Iain's Leisure Reading - Some Book Series


I am never sure what to put on my web site, but I do want to keep adding bits and pieces every so often. So scratching my head, I thought why not add a section listing just some of the many books that I had enjoyed reading. But to make it different from all the better, more detailed book reviews you can find everywhere I have concentrated mostly on series of books rather than individual one-offs.
This explains lots of missing books - eg I really enjoyed Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, but it is not mentioned here.

I have been reading books all my life. At primary school I was a real bookworm, and devoured books for pleasure. But at secondary school, as a student, or working as a scientist or accountant, my reading changed. I had to study or try to keep up to date. Most reading was of this nature - not necessarily unpleasurable, but hardly light reading. I did read the occasional novel, but mostly reading was work related.

Books were always a source of great pleasure, and now that I have more leisure time, I have managed to read more and more. Mostly I buy books in charity shops. Why pay 16 for the latest hardback - get it later in a charity shop. When ever we are on holiday we usually browse the book shelves of all the charity shops, and I buy just whatever takes my fancy, but especially another book by a favourite author. If I can't wait a few months, then there is always Amazon. Once I find a favourite author/ series - Bill Bryson for his travel books, John Le Carre for the Smiley novels, Ian Rankin for the Rebus novels - I try to buy everything in that series, and store the books away for later reading. I usually have one book on the go at any time, and lots of future reading waiting in a queue.

Reading series of books has many advantages - it allows you to follow favourite characters, and see what life has to throw at them. It also allows you to see how an author changes with time. And when you have enjoyed previous work, it is an obvious indicator of what to buy next.

I have listed some recommended books, added comments, and grouped everything by author, and then chronologically:-

But first I have addded a section called Companion Books - sort of reference books covering the books in my lists :-



























Bill Bryson, mostly his travel books



Of all the authors that I have listed, Bill Bryson is the only one who has written to me. Unfortunately it was in his capacity as President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and it was a circular asking for a contribution. Fancy an American not only getting upset about about the disappearing green fields of this country, but caring enough to do something about it !

Bill Bryson's first travel book opened with the immortal line "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to" And yes, he was born there in Iowa, U.S.A in 1951, the son of William and Mary Bryson. He has an older brother Michael, and a sister Mary Elizabeth. He was educated at Drake University, but dropped out in 1972 to backpack around Europe. And so began a life of travel, documented in his witty, humourous travel books - all written with an affection for the places and people met on his journeys.

He first visited England in 1973, decided to stay, and met Cynthia, a nurse and his future wife. The couple returned to the USA in 1975 so that Bill could complete his college degree. They returned to England in 1977 where they remained until 1995, living in North Yorkshire, with Bill mostly working as a journalist (his father William had been a sports journalist on the local Des Moines newspaper). He became chief sub editor of the business section of the Times, then deputy national news editor on the Independent - so quite a distinguished career. In fact he wrote many books about the English language - eg "Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words" etc. In 1995 he took his family back to the USA so that the children could experience a childhood in America, living in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 2003, however, Bill and his family returned once more to England to live in Norfolk. In 2005 he was appointed Chancellor of Durham University, in 2006 the mayor of Des Moines awarded him the key to the city, and later the same year he got an OBE for contributions to literature. Many other distinguisehd awards followed.

Bill Bryson's books are very readable - perhaps due his days as a journalist. He is a friendly, easy going character who wanders about and then gives us his take on the world and it's foibles. He is a witty, incisive writer who can also take a swipe at what he disagrees with. His dear high-school friend Stephen Katz (Matt Angerer) joined Bill as an agreeable travelling companion in some of the journeys.

I have included the "Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" in my list of mostly travel books but this is really a retelling of his school days- a wonderful place and time the like of which we shall not see again, and we can all say our own here here to that. I have not include his prize winning "A short History of Nearly Everything" which I have read, and which impressed me greatly as it is quite different from the travel books, and a bit hard going in places.





The Lost Continent : Travels in Small-Town America,     (1989)


 

This is Bill's first travel book, the one with the famous beginning "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."

After 10 years in England, Bill returned to the States to the land of his youth, and found that everything had changed mostly for the worse. He travelled 14,000 miles around 38 of the lower states and found a terrible sameness wherever he went. Its a huge, huge country full of look alike strips of petrol stations, motels, and hamburger joints. Bill had become a stranger in his own land. You can never return to your youth.

I quite enjoyed reading this book and agreed with a lot of Bills comments. I thought that the second half of the book was better than the first half

I almost bought the book in a second hand book shop in Scarborough. It was priced at 2.90 and I offered 2.00. They suggested 2.50, so I walked away. Had I been short of reading material I'd have haggled further / paid the 2.50, but I was reading Alan Bennett's "Untold Stories" which is quite a thick book, and so I was not short of reading material. I finally got a copy about July, 2007 - in Bury St Edmunds, I think.






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Neither Here Nor There : Travels in Europe,    (1991)


 

Strangely I almost bought this book as part of a two books in one offer - the other book was The Lost Continent. Oxfam wanted 4.99 for the joint offering which at the time I thought too much. Eventually I got a copy for 1 in another charity shop.

Bill's first travels had been to Europe as a skinny youth in 1972. It was "as happy a summer as he had ever spent", and he enjoyed the experience so much that he returned a year later with his chum Stephen Katz. Then 15 happy years in Yorkshire went by before he decided it was time to renew his acquantance with Europe. The first place to be visited was Hammerfest in Norway - the most northernmost town in Europe. It took ages to get there, and there is not a lot to do in Hammerfest. Nevertheless he stayed there for 16 wintery days. And what was the attraction - the Northern Lights.



Generally Bill hops about Europe and discovers sadly that there is a lot of truth in national stereotypes. And its all retold with the humour and wit for which Bill Bryson is famous. I think this is a book for dipping into rather than reading from cover to cover. Its more a tour of the major cities of Europe than countries. Typically Bill gets a train to wherever takes his fancy, alights at the train station, goes to the tourist office to book a room somewhere, books in, has a shower, goes for walk, has a meal, walks back to the hotel, sees the sights and generally just meanders around. When younger, he and Katz thought Amsterdam a wonderful place - they got up for breakfast, went back to bed, and then got up again late in the afternoon, had a reefer, and hit the town. They had to leave after only one week when they discovered how much money they had spent. Now, however, Bill found the slease of Amsterdam wearisome. Generally though, its a good read, Bill likes most of what he sees, but criticises what he doesn't and a lot of the observations are spot on.

I liked the last quarter of the book best. Although the chapters were counties instead of cities, in essence he was still visiting one city, the country capital. But there was more variety - the places and the people he visited were very different. His visit to Sofia in Bulgaria showed him life in a communist country and he makes some interesting comments.






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Notes from a Small Island,     (1995)


 

I really enjoyed reading this book, although when he eventually gets to Aberdeen he doesn't really see it at its best nor do it any justice. In fact he is a bit weak on Scotland generally, but I will forgive him that, and perhaps Bill will do a separate Tour of Scotland later. Unfortunately I read a borrowed copy of this book and returned it, so I have again had to resort to an image from the internet.

It is obvious that Bill loves the country, and writes with genuine affection about much that is to be admired. But he also writes with sadness and sometimes anger about how much is being lost, and about how little we seem to care about this. And how casual we are with our natural heritage, and our terrible lack of imagination in most town redevelopments. All is done to minimise cost, and all town centres now look the same. Why bother to visit. What a legacy to leave future generations! And yet, we still have a sense of humour. "Mustn't complain"

He writes with especial affection about the Yorkshire dales where he used to live, and the people who live there - the salt of the earth. An eventual sign that he had been accepted into the community was when he was recognised with what I think he called the Swaledale waggle - a slight twitch of the little finger on a hand on the steering wheel of a passing neighbour's car.






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A Walk in the Woods : Rediscovering the Appalachian Trail,    (1998)


 

I bought this book as part of a two book omnibus called Walkabout.

Rediscovering the Appalachian Trail is a bit slow to get going - Bill goes on about visits to the store to buy a tent and related equipment for a bit too long. But bear with it, once he sets out and takes to the woods it becomes a really good read. The journey is done with his faithful schoolboy chum Katz. They seem to have nothing in common and are an unlikely pairing. But somehow it works - they really are good companions and would defend each other to their last breath. They both start off woefully unfit and walk their way to fitness.

They start off in the snow at the beginning of the trail with the intention of doing the whole trail. After months of trudging they chance upon a map of the complete trail and realise how long it has taken then to cover only a tiny fraction. This they turn from setback to liberation. Since they simply cannot do the whole trail, they can have a break, and rejoin the trail much further on to appreciate more of the variety it has to offer.






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Notes from a Big Country,    (1998)


 

I was not sure if I should recommend this book or not but in the end I quite enjoyed it, so I have recommended it.

The book is actually a compilation of his weekly articles in the Mail on Sunday magazine, which he wrote each week from October 1996 to May, 1998. So its about 80 chapters each about 3 pages long. All Bill's wit and humour are there but its very "bitty" and I could have done with more development of lots of the themes mentioned in passing. He had returned to the USA with his family, but he had left as a youth, and returned "as his father". Now it was his turn to eg tend the boiler - but he never done that before. When he last lived in the states that was his father's job.

It does give a good insight to life in the USA in the late 1990's. He is a little out of place in his own country. He wants to walk to the shops - but no one else walks and his neighbour even visits him by car - a few yards drive. He laments the loss of the drive in movie even though the one of his youth smelled as if a horse had died there. He hated the small screen at the multiplex - but as his young daughter tried to explain to him, "people don't like places to smell as if there were dead horses there anymore." The article about his son leaving home (going to college) was very poignant. Yes, all in all, it was a good read.






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Down Under,     (2000)


 

I don't know when I first read this (possibly 2008), but I reread it in January, 2015.

First reading :

This was the second book in the omnibus along with The Appalachian Trail. I especially wanted to read this as my son Jamie has emigrated to Australia and I wanted to learn about his new adopted home. Who better to learn from than Bill Bryson.

Bill always seems to like the countries he visits, so you get a fair and an affectionate view. Bill obviously does loads and loads and loads of research - read his "History of Nearly Everything" to see the proof of this. But he uses this research casually and with a very light hand. His sense of humour lightens every page of his journey, and you always trust his judgment and agree with most of what he says. Jacqui, who is an Australian, read the bit of the book about part of the country that she knows well - the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney, and laughed out loud. That's so true, she said, referring to his comments about locals dawdling along in their car to a reduced pace of life. You get to appreciate the size of the place - as usual underestimated by Bill in his planning. He has a dry direct may of viewing the world, and yes, it was a good read.

Second reading :

We were in Australia mid December 2014 to mid January 2015, and were spending 2 weeks over Christmas and New Year at Jamie and Jacqui's farm near Bigga. I had taken 5 books with me to read at the farm, but they were not very big books, and I had read them all by the end of the first week. I had downloaded "Police" , a Harry Hole book by Jo Nesbo to read on my Ipad (my first book download), but then I found that I couldn't read it through the day - Lachlan (4) wanted to play "Angry Birds" whenever he saw the Ipad, and Charlie (almost 2) wanted to watch Peppa Pig videos. So I found "Down Under" on a bookshelf and decided to reread it - appropriate as I was in Australia. I don't know when I first read it - it must be well over 5 years ago.

The first thing to say is how much I enjoyed rereading it . It didn't spoil it in any way that I read it before, which surprised me. How many other books should I reread ?

Bill Bryson is a terrific writer - a great wit, genuinely funny. But he is wise too, and sometimes, in half a sentence, very poignant. Thus, a place he is visiting reminds him of home in Iowa in the mid 1950's, "and I suddenly thought how long it was since I had been there."

Australia is a huge, underpopulated country - 80% of people live in the Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide S.E. coastal belt. It has been isolated and overlooked in so many ways and for so many years as it is so far away. It has many, many wonders of the world, but no one knows of them, nor cares. It is safe, and has a wonderful climate. Why don't more people go there ?

The Aboriginies are a group existing for 60,000 years. They are a wonder of the world, like finding cavemen alive in Europe, but no one cares, nor treasures them. Sometimes, though, this is easier said than done.

It's page after page of fact and interest, laced with wit and humour, presented in the most readable of ways.

I'm not sure that Bill would always make the best of travelling companions, though. One chum for part of the time was so regailed with tales of all the dangers that lay in every step - salt water crocodiles, snakes, spiders, jelly fish, etc, that he returned his meal of snapper fish (possible fatal toxins) to the kitchen and switched to steak and chips. That said though, the two chums had a great time together.

In summary, it's a terrific read - I loved it for the second time.






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African Diary,    (2002)


 

I have not read this one yet, nor seen it anywhere. It will probably the last one of Bill Bryson's works that I get round to reading. Again the image is lifted from the internet.






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A Short History of Nearly Everything,    (2003)


 

I read this book in possibly in 2011 or before.

I'm afraid I have been guilty of inconsistency. I read this excellent (more than excellent) book ages ago, but I bulked at the idea of sort of reviewing / summarising it, and so decided to get round the problem by only talking about Bill Bryson's travel books. Years later I read and enjoyed Bill Bryson's take on William Shakespeare, and happily added it to the list of recommended Bryson books - therby breaking the rule only to cover travel books. So now I have decided to add Bill's "Short History of Nearly Everthing". It is a better book than his Shakespeare, and should be on the list.

This book is real tour de force, and is thoroughly recommended. With the recent explosion of knowledge, so few of us can be polymaths. Everyone, even experts in some one subject, will get a stunningly readable introduction to all sorts of other topics. Bill introduces the book by describing an uncomfortable thought that came to him whilst he was staring idly out the window on a long flight across the Pacific. It occured to him that even though he was a reasonably educated man, he didn't know the first thing about just about everything. Why was the sea salty, what was the earth made of, what is a quark, etc, etc ? So he decided that he would devote a portion of his life - three years as it turned out - to reading books, journals, and speaking to "saintly, patient experts, prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions"

The book is almost 700 pages long, and is set out in 30 chapters grouped under six general headings. Instead of doing a summary - an impossible task - I thought I would simply list Brysons six headings :-

I found the whole book very interesting, and mostly very readable. I thought the parts about astronomy, and physics fascinating, but rather switched off when it came to botany.

This is a terrific book to read cover to cover, or simply to dip in and out of. I really loved it, and why I didn't add it to my list of recommended books earlier I simply cannot comprehend.






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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,    (2006)


 

In this book Bill travels back to the curious world of the 1950's and to his childhood in Des Moines,Iowa, USA. I also was a child in the 1950's and agree with a lot that he says. I think that is why I like Bill Bryson so much - he says things that we agree with, and articulates our experiences with wit and humour.

This was time before Health and Safety and traffic and other fears destroyed childhood freedoms. We were free to roam. Bill recalls how far he roamed. I went everywhere on my bicycle including miles into the country and up Deeside in Aberdeen.

In this book we met Katz his lifelong chum who joined him later in life on the Appalachian Trail. Bill finishes the book with a poignant farewell to a world that is now lost. To quote Bill, "Imagine" he says, "a world where ....... What a wonderful world that would be. What a wonderful world it was. We shall not see its like again"






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Shakespeare,    (2007)


 

I read this book in March, 2013.

I prefer the travel books that Bill Bryson has written, but I am greatly impressed by the levels of scholorship that Bill can show when required. This is quite a short book - about 196 pages - and I must admit that my attention did wander in places, but at the end I had picked up quite an appreciation of what it was like to be alive in the times of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was born at a time governed by the old Julian calendar, and not the current Georgian one. Ignoring this, history tells us that Shakespeare was born on St Georges's day, April, 23rd, 1564, and died fifty two years later, still on April 23rd, in 1616. So Shakespeare was alive when Elizabeth 1 was on the throne, and also when her successor James VI / I "took over" in 1603.

It was a very different place and time. Life expectancy was a lot less than it is today, although surprisingly some people did live into their seventies. People died in childbirth, or were attacked by various diseases, or contagions, most feared of which was the plague. The population of England was three to five million, and London was, as now, a great capital city. More died in London that were born there, but yet the population of London continued to grow - people moved to London to enjoy the life of a great capital city. A single district of London had a higher population than the second city of the land - Norwich, in those days. Yet London was only two miles across, North to South, of three miles across, East to West.

It's amazing how little was actually known of the life of William Shakespeare, and how many "experts" have not let that stop them from writing extensively about who Shakespeare was and what he did. Research was not helped by all the different spellings everyone used even for their own names. It is often difficult to know if we are dealing with separate people, or one person, with different name spellings.

Home for Shakespeare was Stratford on Avon, but he found fame in London - a London where theatre going was a passion. It cost 1p (1 old penny) to stand in a theatre, 2p for a seat, and 3 p for a seat with a cushion, and all this at a time when the average wage was 12 p a day. Theatres often burned down - they might have thatched roofs, they were lit by candles, etc. They were also closed for long periods when the plague struck London. What Shakespeare did then was not known - everything is a perhaps. Perhaps he returned to Stratford to do some writing, or perhaps he toured Europe, gaining some of the insight displayed in his plays.

A playwright wrote a play, and then sold it to an actor's company who got it licensed, and then owned the play. Shakespeare seems to have lost interest in his plays having sold them, and never seemed interested in preserving them for posterity. But by part owning theatres, by acting in a troup of players - The Chamberlain Men, later known as The King's Men - Shakespeare prospered, and amassed considerable wealth, buying property both in London and in Stratford on Avon.

Some people argue that a single country chap like William Shakespeare could not possibly have written all these plays - surely they must have been written by someone of greater learning. Bryson deals this very convincingly I thought. Of course they were written by Shakespeare, no one else has a greater claim. Shakespeare also wrote many, many sonnets. I read some at school, but never realised that they were addressed by a man to a man. All the female parts in Shakespeare's plays were played by men. Sometimes you would have a man or a boy playing a woman pretending to be a man. Different times indeed !

All in all, I thought this was an impressive little book that brought history alive, and it's a great summary of Shakespeare, fact and fiction. That said though, I struggled in places, and was glad that it was such a short book.






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At Home,    (2010)


I read this book in January, 2014.

 

"At Home" is a very worthy successor to the author's "A Short History of Everything" - that smashing summary of the world, science, the universe, and everything. "At Home" is a history of private life. Bill Bryson has a great ability to research a subject in great depth, and then retell the story with wit, charm, and in a very readable form. There is a wealth of detail here, but it all becomes so much more interesting the way it is all linked together.

Bill Bryson now lives in a former parsonage in Norfolk - in a rambling house built in 1850, and whose original plan he reproduces in this book. He then proceeds to walk us through the house, and tells us it's history, and so much more besides. Bryson allows himself lots of detours and asides. He commonly quotes perceived knowledge, and then questions is if it is true or not. Often the answer is that we simply don't know.

Bill Bryson tells us about the life and times of the early parson - Mr Masham - who had the house and the wealth to have the house built. Mr Masham lived from 1820 to 1900 approximately, and Bryson asks if any life before or since has seen such changes in the way life is lived. Mr Masham was born into a medieval world of extremes of povery, darkness, disease and rural living to an illuminated world, taxed, industrial, and where a visit to the doctor no longer was a death sentence.

Throughout he has lots of quips and asides, and quite a bit of stunning insight. It's a huge book, that makes history come alive. I think there is too much to take in on one reading. I really will need to / would like to, read it again. Quite a bit of the book is written for the American market too. It's a time of Great Britain yielding to the "get up and go" attitude of America. It's a story about all sorts of old orders changing. Also its a story about a sort of feudal caste system in the UK - the downtrodden poor, and the fabulously wealthy land owners. And about times of extreme cruelty.

The book is a hit on all sorts of levels. It's well worth a read, and then a re-read or two. Well done, once again, Bill Bryson.






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One Summer America 1927,    (2013)

I read this book in November, 2014.

 

"One Summer    America    1927" is another of the books that Bill Bryson does so well. He and his researchers study some topic or period intensively, and then Bill writes a readable, witty book about it. It took me a while to get into this book, but mostly it was all very interesting, and I enjoyed reading Bill's take on the 1920s in America, and specifically, the summer of 1927.

It's very much an American book written mostly for the American market. There is an awful lot about baseball, and he doesn't really make sufficient allowances for those of us not steeped in the game, who don't know the lingo. But I had heard of Babe Ruth, and it was good to find out not just how great a player he was, but also to follow his record setting progress in summer 1927. He made over 60 home runs in a single season, and held the record until 1961 when it was only broken in a season 10 games longer ! And Babe didn't use steroids to bulk up his physique, "only hot dogs".

I liked the structure of the book. A lot is happening at the same time, but we are safely guided through it all. The author doesn't just stick to 1927, but goes back in time to set the scene, and give the background. Then the event unfolds, and we get to follow it's progress in later months through the summer of 1927, at the same time as new events unfold, and proceed.

The main event is the first solo crossing of the Atlantic, East to West, against all the odds, by a young flying ace, Charles Lyndburgh who then became the most famous man on the planet, was mobbed wherever he went, and never enjoyed a minute's privacy thereafter. We also follow the rest of his story when he adopted extreme "race purity" beliefs, admired Hitler, and fell out of favour. Bill describes one of Lyndburgh's obnoxious speeches made in Des Moines, Iowa - but strangely doesn't say anything about his own personal connection with Des Moines. I guess he just assumes we all know it.

This was the time of power switching to America from Europe, of the old making way for the new. It was the time of the roaring twenties, prohibition, endemic corruption in Chicargo (Al Capone), but the seeds were sown that would produce the great depression of the thirties. Radio was developed from nothing to nation wide coverage, the movies became talkies, and silent screen divas without good voices became redundant almost over night, but new stars appeared. And then TV was invented - by an American, not Logie Baird, says Bill Bryson - and music halls, and elaborate picture palaces declined. A time of multiple and great changes, all chronicled in this book.

We read about the fortunes of the fighter Jack Dempsey, presidents, the famous, and the not so famous. Its a big book in all senses of the word, and its all handled very well. Such a lot is covered - politics, the Klu Klux clan, etc, etc, and we roam all across the American continent. Its impressive, reasonably entertaining, and very informative. In short a terrific picture of summer, in 1927, in America, and so much more. And then Bill gives us a bonus - a section on what happened next, to a lot of the characters who were the stars of this book.

Yes, it's a very good book, but its not perfect. I could have done with just a little bit more humour. What about another travel book, Bill, or perhaps even a revisit / update for places already visited ? As much as I admire these learned essays, I think I still prefer the travel books.






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The Road to Little Dribbling,    (2015)

I read this book in July, 2016.

 

"The Road to Little Dribbling" is a sequel to "Notes from a Small Island" which was written twenty years previously, and was the top selling travel book ever. I really liked "Notes from a Small Island" which was Bill Bryson's homage to his new native land - i.e GB, and had been looking forward to reading the sequel. However it took ages to find a copy in a charity shop. Bill Bryson books are little treasures, and most people who buy a copy will keep it on their book shelf, and not donate it for charity. However, someone did - and I was lucky enough to find this copy. I finished reading J.K Rowling's "Career of Evil", and then got straight into this latest Bryson. It is a terrific book, Bill has lost none of his skills as a writer to amuse, provoke, stimulate, and I really loved this book.

There was not much I didn't like about the book, but there were a couple of things, so let me start with them, and get them out of the way. Firstly Bill Bryson now seems to use the "F" swear word quite a lot. I don't really care for that, but he does really care about things, and uses it to condemn and criticise some genuine stupidity. So, at least it is not a casual use of the "F" word. I also thought that the book was a bit out of balance - for the first three quarters of the book he is still in the south of England. The North of England barely gets a mention, and his treatment of Scotland is cursory. He had planned to head north via Edinburgh, and then the Highlands, but had to rush back home - and then ended up taking a sleeper to the North of Scotland. I don't think he feels at home in Scotland, nor altogether welcome there. I think it is fair criticism - sadly.

In spite of the above, though, I really liked to book. Bill has invented the Bryson line, the longest straight line that can be be drawn on a map of the UK starting and ending with a point on the mainland, and so the Bryson line runs from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath. He then intends to more or less travel the Bryson line, but very loosely. So this gives the book some sort of structure - but having introduced the concept he then mostly forgets all about the Bryson line.

As before, Bill Bryson is the perfect travelling companion. Somehow he manages to come up with just the right balance of humour and serious observation. When he is being funny it really is funny - he gets into pickles and has the writing skills to self parody and amuse. And then in a few sentences he can switch to some observation and we think, yes, sadly, that is so true. Bill loves the English countryside, but points out that old things need to be maintained, and that this costs money. If we don't want to spend the money, we can't have the old things. As always, such a lot of research goes into each of Bill's books, but it appears as light dusting here and there. The UK has one percent of the world's population, but eleven percent of the world's top universities. But a small US university that no one has heard of is better financed that all of the UK universities together (excluding Oxford and Cambridge). Bill deliberately avoids going to the same places that he visited in "Notes from a Small Island," but he has been in the UK for long enough to be able to draw comparisons between people's attitudes twenty years ago, and now. Sadly not all changes have been for the better. Are we a happier race now, or is this just us remembering the past with a rose tinted view ?

Bill Bryson has been a campaigner for rural England - it's funny that we need someone to come over from America to remind us what a great country the UK is, how inventive a people we were and hopefully are, but how casually we guard / treasure our inheritance.

The book is a delightful miscellany of jokes and facts. One moment we learn of the origin of "she sells sea shells by the sea shore" ( read the book to find out what it is ), and the next we join a floundering Bill in MacDonalds when he concludes that he is not really designed / equipped to deal with the MacDonald experience.

All in all, a little treasure of a book. It's so nice when you expect a book to be terrific, and it doesn't disappoint. Bill Bryson himself is a treasure.






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Colin Dexter, The Inspector Morse books



This series of books is one of those covered in Following the Detectives - real locations in Crime Fiction,     - q.v.

After reading and enjoying Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus books, I thought I would try the Inspector Morse books to see how they compare - but after reading the first book "Last Bus to Woodstock" I must admit I was a little disappointed. Luckily I persevered and read another book.

Born in 1930 in Stamford, Lincolnshire, Colin Dexter was educated at Stamford School. He then read classics at Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1953. He started work as a school classics teacher in 1954, eventually ending up as senior classics teacher at Corby Grammar School in 1959. However, following the onset of deafness, he had to retire from teaching in 1966. He got a job as a senior asistant secretary at the University of Oxford exams board where he worked until he retired in 1988. The Morse books are of course set in Oxford. Colin Dexter died in March, 2017 at the age of 86.

Dexter started writing in 1972, and the first Morse book "Last Bus to Woodstock" appeared in 1975 - the last book was published in 1999.

Detective Chief Inspector Morse was a senior CID officer in the Thames Valley police in Oxford. Morse is somehow a likeable character in spite of many character defects, and a sullen temperament. He drives an old Jaguar car, really likes real ale to excess, likes classical music (especially Wagner), and is generally an intellectual snob. He tries to solve his murder cases using his intellect - who was the last person to see the victim alive (ie the murderer) ? Morse is an interesting, complex character - he is the embodiment of a white, upper-middle-class Englishman, with a set of assumptions and prejudices to match. He often appears to patronise women.

Colin Dexter was a great crypic crossword setter and solver - for a while he wrote a weekly "how to solve crypic crosswords" in the Guardian newspaper. Morse is named after Sir Jeremy Morse - a champion and rival crossword solver, and Morse's working class assistant Lewis is likewise named after another rival crossword solver. Indeed a lot of the surnames of the victims in the Morse books were taken from a list of winners of a well known weekly crossword in the Observer.

Morse's first name is kept a great secret until it is revealed as Endeavour in the penultimate book. Details of Morse's early life are likewise left a bit vague. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he lived with his mother until she died 3 years later. His father remarried, and he had a half sister and a stepmother whom he did not like. It appears that he won a scholorship to study at St Johns in Oxford, but following a failed love affair his academic performance suffered, and he had to leave Oxford.

There were 13 Morse books, but there were 33, two hour episodes of Morse in the TV series. Morse was played spectacularly well by John Thaw, and like wise Lewis by Kevin Whatley.

As I said in the first paragraph, I was not too impressed with the first of the Morse books, but I have read on, and come to a different conclusion. Oh, and Morse is a great Archers fan (in the books, not in the TV series) and so we do have something in common.





Last Bus to Woodstock,     (1975)


 

I started off quite liking this book, but I began to change my mind about half way through, and ended up not quite sure of what I'd thought of it.

Unlike in the TV series, in this book Lewis is an old experienced detective sergeant, and older than Morse. But I jumped to book 12 in my reading and was surprised to see that Lewis was now younger than Morse. Consistency is a virtue, but errors do need to be corrected, and so I will excuse Dexter for not getting it right first time. I will need to read book 2 to see how quickly the age change took place. Morse does his detecting from his armchair - ie. in his head. He tries to see not just the facts and clues, but to tease out an overall pattern.

Once Morse had finally worked out who did it, Dexter then needed an extra chapter to explain how Morse got there. I thought he had made a lot of assumptions, and just got lucky. There is a character Sue, and Morse and Sue quickly fall madly in love without really knowing each other - not very convincing. Sue doesn't even know Morse's first name, but then of course the running joke is that no else does either.

I ended up a bit disappointed in this book. But I'm sure there must be more to Colin Dexter than this, and so I'll try some later books and see what I think









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Last Seen Wearing,     (1976)


 

This is the fifth Morse book that I have read. It is the third book in a 3 book omnibus which didn't follow chronolical order. The two other books in the omnibus were "The Secret of Annexe 3" and "The Riddle of the Third Mile." Overall, it is the second Morse book in a series of 13.

I usually try to read books in chronolicical order to see authors and characters develop with time. But I disliked the first Morse novel, and so jumped to book 12 to see if it were worth persevering. I then thought it was. In book 1, Lewis was older than Morse, but younger in Book 12. So I really would like to discover when the change over took place. Unfortunately there is nothing in "Last Seen Wearing" to indicate the relative ages of Morse and Lewis - they both seem middle aged. Perhaps there is just a suggestion in some parts of the book that Lewis is older, but he appears younger in other places. Dexter is a good writer - it is surprising that he seems to be so inconsistent. Am I the only one who is bothered ?

In "Last Seen Wearing" Morse makes so many mistakes that he considers handing over the case to someone else. Indeed we are not even sure that there has been a murder for much of the book until someone else is murdered.

An Oxford schoolgirl, Valerie Taylor went missing two years ago, but the detective handling the case dies in a road accident, and so the case is transferred to Morse. He does not normally demean himself looking for missing persons - murders are more to his taste. But he soon convinces himself that Valerie is dead - and so he appears to have a murder to solve.

Typically, Morse jumps to his usual wild conclusions, and "solves" and "resolves" the case several times - but each time events prove him wrong. I think this is the poorest of the three novels in the omnibus, possibly because this is only the second Morse novel, and Dexter has still to improve as a writer. Morse's way of solving crimes is not very satisfactory, and I didn't care much for the ending to this book. I think the book is still worth reading - if only for you to form your own opinion.










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The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn,     (1977)


 

This is the third Inspector Morse book, but the ninth that I have read. As always, I would prefer to read the books in the correct sequence, but when you buy the books second hand you tend to read them in discovery order. I read "The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn" as part of the first Inspector Morse omnibus - the other two books were "The Dead of Jericho", and "Service of All the Dead." I paid 1 for the omnibus, so that's 33p per book, quite a bargain.

Nicholas Quinn is deaf, but is a gifted lip reader. Against the odds he is appointed as an examiner for an Oxford Examination Board. There is quite an argument in the appointing board. Then Mr Quinn is murdered, and Morse and Lewis are called in to solve the case. It's a really complicated , complex plot, but Morse works it out, and this time I thought his reasoning entirely feasible. Sometimes I think that Morse seems to guess one of several possible explanations, and by luck this turns out to be correct. But in this case we share and follow Morse's thoughts and reasoning - a much better approach.

Morse is 45, Lewis's age is not disclosed, but Morse calls Lewis son, so it seems that Morse is older than Lewis - as per the TV adaptation. There are the usual Dexter jokes. Lewis reveals he does not know Morse's first name, Lewis tucks into his egg and chips cooked by his good wife, etc, etc.

It's a well crafted, well written book, and a worthy member of the Morse series. I enjoyed reading the book and spending a little while in the company of Morse and Lewis. They are a good partnership, and really good friends, but this is friendship is always understated.










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Service of all the Dead,     (1979)


 

This is the fourth Inspector Morse book, but the tenth that I have read. I bought it for 1 as the First Inspector Morse Omnibus. The other two books in the omnibus were "The Dead of Jericho" and "The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn."

"Service of All the Dead" is as usual, a very complicated story. The church warden of St Frideswides church in Oxford was murdered in the church about a year ago. Then the church vicar commits suicide - or did he?. Lionel, the vicar, had a brother, a tramp, who looked like him, so a lot of plot possibilities appear.

Morse is on holiday, but had never actually got round to renewing his passport, so couldn't visit the Greek Isles, after all. He wanders round Oxford, chances upon St Frideswides, and starts to take an interest. Then there are more deaths, and the case is given to Morse officially - as he seemed to have taken it over anyway. Lewis is assigned to help. And so on ...

Morse enjoys his beer as usual, and is still in good health at this stage of his career. He is 47, and older than Lewis. As I have mentioned before, Colin Dexter is not the most consistent of writers. Morse sometimes drives a Lancia, sometimes a Jaguar. In this book it is Lewis's wife who is the Archers fan, and Morse interrupts her whilst she is listening. In later stories, it is Morse who is the Archers fan, and now he doesn't like to have his listening interrupted.

I sort of liked this story - but it was very complicated and I sort of tended towards losing interest towards the end. I think I will give myself a little rest from Morse ,and read some other books before finishing off the Morse books that I have not yet read. Perhaps I just prefer the melancholy of the later Morse books. .










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The Dead of Jericho,     (1981)


 

This is a very complicated plot, but very well handled by Colin Dexter. Anne Scott is dead. She had met Morse at a party, and they had got on very well together, Morse took her phone number and address, but never got round to contacting her again. And now she was dead - apparently suicide.

The case is being handled by DCI Bell, but Morse takes a keen interest, and surprisingly Bell doesn't mind in the slightest.

Then there is blackmail, and a second death. Both lived in Jericho - a part of Oxford. Bell is promoted, and the case is handed to Morse who calls in his colleague Lewis. And so the plot unfolds...

I enjoyed this story. Dexter's prose is fluent, and he did not annoy with superfluous long words. I think he has matured considerably from the earlier books. This is the fifth book in the Morse series, and was written some six years after the first book in the series.

There are no definitive clues to the respective ages of Morse and Lewis. Morse is 50. He has known Lewis for 10 years, and Lewis joined the police when he was 20. There are lots of hints, but they are not joined up. It does seem though that Lewis is the younger in this book. lewis was older than Morse in Book 1. Oh, and I paid 50p for this book in a charity shop somewhere.










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The Riddle of the Third Mile,     (1983)


 

Like "The Secret of Annexe 3" this book was bought as part of a 3 book omnibus - the third book was "Last Seen Wearing." This is the fourth Morse book that I have read, but Colin Dexter's sixth Morse novel. Unusually, I am not reading the books in chronological order for two reasons - I didn't like the first Morse book and so jumped to the 12th, and now I'm following the author's sequence in this omnibus.

"The Riddle of the Third Mile" is based on a biblical quotation - Dexter likes his quotations as much as he likes showing off his knowledge of long erudite words. However, I have decided to accept this as part of the Dexter / Morse character.

"The Riddle of the Third Mile" is an excellent but unusual whodunnit. The main puzzle is the identity of a headless, limbless body dragged from the Oxford canal. As you read the book, see if you can work out who the victim might be. I did manage to work this out, but only just a few pages before Dexter disclosed it.

All in all, its an excellent read, and we learn quite a bit about Morse's past . He was a gifted student at Oxford, but fell head over heels in love with Wendy Spencer. The love was returned, but both Morse and Wendy's studies suffered terribly - so much so, that each had to leave college. But Wendy also left Morse to go home to care for her sick mother. Morse never really got over the affair. Strangely in book 12 we learned that Wendy had continued to love Morse. His great hurt had stopped him from trying to win her back.

Its a good story, and a good read. Oh, and for those of you who are following my ramblings, there is no mention of the relative ages of Morse and Lewis.









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The Secret of Annexe 3,     (1986)


 

I bought this book as part of a three part Morse omnibus. The other two books were "The Riddle of the Third Mile" and "Last Seen Wearing." I paid 99p for the omnibus - so that's 33p per book. You really do get excellent value in charity shops.

I usually try to read books in date order to follow the characters as they develop. But I didn't like the first book in the Morse series, and jumped to book 12. So this is the third Morse book that I have read, but it's the seventh that Colin Dexter wrote. Strangely Colin Dexter presents the books in this omnibus in reverse date order - ie 1986, then 1983, then 1976. I think he is presenting the best first, and the weakest last - but what do you think ?

This book starts by apparently giving away the who and the why of a soon to be committed murder. Margaret Plowman has been unfaithful to her husband Tom, but her new "boyfriend" appears to be threatening her , and Tom finds out. We then switch to a New Year's Eve fancy dress party in the Haworth Hotel, where all the guests are in disguise, and have celebrated so well that their later memories are hazy to say the least. And so a body is eventually found in a room in Annexe 3 - but there were no footprints in the snow, so when was the deed done ?

It's a most intricate and well crafted plot, and Colin Dexter writes with skill. I enjoyed the book, and am starting to warm to the Morse novels. Lewis is older than Morse in book 1, but younger in book 12, and I am curious to see when the change over happened. This book gives no clue to the relative ages of Morse and Lewis - but Lewis is old enough to have a grandchild, so Lewis is not a youngster.









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The Wench is Dead,     (1989)


 

This is the eighth Inspector Morse book, and also the eighth that I have read. I have not been reading them in sequence, but only as I came across them in some charity shop. I knew that "The Wench is Dead" won a crime writers CWA gold dagger award for the best crime novel of the year, so I was really looking forward to reading it - and I did enjoy it.

Morse's liking for a few beers (and then a few more) is well known to his colleagues - and readers - and periodically this catches up with him, and he has to be rushed into hospital. The book has a great opening -

"Intermittently , on the Tuesday, he felt sick. Frequently on the Wednesday, he was sick. On the Thursday, he felt sick frequently, but was actually sick only intermittently ............." He soldiers on, but collapses, is discovered lying on the floor by his cleaner and is rushed to hospital.

Whilst in hospital, Morses's luck holds, and he pulls through . An old chap in a neighbouring bed is less lucky, and dies. His 73 year old younger sister calls in to thank everyone - staff and fellow patients - for being so kind to her brother, and leaves everyone a copy of a small book that her brother has written. This is "Murder on the Oxford Canal", and is about the terrible murder of Joanne Franks in 1859. Eventually Morse, still in hospital, runs out of reading material, and starts on the book. He is immediately intrigued by the story. The more he reads the less convinced he becomes that the two men hanged for her murder were actually guilty. But how can he prove this - it all happened so long ago ?

Lewis is still there as always, to do the running about. Morse drives a Lancia, and in this book is definitely older than Lewis - Morse is 58. Like quite a few grateful patients Morse falls for his nurses, and persuades various people to do research for him - in addition to the faithful Lewis.

All in all, a good read. But Dexter drops lots of hints that Morse is living on borrowed time. So enjoy your real ale while you can, Morse ! There was one small incident that I did enjoy. Whilst Morse was in hospital, Lewis had smuggled in some whisky to aid recuperation. Morse is below par mentally as well as physically, but after a small snifter, as usual he finds that this invigorates mental processes, and once again he can puzzle out the tangles of the Joanne Franks murder. What a great advert for whisky ! .



The book cost me 89p in a charity shop - money well spent. I recommend it.










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The Jewell That Was Ours,     (1991)


 

I read this book in January, 2010.

"The Jewell That was Ours" is the ninth Inspector Morse book, and the twelfth that I have read. I have really enjoyed Morse's company, and had left reading this book , saving it up as a future treat. Well, I have now read it, so that's 12 of the 13 Morse books, and only one to go. This is "The Remorseful Day" where Morse dies. I'm not sure if I'll read it or not. I probably will, but I rather like the idea of leaving Morse alive, and enjoying a pint or two in a favourite pub somewhere in Oxford.

"The Jewell That was Ours" is a good Morse story. There is a party of 27 American tourists staying in the Randolph hotel in Oxford, but one of them is found dead in her room, and a precious jewell has been stolen. The local police force are over-stretched, and so Morse and Lewis are drafted in to help.

The tourist's death is by natural causes, and whilst Morse enjoys pitting his wits against those of a murderer, he can't be bothered to deal with petty theft. So, its all lack lustre to start with, but a pleasant enough meander. But then Morse wakes up, and recognises that here there is a challenge for his formidable intellect. And sure enough, another body is found - this time definitely a murder. It's someone on the tour, but whom, how, and how are all the events linked ?

All the usual Morse book treats are here. There are lots of shared pints in various drinking holes - most paid for by the long suffering Lewis. There is a love interest or two for Morse, etc. Lewis is exhausted, but is revived by a plate of his wife's egg and chips. And of course Dexter dazzles us with some obscure english words - I don't seem to mind these now, although I still think their use indulgent.

Overall, "The Jewell That Was Ours" is a good read - it's a good story, well told and it comes to a satisfactory conclusion. I enjoyed it, and I wish I had some more Morse books to look forward to. Why oh Why do writers feel compelled to kill their well loved characters. It seems to be done to give us all a spiteful slap in the face.

And now, I'm left with the big question. Will I read "A Remorseful Day" and have Morse's death confirmed, or will I leave it unread, and Morse alive to enjoy a pint or two to be enjoyed in an Oxford pub. .












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The Way Through The Woods     (1989)


 

This is the tenth Inspector Morse book, and also the eleventh that I have read. So that leaves two for me to read. I will try to space them out as best I can, obviously leaving "The Remorseful Day" to the end. I don't know why some authors persist in killing off their characters - do they hate them so much? I'm ever so pleased John Rebus only retired, not expired!

I really enjoyed reading "The Way Through the Woods". It opens with Morse, unusually, taking a holiday. He is in Lyme Regis. He has driven there in his Jaguar (not Lancia this time). As a single guest at the hotel he has to share a breakfast table with another guest - a lady guest. He reads in her paper a rhyme published in the Times, a "clue" to help the police solve a year old possible murder case of a missing student, the beautiful Kerin Erikson. Morse loves a puzzle, and solves it , takes over the case from DCI Johnson, who has got nowhere in a year. Lewis obviously is assigned to help, and so Lewis and Morse are back in business.

There is quite a bit of humour in the book (I haven't yet found any humour in the Dalgleish books yet). Morse still enjoys his beer, but we don't spend long enough with Morse in a pub. Morse still listens to "The Archers" - as do we all - Lewis enjoys his egg and chips lovingly cooked for him by Mrs Lewis, what is Morse's first name ? , etc. The book is a real page turner, and a very good read. I like the Morse books !

Perhaps one little criticism. I think Dexter overdoes Morse's attraction to women. Yes he has deep blue eyes, etc, etc, but just about every woman he meets fancies him, and spends time thinking of the gentleman with the deep blue eyes. Surely that is bit unreal. There are more melancholy thoughts on death, and the sad death of Max, the coroner, and Morse's friend and drinking companion.

Overall though, a well written most enjoyable book, and not all is as it seems.












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The Daughters of Cain,     (1994)


 

This is the third last book in the Morse series. I have already bought the last ever book (The Remorseful Day) but I am saving it until I have read all the other Morse books. Morse is thinking of early retirement, two years before he has to go. So that makes him about 57, and definitely in this book he is older than Lewis. Morse now drives a Jaguar, not a Lancia. There are interesting quotes at the start of each chapter. The quote at the start of chapter 34 contains the words " ..and remorseful day" - so already we are now looking forward to the last book and the end of Morse. Morse wants to retire before his considerable intellectual powers start to fail. He'd hate to leave on a case that he could not solve. But Morse is growing physically weak - too many years of too much beer, malt, cigarettes, and lack of exercise will eventually be his undoing.

This is a well crafted, complicated tale - its many, many times better than the first Morse book. Colin Dexter has certainly learned his craft, and his use of long words, and well chosen quotes no longer grate.

It's a long tale, extremely well told. An Oxford don ("Student" with a capital S) is murdered, and we are introduced to lots of characters - some are heros, some are not. The case is being handled by DCI Phillotson, but he has been making little headway. Phillotson's wife is ill, and the case is re-assigned to Morse. Morse is very disparaging of his colleague - he says he is useless, and just using his wife's illness as an excuse to hide his lack of progress on the case. Morse is an arrogant so and so sometimes - in Lewis's eyes, and in ours . Dexter certainly gives us a flawed hero, warts and all. But then Phillotson's wife dies, and Morse is grief stricken and full of remorse. How could he have been so crass?. Morse has the grace to fully repent, and we excuse him for this.

So the case is assigned to the top team - Morse and Lewis, and soon the identity of the murderer is revealed to the reader long before Morse and Lewis get there. But then there is a second murder planned by someone with much greater intelligence, and there are cast iron alibis for the three main suspects. Read the book, and enjoy an excellent thriller.

Morse falls ill during the investigation - but emerges from the hospital in almost rude health. All he had to do was to go easy on the drink and cigarettes. Alas!

I particularly enjoyed the many quotations and dippings into Dexter's classical background. He tells of two brothers, Sleep and his dreamless brother Death, and throughout there are numerous reminders of the shortness of human life - ie that Morse is living on borrowed time.



I really, really enjoyed reading this book, and thoroughly recommend it to you. Morse has really grown on me now.










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Death is Now My Neighbour,     (1996)


 

This is the second Morse book that I have read. I started logically enough with "Last Bus to Woodstock", the first Morse book, but didn't all together care for it. It seemed to me that Morse had solved the murder by jumping to a conclusion, and by luck just happened to be right. There were other things that I did not like as well, but I thought that there must be more to Morse than that - so I jumped to the penultimate book "Death is Now My Neighbour"

This is an excellent, very well written book with a cracking story line. I can now appreciate why Dexter and Morse are so popular. Lewis is now younger than Morse - he was older in book 1. I wonder when he changed into a younger assistant ? Lewis and Morse are a great team. Lewis is hard working but appears unfairly to be a plodder - his murder solving expertise is usually understated - he should have been promoted years ago ! Morse seems to take Lewis for granted - there is seldom an acknowledgement of his contributions. But yet Lewis and Morse have a deep friendship that is seldom acknowledged.

The story is about 2 murders, in Bloxham Drive at numbers 15 and 17. It is also about ambition. There are two candidates be be master of Lonsdale College - Julian Storrs, and Denis Cornfield. And each has an ambitious wife.

I seem to have accepted Dexter's love of long obscure, erudite words - eg prosopagnoia - the failure of a person to recognise someone else's face, however recently seen. Perhaps it's all in keeping with the Oxford College setting - but usually the words are just Dexter's musings, and contribute little to the story.

I thought that there was an underlying sadness in this book - a lonly unwell Morse, and lots of pointers towards the end of the Morse / Lewis partnership. A severly diabetic Morse is rushed to hospital - but he survives only to go straight to the pub for a pint of bitter. But its never just one or two pints. Morse is still alive at the end of the book, but is living on borrowed time.

There is an aside at the end of the book when Morse find a temporary peace with Janet McQueen - his nurse. Janet persuades Morse to send a post card to Lewis whom she thinks deserves to know Morse's first name. In writing, Morse acknowledges and thanks his friend for his help, and friendship. And if that's not a valedictory statement, then I'm not sure what is !

All in all, an excellent read that I thoroughly recommend









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Morse's Greatest Mystery and Other Stories,     (1993)


 

This is a collection of ten short stories by Colin Dexter published at various times between 1977 and 1993, and gathered together in this book of 1993. Five of the stories are about Morse, and five are about other crimes.

I like Morse, and Lewis and all the other characters of a Morse book. I have not yet read "The Remorseful Day," so for me, Morse has retired and is living somewhere in Oxford, probably enjoying a pint of real ale in his local. I saw this collection of short stories in a charity shop, and so had to buy it to rejoin Morse and Lewis. But alas, these short stories are a poor substitute for a whole book - Morse is still the same character, but there is not enough room in a small story to do him justice. It's all over and done with too quickly - it's a taster not a meal, and the pace is all wrong.

There is nothing wrong with the stories, but they are not the real thing !

Of the non Morse stories I liked "The Case of Mis-Identity" best. It is a story about Sherlock Holmes, his clever (cleverer?) brother Mycroft, and of course Dr Watson, but written with affection by Colin Dexter not Conan Doyle. I haven't read a Sherlock Holmes book for ages, but I don't think I would like to read a succession of Holmes detective stories. He jumps to preposterous conclusions - and whilst his explanation is just one of many possible explanations, yet it is always 100 percent correct. Not very plausible.
I remember making the same criticism of the early Morse books. In a "Case of Mis-Identity" Holmes comes to one conclusion, but may be trumped by his clever brother Mycroft who proposes an alternative explanation, based on the same clues. You'll need to read the story yourself to see which, if either, explanation was correct.

As for the Morse stories, they were OK, but only thumbnail sketches, and I was left disappointed. I wanted another full Morse and Lewis story - so I was always going to be disappointed.












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Mark Haddon



Mark Haddon was born in Northampton in 1962, and studied English at Merton College , Oxford. In fact, he still lives in Oxford with his wife Sos, and their two children.

He started off writing children's books. In 2003 he won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and in 2004 the Commonwealth Writer's Prize Overall Best First Book for his novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time". This book was aimed at the adult market, but really is equally for children or adults. In fact, when I read it, I thought it was a childrens book - but there is nothing wrong with that.





The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,     (2003)


 

Mark Haddon worked with autistic children as a young man, and wrote this book from the perspective of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15 year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome. Christopher loves maths, lists, patterns, and the truth. His people skills are not so good. He has total recall of his surroundings at any point of time, but when his brain has difficulty in processing such information overloads, it / he has to shut down for a while. So life is easier for Christopher in familiar surroundings - in a familiar room his brain only has to proceess what has changed. He cannot bear being touched ( he screams until no longer touched) and dislikes yellow and brown. Above all he is very logical per his own logic.
Christopher's neighbour's dog is killed, for which Chrisptopher gets the blame. Who killed the dog, and why ? Christopher, who has never gone further than the end of his road on his own sets out to find out.

It is an extraordinary book written in a deceptively simple narrative. But what a work of imagination to describe the world from Christopher's perspective! Of all the reviews of this work , I liked a comment by Ruth Rendall " .....(the book) excited more than admiration in me - I envied the author, wishing I had written it." My book recommendations are my own likings, but this book commonly appears in most lists of best ever novels.

Read the novel, and in chapter 101 (the chapter numbers are a prime number series) you will come upon what is described as "the Monty Hall Problem". This is Christophers example that maths is not straight forward. It took me a long while to agree with Christopher's reasoning. If you put Monty Hall Problem into Google, you will get other proofs. All in all, a fascinationg book, which I heartily recommend. Read it.







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A Spot of Bother,     (2006)


 

I so enjoyed reading "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" that I was really looking forward to reading something else by Mark Haddon. But whilst I did enjoy reading "A Spot of Bother", I would only rate it as good to very good, rather than the excellent of "The Curious Incident etc"

George and Jean are married, and have 2 grown up children, Katie and Jamie. Katie is recovering from a failed marriage, has a son Jacob, and has met Ray. He loves her and her son Jacob, and offers security and a good house and home. But everyone thinks Katie could do so much better, and that there is a mismatch between graduate Katie, and the illiterate Ray. Jamie is a homosexual, who has quarrelled with his boy friend Tony. Oh, and Jean is having an affair with David. I do hope you are paying attention !

So, there is a lot going on, and in Mark Haddon's simple style, lots of events unfold slowly, almost in real time - we see everything several times from everyon'e different perspectives. There are lots of little chapters (144 in total), some only a page or a few pages long. But all of this is just background, for in the middle of all this anguish - should Katie marry Ray, will Jamie and Tony get together again, will Jean leave George for David, etc, etc, - George is having a very serious nervous breakdown.

Extraordinary things happen as George does crazy things - crazy from other peoples points of view - but as we also see things from George's perspective, we see that he follows a crazy form of tortured logic.

I think Mark Haddon has brilliantly got inside the head of someone who is depressed, and we can almost appreciate what it is like to have a nervous breakdown.

A lot of the write ups about this book describe it as painfully funny , riotously funny, etc. I found it difficult to laugh at George's problems. Someone falls over on a banana skin, and you laugh, but if they hurt themselves, the laughter stops. In the end I thought that the book was slightly too long, and I was wearying at the closing chapters.

All in all though, Mark Haddon is a good writer, with a gift for getting inside the heads of those withn special problems. So its a good read, and if you get the book, you won't regret reading it. But its not as good as "The Curious Incident etc" - perhaps it could never be.









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John Le Carre - the George Smiley and especially the Karla novels)



John Le Carre is a master writer. His stories are well researched, detailed, and written in a wonderful stylish prose. The characters have a real depth and complexity. Things are never black or white, they are all murky. And Le Carre often has a jaundiced, world weary view. His command of the English language is impressive. Any aspiring writer should study Le Carre. I enjoyed especially the three spy novels which feature George Smiley and his dual with his opposite number the Russian spy master Karla. Try to read the books in the order given - and especially this applies to the three Karla novels !

I have been giving potted histories of the authors in these introductions as often the writer's background explains a lot of what later appears in his / her books. Especially I think, is this the case with John Le Carre.

John Le Carre is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell. He was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset and has lived in St Buryan in Cornwall for most of his life. After prep school, he went to Sherborne School. He then studied foreign languages for a year at the University of Berne, and then at Lincoln College , Oxford, graduating with a BA in 1956. ( George Smiley was modelled on the former rector of Lincoln College ).

He taught at Eton College for two years, then worked for five years with the British Foreign Service. He worked in Bonn, then in Hamburg, and then was recruited into MI6. But then his career as a spy was destroyed by the double agent Kim Philby who blew the cover of dozens of British agents. Years later Le Carre analysed Philby's weakness and deceit in the guise of the mole hunted by George Smiley in the first book of the Karla trilogy "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy". BBC adapted this book for broadcast in 1979, with George Smiley played perfectly by Alec Guinness. It was an excellent series, but very complex, and many bought the book after seeing the TV series to try to find out what it was all about. Alec Guinness also played Smiley in the BBC's adaptation of Smiley's People in 1981. The middle novel (about Jerry Westerby) was not adapted by the BBC as they thought a production set in South East Asia would be too expensive. This was a pity. Le Carre divorced his first wife Alison Ann Sharp in 1971, but married again in 1972. Smiley was a brilliant spy, but a flawed man. He could never divorce his wife Ann - he could not live with her, nor without her.

Le Carre has written well over 20 novels and is still writing. His book "The Constant Gardener" written in 2001 later made an excellent film. The poverty in the slums of Kenya so affected the film crew that they set up the Constant Gardener Trust to provide basic education. John Le Carre is a patron of the charity. His latest novel at the time of writing is "A Most Wanted Man "(2008)




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Call for the Dead,     (1961)


 

This is the first George Smiley story, and we are introduced to a plump, middle aged, well educated, world weary man of formidable intellect. Smiley has a long history with a background in espionage. His wife Ann married beneath her, and has left him. Everyone wonders what she ever saw in him. And yet ...

Call for the Dead is an alarm call booked by Sam Fennan the previous night - the night he apparently committed suicide.

As usual, its a murky, distasteful business. Backs are being covered and George Smiley is sick of it all, and resigns. But he still goes on to investigate the death. We are introduced to inspector Mendel who is about to retire. We will meet Mendel in later stories where George needs someone of ability who can be trusted absolutely. No one at the Circus (the spy section) could ever be trusted ( or so few at the Circus could ever be trusted). We aslo meet Peter Guillam who also appears in later stories.

It's not a long story, but it's a tale well told and its always a pleasure to read le Carre. Perhaps the stories have dated a little in that the enemy is communism in the days of the cold war. I would say in this case its best to read the three classic Karla novels first, and then if you want to hear more about Smiley, read the other stories as I am doing.

I bought this as part of a 5 book omnibus paying 1.25 in total - so that's 25p per story, another charity shop bargain !






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A Murder of Quality,     (1962)


 

This is an unusual case for Smiley where he leaves the world of espionage and intrigue to become a crime detective.

Miss Brimley, the editor of the Christian Voice, receives an unusual letter - a cry for help from an old subscriber. It's from a level headed woman who had earlier won a handy kitchen hints competition. The message says "help me please, I think my husband is planning to kill me."

Miss Brimley cannot give help herself, but she racks her brains to think of someone who might be able to, and remembers George Smiley. George is an old friend - they worked together in the war. Will he investigate?. However, before anything can be done, the lady is found dead - and murdered.

Who did it, was it the husband ? Its a good, well told tale - but perhaps like "Call for the Dead", it seems slightly old fashioned in that it is set in Carne public school in a time where manners, snobbery and respect for position and class are all. Thankfully these days have mostly long gone.

But all in all, it's still a good story.

Like Morse, Smiley uses his intellect to puzzle out and make sense of things and so solve the crime, but unlike Morse, Smiley feels constrained by the facts - never jump ahead of the facts he says. Morse is constantly leaving facts behind and jumping to wild conclusions with utter conviction. Morse and Smiley, each in their own way, are both deeply flawed characters - which may be why we find them so interesting.






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The Spy Who Came in From The Cold,     (1963)


 

This is the third book in the George Smiley spy series of books by John Le Carre. George Smiley does appear, but mostly he is in the background. His flat is used for a meeting at the start of the book, and he appears at crucial points in the story, including at the very end of the story.

Alex Leamus is an old somewhat wearied spy whose work appears to have come to naught. He is ready to retire and "come in from the cold", but is persuaded to do one last job, and help destroy an opposing spy controller who has killed or had killed many of Leamus's colleagues. But of course this is the murky field of espionage, the Circus, etc, and nothing is ever exactly as it seeems.

Alex meets Liz Gold, falls in love, and tries desperately, but unsucessfully to keep her out of his murky and risky life as a spy.

John Le Carre is as usual an expert craftsman - the story is superbly well told. As you read, you will probably work out for yourself what is really happening as events unfold. I mananged to do this. But the final chapter is a stunning climax that took me completely by surprise.

All in all, an excellent read , and I thoroughly recommend it if you like spy thrillers.

Oh, and the book cost me 75p in a charity shop - but I forget which one.






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The Looking Glass War,     (1965)


 

This is an interesting tale not just of spycraft and espionage, but also of inter departmant rivalry and office politics on a grand scale between a rival department of the Ministry and the Circus (the professional spies).

Taylor, a Ministry operative (spy) is non Circus, and is dead. The rival section convince themselves that he was on to something big, and was killed. They decide to send in another spy. They are non Circus and no longer have the expertise to do this professionaly, but this doesn't stop them.

So, an old contact is brought back into service and persuaded to do his bit "for the country". He is given a crash refresher course in morse code but he is too old and too slow. He will take too long to send any message, and will be easily detected. Nevertheless he is send in behind the iron curtain. The training has been hopelessly out of date, and of course the whole exercise is a failure with much adverse publicity. George Smiley from the rival Circus is sent in to abort the exercise and tidy up. The agent is abandoned.

Smiley is enraged that all this was allowed to happen - it should never have got so far. It seems that Control / the Circus had looked away whilst this was happening - ie perhaps deliberately giving the rival department sufficient rope with which to hang themselves. But at what needless human cost and for what benefit. In spite of Smiley's decency and humanity, it's a dirt business as usual.

All in all, an interesting read.






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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,     (1974) - a Karla novel


 

This is an excellent book, and book 1 of the Karla trilogy. It opens with the arrival of Jim Prideaux - a new french teacher at Thursgood prep school. Jim is a watcher and has a history which is slowly revealed. There is something / someone rotten at the heart of British Intelligence. But whom ? Eventually it could be one of four possibilities - each to be referred to as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Sailor. Jim Prideaux is to supply the answer, but is betrayed by a friend. Smiley dominates the book, but for Smiley there is never a happy ending nor it seems any thanks. Wonder at Le Carre's knowledge of spy craft. Karla wins round one. To say its a twisted plot is to understate the tangles. A murky treacherous world.

All together, an excellent read.






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The Honourable Schoolboy,     (1977) - a Karla novel


 

After the treachery of book one of the Karla trilogy, George Smiley is ordered to stay on and clear up the mess as caretaker chief of the betrayed service. And it is a mess. The best form of defence is attack, and the enemy is Karla. The battleground is Hong Kong, and Jerry Westerby is called to arms. The book is really the Jerry Westerby story and Jerry comes across as a likeable chap (who should have got out earlier). But all does not go well. George is there at the weary end to pick up the pieces. But for George there never seems to be a happy ending only betrayal.






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Smiley's People,     (1979) - a Karla novel


 

This is book three of the Karla mini series - its best if you read books one and two first. And isn't it just typical for me to buy books one and two separately, and then have to buy book three as an omnibus of all three books.

An ex-agent's murder has to be hushed up, and so George Smiley is recalled unofficially from retirement to clear up without involving the department. If it all goes wrong he was just a private individual trying to settle old scores /seeking glory. Why does he bother ? Does George still remember his spy craft ? Who wins - Smiley or Karla. At the end it doesn't really seem to matter to George. We all know the murky battles go on and on.

George Smiley is the character that holds all three books together. Prepare to engage your mind, read the books, and be impressed.









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The Secret Pilgrim,     (1991)


 

Note the big time jump (the seventies to the nineties) between the other Smiley books and this one. The book is dedicated to Sir Alec Guinness who absolutely captured the essence of George Smiley in the TV series. And of course in the interim a lot had changed in the spy world. This is an affectionate look back at the "glory" days. This book should really be called "George Smiley says Farewell to the Circus". But the secret pilgrim is not George, but Ned who has been in what was formerly called the Circus for almost as many years as Smiley - but who strangely has not appeared before. Ned is now in charge of training, and he invites Smiley to come and address his students at the end of their course. He never expected Smiley to come, but he does. He is in good health, and humour - and it turns into a very special occasion.

Mostly the book is Ned's memories, but George's presence is always there. I thought it was a good footnote to the Smiley story. At the end, some old and new names had somehow got to hear that George Smiley was appearing, and managed to be there when George said he was off - "don't send for me again" - and took a last farewell.

Smiley is living in Cornwall, doing a little lecturing, but mostly doing a little research, and it seems he is at peace with the world. He is even in these days of glassnost chairman of a joint committee with the Russians to see where the two services could mutually assist each other. He ends with thoughts on the question "Do we trust the Russian Bear " - his answer is a well argued yes, and no.

It was a good read, but I would have liked to have heard more about Smiley, and less about Ned. It would have been good if Smiley had had one last big adventure. Alas it was not to be. I think George Smiley is one of literature's great creations, and Le Carre is as always an excellent writer. Yes its well worth reading - but obviously a lessser work than the Karla novels.

I got the book for 20p in a charity shop - money well spent.









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