The Queen of Crime Drama?

My latest visit to the public library netted me the 2 books I have already blogged about recently (both of them in the Zombie genre), plus Lynda La Plante’s Widows – written almost 40 years ago.

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I haven’t read any of La Plante’s work before and probably wouldn’t have chosen this book at all (since there isn’t a single Zombie in it – I say only half jokingly), had it not been for bumping into an old work colleague in the library who enthusiastically recommended it. Funnily enough, he had never been much of a reader himself, until the Covid lockdowns started…..and now he’s a book addict. Thank goodness something positive has come out of this whole Covid mess.

Anyhow, back to the book. The cover proclaims La Plante as the “Queen of Crime Drama”. Frankly I had my doubts, but having just finished the book, for a story that is now a little dated, having been written in the early 1980’s, it is rather good.

I won’t be rushing out in search of another of her books straight away, but I will probably read another one or two at some point down the line.

The story has been made into a TV series on British TV back in the 80’s and remade as a feature film in 2018. I remember watching the original series but couldn’t recall the various twists and turns of the story in detail until reading the book this week.

It’s a good story with strong female characters but somewhat stereotypical male crime gang members and the usual hard working but under appreciated London copper (police detective) out to prove his bosses and fellow officers wrong.

The general outline of the story is that 3 women are widowed when a security van robbery goes terribly wrong and their husbands – the would be robbers – are blown up and burned badly in the botched heist. One of the would be robbers is gangland boss Harry Rawlins. After having to identify what’s left of his burned body – his distraught wife Dolly identifies him based on his very expensive gold watch that he never takes off – she then discovers Harry’s bank deposit box containing a gun, money, business (that’s crime business) ledgers which names names and gives details of some very shady crime-land business, and detailed plans for the botched robbery.

Dolly has several options available to her. She could hand Harry’s ledgers to the police, in the form of under appreciated and rather slovenly looking D.I. Resnick and shut down half of the crime gangs in London; she could sell them to the underworld thugs who are eager to take over Harry’s turf; or she could bring in the other widows, of the failed raid, into the fold and form her own gang to finish the job that their husbands had failed to do.

It’s no real surprise and therefore not really a spoiler to tell you that Dolly decides on the last option and pulls together her gang of misfit widows to attempt to pull off a physically demanding robbery that their well built, criminally hardened and street wise husbands had failed to do. What could possibly go wrong?

Part way through their planning to replicate the robbery – less, of course, the explosion and fire carnage – they realise that the original plan that Harry devised would need 4 men, not 3……so who was the 4th man and where is he now? AND who should they draft in as the 4th woman for their team?

La Plante writes a very good story. I’m happy to report that she doesn’t spare the splattering of blood along the way either. Let’s face it gangland crime stories demand their ample share of blood and gore. There are several bone crunching, blood splattering moments strewn liberally throughout the story. We also experience the full spectrum of emotions felt by the widows as they firstly cope with the loss of their husbands and then deal with the stomach churning angst and thrills of plotting the robbery of a security van….involving stolen vehicles, disguises, shotguns, chainsaws and sledge hammers….and a gas mask. We are taken along for the ride and see the women slowly coming together as a team, even if personal differences will mean that it’s unlikely that they will ever be friends….or will they?

La Plante asks many questions of the plot and characters and gives us all the answers, including a couple of rather unexpected ones that I won’t mention here. But what we want to know as avid readers is…….Will they be successful where their menfolk failed? If they do pull off the robbery, will they get away from both the police and the underworld criminal fraternity? Who will they choose as their 4th team member? Will we find out who the 4th man in Harry’s team is? And will he be detrimental to the widows plans? I’ll say no more for fear of slipping up and giving a big spoiler away. Needless to say that not everything is as it seems to be.

All in all it’s a bloody good story – and I mean that both literally and figuratively speaking. Definitely worth a read. So, is Lynda La Plante the Queen of Crime Drama? Actually….she could well be.

As usual, many thanks for reading this blog. Comments, likes and shares are always appreciated.

Another rip roaring tale from Jonathan Maberry.

Wikipedia says – Patient Zero is a 2009 novel by American writer Jonathan Maberry and the first book in the Joe Ledger series. It was first published on March 3, 2009 through St. Martin’s Griffin and follows a detective that must help prevent the world from being terrorized by a bioweapon that turns humans into zombies.

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But it’s much more than that. Don’t write it off as “just another Zombie novel”. As Wiki says, it’s the first book in Maberry’s Joe Ledger series of books, and having already read King of Plagues – the third book in the series, which I blogged about in an earlier post – as a Mayberry and as a Joe Ledger fan….and let’s face it a fan of Zombies, I knew I had to read this book. The one that started it all. There are, by the way, now 10 books in the series. It was initially optioned for a TV series but as of yet nothing has happened as far as production goes.

Maberry researches his technical information thoroughly and for this book consulted many experts in their field, including Michael Sicilia who is the Public Affairs Manager with the California Office of Homeland Security, Exercise and Training Branch. He is the project manager of the Public Officials Initiative, which trains and exercises elected officials on their crucial role as crisis communicators in catastrophic emergencies – Staff at the Philadelphia Forensic Science Bureau – doctors working in the Department of Molecular Pathology and Neuropathology. He likes to get his tech info as factual as possible. Almost everything as regards surveillance, computer and weapons systems are real although some are not yet available on the commercial market.

The science, the prion diseases are also real…but the parasites and disease which cause the “zombie pathogen are fictitious (thank goodness)…BUT are based on and inspired by similar pathogens known about in science.

Getting back to the book….without any spoilers….you’ll just have to take my word for what a rip-snorter of an action packed story this is. We follow Joe Ledger, who at the start of the book is a police detective (ex army, martial arts expert), off duty and enjoying the waves… and the girls in bikinis, at his local beach. His peaceful day is ruined when he is approached by 3 large men with FBI I.D. who ask him to accompany them….in their car to a destination unknown.

And so begins the recruitment of Joe Ledger into the newly formed and highly secret DMS – The Department of Military Sciences (answering only to the President….or is the leader of this organization, the mysterious Mr Church, answerable to no one?). These are the guys responsible for snuffing out terrorist plots before they happen….the terrorist plots that never make it into the news media reports. We’ve all heard of black ops…..this department deals with a much, much darker shade of black.

Ledger has been brought in to lead an elite team of terrorist hunters, and in this story Zombie hunters, who threaten the existence of human kind, planet wide.

Even before Ledger can get settled in and start to train his team, he’s thrown in at the deep end…straight into one death defying mission after another. It’s fast paced stuff!

As the blurb on the back of the book cover says “When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world. And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.”

Yes…as you can see by that short smidgen of dialogue from the book, Maberry writes in the first person. He becomes Joe Ledger…or does Joe Ledger become him? Either way, and I noticed this in the King of Plagues book too, in some parts of the story it makes the writer (or the Hero) sound like a bit of a big head….a know all….a big I AM. To put it in a really cheesy / corny way – All men want to be Joe Ledger and all women want to be with him! That’s the way that Maberry wants his readers to view the hero of the hour. But, if you can get past that aspect of Maberry’s writing, you will enjoy this action packed story…..3 zombie slaying missions in 24 hours is as full on as it gets believe me!

Of course there is also a little dark humour, plus the all important romantic link to a female team member, a smattering of merciless terrorists, a power crazy multi-billionaire (think Bill Gates on steroids) and a mad, but very lustful scientist thrown in for good measure. …Oh and hundreds of bloodthirsty, brain munching zombies. You don’t have to think very much reading the Joe Ledger series….frankly he doesn’t give you the time to think as he barrels you along from one burst of action to another. This is definitely not a book that will exercise your grey matter, but for pure adrenaline rushing entertainment I loved it and got through it in 2 reading sessions…..not a lot of work achieved by me during that time, but worth it.

I’ll end with a few quotes of recommendation for the book …. but other than that, thanks for reading. Comments are always welcome.

Deserves to take his place among the best suspense writers of recent years” – John Connoly

His writing is powerful enough to sing with poetry while simultaneously scaring the hell out of you” – Tess Gerritsen

Scary, creepy and gripping…Patient Zero is Night of the Living Dead meets Michael Crichton” – Joseph Finder

Minority Report – Philip K Dick

Having read Philip K Dick’s Man in a High Castle a while back I was delighted and excited to spot a copy of his story Minority Report in a second hand book store. I knew a movie had been made of the story starring Tom Cruise but otherwise knew little about it. I was initially disappointed to discover that it wasn’t a full length novel, but was “only” a short story.

However, having now read said short story, plus several more in this collection of short stories, I am back to being delighted and excited once more. I realize I am a little slow on the uptake, but Philip K Dick is a Sci Fi genius…..and as a predictor of the future (much like George Orwell was hailed for his dystopian novel 1984), this collection of stories sets Philip K Dick head and shoulders above his peers. (And I think I just got away with using the phrase Dick Head in a completely accidental manner).

Both Dick and Orwell died well before their time. Orwell was only 46, Dick was 54. Both were excellent story tellers, but where Dick was a master of Science Fiction novels (44) and short stories (121), Orwell was mainly known as a journalist, essayist and writer of realism and only wrote a total of 6 novels.

But, there are similarities. Orwell’s Thought Police and Dick’s Department of Precrime for instance are both there to punish the citizens for crimes they haven’t yet committed.

Of the stories in this collection it’s difficult to find the weakest link. The book opens with a strong lead story which is of course Minority Report. Set in the future, the Department of Precrime relies on the predictions of 3 “precogs” – clairvoyant humans who’s babblings are deciphered by the computer they are all linked to – who usually come up with separate but unanimous decisions about future murders about to be committed. I say these predictions are usually unanimous, but sometimes only 2 of the 3 will agree – so a majority decision, a majority report is published and the future murderer is arrested and charged for a murder they haven’t yet committed, based on the majority decision. Of course if there is a majority report, there is also the minority report which is the decision of the odd one out. The department has murders down almost 100% and everything is working well until the head of the department finds his name on a card, spat out by the computer, that predicts that he will murder someone who’s name is not even familiar to him. Since the computer and the precogs are “never wrong” a warrant for his arrest is issued…..can he escape and prove his innocence by getting hold of the minority report? Of course the story written in 1956 is somewhat different to the action movie filmed in 2002 which includes technology not thought of by Dick back in the 50’s but the principle is the same.

Imposter is the second story. Again set in the not too distant future, Spence Olham is part of a team designing a weapon to be used against invading Aliens. He is accused by a co-worker and the head of security of being an android imposter sent by the Aliens to destroy the weapon. (Movie of the same name made 2001)

Second Variety is 3rd off the block set in a dystopian future on a battlefield where the Americans have designed small but deadly A.I. robotic drones with pincers and sharp blades that slash the enemy (Russian) troops. These robots have been taught to replicate themselves in underground factories within the battlefield. But the authorities have underestimated the growing intelligence of the A.I.’s (Made into a movie titled Screamers in 1995).

War Game – takes place in a building where futuristic interplanetary toys designed on Ganymede – a moon of Jupiter – are tested for safety before being allowed to be sold to the public. The humans in general don’t trust the Ganymedans as they always seem to be on the cusp of invading Earth. One game is a war game, where a dozen soldiers attempt to attack and breach the defences of a citadel. After each failure the soldiers re assemble and try a different tactic. The testers suspect that the citadel may contain a nuclear device. The second game is actually a suit that once put on takes the wearer into an alternate reality….and the third game is a board game similar to monopoly, called Syndrome.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

This story “War Game” is one where I am about to reveal the end of the story so if you intend to read it skip the next couple of paragraphs.

The testers of the games decide that of the three games only the Syndrome board game is deemed to be safe for release to the general population and doesn’t constitute a threat to mankind. A toy salesman takes one of the games home to let his kids try out. He decides to show them how to play. Having been familiar with the game monopoly gives him, he believes, an advantage and pretty soon he has acquired all the property, shares in businesses and money and he declares himself the winner. The kids look puzzled and point out that, according to the instruction booklet, the aim of the game is to get rid of your properties, shares and wealth….so in fact the father had lost and the kids played off again to find out who was the winner. The father, was annoyed that it had taken the monopoly rules and turned them on their head, but the important thing was that his kids were enjoying playing the game. And the quote a couple of lines …evidently it would sell well. Already the two youngsters were learning the naturalness of surrendering their holdings. They gave up their stocks and money avidly, with a kind of trembling abandon. Glancing up, her eyes bright Lora said “It’s the best educational toy you ever brought home, Dad!”

Dick wrote War Game in 1959 – incidentally, but inconsequentially, my year of birth – however I can’t but help seeing the parallels here with Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum and his Great Reset plan – You Will Own Nothing and YOU Will Be Happy.

OK SPOILER OVER

The next…the fifth story is What Dead Men Say – again a futuristic story where the dead can, if the body is chilled correctly immediately after death and monitored carefully, be revived for a series of “half-life” appearances. But when they try to bring wealthy businessman Louis Sarapis back, something goes wrong. The revival of his body fails, but seemingly from the other side of the universe his disembodied voice is transmitted over the airwaves creating all kinds of plot twists.

Oh to be a Blobel! is the next offering. A human who used to be an interplanetary spy and underwent treatment to change his physical appearance to the of a Blobel – a little like a huge jelly-fish – in order to spy on another planet, was initially told that his physical transformation would be a temporary thing. It turns out that this was incorrect and he would now spend part of his day in human form and part as this huge blob of jelly……which brings about numerous trials and tribulations in his life and his quest to find a woman who understands and accepts him. I believe that the story has a lot to do with how one sees oneself. Self worth and what constitutes “success”.

The Electric Ant – is a story about a man (Garson Poole) who, after having a work accident and finding himself in hospital is told that he’s not actually human, but some sort of flesh covered android. This comes as a great shock to him and after he is sent home we follow his thought processes in his search for the meaning of life….of his life that is….and how, or even if, his life affects those around him.

Faith of our Fathers – is about a communist dictatorship where the population is kept in line by giving them hallucinogenic drugs. One day Tung Chien a mid level bureaucrat is given an anti hallucinogen by a crippled street vender which allows him to see the world as it actually is. (Includes communism, drugs, sex and god.)

We Can Remember it for You Wholesale – is another futuristic story in which space travel is only for the rich. But for a fraction of the cost of a space flight ticket, you can have an experience implanted into your brain so that you actually believe that you have made, in this case, a trip to Mars….and they provide you with helpful souvenirs as memory prompts. It features reality, false memories and real memories. The story was adapted in the 1990 movie Total Recall starting Arnold Schwarzenegger….and the 2012 remake with Colin Farrell in the staring role. Douglas Quail has a boring office job. He has always wanted to visit Mars but has been constantly put off the idea by his wife. He then discovers a company called Rekal where you can have “false” memories implanted into your brain which make you think that you have been to Mars, along with all the sensory effects. However when under sedation to have the false memories implanted, somehow he regains some long ago erased memories of who he really is.

All in all this is a really thought provoking collection of stories and well worth the few dollars to acquire this 2002 printed 2nd hand paperback.

If you’ve never read any of Philip Dick’s stories, this book would be a wonderful place to dip your toes into the magical waters of his strange and wonderful mind.

Again, thank you for reading this post. Comments always appreciated.

A few movie trailers of Dick’s books made into movies – for your amusement.

Everyman (2006)- Philip Roth – Book review

I’d never read any of Roth’s work until recently, when I read “The Plot Against America”. (I reviewed this recently on my blog). I was alerted to Roth’s work when I was reading Woody Allen’s autobiography and in it he mentions several writers who have either influenced him, or who he rates highly. Now I’ve finished “Everyman” I can see similarities between Allen’s characters and writing and Roth’s.

Both writers write stories about relationships, both are of Jewish background, both write about characters who are obsessed with sex and death, particularly the emptiness of death….when you’re dead the lights go out and that’s it.

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My copy of Everyman is only a small novel 182 pages or average sized print but it’s well written and looks at one man’s life – his hopes and dreams – and his relationships. Sometimes in life we make decisions that we have a pretty good idea at the time are the wrong decisions for oh so many reasons, but we still choose to make them for short term gains, or instant pleasure, rather than looking at the long term effects of those choices and the problems that those decisions can cause – not just to yourself but to those around you.

We follow the life of one man – a successful commercial artist who worked for an advertising company in New York. The story begins with his death during a heart operation in hospital, followed by his funeral. From here we travel back in time – to when he was a boy and helped his father in the family jewelry shop. It’s a story about relationships. It’s about life and it’s about death and how, sooner or later, it befalls us all. We get to examine his relationship with his parents, with his older brother (who he adored and yet came to hate in his old age), with his three wives – as he was thrice married – with his children from the first two marriages…and his infidelities along the way. He’s one of those guys who is controlled by the urges of the libido rather than by letting logical thought take the lead. And when it comes to describing his character’s sexual liaisons Roth certainly leaves nothing to the imagination – he’s very up front and quite explicit.

All through his life, when it comes to a pretty face, or a stunning body – all traces of common sense, and common decency, take flight. He knows he’s making rash, irrational decisions based on lust. Even when he himself makes a point of letting the reader know how perfect his second wife is in so many ways – he still choses to cheat on her (repeatedly) with a much younger photographic model – and to hell with the consequences.

Of all of his decaying relationships, the one which makes no sense at all is the one that he has with his older brother Howie. As a child he idolized his older brother and as they grew up, they had a strong brotherly bond and a supportive relationship, but as our unnamed advertising exec reaches late middle age, his years of good, robust health come to an end and he develops heart disease, resulting in a number of operations. His older brother however, is still the picture of health and he comes to envy and despise him because of this and gradually, as years pass by, they become estranged.

Without wanting to give away the entire plot….it’s a quite remarkable novel about life, it’s mysteries and it’s strange ways of either working out, or turning bad in turn, and the bleak acceptance that death is waiting for us and that we have little to no control over when we take our final breath. It’s also about wasted opportunities, it’s about regrets and about his ideals not turning out how he hoped they would, even about himself not turning out as he’d hoped he’d turn out – as he becomes the kind of man he never wanted to be – and eventually it’s about acceptance. A human story…a story about the frailties of human life.

According to the blurb on the rear jacket of the book “Everyman takes its title from an anonymous fifteenth-century allegorical play whose theme is the summoning of the living to death.”

Douglas Kennedy in The Times writes – “The genius of this short, bleak, remarkable novel stems from the way that Roth turns his desolate assessment of death into something bracing: an angry acceptance that mortality is the price we pay for the sheer wonder of this thing called life“.

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Drawing of Roth which appeared in the New York Times.

The Plot Against America – Book Review.

The Plot Against America was written in 2004 by American writer Philip Roth. It’s a novel, but told in the first person, using his own name along with real people from the 1930’s and 40’s – the time in which the story is set. So, in a way it reads more like an autobiography….but not one that is factual. In this story, rather than Franklin D Roosevelt winning the presidential election for the Democrats, it is taken out by Republican Charles Lindbergh (the famous aviator…..and Nazi sympathiser). This of course puts a different spin on world war 2 and which side the USA is leaning toward supporting.

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Roth is an American of Jewish heritage and in this book he writes a story featuring himself as a child in Newark living in a very Jewish neighbourhood. His main concern and his main passion, at the beginning of the story, is his stamp album….collecting stamps and keeping them safe for posterity. This of course is the period of history where Hitler comes to power in Germany, endeavours to conquer Europe and bring about the “final solution” to what he sees as the Jewish problem.

Once Lindberg looks like becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency, the world of the Jewish population in America takes a distinct turn for the worse. The persecution of the Jews becomes an accepted thing.

We follow the Roth family – Philip, the youngest child, his older brother Sandy and his parents – through a disturbing turn of events in an American history that didn’t happen, but could have very easily. Philip’s parents take in cousin Alvin to raise as their own ( a troubled youth) to try to straighten him out and set him on the right path, but he runs away to Canada to join the war effort against Hitler’s Nazi tyrants. Within a short time, Alvin is badly wounded, losing half a leg from the knee down….(what a stupid statement….it’s not likely to be from the knee up is it?) and returns to the Roth household broken and dejected. Young Philip shares a bedroom with Alvin and helps to dress his stump and look after his welfare.

Roth writes a very believable story of ordinary citizens turning against the Jews in late 1930’s early 1940’s America. The phrase “it can’t happen here” rings out….but fact is, it can happen anywhere and often does. In Nazi Germany, German Jews who had lived quite happily with other Germans for years and were considered friends and acquaintances were abandoned and attacked by their former neighbours and handed over to the Nazi’s and Gestapo. And in “The Plot Against America” the Jews are once again the target of hatred, but this time it’s in the “land of the free”.

Lindberg initiates the Office of American Absorption (OAA)- programs to separate Jewish youths from their families and place them far away from home with gentile families on “work experience” where they become more Americanized. Philip’s brother Sandy is sent away to a farm in Kentucky during the 6 week school holiday to return home later a changed character who has no respect for his father and mother and has become an admirer of Lindberg.

I don’t want to talk in any detail about the plot as I’d like to encourage you to read it for yourselves and so don’t want to give away too much and spoil your reading experience.

Leaving talk of this particular book just there, many of us look at the slaughter of the 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany and question how anything like that could happen, where right thinking people initially turn a blind eye and then actually support the persecution of a particular group of people based on race, religion, or political beliefs – but it happens a lot. It is often seen as convenient to blame a particular set of people for causing problems to make them scapegoats for something that they were never responsible for. A way for the government, ruling classes, or crazed dictator to drive a wedge between other once peaceful parts of the civilian population. It happened to anyone of middle eastern origin/Muslims after the 9/11 tragedy. It’s happened more recently in Europe with eastern Europeans moving to the west and taking western jobs….and more recently still with Syrian refugees fleeing conflict in their own country and escaping to Europe and Britain in particular. The established residents take an instant disliking to the “invading refugees” and eye them suspiciously because they don’t understand their culture and most people fear, and therefore hate, what they don’t understand.

It worries me that more division, hatred, bullying and other means of victimization will occur, and be encouraged to occur, between those who accept the official narrative and take the covid-19 vaccine and those who question or refuse a vaccination. Already rival factions are attacking one another verbally on social (or not so social) media. The vitriol was already heated with threats of violence even before the various vaccines were approved for use. I wonder and worry what will happen now that the vaccinations have begun in earnest.

Going back to Roth’s book. At the end of the story is a post script in which Roth provides true details of some of the real life characters who appeared in his story. It’s actually uncanny how close Roth’s fictional events came to happening in reality having read the details in the post script. Scary stuff.

There is a 2020 HBO TV mini-series based on Roth’s book. I haven’t seen it yet, but judging by the trailer – link below – it appears to stick closely to the original story.

(408) The Plot Against America: Official Trailer | HBO – YouTube

“Anything can happen to anyone, but it usually doesn’t. Except when it does.”
― Philip Roth, quote from The Plot Against America

Happy New Year …. plus 3 book reviews.

It seems like an eternity since I have written a blog post…..probably because is has been, almost, an eternity since I have written a blog post….or read anyone else’s – Please forgive me. A combination of being busy, being lazy and enjoying reading a few good books lead me to ignore my WordPress blog for far too long. However, a New Year deserves a fresh start.

Lets hope that the horrors of 2020 are behind us and let me wish everyone a hopeful, healthy and happy 2021.

One good thing about covid, lockdowns and a change of lifestyle is that I have had time to read a few more books over the last few months, and I’d like to offer up reviews of the last 3 books I’ve most recently finished reading.

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The first of which is a large format (coffee table sized) hard cover book by Tom Shone about the movies of Woody Allen, titled Woody Allen A Retrospective. Bought for me for my birthday, by my lovely wife. I’ve long been a fan of Allen’s movies – yes even the bad ones – and am not one to be put off by the bad press he’s received from the “Me Too Movement” and the police investigation into child molestation allegations. Allegations which incidentally were found by police to have zero foundation in truth. Allen even submitted to a polygraph test to prove his innocence…..something that his accuser, ex partner Mia Farrow refused to take. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned….and I guess when ones partner takes up with your adopted daughter, you are going to feel rather scornful. Readers please draw your own conclusions. I realize that some readers will be thinking something along the lines of “there’s no smoke without fire” but please judge the man by his work, not by unsubstantiated rumours about his personal life.

Anyhow, back to the book. There’s nothing earth shatteringly new to be learned in this book, for fans of Woody Allen, but it is a useful reference guide to his movies from the very beginning of his career in films (What’s New Pussycat? in 1965) up to and including the 2015 movie – Irrational Man. So, his last 4 movies – at the time of writing – Cafe Society (2016), Wonder Wheel (2017), A Rainy Day In New York (2019) and 2020 movie Rifkin’s Festival are not included in this retrospective.

His output is quite prolific averaging a movie each year and since very early in his movie directing career he obtained and maintained the independence to make movies on whatever subject and in whatever manner he wanted to. He is a creature of habit and likes structure. Now in his mid 80’s Allen shows little sign of slowing down and will probably die while directing or writing the script of yet another in his long list of over 50 movies. According to the opening paragraph of the book, he rises at 6.30am, gets his children ready for school, endures a short spell on the treadmill, then sits to write at his manual Olympia SM-3 typewriter – which was bought when he was 16 and still works.

The book is full of anecdotes, quotes, movie summaries and photographic stills from each movie covered and is a must for Woody Allen fans. No one could accuse him of being big headed about his achievements – if anything he is self depreciating, but at the same time, appreciative of the fame and ability to live as he chooses, that his career has delivered him. A couple of quotes to illustrate this are “I would hardly call it genius, but I do sometimes have a sudden flash.” – and – “(1973 movie) Sleeper showed me audiences enjoyed watching me, which I find hard to believe.”

He says that if he didn’t make movies, if he didn’t work, then he’d sit at home and brood and think and his mind would drift to unsolvable issues that are very depressing. On the subject of death a couple of quotes sum Allen up nicely one is “I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.” And the other is “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” I must say I’m with him on that last one.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, will keep it close to hand for reference, and recommend it whole heartedly. 5 / 5 from me.

The second book is a complete change of genre One Second After by William R Forstchen is a fictional tale about a very real threat, an EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) that sends catastrophic shockwaves throughout the United States of America. It follows the life of one man, a history professor and former US Army Colonel and his family, in a small North Carolina town. One minute enjoying every day life with all its modern conveniences and One Second After an EMP explodes over the centre of continental North America they are thrust back into the dark ages….the electrical grid and society as a whole in tatters.

I’ve read a lot of similar “Prepper” fiction before, but where as the typical prepper novel is about people who are usually prepared for an apocalyptical event, in this novel we take a look at the unprepared. At people who can’t even fathom, at least initially, what it is that has taken out the power grid and also caused all modern motor vehicles to suddenly stop….not to mention make planes fall from the skies.

I believe that it gives a fairly life like look at how quickly and how totally modern life, with all it’s morality, it’s rules, laws and principles, can come crashing down into chaos, anarchy and even cannibalism. It’s an interesting book to use as a talking point to discuss disaster preparedness – whether the disaster is natural or man made – with friends and family. As the preppers say “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

There is no electricity – so no ATM’s for getting out cash, no contactless payments, no transport, no refrigeration of food. Even hospital’s emergency back up generators were fried by the pulse and are out of commission. People die in their thousands in a very short time. There’s no power for pumping stations to supply water to cities. Food, water and prescription medication are in short supply. Things go bad very quickly.

I’m not going to discuss the story at all as I don’t want to give away any spoilers. I’ll just say that if dystopian or apocalyptic novels are your thing, don’t miss this book. I read it in two sitting I was absolutely hooked. If I hadn’t been so tired I would have stayed up all night to read it. Even if dystopia and the apocalypse are not your thing, it’s still a good book to read so that you can be aware of how thin our moral thread can be. How fragile civilized humanity is. If you’re not a Prepper before you read it….you will be after.

Read it – another 5 / 5 from me.

And finally…..drum roll please…..book number 3

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell. This is Bythell’s third published book about his experiences as owner of a second hand book shop. The first two being Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller – both former books are told in the format of a daily diary. I personally enjoyed both the Diary of and Confessions of a Bookseller as I am a self confessed bibliophile, eager browser of bookshops and a huge fan of Bythell’s rather irreverent humour….usually at the expense of his customers or staff.

Bythell’s latest offering is a change of format, written in paragraphs and chapters instead of the usual diary entries. He attempts to humorously categorize his book shop customers into various types and subtypes as well as taking a self depreciating look at bookshop owners and staff. I was looking forward to my usual fits of giggles and guffaws that I was reduced to when reading his two previous books. I’m not sure why, but this one fell flat and left me wondering if he’d finally exhausted his big box of bookshop anecdotes. There were still moments that made me smile, but no real laugh out loud moments and I must admit to feeling a little disappointed. As a book, albeit a rather small and thin volume of less than 140 pages, it is an OK read and I knocked it off in one evening. If it had been my first venture into Bythell’s world I would have probably been raving about it, but as a third book – sorry, but it didn’t meet the previous standards. I really do hate to say that, because I genuinely like the guy. I met him when he visited New Zealand’s book town Featherston when promoting his first book – the previously mentioned Diary of a Bookseller – firstly having a nice chat in a bookshop where I was doing a little 2nd hand book browsing (and buying as usual) and then at a speaking event to promote the book. He is a genuinely nice fellow and it pains me to speak badly of Seven Kinds of People.

If you’ve never read Bythell then by all means buy this book before you read the others….read it and enjoy it and then move on to the first and second books for a proper laugh.

Sorry Shaun but only a 2 / 5 for this offering.

The Day The World Came to Town 9/11 – in Gander, Newfoundland

Jim DeFede’s book has rather a long title (above), but for the ten thousand people of the town of Gander, Newfoundland, it really did seem like the whole world had arrived on their doorstep in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy in New York.

When the second plane hit the twin towers and the American Government ordered the closing of all American airspace, the planes that were already over half way from their take off point and heading for the USA had to land somewhere. For almost 40 passenger aircraft and a few private planes, that didn’t have enough fuel on board to be able to turn around and head back to their origin airport, Gander was their designated emergency airport. The question was, what happens when a town of ten thousand suddenly has to accommodate a further six and a half thousand people? It was a logistical nightmare that would have tested a city, never mind a small town in the middle of nowhere.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander ...

DeFede’s story was taken from interviews with hundreds of people who were affected by this sudden influx of people….this tide of humanity…. washing up on their doorstep. He interviewed the residents of Gander, the passengers and flight crews and has come up with a true story of heart-warming humanity which came about as a result of the terrible terrorist action of the eleventh of September 2001.

The people of the town of Gander were more than up to the challenge in front of them. Everyone pitched in to help the people on the planes as best as they could. Even striking bus drivers left the picket lines to provide transport from the airport to many varied places of accommodation. Because the flight crews and support staff had to be ready and refreshed to fly out at a moments notice, they got the priority accommodation at the motels and hotels available both in Gander and nearby towns. The passengers were accommodated in various church halls, schools, sports clubs and residents homes for the few days that they were stranded.

It was a true league of nations with a multitude of nationalities, religions and languages to be attended to and cared for. Food, clothing, bedding and many more personal items were all donated by the residents and stores in Gander without a thought as to personal cost. They took in these strangers not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because they simply wanted to help their fellow human beings. And help them they did, by opening up their homes and their hearts. Volunteers arrived at the various halls where beds had been set up for the stranded passengers offering to drive them where ever they wanted to go…or to take them home to use their shower facilities, or simply sit and chat over a cup of tea.

Among the stranded were millionaires, company chief executives even movie stars families – they were all given the same level of care as everyone else, and it must be noted that although some of the high flyers (excuse the pun) were offered to be sent certain luxuries to make their stay easier…or even a flight out on a company jet, they refused, saying it wouldn’t be fair on the other passengers and they would see it out in solidarity with the rest of the group.

Various bits of blurb on the cover of the book tell it all….An inspiring true story that spotlights acts of kindness in a world shocked and saddened by unimagined violence. And When you read this book, I predict tears in your eyes almost from the beginning, but they will not be tears of sadness or grief. They will be tears of joy and pride for the citizens of the little town of Gander, Newfoundland, who bravely stood up and said to the world, “Today we are all Americans.”

It is quite a lovely story, all the better for being true and DeFede does a wonderful job of weaving so many personal accounts together into one big act of humanity, of love and caring for our fellow human beings. It is not without its tragedy though and your heart will bleed and the tears will sting the back of your eyelids as you read about certain personal losses.

On the plus side, once it was all over and the stranded passengers were flown out to their various destinations, many of the people who had been helped by the selfless generosity of the town folk of Gander, donated money into funds to help the people and the institutions who had helped them.

When tragedy strikes, humanity steps in. It’s how it should be and it’s how it was in Gander.

A book well worth a read.

Thank you for reading this post. Can you recommend any other true stories of acts of unconditional love and kindness?

Rule Britannia – Daphne Du Maurier (1972) – Review

For some strange reason I don’t read a lot of female writers. It’s not something that I’ve made a conscious decision about, it just happens to be that the majority of books that I have read are by male writers. However, I do read women writers from time to time and the books that I have read, with the odd exception, have been very good.

I forget where I saw it, but somewhere I was looking through a list of dystopian novels and on that list I saw the name Daphne Du Maurier and the book Rule Britannia – so I thought why not give it a try.

Rule Britannia; A Novel by Daphne du Maurier

Shortly after I’d seen the book listed as dystopian, I was at a book sale of second hand books and found a 1973 copy of Rule Britannia and it’s been sitting on my to be read shelf ever since. Once started though, it’s a difficult book to put down. I don’t want to insult the writer but, based on this one story, I would sort of put her along side Enid Blyton….not because she’s writing for the under 12’s like Blyton, but because of her go to whoa style of writing. There’s no real sub plot, no intricate back stories, just a linear one plot story that introduces the characters to us and then rips along from start to finish. I liked it. A simple read.

It’s about a young lady called Emma who lives with her grandmother – who is an actress of old, now retired and in her 80th year – and six adopted boys of varying ages. They live in a big old house somewhere in Cornwall in the south west of England. Emma’s mother died and she was taken in by her grandmother. Her father is some sort of merchant banker and adviser of the wealthy, but he lives in London….when he’s not in Switzerland or Brazil.

The story is set in the early to mid 1970’s and was written in 1972. It tells a story of a financially bankrupt United Kingdom who have just pulled out of the European Community and appear to have struck some sort of deal with the USA.

The household awaken one morning to find that there is no mail delivery, the radio and TV are dead and there is a warship in the bay, disembarking American Troops, who soon arrive at their door. Theoretically there is meant to be an equal partnership in the newly named USUK, but to Emma and many others it looks more like a takeover bid.

Du Maurier is concerned not only with what would happen to her country – England – under what is virtually occupation, but also with the effect on human relationships. In Emma we are given a view of the occupation through clear young eyes. She can see both sides of the argument, but comes down squarely on the side of Cornwall and England. Lines are drawn between the American occupying forces and those who will benefit financially as a result of them being on British soil on one side and what Du Maurier describes as true Cornishmen on the other.

It’s an interesting concept and Britain’s bankruptcy comes about because the bigger finance becomes, the more complicated, more risky it also becomes. Britain as part of the European Community have to have a certain amount of trade with the member states and eventually depended too much on foreign trade, so after they withdrew from the EU, they were already under pressure. When the occupying forces took control of the shipping lanes and transport links, food, water and fuel are scarce and rationing begins.

It’s quite interesting to read the book and to see how many of the locals and farmers come together as a united front to supply one another with their basic needs. One of the adopted boys, Joe, has learning difficulties and can neither read, nor write. His forte is manual work such as cutting firewood and tending to the vegetable gardens, but even he can see how ridiculous it is for a country such as England, which had been forced to be virtually self sufficient during world war 2, to now be so dependent on foreign trade to supply its basic needs. He says more than 3/4 of the way through the story, after he had just traded a load of logs with a local farmer for milk and pork – “You see, it does work, community living. Our neighbours support us, we support them. We don’t need any money, we can live without it. If everyone did this, throughout the country, there wouldn’t be any need to trade outside. We wouldn’t get rich but we’d be happy, we’d be free….”

And that’s it in a nutshell really. Humans love to make simple things complicated. Tariffs, quotas, trade wars, economic sanctions….all these go away if we’re self sufficient.

There are a number of interesting characters in the book – Emma of course, her rather eccentric ex star of the stage grandmother – known to all as Madame…..but known to Emma as Mad, the six adopted boys who’s ages range from 3 to 19, display assorted strengths and weaknesses – all play off one another quite well, Emma’s father – who is more like a caricature than a real person, in a world of his own, Doctor Bevil Summers – who comes to the family’s rescue more than once, as does their neighbour a farmer called Trembath and the rather mysterious Mr Willis, aka Taffy – who can turn his hand to anything and has rather more tricks up his sleeve than anyone else around. I was sorry that the story had to end and I shall miss a number of the characters.

It’s the only book I have read of Du Maurier’s so I can’t say if it’s one of her best, or worse, or even typical of her work. I guess I need to read more of her novels. It’s not a brilliant book, it’s not something that you’re going to rave about and it’s uncomplicated, it’s not going to tax your brain – but its a good, easy, entertaining read and makes one wonder how life would be under occupation of the forces of another country – whether they were there at the invitation of your government or not.

Once again, thank you for reading and I welcome any comments, likes, shares. Happy reading folks.

The Pheasants Revolt – Brian Viner – Book Review

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This was one of the books that I recently bought at the annual Hastings Lions Book Sale and the first one that I’ve decided to read. It’s a biographical memoir and follows on where his first book Tales of the Country, which I still have to read, left off. As mentioned in my post about the book sale, I’d already started the book more or less as soon as I got home and it only took three sessions of reading to get through it. His writing flows very easily and you find you’re unable to stop yourself speeding through the stories. Although each chapter is a stand alone story of his family and their life in the British countryside, they are in chronological order so it still, in a way, reads like it’s one story.

It’s not a new book, the ones at the book sale seldom are, and was published in 2007. But from my own experience, although cities change rather quickly, life in the countryside is much slower paced so the stories in this book will ring as true today as when first published.

Although he’s not quite in Bill Bryson’s league as far as one liners go, Viner can still throw in one or two lines to make the reader chuckle along the way, for example – “Applying a razor blade to one’s scrotum is not a job anyone should do in a hurry.” – this from a story relating to his preparation for a vasectomy operation. It’s certainly an attention grabber. Actually, on reflection, he and Bryson do have a lot in common as far as their writing styles are concerned. Both write in the same way that a favourite long-lived uncle would bumble his way through stories of his dim and distant past. Getting lost on the way and taking several side paths before getting back on track to finish the story….and on occasion just getting totally lost.

He’s moved his wife and three children from the city to an old manor house in the Hereford countryside to “live the country life”, but he’s totally inept at country living. His idea of success is being able to walk across a cow paddock without standing in a cow pat, however he does learn how to turn a sheep up the right way…..please don’t ask – read the book.

His predominantly self-depreciating stories cover everything from – being a Beater during Grouse shooting season… the first day known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, and to grouse as ‘Bollocks, Is It Already That Time of Year Again?’ – coming home to find that the builders who have come to repair his house have spent a whole day putting up scaffolding against the wrong wall – the disaster faced when finding his two dogs had been out savaging sheep – discussing the delights and the downfalls of country dining – the right and wrong way, from experience, to raise chickens – his experiences of being a very minor celebrity – his discovery that one of his neighbours is, or I should say was, a notorious Madame (Madame Whiplash no less) and more.

It’s a very entertaining read and I will certainly make an effort to track down both his earlier book Tales of The Country, and a later one called Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn, about the British on holiday. If they are anything like The Pheasants’ Revolt they will be witty and entertaining reads.

North Korea Journal – Michael Palin (Review).

As I may have mentioned once or twice on past posts on this blog, I enjoy reading travel books and one of my favourite authors (along with Bill Bryson) is Michael Palin. His travel books usually accompany a TV series of the same name as his books. Since 1989, starting with his first ever travel book and accompanying TV show, Around the World In 80 Days, he was connected, almost at the hip it would seem, to the BBC. Usually, his travel series have multiple episodes. This latest book however, is presented alongside a TV show in only 2 parts, which has already been shown on British TV Chanel Five / ITV productions.

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The last time Palin was anywhere near North Korea was back in 1997 for yet another travel book and show Full Circle, but he only got a glimpse of North Korea from the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. This time he gets a tour of the demilitarized zone from the other side and a frank discussion with the officer in charge. North Korea or we should call it the DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – lays out the welcome mat and Palin, now in his 75th year, gets to see one of the most secret and mysterious countries on the planet.

Of course he doesn’t get free reign to go where he wants. He has two official guides who go everywhere with him plus other “ministry officials” who make sure that his guides don’t allow Palin to wander too far off the official track.

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Photo by Harvey Sullivan – The Sun.

He gets to see pristine cities where the streets are almost empty of traffic, giant statues of past “Great Leaders”, and symbols and buildings commemorating the “Great Leaders”. He also visits a state of the art airport – with no planes and no flights, a street of tower blocks built within a year, that seem to house very few people and a massive, symbolic hotel with no guests what so ever. The DPRK seems to be as a country, much like a show home is to a yet to be built housing estate. Everything is there, it appears, as a front, but there is little substance and in some cases no actual function for the building/hotel/airport. As my grandmother used to say – “All fur coat and no knickers”. This was evident in the state of the roads. Within the capital city, the streets were first class, pristine if somewhat devoid of traffic. Once outside city limits though the highways were cracked and uneven – so that every journey felt like a ride inside a tumble dryer.

The first three days – which according to Palin felt like three weeks as it was such hard work to be able to achieve what they wanted and every step had to be negotiated – Palin, his director and film crew are under strict observation and are quickly shut down and moved to another location if anything occurs that may show the DPRK in a bad light. The people he gets to meet are, to begin with, all prearranged, preapproved and very much pro the ruling regime. After a while though, once Palin and company have proved themselves as willing to follow their minders guidelines, they are given a little more rope and get to interact with the general public – some of them rather the worse for drink – at a party in a park and also to enjoy the scenery of the hills and valleys on a hike in the countryside alone when their minders, not dressed suitably for the hike, leave them to it.

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Palin with farm worker and the all important little Red Tractor

At one point they visit a farm – where the workers are in military uniform – and Palin “helps” a female farm worker with some weeding. The shoot couldn’t begin however until a tractor had been moved into the background – to prove that farms are not all manual labour in North Korea and that machinery is available (even if the tractor in question was around fifty years old). When Palin asked the female farm worker how he faired as a farmhand, she quite straight forwardly told him that he was “unnecessary”.

Even with the loosening of some of the rules, Palin only had to hint at a question critical of the regime or of the history of North Korea and he was pulled up short and sharp. He told one of his guides that in the UK “we are able to be quite rude about our political leaders”. But, not wanting to get drawn in to this sort of discussion she countered with “That’s what makes us so different. Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals, but represent the masses, so we cannot criticise ourselves, can we?” One wonders at what he and his guides discussed off camera that didn’t get put into the book – for the safety of the guides themselves.

There are a few extra pages at the end of the book, written by director Neil Fergusson, which covers his own earlier visit to North Korea to meet with officials and to discuss their filming schedule, rules and regulations. He had sent the North Koreans a wish list of places and people he would like to film, but on his arrival the “official schedule” looked absolutely nothing like what he’s asked for. Several days of negotiations followed before a schedule that was acceptable to both sides was reached. Despite promises and signed contracts it wasn’t until Palin and the film crew actually stepped on to North Korean soil that they realised that the shooting or the North Korea Journal was good to go.

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Palin with his two tour guides – Li So Hyang and Li Hyon Chol – his constant companions.

In summarising the 15 day whirlwind trip, Palin says that although there are certainly some differences between how North Korea and for example Britain function as far as regulations and freedoms are concerned, there were far more similarities than he expected.

North Korea feels that it can’t let its guard down even slightly due to the ever present American military threat – no wonder it has the 4th largest army in the world. Almost a quarter of the entire North Korean population are members of the armed forces. These military personnel however also man the farms, the factories and the building sites, so you don’t see them all wandering around the towns and cities carrying weapons.

To directly quote a section of the final paragraph of the book, Palin says “…the trip has been an eye-opener, a chance to look behind the headlines and see this secretive country as few other westerners ever will. As Pyongyang recedes into the distance, we turn and exchange smiles. Of relief, but also of regret. One thing we all agreed on at our farewell meal last night is that none of us would mind coming back.”

All of the travel books by Michael Palin are of good quality and this one is no exception, except for being of smaller format than usual, as you can see from the photo below. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, witty and informative – filling in some of the unknowns about North Korea without being in any way controversial or overly critical. Palin is too nice a guy to stir things up just for viewing figures, or book sales. He was Knighted earlier this year (2019) for services to travel, culture and geography following his career as a writer and presenter of documentaries that have taken him all over the world. I do fear, having reached the age of 75, that this could be Palin’s last travel adventure. I hope not, but time will tell.

Some of Michael Palin’s books on my shelves.

As usual thank you for reading this blog…comments, questions, likes and follows are all very much appreciated.