Category Archives: Reviews

A Heretical Proposition

Matera, Italy
Caption: Ancient town of Matera (Sassi di Matera) at sunrise, Basilicata, southern Italy.

Here’s a heretical proposition: Quantum of B**locks is clearly the worst of all the “real” Bond films, but is No Time To Die the second worst? The release of a new Bond film is always accompanied by almost hagiographic sycophancy, but the reality is that No Time To Die is a very poor entry in the Bond franchise, if not an actively bad one.

It has to be said that the warning signs were apparent even before we got to the cinema: the over-long running time, the major changes in production team including the producers’ parting of ways with Danny Boyle, a long list of writing credits. These are common failings with horrors such as the execrable Pirates of the Caribbean 3, so didn’t bode well. However we arrived at the screen hoping for the best and wanting to be entertained. Unfortunately the film over-promised and under-delivered.

The problem isn’t the core plot of the film. This story could have been delivered with aplomb in a tight, flowing 2 hour package which kept up the Bond film standard. Instead it rambles with lengthy introspection more worthy of Jean de Florette. The action sequences when they come are fine, but several are also much longer than required and one, the fight through the villain’s lair takes so long it almost becomes boring.

The villain’s motivation is never really clear. If you’re going to launch a WMD which could kill off half the world’s population you really need to explain why. Call me old-fashioned but I like a bit of monologuing. Gert Frobe couldn’t speak English fluently, but his explanations in Goldfinger are exemplary. Rami Malek mutters darkly and you’re none the wiser.

The same story could have been told without killing off Blofeld, Leiter & Bond! These deaths, particularly Bond’s, set a horrible stamp of finality on the film which is hard to explain. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were “he fell in the canal and the body was never recovered”, but being respectively poisoned (in front of Bond), shot/drowned and blown up by a cruise missile are going to be hard to come back from…

What next? Does the next film start with Moneypenny waking from a horrible dream? Are they going to outsource the 00 section to some equal-opportunity collective? (That’s actually not the worst idea – in Edge of Darkness Harcourt and Pendleton get GLC funding via a black lesbian collective, maybe they could work that in.)

It’s almost as if the producers saw Avengers: Endgame and thought “we could do that”, but forgot that unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s a single somewhat key character in the Bond series. I know that this is Daniel Craig’s last Bond film, but the previous “last” films (those which were known as such at the time) are celebrations of the actor’s run, not a memorial service.

This is definitely a Bond film too far for Daniel Craig. He never looked truly comfortable in the role, but in this one he looks actively tired. I know this is supposed to be about his “feelings”, but he just looks worn out. Moore, Dalton and Brosnan all carried and acknowledged the grief of Tracy’s tragic death. Licence to Kill is largely driven by Bond’s desire for vengeance after Felix’s near death and his wife’s murder. Roger Moore was older than Craig when he did his last two films. But none of these resulted in a screen Bond who looked uncomfortable in his own skin.

The joke that during Bond’s retirement 007 has been allocated to a black woman falls flat. It ignores the fact that throughout Bond’s history (except, oddly, in the Daniel Craig era) there have been lots of strong female characters, many rival agents of comparable rank and ability to Bond. It doesn’t help that the new 007, Nomi is portrayed as solid and capable but almost deliberately unexciting. She’s underwritten and is not allowed to actually do very much – it’s left to the rather more stereotypical Paloma, a leggy high-kicking CIA agent in a skimpy dress to make a real impression.

As far as humour goes that’s about it. In common with the other Craig films this is dry as a bone. I prefer the world to be saved by someone with a quizzical raised eyebrow, nicely straightened tie, and an appropriate one liner for each despatched henchman.

Many of the other traditional markers of a true Bond file are also absent. The Bond team pretty much invented the signature stunt (think of the car jump in The Man with the Golden Gun, the ski/parachute jump in The Spy Who Loved Me, or taking a motorbike over a hovering helicopter in Tomorrow Never Dies), but aside from a couple of decent motorbike stunts there’s none of that here – it’s been abandoned to the Fast and Furious and Mission Impossible teams. (And remember, Tom Cruise is 6 years Daniel Craig’s senior, doesn’t look shagged out, and does most of his signature stunts himself.)

The body count is high, but mainly because too many people just get shot by machine gun, in long running battles. There’s no ingenuity to the resolution, just dogged determination to shoot the bad guys before they shoot you. If that’s the sort of film you’re making you don’t need Bond, James Bond, you need Casey Ryback.

With one exception the music is awful. The whiny alleged theme tune (as far as I can work out it fails the definitions of both “theme” and “tune”) drones on through a credit sequence which would never have met Maurice Binder’s approval. The incidental music is unremarkable, and unless I missed it the great Monty Norman theme is notable by its absence, maybe because there are few moments of real flair to justify it. This was another aspect of the film which suffered from a mid-production change of direction.

Did I like anything? I loved the Italian locations in Matera and Sapri, with the car and bike chase through the former probably, for me, the film’s high point. The scenes set in the Norwegian forest were good. The re-use of We Have All The Time In The World is inspired, but it does remind you that there’s a much better, 52 year old film about 007’s life and loves.

If this is really the final Bond film it’s a disappointing one. If not, then I have some suggestions for the next one…

It should start with Samantha Bond as Moneypenny waking from a bad dream, and pick up (with new cast) where Brosnan and co. left off. To cast Bond himself, find a 35-year-old actor who has already shown himself able to play a leading role with some flair and panache (Richard Madden? Kit Harington? Chris Hemsworth?) Make him debonair and suave, not a thug in a suit. Give him a sense of humour and write the lines and situations to exploit it. Balance this with a range of strong female roles of all ages, on both sides of the battle (remember, Die Another Day had Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike).

Re-create a healthy interest in stuff: clothes, cars, gadgets, locations, and shoot in a cheerful colour palette to match. If you can find someone who’s prepared to write and perform a proper Bond title song (e.g. Ivy Levan who did the one for Spy) great. If not suck it up and get the rights to Emma Bunton’s Free Me – a perfect Bond theme waiting ready for use.

And, this is most important, if someone suggests that the film should be about exploring Bond’s emotions: shoot them, with a machine gun.

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Review: Zero Limit

By Jeremy K Brown

Inadequate soapy knock-off of Deep Impact, with random numbers!

This is billed as “Artemis meets Gravity“, but it would be more accurate to say “Deep Impact meets Eastenders“. The main plot element is that a rogue asteroid mining operation accidentally puts the rock on a direct impact course for Earth, and thereafter it is basically a straight clone of Deep Impact, but with a Trumpian, dim demagogue president rather than an Obama-esque one, and a level of soapiness which would shame Eastenders.

The author seems to have a very poor grasp of mechanics, and the course of the asteroid is such that early on it’s “a little closer than the moon”, because the author doesn’t want something as prosaic as the speed of light getting in the way of chatty dialogue between the two central female characters, yet rather later on it’s “about four times further away”. Hang on, doesn’t that mean it’s moving away from Earth?

Other numbers and concepts seem to be equally confused. There’s a good thread about “moonborn” characters being demonised on Earth, similar to current Hispanic and Muslim immigrants to the US, but no explanation of how these amount to any significant numbers, especially given the acknowledged challenges of making the journey back if you were born in 1/6 g. There’s a comparison between the projected impact and the largest H Bomb, but a factor of 1000 goes missing somewhere, and you can’t help thinking that real scientists would use terms like “Giga” and “Tera”, and SI units, which have a well-defined, internationally-invariant value.

I finished the book because I wanted to write a review, but this is really one that wasn’t worth completing.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Book, Fiction, and Science Fiction.
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Review: The Spy. Why?

By Andrew Gross

Fictionalised re-telling of the Telemark story. Why?

While this is an enjoyable read, it prompts one big question. Why did the author feel that a heavily fictionalised re-telling of this utterly thrilling true story was needed? In the preface Gross says that he wants to tell “the story of how only a few brave men put an end to that threat”, but but then proceeds to invent a cast of central characters who are at best “drawn from” the real players and have their names changed. My decision to read the book might have been different if I’d realised up front the level of fictionalisation.

The central part of the book (between the commando raid and sinking the ferry) is almost entirely fictional, involving “Kurt Nordstrom” in not one but two love affairs. Now I get that “Kurt spent the summer of 1943 on the plateau eating reindeer and dodging the Germans” isn’t going to fill a lot of pages, but  a shorter more focused tale would have been fine. Once you realise that this section is what it is, it calls into question how much of the remainder is historic.

The irony is that a lot of this is unnecessary. By Gross’ own admission, the dramatic chase which separated one of the escaping Gunnerside team from the others actually happened, just to another character not the invented American, and the true story of how the plant’s night watchman interrupted the commandos setting the explosives not once but twice in search of his glasses is both funny and more dramatic than the way it’s told here.

Beyond that, the story has been told well, with less fictionalisation, several times in recent years. The BBC documentary accompanying Ray Mears’ excellent 2003 book was superb, with interviews of many of the real players. I thoroughly enjoyed the tri-partisan 2015 TV series The Saboteurs which succeeded in portraying the perspectives of not only the Norwegian commandos and their supporters, but also the British and Norwegian commanders, and key participants on the German side. Even the still enjoyable 1965 film sticks to the truth at least as much as Gross’ book.

The book was originally  published under the title The Saboteur, which makes perfect sense, but then got re-titled The Spy, which makes none, as there’s very little spying involved, and a lot of sabotage. Maybe this was to avoid an obvious clash with the international TV series, but it raises another “why?”.

If you want to read an enjoyable wartime romp with some real key events, then this book is fine. If you’d prefer to understand the background, achievement and the real players, track down one of the TV series.


Categories: Reviews and Thoughts on the World. Content Types: Adventure, Book, Fiction, and History.
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Review: Darwin’s Cipher

By M A Rothman

At last a good new techno-thriller, but maybe not murky enough?

I like a good techno-thriller, but since the death of Michael Crichton and with Phillip Kerr moving onto German detectives and unpleasant tales of first-person murdering pickings have been thin. I have enjoyed the works of Daniel Suarez, and the more “techno” output from Preston/Child and William Hertling, but having exhausted their catalogues I was getting a bit desperate for my latest trip. That’s when I found Darwin’s Cipher, the second novel from M A Rothman.

The basic plot is a simple one: advanced gene therapy being developed as a cancer cure is surreptitiously diverted into potential military applications, and both the medical and military uses generate very dangerous side-effects, which have to be contained or reversed. The story romps along at a good pace, the “techno” elements are well developed and fairly believable, and you come to like the competent, well-meaning central characters, turning pages enthusiastically to see if they can avert the apocalypse.

The writing is perhaps a bit weaker on the conspiracy side of the thriller.  There are lots of secondary characters with varying motivation: good, bad, and those doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. However these motivations are readily revealed and rarely change, and it lacks the sheer murk of a good conspiracy. Also whereas the technical elements are either tidied up neatly or left hanging deliberately, that’s not so true of the darker plot elements, and several key aspects are left unexplained.

That said, these are minor complaints. I did enjoy this book and I’ll definitely read Rothman’s other techno-thriller(s).

In an afterword the author explains that it’s very difficult to get traditional publishers interested in such material, despite the success of Crichton, Kerr and others.  That’s a shame, because it’s a genre which continues to intrigue me, and does have an audience. However it looks like we have to continue to go hunting to find the good ones, even before trying to discern the plots of the stories themselves.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Book, Fiction, and Science Fiction.
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Review: Software Design Decoded

66 Ways Experts Think, By Marian Petre, André Van Der Hoek, Yen Quach

A powerful reminder on the behaviours required to succeed in software architecture

This is a delightful little book on the perennial topic of how a software architect should think and behave. While that subject seems to attract shorter books, this one is very concise – the main content is just 66 two-page spreads, with a well-chosen and often thought-provoking illustration on the left, and a couple of paragraphs on the right.  However just as with The Elements of Style, brevity indicates high value: this book provides the prompt, the detail can be elsewhere.

The book should be valuable to many: If you want to be an expert software designer, this book provides an overview of the skills and knowledge you need to develop. If you want to recruit such a person, this provides a set of key indicators and interview prompts. If you are in one of those software development organisations which believes that quality architecture can somehow emerge by magic from the unguided work of undifferentiated coders, this might make you think again.

If you are, or think you are, a software architect, this book should act in the same way as a good sermon: it will remind you of what already know you should be doing, and act as a prompt against which you can measure your own performance and identify areas for improvement. It reminded me that I can sometimes be slow to listen to the views of others, or evidence which may change a design, and slow to engage with new technologies, and I will try to act on those prompts.

This book resolutely promotes the value of modelling in software design. Formal models and analysis have their place, but so do informal models, sketches, and ad-hoc notation. The key point is to externalise ideas so that they can be shared, refined and “tested” in the cheapest and most effective of ways, on paper or a whiteboard. We are reminded that all these are hallmarks of true expert software designers. Code has its place, to prove the solution or explore technicalities, but it is not the design.

The book also promotes the value of richness in these representations. Experts should explore and constantly be aware of alternatives, and model the solution at different levels of abstraction, in terms of both static and dynamic behaviours. Continuous assessment means not only testing, but simulation. If required, the expert should build his or her own tools. While solving simple problems first is a good way to get started, deep, early understanding of the problem space is essential, and experts must understand the whole context and landscape well enough to make and articulate design prioritisations and trade-offs.

I thoroughly recommend this book. It may seem slight, but it delivers a powerful reminder on the process of design, and the necessary, different thought processes to succeed with it.

Categories: Agile & Architecture and Reviews. Content Types: Book, Computing, and Software Architecture.
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A catholic Taste in Films?

I’ve always wondered about the phrase "a catholic taste", meaning "broad". Surely the way in which the Catholic religion (like most others) prescribes and proscribes certain behaviours and materials acts to limit rather than broaden an individual’s tastes? Apparently the phrase derives from Catholicism being positioned as "the universal religion", and hence "a catholic taste" (with a small "c"), means "a universal taste". There may be a bit of "getting the problem out of the way in the title" going on, but that’s the official version.

However our two visits to the cinema in the last couple of days certainly challenge this interpretation. Although the two films are at opposite ends of almost any cinematic spectrum, there was an odd and unexpected common thread in our viewing which bears a bit of introspection.

On Sunday, we went to see Assassin’s Creed. This is an energetic sci-fi and action movie based on the video game of the same name. While it’s not a great film, some of the parkour "chase and fight" sequences are amazing. Apparently it was done under "Bond" rules: if they could find someone mad enough to do a stunt for real, they went for it. There are also some pretty impressive sets, backdrops and costumes. The core action takes place in Andalucía in time of the Spanish Inquisition, Columbus and the Moor withdrawal from Spain. Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around a long running war between the Catholic church, in the form of The Templars, seeking ways to suppress human free will, which they see as driving the excesses of human violence, and The Assassins, who oppose them in the name of freedom. The Templars’ position, paving the road to hell with the best of intentions, is a clever plot device, and leads to some surprisingly insightful discussions of the human condition, such as an exchange between two senior modern-day Templars debating whether they need further methods of mass control when Materialism seems to be working very well…

Yesterday, we went to see Silence. I suspect few people will see both films, and probably not very many middle-aged couples, but hey, we have "a catholic taste", don’t we? By any objective measure this is the complete opposite of Assassin’s Creed: a thoughtful historical piece rather than a game-inspired action fest, slow and considered rather than frenetic, emotional and psychological rather than active, arguably a bit too long and indulgent rather than arguably a bit curt at the end, Oscar-worthy rather than one for the Razzies. However, we then get an unexpected thematic resonance. Silence portrays the attempts of the Catholic church to introduce Christianity to Japan, and how after some initial success this was met by a brutal backlash under the the Japanese establishment’s own inquisition. While the Christians are portrayed as the heroes of the piece, they are shown as arrogant and wilfully ignorant of the Japanese religion, culture, language and institutions. While the Japanese inquisitors are shown to be brutal at times, they are also shown to be capable of subtlety, humanity, humour and leniency. By the end of the film, while you may be impressed by the strength of the Christians’ faith, you ultimately admire and have some sympathy for the Japanese establishment’s psychological as much as physical defence of its own culture. And that is basically the same plot line as Assassin’s Creed.

Neither of these films will become favourites of ours, but I’m glad we saw them both and I find the odd thematic similarities fascinating and thought provoking. In particular, both challenge the conceit of any religion which sets itself up as the "universal" moral guide. In this particular case, a "catholic taste in film" has turned out to have something of an "anti-Catholic" theme, with two films both challenging the very concept of universal catholicism. Go figure…

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Review: The One Man

By Andrew Gross

Decent Thriller but with Annoying and Unnecessary Timeline Errors

Overall this is a cracking WWII thriller, set around the concept of an Allies break in into Auschwitz to rescue a specific prisoner who holds information vital to the Manhattan Project. Andrew Gross has done a great job of capturing the horror and brutality of life in the labour camp, in the constant shadow of the mass exterminations. He weaves into this some believable characters including a Polish Jew who had successfully escaped from occupied Europe, and is then prevailed upon to return to carry out an almost impossible mission, and his nemesis in the form of a side-lined Abwehr Colonel.

Both the set up of the situation and key players in the first half of the book and the suspenseful execution in the second ploy keep hold your attention turning pages right until the conclusion. The core material seems to have been well researched and is based on some well-documented history including Neils Bohr’s daring escape from the Nazis, and Denis Avey’s extraordinary excursion from the Auschwitz POW camp into the death camp to establish a first-hand record of the horrors.

It’s therefore a great shame that this is to some extent spoiled by a number of frustrating and wholly unnecessary errors in the timeline. Other reviewers have observed how the timelines for the key characters don’t quite “add up”. Beyond that there are completely incorrect factual references. The camp commandment goes to a meeting in May or June 1944 with Heinrich Himmler, fair enough, and Reinhard Heydrich, which would be a bit more of a challenge as he was assassinated in June 1942. The central character observes preparations for D-Day, counting the Stirling bombers out and back in again, and is pleased to benefit from the “newly introduced” Mosquito for the mission. The Mosquito was introduced in late 1940, and the Stirling was almost entirely eclipsed by the Lancaster and Halifax after 1943. Why add these incorrect references, when the book would have been fine without those details altogether?

I enjoyed this story, and will probably read some more of the author’s work, but it did leave me feeling a bit annoyed, and for no good reason.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Adventure, Book, Fiction, and Historical novel.
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Review: All Tide Up

By Alex Cay

Another great farce

Like it’s predecessor, Man Up!, this is a knock-about farce based around the capable but somewhat cursed sports agent, Patrick Flynn. This time the key protegé is a nymphomaniac Russian tennis player, but otherwise the cast of gangsters, hit-men (& -women) and scam artists hasn’t changed much. So much the better for that. Several of the key characters miraculously make it through from the first book to the second, and if you want to understand how then you first need to read the author’s even more farcical short story Icy Hot.

This style of comedy writing is difficult to pull off, and can mis-fire, but Alex Cay seems to have it off pat. The body count continues to be high, but sometimes (not always) with a slapstick element which invokes a lighter cartoonish tone. The sex scenes are moderately graphic, but provide both the prime driver for several of the female characters and a fair element of the humour. However as long as you are comfortable with a fairly adult style then you will enjoy and frequently laugh out loud at this outlandish tale.

It’s always encouraging when someone takes note and acts on a review. The author personally asked me to review his first book, and I happily did so noting that I’d like to see a change of location, fewer detailed American sports references, and a couple of stylistic tweaks. He has delivered on all those requests, and that makes the book all the more readable. Thanks for listening, Alex!

A great holiday read. I look forward to the next instalment.

Categories: Reviews and Thoughts on the World. Content Types: Adventure, Fiction, and Humour.
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Review: The Eerie Silence

Searching for Ourselves in the Universe, By Paul Davies

Enjoyable and intriguing review of the state of SETI

This book is a review, at the 50 year point, of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and a consideration of how it may evolve in the future, by the scientist who heads several of its key committees. It’s a wide-ranging discussion which provides some answers for Enrico Fermi’s great challenge (“Where is everybody?”), and prompts the reader to consider how much we really know given how much our knowledge has advanced and changed since SETI was established in the early 1960s.

The early part of the book is focused on the current evidence for other forms of intelligent life, considering what we know of its genesis, the evidence (or rather profound lack thereof) for any second start either on earth or in the solar system, and whether evolution will naturally or regularly produce intelligent, scientific and technical species. Here Davies takes a fairly negative view, although he acknowledges that we have simply failed to uncover evidence from our earth-based viewpoint, and that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

The latter part looks at the potential forms of a “galactic diaspora”, accounting for our vastly increased knowledge of alternative information carriers, information systems, machines  and engineered probes including the conventional, the biological and those based on nano-technology. Again there’s no evidence yet, but this section explains that alien signals or probes might just be too different, or too small, for us to detect. The conclusion is that we need SETI to avoid being athropocentric, and especially not “1960s radio astronomer centric”.

The final chapters explain the current state of preparation for First Contact (which seems to consist mainly of international committees sending telegrams to each other, and may not be up to the arrival of city-sized spaceships over the capital cities of the UN Security Council :)). The author also discusses what form of messages we should choose if and when we do send any ourselves. The assertion that only key mathematical and physical theorems are guaranteed to bridge all scientific species is a sound one, but maybe misses the point that the Pioneer plaques and similar are just as much an expression of our humanity to ourselves as a serious attempt to communicate with minimum ambiguity.

While the book is inspiring and thought-provoking, it’s also a bit frustrating in places. Davies asserts correctly that the Earth is progressively becoming “radio silent” to long-distance observers, but blames this entirely on the move to put major long distance communication channels into cables. A more complete explanation is that our world is full of vastly more wireless communication that 50 years ago, but as we adopt spread-spectrum and encryption technologies and get better at using low power and highly directed signals the “overspill” into space is much more difficult to detect. Similarly he presents an explanation of Galactic Inflation I haven’t read before (the absence of magnetic monopoles), but fails to present the more common justifications.

In considering alterative technologies Davies binds himself with our current science, despite the fact that there is significant evidence (the failure to unify General Relativity and Quantum Physics, the lack of any real explanation for Dark Matter and Dark Energy) that there are things about the Cosmos we just don’t understand, and which an alien civilisation (or a future humanity) may exploit. While Davies correctly advises against wishful thinking, it would be prudent to accept that just as our own understanding has changed vastly in the last 100 years, it will likely change again in the future, perhaps opening up valid options for, for example, super-light speeds.

However, those criticisms aside, this is an enjoyable, intriguing and well worth-while book. In the final few pages Davies himself observes that there is a contention between the official views of Davies the relatively cautious scientist and Davies the philosopher, human being and SETI enthusiast, and some of the challenges come from presenting and navigating those different viewpoints, which overall is done very well. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and recommend it.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Book, Physics & Cosmology, and Science.
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Review: Influx

By Daniel Suarez

Enjoyable romp, but largely familiar plot

Daniel Suarez is billed as the new Michael Crichton. While a few of his novels have come onto my radar, this is the first I have read. Based on this showing there’s a great deal of promise, but the fairly derivative nature of the plot suggests that at least for now the pure inventiveness of Crichton has yet to be matched.

The basic precept is this: imagine that many of the key inventions we have been patiently awaiting for the last 50 years – controlled fusion, quantum computing, reliable cloning, a generic cure for cancer – have actually been found, but are hidden from the world at large. What warped power and societal structures would that drive? It’s a great precept, although here it’s turned into a recognisable and predictable plot, with a heroic inventor on the run, while dark forces try to suppress inventions on behalf of the status quo. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Chain Reaction, and by pure coincidence I had also just read Catalyst by Boyd Morrison, which while markedly less futuristic tells a similar tale.

My other slight gripe is that this suffers in a few places from “techno-babble”, short sections which appear to just be a dumping-ground for a large number of technical terms, which just about boil down to “magic”. I know the author is trying to establish the BTC’s technological superiority, but that’s adequately done by the more detailed examples in the main flow of the text.

That said, this is a clever piece, challenging preconceptions and frequently, even literally, turning them on their heads. As a techno-thriller it’s well written, keeping the reader’s attention fully engaged from the first page, and I will certainly be reading more of Suarez’s books.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Adventure, Book, Fiction, and Science Fiction.
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Review: Mother Tongue

By Bill Bryson

Very amusing, but needs a refresh

This is an amusing and enjoyable romp through the history of the English language, and a delight for closet linguisticists like myself. Bill Bryson takes us on a fascinating and funny tour of the history of the English language, how it became a (arguably the) world language, how its usage, spelling and grammar vary with time, location and context, and how it continues to develop. However like this reader it’s older than you think…

Amazon have been pushing this book hard recently, and I downloaded the book in Kindle format in the expectation that it was a relatively new work, with an apparent publication date of 2009. However reading the opening chapter I got a strange sense of deja vu, and realised I had read it before, but evidently long before the advent of either e-reading or publishing and cataloguing my own reviews. I reckon I last read this not long after its original publication in 1990, so about a generation ago! It has rewarded a re-read, but has left me thinking how much better a book it might be for an refresh.

A lot has changed in the last 25 years which directly affects our use of language, and particularly English. Foremost in my mind are the end of the Cold War, the rise of the Asian economic powerhouses presenting relatively direct services to the rest of the world, and, above all, the development of the Internet and mobile technologies. The latter have brought the expectation that pretty much any two humans, anywhere, may have both the wish and the technical means to communicate, and across national boundaries will usually use English to do so. Technology has both led and enabled big changes to how we use language, and we increasingly design our messages and evolve our language around the constraints and possibilities of the transmission and consumption platforms. “Thanx”, “R U OK” and “GR8” don’t appear in this book, but they belong there.

It would be great to understand whether the wider use of English is driving greater homogenisation of usage and acceptance of obvious simplifications, or whether we are just further “baking in” the idiosyncrasies, and adding a new layer on top. Does the availability of online resources such as dictionaries and thesauruses drive the wider adoption of correct usage, or is this outweighed by the need for simplification of the message? Do tools such as spell checking,  predictive text and automated translation increase or decrease individual language skills?

In fairness to Bill Bryson, he does recognise some of these challenges in his final chapter, and makes many of the right calls on general direction, but the book itself is now a period piece the other side of major technological and geopolitical changes.

Despite the fact that Bryson wrote this book when he had been living in Yorkshire for many years, it has a bit of an American focus, typically assuming that the reader knows the American usage but needs the British explaining. Once you’ve tuned into this it’s fine, but it can throw British (and I suspect other) readers slightly at first. Other slight downsides are that like some of Bryson’s other books it’s arguably a bit too long, and in the last third some of the examples get a bit repetitive, and also some other reviewers suggest that the fact checking, especially around non-English languages, is perhaps a bit suspect.

Having said all that, the books remains highly readable, full of wonderful anecdotes and nuggets of knowledge, and if you accept its horizon, well fills a role which I don’t think is met by any other book which I have read. Enjoy it, but acknowledge and forgive that it’s slightly showing its age.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Book and Linguistics.
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Twin Tales of Sporting Daring-Do

The 1988 Winter Olympics brought us not only one, but two heart-warming stories of sporting heroism by unconventional outsiders. The story of the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team was told promptly in the wonderful 1993 Disney picture Cool Runnings, but we’ve had to wait nearly 30 years to see the other tale, that of Eddie the Eagle, on the silver screen.

Part of the challenge is that the dramatic conventions of such films force their screen renderings to be quite similar. In reality the situations were somewhat different. Until the wheels (or at least the runners) literally came off the Jamaicans had built up a real prospect of a good place, powered by a team three of whom could run 100m in less than 10s. Eddie Edwards had his utter determination to take part, and had built up a decent competition record on skis, but was only ever likely to come last. The new film acknowledges this, but otherwise echoes the earlier one in many ways, with the same drunk and disgraced former athlete as coach, the condescending officials who see the outsiders as challenging the dignity of their sport, parents who are split on whether to support their sons or not, fellow athletes who are initially rude but who come to respect the outsiders’ determination, and so on.

When two films, by co-incidence , tackle the same subject at the same time it’s inevitable that they are compared and one (Deep Impact, Olympus Has Fallen) falls into the shadow of the other (Armageddon, White House Down). While I get the impression that the makers of the new film didn’t want to wait nearly a generation to make it, maybe by doing so they have both reduced this effect (except from old codgers like yours truly), and will perpetuate these great sporting tales into a new audience who might not otherwise have been aware of them.

Comparisons and conventions aside, Eddie the Eagle is an excellent film. It captures both the flights and thumps of ski jumping, and modern filming techniques allow you to be there on the skis with the jumpers. However it excels in telling the human stories, with Edward’s determination against the odds beautifully portrayed, as is the growing admiration of those who both supported and opposed him. I have two abiding memories of the Calgary Olympics. One is of four black guys carrying their broken bobsleigh over the finish line, and the other is of an interview about Eddie with the slightly cold and aloof Finnish ski-jumping champion Matti Nykänen who the reporter was expecting to be rude and dismissive. Instead the young Finn was warm and supportive of Edward’s right to be there, and pretty much put the seal of approval on his attempt at the 90m hill. In the film that same support is portrayed in an elevator conversation between the two men, and brought my memories flooding back.

The film is also very funny, and that triggered another personal element. We went to see it yesterday in Guildford, and a large extended family had clearly block-booked the central seats next to ourselves. I noticed that when the same writer’s name was shown twice in the credits, there was a little Mexican wave by the kids, and thought "oh, that Simon Kelton must have someone in", but then sat down to enjoy the film and laughed as loud as I normally do when so entertained. Afterwards, one of the family group came up to me and asked "was it you who was laughing so loudly?" I confirmed that it was, and he introduced himself as the writer. It’s not often I can personally express my thanks to an entertainer, and it was great on this occasion to get the chance.

It’s a good film. Go and see it. And afterwards, try and catch up with Cool Runnings.

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