Monday, 24 January 2011

The Social Network

I really enjoyed this film.  I've decided to be a bit more 'cultural' this term and try to actually go to the extra stuff that's on, especially films as I don't watch many and my college has its own cinema (ish).

Anyway, The Social Network charts the development of Facebook, in a non-boring way.  Geeks, parties, law suits and... um... geeks again? provide a great plot full of human interest.  And lots of laughs.  It's really interesting to see how Facebook developed, and to consider that there was a point in my life when I *gasp!* didn't have Facebook.  Indeed, I remember dial up, the early days of the internet, the start of personal computers.  It constantly amazes me when I stop to think about it how much technology has moved on.  For example, when I was last babysitting, I had a go on my next door neighbour's Playstation 3 Kinnect thing (is that what it's called?), and while the game was actually very similar to one of the first ones I ever played on, it's a totally different experience in many respects, to be waving about the controller in thin air and watching things happen on the screen.

That digression on the progress of technology aside, the characters are (mostly) portrayed sympathetically, and interestingly.  I found the scene with the contest to get a job as an intern at Facebook absolutely hilarious--particularly in the explanation.  Every ten lines of code, you have to drink a shot.  Every three minutes you have to drink a shot.  Every... etc.  Very amusing.

If you get the chance to see it, it's well worth a watch.  Startling to think how recently and how small Facebook started, and how big it's become.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Budapest Protocol

Wow.  A gripping and just downright fantastic book, The Budapest Protocol revolves around a conspiracy at the heart of the EU--the continuation of the Nazi regime through peace, rather than war.  A fascinating historical background (the Nazis did try and create a united Europe, and the document at the heart of the book is based off a real document included in the appendix) mingles with a gripping character-orientated narrative to create a book I struggled to put down for dinner (and subsequently read until about 11 in order to finish it off...).

Budapest is created convincingly--I confess I haven't been there so I can't say for certain how accurate it was but it felt good--and the characters were equally well crafted.  I love the mingling snapshots of the past--both of the grandfather through the diary, and the main character's flashbacks to episodes in his career as war reporter. 

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I don't know, to be quite honest, what else there is to say.  The concepts behind it, including the Gypsy holocaust, were plausible, the political struggles felt real, it's a great book.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


The United States of Europe has arrived, and with it, dozens of new laws every day.  Things are becoming illegal so quickly, the jails have to be constantly deepened as more and more of Europe's citizens become inadvertent criminals.  Furthermore, it is now illegal to fire someone for incompetence--indeed, it seems like only the incompetent are ever promoted.

A brilliant thriller venturing across Europe, the investigator hampered by people and police who should probably be described as criminally insane.  An amusing, engrossing read with scatterings of brilliant characters, from the 'large' main character, through to the constantly angry Italian police chief, a forensic scientist who rearranges the dead bodies he's given as a hobby, a young woman with Sexually Inappropriate Response syndrome, and a dozen other hilarious characters and places--such as the train station where no train has ever stopped.

In style, it's probably closest to G K Chesterton or Douglas Adams, permeated with the same slightly wacky, off-beat humour, though with more of a plot than any of the Hitchiker books seem to have mustered...  There is a definite chase after a serial killer, on the trail of a dead agent.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, really glad I happened to pick it up in a charity shop :)  Well worth keeping an eye out for--I hope there's more.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The First Great Air War

I probably shouldn't be fussy, since  books about First World War aviation aren't always that easy to find (unless you happen to be near Cambridge University Library, in which case a little digging unearths a reasonable number).  However, this book wasn't all that great to be honest.  There was a lot about the pilots, and it was, in effect, a conglomeration of stories about individual pilots.  There was a lot said about how the observers and the gunners and the pilots of reconnaisance aircraft deserved more recognition, but not a lot about those individuals.  Most of the people followed were fighter pilots, generally aces (and often the more famous, high-scoring aces).

The first few chapters were very good, with some interesting stories about the early days of the Royal Flying Corps.  Tortoise races, anyone?  (Fly in a wind speed higher than your aircraft's top speed.  The person who gets blown backwards the furthest is the winner!).  However, the balance of the book wasn't great.  1916 and 1917 got the lions share of the book, with only two short chapters on 1918, despite the fact that there was a lot of fighting in 1918 and it was most of the year before the armistice was signed.  There was a definite bias towards the Western Front and the RFC, with a handful of German pilots, a few French and American, an even smaller handful of Italian pilots (and the pilots of the RFC who went to Italy), and pretty much nothing about the Eastern Front, or the Austrian side of the fighting in Italy.  In fact, it could probably have been improved by explicitly focussing on just the Western Front, rather than giving the lives of two or three Italian pilots, with a focus primarily on one of them.  There were a lot of comparisons to the Second World War, and I'm not convinced they really helped explain anything.

That said, some of the personal stories were interesting.  The Red Baron was described as a rabid dog who should've been shot, and there was a big emphasis on the fact that the war in the air wasn't chivalrous, but was really rather nasty and that even if they were knights of the air, knights weren't very nice when they were in battle.  Wasn't entirely convinced by the description of the Red Baron to be perfectly honest, but there you go.  There were some very amusing tales of various things that went on in the air, and some more poignant ones.

On the whole, it was pretty mediocre.  If it weren't for the fact that it's quite difficult to find books on this topic, I'd probably say don't bother.  It doesn't say anything particularly special, and you can probably find the amusing stories in just about any account of WWI aviation--there were some rather bizarre occurrences.  I also felt that it was overly critical of Trenchard and his tactics.  If you have an interest in the topic, it's reasonable.  If you're not desperately interested, don't bother.

(Just realised: I should probably tell you who the author is.  It's the one by Richard Townsend Bickers, published 1988)

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Up til, say, twenty years ago, if you'd heard of one historian, one history book, it would probably have been Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Written over 200 years ago, it's remained pertinent to the topic it covers, and while aspects are superseded by modern research, apparently (I can't vouch for this personally--I've read books on the book) it remains influential.  And nobody's managed to produce a newer work of comparable length and breadth.

The first thing is: this is not a book I have read from cover to cover.  Indeed, I haven't even read the abridged version from cover to cover--I imagine it would take about a year to get through the whole thing.  It's enormous!  One of those big, square books that you could quite happily use as a doorstop, or to make yourself look impressive.  It covers about 1,500 years of history, dancing about across the provinces, taking in primarily political/military history but encompassing high culture, manners, society, social structure, law, and any number of other things that Gibbon felt pertinent to his wide-ranging organising principle of how the Roman Empire came to an end.

Despite being rather outdated in years, and in some places in content, it's surprisingly readable.  If only I could have carried it around with me, and it didn't take a great effort to simply pick it up to read, I probably would have read significantly more.  There are these brilliant footnotes scattered about through the text which are cynical, witty, or just amusingly acerbic.  The text itself offers all the drama you might expect from court intrigues, military takeovers, and a memorable passage upon the girraffe (a gentle and useless animal, which has been described but not delineated), alongside occaisional steps back from the world of day to day happenings and a more detailed analysis of some aspect of society.

Despite its age then, this remains a classic historical work.  Actually, it's probably a classic because of its age--when it first came out it was a bestseller.  I'm going to horrify scholarly folk with my essay on it by comparing it to, say, Stephan Ambrose, or some other 'populist' historian.  Maybe Max Hastings is a better comparison...  Hmm.  Does anyone else love those books?

Anyway.  If you've a lot of time, it's worth reading this book.  If you've a little, somebody must surely have published a 'selected exciting bits of Edward Gibbon'. Surely.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Robin Hood

I'm quite a fan of Robin Hood.  I have three different varieties of the book (since the 'real' Robin Hood is in an epic poem--which I don't have--there are plenty of different versions of the story out there, some of them really rather different), and it's always been one of my favourite legends.  So when I saw this in the library, I figured it was high time I watched the film version.

Was it any good?  Well, I enjoyed it.  But I was watching it with my brother (who gave up about 15/20 minutes in) and my mum (who gave up about half way through).  So that's a one in three success rate.  Most of it was really rather impressive.  I liked the horses, I thought the acting was good, the plot seemed reasoanble enough although I spent quite some time trying to relate it to the book versions, until at the very end discovering that it takes place before pretty much anything in the books (depends which book you read as to whether Robin starts out as an outlaw or is made an outlaw in the first chapter or so).  The reason for my confusion was simple: as far as I'm aware, Robin Hood is conventionally set whilst King Richard the Lionheart is still alive, but captured, hence the increasingly high burden of taxes upon the population to pay for the release of the true king, and Robin Hood is not really an outlaw, but rather fighting for the true king of England against his usurping brother.  Instead, the film begins with the death of Richard and Robin and his men's return to England masquarading as knights, and the story instead revolves around the Magna Carter.  Ish.  It's historically somewhat dubious (although I confess my knowledge of the period is scanty).

Most of it, as I said, is good.  The big battle at the end, however, made me laugh (for the wrong reasons...).  Seriously.  Somebody wanted to film Saving Private Ryan, exchanging bullets for arrows and chain mail for body armour and helmets...  That part was painful, and somewhat undermined the credibility of the whole film.  Landing craft?  An all but identical sequence of shots to the opening of Saving Private Ryan?  No thanks.  The rest of the battle was actually pretty good--if only they hadn't done that stupid thing with the landing craft.

I won't be rushing out to buy a copy, and on the basis of the interest levels within my family, you probably won't be either (unless you're a major Robin Hood fan like me, in which case it is worth watching and I did enjoy it--some parts far more than others).  However, if I happen to see it on TV I'll certainly watch it again, perhaps get it from a charity shop in a few years.  There are some excellent bits, and for the most part the characters are well developed and believable--Robin Hood in particular.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawntreader

Went to see this last Thursday with my younger brother and thoroughly enjoyed it.  We were the only two in the cinema, as we went in the morning and the vast majority of schools had already gone back, so that was doubly fun :)

The dragon was very impressively done, as were all the fantasy creatures.  Eustace made me chuckle, and Lucy and Edmund, along with Caspian, were all well portrayed and developed.  A great installment to a great trilogy--I hope they don't stop with this one just because Lucy and Edmund are no longer featured.

My brother, it must be said, has subsequently said he thought it lacked a bit of action and could have done with some more excitement.  For my part (and I have only one movie that doesn't feature either an explosion or a fire of some description--that being Amazing Grace), I thought it had ample.

My favourite character remains Reepacheep (and this was true in the books as well), although I'm also rather fond of Prince Caspian.  The characters were all more developed in this film, probably because there weren't quite so many of them to deal with.  Eustace in particular proved a strong addition to the cast--although it wasn't until the end that he was a strong person!  His moaning provided plenty of amusement, and was a good counterpoint to the enthusiasm of Lucy for her return.

It's well worth taking the time to go and see this film.  A thoroughly enjoyable experience, with a wonderfully memorable ending.

Speed II - Cruise Control

It was on TV, I watched it.  Wasn't feeling well, but it was the perfect escapist thriller.  Lots of big explosions, a plot that was your standard thriller plot, it ticked all the boxes without being exceptional.  Enjoyable, sure, but not memorable in the same way as Inception or as huge as Transformers II.

What is there to say?  Cruise ship, terrorist type chap shutting down all the computer systems at will, and a rather spectacular ending sequence with exploding oil tankers and ships running aground (although this did somewhat stretch the credibility--I seriously doubt the ship could have got even half as far as it did).  The girlfriend was your stereotypical screaming American girl, who didn't seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation half the time, and basically acted like a half wit for the vast majority of the movie.  Amusing though.  Main character was something of a stereotype too, but convincingly enough acted.  If it's on TV again I'll probably watch it again, but I won't be rushing out to buy it.  (That said, I must confess that I couldn't leave the telly while it was on, and the ad breaks turned this into what felt like something of a marathon watching session--though that might just be because I don't tend to watch that much in the way of films).

The Noah's Ark Quest

Well, I traded in various books the other day for this one and one other (my whole Clive Cussler collection, if you're interested, bar a couple of hardbacks).  Anyway, it was a can't put down variety of book.

Noah's Ark.  Scientifically improbable, and yet many thousands believe in it, either literally or figuratively.  As a wooden boat, it would have been the largest ever built, liable to collapse under its own weight.  In order to load all the animals, something like one pair every 30 seconds would have to be loaded.  On the other hand, flood mythologies feature in every major belief system, so is there a kernal of truth at the heart of the story?

Dilara's father has spent his life searching for the ark, but he's been missing for three years when the archaeologist gets a call from a family friend.  Poisoned before he can relate things fully, his garbled words lead her on a quest to prevent the end of the world, aided by ex-army engineer Tyler Locke and his close friend Grant Westwood.

Plenty of action, excitement, and a fabulous quest, plus the requisite dastardly plot to misuse the remains of Noah's Ark this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and also surprisingly believable.  A keep you up until you're finished sort of book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  And I'll certainly be keeping my eyes out for more.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Glass Tiger

I was most impressed with this novel, especially as I only picked it up because books at the Harris booksale were five for a pound and there were four others I wanted.  I decided to read it primarily because it looked like one of the view not mega long books I had left to read, and I wasn't feeling well yesterday, so I didn't feel like going into one of the new Robin Hobb ones I've got recently.

It's a thriller.  It's got plenty of action, conspiracy, intrigue, and a brilliant plot twist, but what really drives it is the main character, or rather, main characters.  The 'goodie' and the 'baddie' are both intriguingly written, and deliberately close to each other in their life experiences.  Powerfully written, two hunters stalk each other across America, the prize: the life of the President.

Brendan Thorne, ex-CIA, now living in Kenya as a game keeper, is dragged back to the States to chase a man the new President thought was dead, a man with a grudge and the skills to act on that grudge.  Trouble is, not only is Hal Corwin a worthy adversary, completely at home in the forests where Thorne has to chase him, adept at hiding in plain sight, those who recruited him have their own ambitions and motives best served by using Thorne and then getting him well and truly out the way--preferably dead, but a Kenyan prison will work just as well.

An excellent, unputdownable novel.  I'll certainly be looking out for more by Joe Gores.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Pursuit of History (Third Edition)

I'd like to write that this was a load of tosh, purely because of the author's name, but in fairness to the book, I really can't.  It was wonderfully interesting, and I read much of it whilst on lunch breaks at M&S, which proved a wonderful antidote to the crippling lack of anything interesting or intellectually challenging that stacking shelves offers.

I'm actually quite getting into this whole historiography thing, really starting to enjoy looking at the practice of history and how it should be done and shouldn't be done and so forth.  I also feel like I'm starting to be in a position where I can start drawing my own conclusions.  Despite what I initially thought, it seems that the point of historiography isn't just to lambast those historians you happened to have a falling out with at high school.  In fact, Tosh doesn't have a go at anyone, and even points out the odd merit or two of psychohistory, which seems to be generally given short shrift (although he does go on to point out that it has its own unique set of weaknesses and runs huge risks of inferring waaaaay too much).

The section on oral history was interesting, postmodernism taken into account and explained without being resoundingly attacked as in Evans' book.  In fact, while I initially worried there might be issues in terms of him referring to 'modern' trends in history which were modern thirty odd years back when the book was first written, the last few chapters make it clear that it really has been updated.

I particularly, though, enjoyed one of the first chapters, which looked at social memory and how society perceives history as opposed to how historians say it really happened.  This theme was then picked up again in the section on oral history, making hte point that why people perceive things as having happened in a certain way when analysis suggests that they really didn't happen like that, is as interesting as the event in itself.  Why is the Battle of Britain in popular culture a David v Goliath contest, when the numbers of fighters were actually pretty similar and many recent historians have challenged whether it was even that close a thing as to whether we were gonna win?  Why does nobody remember instances of panic during the Blitz, instead subsuming it all into the wider Blitz spirit?  Tosh argues that social memory serves a specific function, legitimating current rulers and practices, as well as offering 'guidance'.  While no two instances in history are identical, he argues that history does offer suggestions of alternatives where we perceive no alternatives.

A very interesting book, not too theory-ridden, though it explains all the major theories well and assesses the impact and reasons for Marxist theories popularity amongst many historians.  I was also quite chuffed to feel that I knew the majority of the historians he referred to from my first term at Cambridge and other reading :)  Thoroughly enjoyed it, though it's not a book you can really read all in one go...  Needs spreading out, and the chapter divisions do this well enough.  One or two chapters at once is probably more than enough to digest at once.

Ice Age 2

I suddenly realised that I hadn't actually watched this film, despite the fact we have it on DVD.  And after reading a chapter of 'On Collecting', I felt like I needed some light relief.

I thoroughly enjoyed it actually.  It was a good follow up plot to the original, amusing and Manny in particular was well developed.  I love that mammoth :)  Sid was...  Well, he was Sid.  An irritating younger brother, like mine when he was a bit younger (now he's a lovelorn teenager!).  The new twins were interesting, added an additional comedic element although that was pretty well supplied by Sid (and the squirrel.  Mustn't forget the sabre-toothed squirrel).  I liked the new mammoth, thought she was well portrayed and very amusing with her decision that she really was a possum, in spite of her tree problems...

The only jarring note was the ending.  In fact, I felt the ending would've been better skipped out completely.  The last scene with the squirrel was unnecessary, a little confusing, and took away from what could have been a very strong ending with the extended 'pack' heading off together.  The sabre-toothed squirrel is fine as a short, and as a comical note of relief, but I felt it was overdone a little and especially so in the ending.  Unnecessary is the only way I can describe it.  Fine as an extra bonus feature, or even after the credits, but it ruined the ending somewhat.

Sid and Dieago made a good pairing, constantly antagonising each other, although I think Diego was a stronger character in the first movie--although to be fair, it's impossible to develop equally  wide range of new characters and I think they did a good job of keeping continuity with the first whilst introducing three new characters.

In short, it was a film that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, and while not perhaps quite as good as the first, certainly comparable.  I shall have to see if I can get the third out the library now...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Happy New Year

Well, Happy New Year one and all.  Looking back, I've done pretty rubbishly at keeping up with this blog.  Never mind.  This is a new year and I'll have a bash at doing better this time round.  It was easy to push it to one side while I was at uni, but I figure I was just making excuses really.  And it's not as though there was nothing to write about, and I've had plenty of time since I came back.  Anyhow, that's me done apologising for lack of blogging.

What's happened this year?  I 'won' Nanowrimo for the fourth year running, with an end total of 113,114.  Finished at Cardinal Newman, started at Christ's College Cambridge.  Learnt lots about early modern social and economic history, including the fact that you apparently don't capitalise early modern.  Also discovered that footnotes are impossible and incredibly annoying.  Essays would be so much more fun without footnotes.

Got my A-level results.  Made lots of new friends.  Joined a new church in Cambridge, which I now find myself missing while I'm at home.  Went to two airshows, the first time I've ever been to one.  Sunderland was amazing, Southport was wet, and the commentators much harder to hear which was a shame because the commentating was very good at Sunderland.

The 'big' politically events of the year: coalition government, student protests, Harrier got retired :( (my favourite modern aircraft), what else is worth mentioning to any future historian?  Nick Cameron and David Clegg of the Con-Dem party are useless liars, and I think there's a case to do Nick Clegg via the Advertising Standards Agency or for breach of contract or something.  The expenses scandal.  It was cold and England collapsed in a big heap of snow, even though there wasn't that much snow.  Anything else?  I guess there's the Royal Wedding announcement, but that's not that important.  Do you like my value judgements, random future historian who just happens to be using my blog as a source?  I'm afraid I'm probably quite atypical, but I really don't care about a Royal Wedding as a 'big event'.  I mean, I like the fact we have a monarchy, don't get me wrong, but I don't like celebrity culture, it bugs me.  Oh, the F-35 finally started getting somewhere.  Does that count as news?  Yeh, I guess it does.  Budget cuts.  Lots of them.  And tax is going up on January 4th, again. 

What else would you like to know?  Or, more specifically, what else would I like to tell you?  God's great, that's about all I can think of.

Oh, my goal for this year.  Three posts per week, which I think is a perfectly reasonable aiming point.  Possibly more, if exciting things happen.  I shall try and talk a bit more about the world outside of my own life too, which has the added bonus of making me pay attention to things outside my own life.  It's too easy, especially while in Cambridge, to loose all touch with the real world.  I observed a few weeks into term that it would be quite plausible that London was flooded completely, or World War Three broke out, and we wouldn't know about it.  So it's worth checking in with the BBC every now and again :)

Bye for now :)