence, and further damaged relations with America. Only they know.

The story of Pontecorvo, both the man and his scientific achievements, is well worth telling and Close has generally done a very good job, with a reasonable balance between biography and science, although in places it is perhaps a little too detailed. The narrative is supported by numerous references to official files and interviews with Pontecorvo's extended family and others. The latter are particularly interesting. A minor quibble is that the references are also sometimes unnecessarily detailed. In one place even the weather at the time is backed up by references to weather reports of the day. While it is reassuring to know that the author has undertaken extensive research, I don't see the point of this level of detail.


Philips HX6732/45 Healthy White Rechargeable Toothbrush
Philips HX6732/45 Healthy White Rechargeable Toothbrush
Price: £61.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent mid-priced sonic toothbrush, 16 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a mid-priced electric toothbrush in the Philips Sonic range, the name referring to its mode of action: vibrating and water jetting rather than simple rotation. It is supplied with a charger base fitted with a two-pin shaver-type plug. The base incorporates stands for the handle and two brushes, and excess cable can be coiled within the base and stored. There are two brushes supplied, one a ProResults for standard cleaning, and the other a Diamond Clean, which it is said can remove stains etc., giving whiter teeth within two weeks. There is also a useful hard plastic travel case for the charger and two brushes.

Three modes of action may be selected (clean, sensitive and clean & white) by repeatedly pressing a button on the handle, and there is a timer that sounds after each 30-second interval to equalize the time you brush each quadrant of your mouth. The unit then switches off after 2 minutes, unless you have selected Clean & White (using the Diamond Clean brush) when it continues for a further 30 seconds in that mode. The battery life is excellent; a full charge will last for at least two weeks if used twice a day.

The mode of action takes a little to get used to if you have previously used a rotary toothbrush. The high rate of vibration means that there is a tendency for water and toothpaste to spray the surroundings if you are not careful. Also take care not to let the shaft of the brush touch your teeth! But once you get used to it, the results are excellent, producing a real clean feeling. One minor niggle: unlike the Braun I currently have, which stores four brushes, storage on the base of the Philips is only for two brushes, not convenient if two people want to share the handle.


Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII's most faithful servant
Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII's most faithful servant
by Tracy Borman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The complex man who was Thomas Cromwell, 9 Feb. 2015
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Thomas Cromwell's reputation has changed greatly since his death. He has variously been portrayed as a loyal servant to his master King Henry VIII, a friend of the common people, and a devout Christian, intent on enacting reforms that would enable everyone to access the word of God as given in the bible. At the other extreme it is said that he was an unscrupulous politician without any ethical standards and only interested in his personal gain. This book tends towards the former interpretation, but not entirely. The reality is that Cromwell was a very complex man with many strands to his character, some of which were admirable and others far less so. What is undeniable is that he was a supremely competent lawyer and administrator, with formidable powers of persuasion. It was these qualities that Henry valued so much that he overlooked the fact that Cromwell was not from the nobility, but only the son of a blacksmith. His humble origins inevitably meant that many nobles despised him, and it was a major contribution to his eventual downfall.

For many years, Cromwell could do nothing wrong in Henry's eyes. He was the prime mover in extraditing Henry from marriages he no longer wanted, starting with that of Catherine of Aragon; and the Dissolution of the Monasteries following the break with the church of Rome, which he engineered, enabled him to raise huge sums for the royal coffers by the sale of monastic goods and properties. While he may have destroyed the monastic houses out of a genuine sense of religious feeling, there is no doubt that a wish to please the King was also present, and Cromwell's steady accumulation of expensive property for himself cannot be overlooked, even though he personally lived very modestly. Neither can his acquiescence in the deaths of people who got in the way of his relations with Henry, notably Anne Boleyn and Thomas More, even though both were at some time his friends and allies.

Things started to go wrong when in furtherance of his political aim of an alliance with a protestant house in Europe, as a foil to the Catholic powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire, Cromwell persuaded Henry to marry Anne of Cleves. Remarkably, Henry agreed without even meeting Anne, but when she arrived in England he was so appalled by her appearance and personal hygiene that he refused to even consummate the marriage, and turned his rage on his advisor. The powerful Duke of Norfolk, a long-term enemy of Cromwell, then seized to opportunity of the Anne of Cleves fiasco to warn the King that Cromwell's fervent evangelical reforms were leading to widespread discontent in the country, and also alleged that Cromwell was intending to marry the King's daughter Mary, as a step towards seizing the crown for himself. This only increased Henry's antagonism towards his chief minister, and gave Norfolk the confidence to have Cromwell arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, while a series of serious charges against him, some of which were ludicrous, was constructed. Cromwell was never formally tried, but nevertheless was found guilty by what amounted to a Royal decree, and suffered a botched beheading on Tower Hill. Later, from remarks he made,it appears that Henry regretted his decison and the lose of such a talented man as Cromwell.

Tracy Borman's biography details all the complex events in Cromwell's adult life in the context of the ruthless nature of Henry's court, with its ever-changing alliances as courtiers struggled for the volatile Henry's favour. We also learn much about his personal life; his kindness to widows, his unswerving loyalty to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey and the love for his wife and son. The research is meticulous and the prose is delightful. An interesting feature is extensive quotes from contemporary correspondence, left in its original English. Although not always easy to read, I found these fascinating as they give a real flavour of relationships in Tutor times. There have been many biographies of Cromwell, but Tracy Borman's book must rank among the very best.


The Glass Key
The Glass Key
by Dashiell Hammett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Master of the hard-boiled detective story, 26 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Glass Key (Paperback)
Dashiell Hammett's creative period was very short, effectively terminated in the 1940s by chronic ill health (TB), alcoholism, and political persecution because of his extreme outspoken left-wing views. But prior to this he produced some memorable work, and was a master of the `hard-boiled' detective story. He is best known for `The Maltese Falcon', following the successful film staring Humphrey Bogart, but `The Glass Key' is generally regarded as his finest work. The `hero', if he can be called that, is the cool Ned Beaumont, a hard-drinking fixer for a gangster, Paul Madvig, who controls a city via his political and police stooges. But Ned has a moral code of sorts, and when Paul looks like being betrayed at election time, and may even be indicted for a murder, he steps up, and at considerable personal danger (he is severely beaten several times) eventually forces the real killer to confess. To cap it all he even `wins' the daughter of a Senator, who Paul vainly hoped to marry. The story is more complex than these few sentences convey. There are many twists and turns and it has a real surprise ending. The writing is in a terse, laconic style that has often been imitated but never excelled. An excellent read.
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The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians
The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians
by Janice Hadlow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The dysfunctional Hanoverians, 25 Jan. 2015
This book is mainly about George III, the third Hanoverian king, who came to the throne at the early age of 22 and ruled for an impressively long 60 years. But it starts by sketching in less detail the story of his predecessors, George I and George II, whose lives had a profound influence on his own. The two former monarchs had much in common. Both had bad relations with their wives (George I had even imprisoned his for a while) but this did not stop the wives joining their husbands in notoriously hating their eldest sons, who quickly `went off the rails' with multiple mistresses and accumulating huge debts. George III himself had a far from happy relationship with his father, and so when he married a minor German princess, Charlotte, from the impoverished state of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, he was determined to break this toxic `tradition' and establish an harmonious family life based on his firm ideas about the role of kingship as one of duty and obligation. He was the first to define the role of a monarch in this way, with the King as head of a happy family, the role model for his subjects. Janice Hadlow calls this `The Royal Experiment'.

All started well. Queen Charlotte was an intelligent woman, well educated by the standards of the day, who happily joined her husband in building their ideal family. It turned out to be a very large family, as Charlotte was pregnant most of her fertile life, producing a remarkable 15 children, all but two surviving into adulthood. George was a kindly father, who doted on the children when they were young, and Charlotte played a major role in their extensive education. But the idyllic situation was not to last. As the children grew into adulthood, conflicts with George surfaced and the Royal Experiment began to falter. He was totally unable to understand why their allotted role, i.e. to respect his opinions in all things and to be companions to the Queen, should not be enough to keep them happy. Although he expressed a desire to see his daughters married, he never did anything active to achieve this. Indeed he even had passed the Royal Marriage Act that forbade any member of the royal family marrying without the permission of the King.

As the tensions mounted, history repeated itself. The King's eldest son went the way of other Princes of Wales and took mistresses, even illegally marrying one, drinking heavily and running up huge debts, finally contracting a marriage to a German Princess he had never seen and who he hated from the moment he set eyes on her. For most of their lives they lived apart. In the Hanoverian tradition, relations between him and his father become poisonous. The King's relations with his other children also changed. The sons were kept short of money and some were sent abroad, not to return for many years; the daughters married late in life, or not at all. Meanwhile some were embroiled in sexual scandals. It was even said of one that the father of her illegitimate child was one of her brothers, although the evidence for this is far from conclusive.

If all this was not enough, in 1788 George suffered his first attack of madness, with all the horror that implied, given the state of medicine at the time. The effect on the family, particularly the Queen, was profound. In the book there is a moving portrait of Charlotte painted at this time; the strain is etched on her face. Eventually George recovered, but some years later the illness returned and his hated eldest son was appointed Prince Regent, but to the great surprise of everyone, and the anger of his supporters, he did not dismiss the current Tory administration and install his Whig friends in power. With the support of the Prince Regent, the remaining daughters at last `broke free' and married, not all with the blessing of the Queen. George did not recover and lived on in a sad imaginary world of his own until his death in 1820.

The Hanoverian royal dynasty was undoubtedly a very strange family; dysfunctional would be the modern term. George is a character deserving some sympathy. His ideals greatly influenced Victoria when she became Queen, and led to our modern idea of monarchy. But none of his children could really be said to have led happy, fulfilling lives, despite the King's avowed wish that this was his aim. Janice Hadlow shows in great detail, based on meticulous research, how and why George's great Royal Experiment failed. She does so in clear elegant writing that shows a real understanding of the period and the characters in this grand play.


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