Iain's Leisure Reading - Some Book Series

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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 :-

  • J D Kirk, The DCI Jack Logan Books

    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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    Made in America : American English,    (1994)


    I read this book in June, 2020.

    Somehow this Bill Bryson book escaped my notice until I saw it in a charity shop, and realised I had not read it. Bill Bryson is one of my favourite authors when I feel like a change from crime fiction. Bill writes a series of travel books full of wit, humour and brilliant observation - all a little exaggerated of course. He also writes some scholarly books where he alights on some subject that has caught his fancy, does an immense amount of research (presumably with some research team) and then rewrites everything in a more user friendly format. He sprinkles humour where he can. I don't find these books as funny nor enjoyable as the travel books, but I am always impressed by the scholarship.

    "Made in America" is about American language usage, and how it came to diverge from British English. However the book is so much more than just about that - it is also a social history of America, from the Pilgrim Fathers and before, to modern (i.e.up to 1994) America. There are some 21 chapters or headings, each mini histories. Thus we have chapters on Food, Travel, Shopping, Advertising, Movies, Leisure, Politics, Aviation, The Space Age, etc. In each we get the history of the subject, and so all the new words that entered the American language. Bill Bryson also debunks popular myths as he goes. I found the first chapters very heavy going - especially early fascination with how American English was originally pronounced, and how that changed. Basically everyone spoke the same initially, but the language of the settlers evolved more slowly and soon seemed old fashioned. The same happened with the move West. Those on the West coast still spoke like a Davy Crocket backwoodsman, whilst, over time, those on the East became more refined.

    Early on, I learned that "Eenie, Meenie, Mini, Mo" was an ancient form of counting that predated the Roman invasion of Britain. Speaking of how the Vikings visited America long before it was "discovered" by Columbus, et al, I learned that it was possible to cross the Atlantic in stages, from Scandanavia to Canada, island hopping, without ever having to sail over more that 250 miles of open sea. Amerigo Vespuci travelled to the New World as a lowly ships officer. People later thought he led the expedition. Waldeseemuller added the New World to an old map, and called it Americus, (masculine) which was later changed to the feminine America - cf Asia, and Europe, both feminine in the Roman languages. Noon came from the latin Nones, the ninth hour of daylight, ie 3 pm, when prayers were said. Prayers were then said 3 hours earlier, ie at 12, without changing the word noon. Despite what is now taught, the American Declaration of Independence was not signed on the 4th July, 1776, and the story of sounding the original Liberty Bell was pure fiction, as was the story of young George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree. A french speaking, particularly reputable, New Orleans bank issued their $10 notes with dix (ten) on the back. These were known as Dixies - hence the land of Dixie, Dixie-land. American prospered and replaced GB as the world's largest manufacturer in 1894. James Gordon Bennett was a fabulously rich newspaper tycoon, who went around abusing people and worse, but then handed out wads of notes as compensation. It was Howe who invented the sewing machine - Singer improved it and took all the credit. Likewise Spangler for the vacuum cleaner, and Hoover. Prof Henry invented the wireless telegraph - Morse became famous. As America moved west, millions of new town names appeared and disappeared based on simplified Indian words, pioneers names, surveying engineers whims, etc. Eventually a Place Names Commission had to be set up to get consistency - eg for the post office. In the Louisana Purchase, Jefferson bought from the French what was to become 22 states - all for 3 cents the acre. Settlers followed the Oregon Trail to move West, but in smaller wagons than per the cowboy films, and not in single file but spread out over about 10 miles to avoid each other's ruts and dust.

    Gold was discovered in California in 1849. The story of the cowboy was a myth created by the writer Wiser - the book "The Virginian" of 1902 sold over 3 mil. copies. Sadly the 70 mil. buffulo of 1830 reduced to about 800 in 1895. This was not just carelessness but a ploy to keep the Indians on their reservations. The Indians were treated abysmally. Their population too declined from about 3 mil to about 90,000, and of the 400 treaties made between the US and the Indians, the US broke every one ! In the 1830's thousands of ships sailed from America laden with cotton, and they brought back people on the return trip. Immigrants rose from 1 % of the population to about 10 %. In 1885 about one third of NY was Irish. They were robbed and fleeced, and lived in squalor packed many to a tiny room. About a third of infants died, life expectancy was low, and about a third managed to escape back to Europe. Many that stayed, however, prospered. Commonly, Americans thought that historical levels of immigration were beneficial to the country, but that current levels were too high. The "open door" policy ended in 1924, when a quota system was introduced. Black people had it worst of all (slavery) and had no rights at all even after slavery was abolished. Travel was very difficult and slow until the railways exploded from nothing in 1830, to 30,000 miles in 1860, and 700,000 miles in 1890. Initially horses prevailed, filling the streets with smelly dung, but then came cable cars, trolley cars, buses, and then the all conquering motor car. Main roads were given romantic sounding names, but a government commission set a new number system - odd road numbers went N/S, and even numbers ran E/W. Main roads ended in a multiple of 10. It was myth that American superhighways were modelled on German autobahns - it was the other way round ! Sadly the new interstate highways drained the life and character from thousands of towns, motels, diners, etc.

    The first Pilgrims came to a land of plenty - wild duck, turkeys, lobsters, and fruit, but almost perished because they wanted food that they were used to. Native Indians rescued them, fed them, and showed them how to grow corn. In return, as I have already mentioned, the Indians were treated terribly. In the 1800s the whole of Europe's potato crop came from only two original plants introduced by Spaniards. Lack of biodiversity led to blight, and the terrible Irish potato famines. Bryson gives us detials of an American food story full of big names - Kelloggs, Dr Pepper, Quaker Oats, Hershey Bars. The Coca Cola story dates from 1886 when the pharmacist John Pemberton boiled up cola nuts, coco leaves, caffeine, in an old iron bath in his backyard. He later sold the recipe to another pharmacist for $300 who exploited it. Many early TV shows were simply lifted from established radio shows, with some actors replaced by more handsome ones. Air conditioning took off - today (1994) America spends $25 bil. simply on the electricity to run these units. Well into the 1900s most people worked 60 hour, 6 day weeks and generally Americans work longer days, and take fewer holidays than other nations, but produce more goods. They use their wealth to buy things, not leisure. It was Eastman who invented the portable box camera in the 1880s with roll film - made of paper first then celluloid - and then changed the company name to Kodak. He went for the mass market - spending money making the product better and cheaper, and on advertising. He sold at a small margin but in vast numbers sufficient to make a fortune. Advertising persuades people to buy things they don't know they need. He used slogans, and exploited public anxiety. A patent protects a name and a process for 19 years, but discloses details of the process, A trademark protects a name almost indefinitely, but once established a brand has lasting earning power. However over advertising can give the product generic status - thermos, aspirin, Hoover. Trademark protection is lost. The first TV advert was in 1941 - Bullova watches. Adverts had been on radio since 1922.

    Movies date from 1877 and a bet between a railway tycoon and a friend as to whether a galloping horse ever had 4 feet off the ground at the same time. Solving the puzzle required getting a moving picture sequence from a bank of cameras fired by elaborate trip wires. Surprisingly early movies for home playback had incorporated sound, but a technology gap - the lack of theatre sound amplification - meant talkies did not arrive until much later. The first real movie was "The Great Train Robbery" of 1905. By 1925 movies were America's favourite entertainment and the country's fifth largest industry. On a train journey, a ranch owner in California renamed his ranch Hollywood, and the rest is history. The location had good all year round weather and sunshine - saving expensive lighting costs. Generally the movie industry was owned by non Americans - eg European Jews.

    An early (1910) vending machine dispensed chewing gum in three flavours - cherry, orange, and plum - depending on the alignment of rotating dials. If the fruit lined up, you won extra gum, but if a lemon appeared, there was no pay out. All this was of course the advent of slot machines and the one arm bandit. The game of Monopoly appeared in 1933, sold over 1 mil. games, and was still America's largest selling game in 1994. Most recreations were invented in Europe, but developed in America - eg roller skating, cycling. Crosswords were very popular in the 1920s. The game of Baseball sort of evolved from cricket and rounders. The World Series appeared in 1903. A raincheck was a re-admission stub if a game was rained off - so to take a raincheck means to defer some activity. Basketball was a safe game that could be played indoors. Golf was a Scottish invention which came to America very early on - eg 1786 ! Bogey means one over par, birdie one under par, eagle, two under par. In the world of Politics the notion of left, right, centre came from France to the UK, and then to America.

    In the early years of the Civil war, when the opposing armies did not wear uniforms, the North side lost a battle, having failed to fire on an advancing troop, falsely thinking them reinforcements. So a cheap uniform of recycled fibres (Shoddy) was produced, and for the first time in standard sizes ready to wear. The Mason-Dixon line was a straight line settlement of a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and later became the division between slave and non slave states. American attitudes to public and private morality have usually been mixed. Euphenisms abounded for "forbidden" words, and sexual ignorance was often appalling. However acceptable behaviour is mostly a changing concept.

    In 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright invented / taught themselves much of the theory of flight, and were way ahead of their times. They built a fixed wing structure that flew for 120 feet. By 1905 they were flying 24 miles. Lindburgh crossed the Atlantic in 1927 in the "Spirit of St Louis." This was the first direct solo flight. Alcock and Brown had done it together in the opposite direction in 1919. Early passenger flights were dangerous, but nevertheless grew from about 417,000 in 1930 to about 4 mil. in 1940. Jumbo, the elephant, was not called that because he was big - rather big things were called jumbo after him - i.e. the Jumbo aeroplane.

    1950s America was boom time. National prestige was high, American had never been invaded, war and depression were over, and war production factories were put to peaceful use producing consumer goods. Teenagers appeared as alien species with spending power. Bryson writes of the phenomenal growth of McDonalds and leisure. In 1944 about a fifth of Americans lived in suburbs. But by 1990 Americas vast economic advantage had gone, imports increased, and America no longer produced all it consumed. The first satellite and first astronaut were Russian. An expensive national effort put an American as the first man on the moon. What Armstrong really said was "That's one small step for a man, a great step for mankind." The growth of computers has been huge.

    Education is a state controlled matter. No one knows how many Americans are illiterate, but educational standards have decreased, especially in comparison with other countries, and with this has come national economic decline. "I went through 12 years of schooling, and two years of community college without learning to read, and passed with flying coulours !" The "New Ayatollahs" control political correctness. But someone has joked, in the end "America will win, because our Asians will beat your Asians."

    Well, I hadn't meant to write so much, but, apart from a very slow start, it's an impressive book stuffed full of all sorts of eye catching facts and anecdotes.

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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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    The Body,    (2019)

    I read this book in June, 2022.


    Every so often, Bill Bryson and his researchers pick on some topic, go into it in great depth, and then Bill explains it to us, usually in some very readable form. Here he has chosen a huge subject, the human body, and condensed how it works, and how we got to know this into one remarkable book stuffed full of interest and wonder. So ten out of ten for content. But what about presentation - just how readable is it ? Here I am not so sure. It's definitely not light reading, nor as enjoyable, nor as laugh out loud funny as his travel books. It's more like a text book perhaps. It took me ages to read this book, which is usually not a good sign. However it is always readable, and always understandable, and certainly a rewarding read. You will find something of interest on every page, and frequently mutter "I never knew that." It's a book split into 23 chapters, with a comprehensive index at the very back. There are also a Sources section, and a list of books for further reading. Of course I liked the book, admire Bill Bryson even more, and thoroughly recommend it.

    I am not going to try to summarise this book, but I will give you some jottings, chapter by chapter, to give you an idea, a flavour of the book. But I am only scratching at the surface - do read the book for yourselves.

    Chapter 1 - How to build a human. The body is mostly made of Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium, and Phosphorus. We are built of cells, each containing 1 metre of exquisitively thin DNA, which exists as two linked strands arranged as a double helix. DNA is divided into segments called chromosomes, the units of which are your genes. These give the body instructions for making various proteins - enzymes, hormones, antibodies, etc. All humans share 99.9% of DNA, but the 0.1 % of slight differences makes each one of us unique. We also have personal mutations making us different from our parents. DNA is immensely stable - think tens of thousands of years. Our genes came from ancestors that were not even humans. We are a universe of some 37 trilion cells and it all started with a unicellular blob.

    Chapter 2 - The Outside: Skin and Hair. Our skin keeps our insides in, and bad things out. Skin has an outer layer of dead cells, the dermis, and an inner fatty layer, insulating, providing energy, anchoring to the body, the epidermis. Hair follicles and various receptors are anchored in the dermis. We are just as hairy as the apes, but our hair is wispier, and this together with sweating helps us cool down and sustain our huge brains. Our bodies contain about 40 litres of water. At rest we lose about 1.5 litres a day, but in a hot sun, we can lose this in an hour. 3 to 5 litres loss gives headaches, 7 litres mental impairment, and about 10 litres death - and watch out for salt loss too. Each square centimetre of our skin contains about 100,000 microbes, so wash your hands. Sanitizers kill good bacteria as as well as bad ones. Fingerprints are unique, and melanin gives the skin its colour.

    Chapter 3 - Microbial You.The average bacterium lives less than 20 minutes. Of about 1 mil. microbes, only 1,415 do us harm. Viruses are wierd proteins, existing like dust, neither alive nor dead, but if they get into a living cell, they burst into life, and start reproducing. They are tiny, and some have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Only 263 affect humans. Antibiotics (eg penicillin) kill bacteria, but bacteria are becoming drug resistant. The problem is not being tackled by drug companies as it is absurdly expensive to research new drugs - with high development and testing costs, and only limited patent protection.

    Chapter 4 - The Brain.The brain is 2% of our body weight, but uses 20% of our energy, and more for a baby (hence babies sleep a lot). A morcel of cortex the size of a grain of rice holds 2,000 terabytes of information. The main part of a neuron (brain cell) is the axon, and the other end splits into about 400,000 branch extensions called dendrites. The spaces between these are called synapses. Thus there are trillions and trillions of connections where our intelligence lies.

    The brain consists of 3 main sections - the cerebellum on top, the cerebellum below, at the back, and the brainstem at the base. The cerebellum has a left and right hemisphere, and each hemisphere has 4 lobes - frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. Each section specialises - eg the frontal is where higher functions take place, reasoning, problem solving, forethought, personality, who we are. The limbic system is scattered through the brain like currants in a scone. The hypothalamus is about the size of a peanut, but controls body chemistry, hunger, thirst, blood sugar, when we need to sleep, and the laying down of memories. Our eyes send 100 billion signals to the brain per second, but that is only 10% of seeing. The rest is a brain construct. It takes about 1/5 of a second for the signal from the eyes to reach the brain, so the brain is constantly forecasting what the future will be in 1/5 of a second, and this we call our present. Light and sound travel at different speeds, but somehow the brain makes sense of all this - it is very good at finding patterns.

    Memory storage is disjointed, fragments stored in different places, and reconstructed when recalled. These memory fragments move around all the time. Memory is declarative (can be put into words, date of birth, etc), or procedural (how to swim, identify odours, etc). We have short term and long term memory. We retain a lot more than we are able to recall - when you revisit a childhood location, you may remember things about it. All the higher processes take place in a 4 mm thick fatty layer at the brain surface - the grey matter. Below is the white matter. Brain cells are neurons (10%) or glial cells (90%) - the latter support the neurons, glue them together, produce myelin, and remove waste. The brain is 95% grown at 2 years, but not fully grown until 25 years.

    Chapter 5 - The Head.The eye is bigger than we think - we only see 1/6 of it, the rest is embedded in the eye socket. The eye works like a camera - the cornea does 2/3 of the focusing, and the lens only 1/3. The iris is a unique riot of spots, wedges, spikes, and so we use iris recognition for security identification. Our photoreceptors are rods (dim conditions, no colour recognition) and cones (colour recognition in bright conditions). Many creatures see life more vividly than we do. The only thing in sharp focus is an area equivalent to a thumbnail at arm's length, but we take about 4 snaps per second, and so have the impression of viewing a wider field. The optic nerve is the thickness of a pencil, and we have a significant blind spot, but the brain fills this in for us.

    We were designed to live in a quieter world. The ear is very sensitive and we can hear a sound that moves the eardrun less than the thickness of an atom ! Our acoustic reflex prevents damage from loud noises by moving aside the bone that normally hits the eardrum, but then we are temporarily deaf. Noise doubles every 6 decibels - the pain threshhold is 120 decibels, and 150 decibels bursts our eardrums. Our ear also aids balance acting like a gyroscope - gel in a channel acts like the bubble in a spirit level and tells the brain what direction we are travelling in. The gel hardens with age, so balance deteriorates.

    Smell is one of the least appreciated senses. The things that we smell have lots of different volatiles that enter the nasal passage where we have about 400 types of odour receptors. The nerve signals don't go to the hypothalamus, but directly to the brain in the olfactory cortex which is very close to where memories are stored - hence smell can evoke all sorts of memories.

    Chapter 6 - Down the Hatch: The Mouth and Throat.When we swallow, food is conveyed to the stomach more by muscle contraction than gravity. Uniquely we send food and air down the same passage. The epiglotis opens when we breathe, and closes when we swallow. We have about 10,000 taste receptors in the mouth, but other receptors there too - eg pain. We sometimes mix up the signals - eg chile tastes hot, we think the mouth is on fire. Food taste is really food flavour - taste and smell, in fact mostly smell where odour reaches us via the back of the mouth.

    Chapter 7 - The Heart and Blood.The heart beats about 100,000 times a day, pumping 260 litres of blood per hour. The heart weighs less that a pound, and has 4 chambers - two atria, two ventricles. Really it is two pumps, one sending blood to the lungs, and one round the body. Veins have valves to prevent backwards drainage, and muscles to aid blood flow. High blood pressure nowadays is taken as a reading over 130 / 80. The old definition of death was lack of a beating heart - and so heart transplants would be impossible. The modern definition looks at brain death, but this is not straight forward. Heart disease is the western world's main killer.

    Blood comprises, red cells, white cells, platelets, and plasma. A teaspoon of blood contains about 25 billion red cells, and each contains about 250,000 molecules of haemoglobin. The white cells fight infections, and the platelets provide clotting. During the dark days of medicine bleeding was used to cure diseases - if it failed to kill you, it was taken as having cured you.

    Blood groups were discovered about 1900 - A, B and O (for zero originally, ie no blood clotting). AB is a fourth group. All blood cells are the same, but have different antigens on their surface. We can transfuse A into A, or AB, B into B, or AB, AB into AB, and O can donate to all groups. Blood group has been used to establish parenthood.

    Chapter 8 - The Chemistry Department.The pancres produces insulin, vital in controlling blood sugar. In type 1 diabetis, usually inherited, the body stops producing insulin, wehich then has to be injected into the body (as insulin is broken down in the gut). Type 2 diabetis, usually caused by life style, insulin is used less efficiently. Insulin is a hormone - a chemical produced in one part of the body that effects another part. An edocrine gland secretes product directly into the blood stream - eg thyroid, pituitary, ovaries and testes. The pituitary is often called the master gland as it controls so much. Leptin tells the body when it is able to do some things - eg has enough energy to enter puberty, etc.

    The liver is the body's laboratory, participting in about 500 metabolic processes. It converts glucose to glycogen, and then back again when a burst of energy is required. The liver is unusual in that it can self regenerate - remove 2/3, and it will grow back again. Alcohol, and hepatitis C destroy the liver. The spleen monitors the condition of the circulating blood, and the gall bladder stores bile.

    We have two kidneys that filter waste, and maintain salt balance. Sadly they deteriorate with age. They connect to the bladder via the ureter. The bladder is elastic and expands as required, but this elasticity also deteriorates with age - we visit the loo more often. Removal of a bladder stone was a hideous experience in the dark days of medicine (as were most procedures).

    Chapter 9 - In the Disecting Room : the Skeleton.The best technology on earth is right here inside us. Cartilage is very smooth, with 5 times less friction than ice. We have 206 bones in the human body - they are strong, but light, and like muscles, grow with exercise. Osteocalcin is a hormone produced in the bones which has all sorts of other benefits - e.g. it keeps our memory in good order - so exercise produces strong bones, and protects against Alzheimers disease. Tendons connect muscles to bones, ligaments connect bones. We have over 600 muscles - the bulk of us is muscle. The thumb alone has 3 muscles, giving us great dexterity. Our five fingers are named, thumb, index, long, ring, and little. We come from a long line of beings designed to take their weight on 4 legs, and being upright has brought problems of back and joint pain, the need for hip replacements, etc.

    Chapter 10 - On the Move : Bipedalism and Exercise.As we came down from the trees and started to walk, first we were walkers and climbers, but not runners, and later in evolution we were walkers and runners, but not climbers. We grew a long neck, lost coarse body hair and cool by pespiration not panting. But being upright gave us back problms, and the narrow pelvis for walking gave difficulty in child birth.

    Exercise is important for health. An early study compared bus drivers with bus conductors - the former had more heart disease. Rules of thumb are that at 40, 11 minutes of exercise a day adds 1.8 years life expectancy, and 60 minutes, adds 4.2 years. 10,000 steps / 5 miles a day is as good a guide as any, but we were designed to be hunter gatherers and they probably walked about 19 miles a day. They also stored fat as a fuel reserve - now we are cursed with being overweight. A BMI of 25 to 30 is overweight, and over 30 is obese. We would have to walk all of 35 miles to lose one pound of weight, but how easily we can eat and add one pound. (A couch potato sits around about 6 hours a day - get up and move around !).

    Chapter 11 - Equilibrium.The surface law dictates that as an object grows, its relative surface area to volume decreases. Heat is lost at the surface and the more surface area you have, the harder you have to work to keep warm. Thus an elephant's heart beats 30 times a minute, but that of a mouse 600 times a minute. A mouse has to eat 50% of it's body weight a day, we only need to eat 2%. The old rule of thumb that all mammals hearts beat 800 million times before dying used to apply to humans too, but now we can do 1.6 million. Our normal body temperature is maintained at 36 to 38 degres C - if it falls by 2 degrees, or increases by 4 degrees, we are in trouble. The hypothalamus does the controlling - we sweat or shiver, and divert blood to or away from the skin. Maintaining equilibrium in the body is called homeostasis. However a modest fever / temperature increase helps us fight viruses.

    At cellular level, we require a staggering mount of energy to keep going. Ions move into the cell when the ion channel opens and the chemical ATP stores up energy, and then releases it to power the body. We produce and consume our body weight of ATP every day. Because it's so light, a bug falling from height can scurry away unharmed. Similarly, a child suffers an impact 1/32 of that of an adult. A child can tolerate cold better than heat as it's sweat glands are not yet developed. Hence the terrible stories of children left alone in a car on a hot day. We can only live on about 12% of earth's land area - eg we can't live above 17,500 ft because of the thinness of the atmosphere. An aeroplane is pressurised to the equivalent of 5,000 to 8,000 ft - depressurise a plane flying at 35,000 ft, and we would pass out.

    Chapter 12 - The Immune System.Every person's immune system is unique, constantly and limitlessly protecting us from invasion. It has to attack what would harm us, but not waste energy fighting something that would not harm us. Sometimes the immune system malfunctions and attacks itself - the autoimmume diseases, 80% of which happen in women. Lymphocyte defenders comprise about 1/5 of white blood cells, and are either B-cells (from the Bone marrow) or T-cells(from the Thymus). T-cells come in two flavours - helper-T and killer-T. T-cells instruct B-cells to make antibody protein that fires off attack chemicals (cytokines) to destroy the invader. Inflamation is the body defending itself - a blood surge including the required white cells. Transplants from a person other than an identical twin will not work as they will be destroyed by the new host's immune system. The chemical cyclosporine prevents this rejection, but then leaves the host without an immune system, and susceptible to disease. Once the immune system has defeated the infection it has an inbullt stop signal, but some cancers trick the immune system by sending out false stop signals. Checkpoint therapy overcomes these false stop signls, sometimes with miraculous success, but only for some cancers.

    Chapter 13 - Deep Breath : The Lungs and Breathing.Everytime we exhale we breathe out 2.5 times 10 to the power of 22 oxygen molecules. Our lungs repel pollutants that might make us ill - cough the pollutant up, or send it to the stomach to be destroyed by acid, or gobble it up with aveolar microphages. Lung funtion is helped by the diaphram muscles, and air pressure in the lungs is maintained at slightly below atmospheric. This helps to keep the lungs inflated. Puncture the lungs, and they deflate. If we hold our breath too long, we suffer discomfort not from lack of oxygen, but from a build up of carbon dioxide. The average adult has about 20 square ft of skin, but over 1,000 square ft of lung tissue, and 1,500 miles of airways.

    5% of adults, and 15% of children suffer from asthma (from the greek "to gasp"). Many things provoke an attack, but we don't really know what causes asthma. Some ashmas are allergic reactions, but some are not. In between attacks, asthma just disappears - it cannot be detected.

    It took years to persuade people of the link between smoking and lung cancer, but even then, many continued to smoke, nevertheless. To change the subject, the record for an attack of hiccups is 67 years.

    Chapter 14 - Food, Glorious Food.To power the body we need about 2,600 calories a day for a moderately active man, and 2,000 for a similar woman. Atwater, in 1896, worked out the calorific value of about 4,000 foods. However, some foods are not 100% digested - eg eat 170 calories of almonds, we only get 130 calories of energy, and 40 calories pass right through you. Humans are good at extracting energy from food - e.g. we cook it. A cooked potato is 20 times more digestible than a raw one. Extracting a lot of food energy in a short time gave our ancestors the energy to grow big brains and prosper. Some primates have to chew food for 7 hours a day.

    Food is water, carbohydrates, fat and protein - but we also need vitamins (from vital amines, though not all are amines), and minerals we cannot produce ourselves. Usually these chemicals are called hormones if made inside the body, and vitamins if made outside the body - although we do make vitamin D inside the body. They were discovered in the 1920s, and named A, B, C, D, then B1,B2 to B12, but some of them were eliminated later. Proteins are chains of amino acids. If there is a small number in the chain, it is called a peptide, if 10 to 12 in the chain a polypeptide, and if more a protein. There are lots of amino acids, but only 20 are used to make proteins. The body breaks down consumed proteins, and uses the parts to make body protein. Meat eaters get all the protein they need.

    Carbohydrates are compounds of carbon, hydrogen,and oxygen, bound together to form a variety of sugars - glucose, fructose, etc. Although we eat pasta, potatoes, and rice, when they break down in the body, they are just sugar. 150 g of rice is just 150g of sugar, i.e. it gives a similar effect on blood glucose levels as 9 teaspoons of sugar.

    Fats and cholesterol and proteins are broken down in the body to make lipo proteins, which are either HD (good) or LD (bad). LD is bad as it forms plaques on the walls of blood vessels. About 7% of cholesterol floats about in the blood, and of this 1/3 is the good variety, and 2/3 the bad variety. To maintain healthy levels we are advised to eat fibre which lowers cholesterol, and slows the rate at which carbohydrates are converted to sugar which in turn is converted into fat in our liver. Both carbohydrates and fats make up our body fuel reserves, but unfortunately the body consumes the carbohydrate first and holds on to the fat. Fats are subcutaneous (below the skin), or visceral (around the belly) - the latter is worse for you. Fats are saturated (animal fats) or unsaturated (vegetable fats). Trans fats are artificial forms of fat made from vegetable oil, and these too are bad for you - they increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, and damage the liver. We consume about 2.5 litres of water per day, but some of this we can get from our food. Its OK to take some of our daily water requirement from caffeinated drinks - although diuretic, they add more water than what is expelled as urine. If we drink too much water and the kidney cannot get rid of it fast enough, this dilutes the body salt level which is very dangerous.

    Keys wrote about the danger of dietary fat, and advocated a mediterranean diet for a healthy heart - some of this is disputed now. More worrying now is the sugar in our diet. The recommended maximum is 5 teaspoons a day, but a single fizzy drink can contain 7.5 teaspoons of sugar, and lots of processed foods contain added sugar. Modern farming goes for high yields, and rapid growth, and this has been at the expense of quality. Apples have been developed to taste sweeter than they used to, and a lot of food is less nutritious than it used to be. "We are overfed, but under nourished". A lot of dietery advice is contradictory and confusing. Coconut oil is not good for you - you are drinking fat. "Try to eat good things, and avoid bad things".

    Chapter 15 - The Guts.The alimentary canal is 40 ft long. The average time, mouth to anus is 55 hours for a man, 72 hours for a woman. The stomach holds about 1.4 litres, and bathes food in hydrochloric acid, killing many microbes that would harm us. Most digestion take place in the small intestine - 25 ft of coiled tube. The small intestine emplies into the large intestine where water is reabsorbed by the body, and microbes chew away at the contents and harvest vitamins. What is left is faeces for evacuation - about half a pound per day. Flatus (farts) is explosive, and care has to be taken in surgery. In keyhole surgery the body is pumped full of carbon dioxide to avoid explosions.

    Chapter 16 - Sleep. All animals sleep, but sleep is about a lot more than just resting. We spend one third of our life asleep - why? Hibernation is not sleep, but hibernating animals do have periods of sleep. Some birds can sleep half their brain, wake this half, and then sleep the other half of the brain. Normal sleep can be split into about 5 consecutive stages - 5 to 15 minutes to fall asleep / 20 minutes of light slumber / 60 minutes of deeper sleep / and then REM sleep when we do our dreaming, and then the cycle repeats. Part of us is paralysed during REM sleep but the eyes dart around (perhaps following our dreams ? ) Each 5 stage cycle takes about 90 minutes, and total REM sleep is about 2 hours per night.

    In 1999 it was discovered that in addition to rods and cones, the eyes also have photosensitive ganglion cells. These give awareness of bright light, tell us if it is day or night, function independently of sight, and work in blind people too. We have these mini body clocks all over our body. The pineal gland in our brain tracks day / night, and the seasons, and produces melatonin, the universal chemical found in all animals subject to circadian rhythms. A 70 year old produces 1/4 of that produced by a 20 year old. Be aware of circadian rhythms - e.g. it matters when in the day we take medicine. As the day progesses adenosine levels in the brain increase and make us want to sleep.

    Chapter 17 - Into the Nether Regions.Females have two X chromosomes, males have an X and a Y. We have 23 pairs of chromsomes. X chromosomes have about 2,000 genes, but Y ones only have about 70 genes, and only one of these determines sex. With sex, each parent contributes 1/2 of their childrens' genes, and so 1/4 of their grandchildrens' genes, 1/16 of their great grandchildrens, and so on. And so we get variety, safety, resilience. Cloning gives an exact copy, but we don't evolve.

    Sex surveys are notoriously unreliable. Men and women are very different in lots of ways - women carry more fat, their bones wear out faster, they suffer more depression (but commit less suicide), etc, etc. Gender bias is important but often overlooked. Typically, drug trials are done on men, and then the findings are assumed to apply to women too. This is extraordinary and illogical - we do know that women respond differently to medicines. Mitochondria (the power houses of cells) are only passed on by the female, so if a mother only has sons, they will possess her mitochondria but cannot pass it on - the mother's mitochondria die out.

    Chapter 18 - In the Beginning : Conception and Birth. Although sperm are the only cells designed to leave the body, they are not very efficient at achieving fertilisation - the chance of success in fertilisation is only 3% for a single attempt. In recent years there have been reports of sharp falls in sperm counts, but is this true ? Every woman is born with her life's supply of eggs in her, but as she ages, the number and quality of eggs decline. Women today start menstruating at an earlier age, but they have their babies later. Once fertilised, the egg prevents penetration by another sperm. The DNA from the sperm and egg combine to form a new entity - a zygote. About half of all conceptions come to nothing, and are never noticed. This reduces birth defects. After about a week, the zygote has divided to become about 10 pluripotent cells - the master cells, which determine everything. Sometimes a fertilized egg splits into two cells, clones, identical twins. Normal twins are two separate eggs fertilized by two sperm. It takes about 41 cell divisions to get from conception to birth. Puerpural fever killed thousands of women for over 250 years before doctors learned to wash their hands before intimate examinations ! The placenta passes on oxygen, filters waste, and prevents infection. Most miscarriages are caused by a faulty placenta.

    At the moment of birth amniotic fluid drains from the baby's lungs, which inflate. A human baby's head is too big for the birth canal causing a painful childbirth. Babies are swabbed by the mothers' microbes in the birth canal, but C section babies do not get this protection. Other protecting microbes are picked up from the mother's skin. A mother's milk also provides good microbes in the babies' tummies and antioxidants. The first 1,000 days sets the health of an individual for life.

    Chapter 19 - Nerves and Pain.Recoil pain protects us from injury, but some persistent pain is a problem. Pain that doesn't go away is called chronic - nerves just don't switch off. Phantom limb pain can last a lifetime, but nowadays surgeons neutralise nerves days before limb removal. No particular region is associated with pain, and the brain itself has no pain receptors. We can use MRI to see how particular brain regions react to pain. Nerve signals to the brain travel at 120 metres per second. In reflex recoil from pain, the spinal column reacts to the signal before the signal gets to the brain.

    The nervous system is in two parts - the central nervous system is the brain and spinal column, and the peripheral nervous system comprises nerves radiating from the central system. We can split the system by function too - somatic controls voluntary actions, autonomic controls things we don't need to think about, sympathetic (e.g. fight or flight ), and parasympathetic for less urgent matters. Peripheral nerves can mend and grow, those of the central nervous system cannot. Pain can be amplified, or subdued, or ignored by the brain. Being depressed or worried increases the perception of pain, whilst a pleasant aroma, soothing surroundings can decrease pain perception. The best pain relief drugs only reduce pain by about 50%, and only in a quarter of people. We could do with something a lot better, but opioid drugs cause addiction.

    Chapter 20 - When Things Go Wrong : Diseases.Baffling outbreaks of diseases come and go through the ages. Viruses appear, and disappear, and affect different people in different ways. An outbreak can become an epidemic depending on - how lethal the virus is, how good at finding new victims, how difficult it is to contain, and how susceptible to vaccines. Most scary viruses are not good at all four of these factors. If a disease kills you too quickly, it cannot spread. Smallpox is a deadly disease, and very infectious, but now mostly overcome. TB might be the next major problem - Bill Bryson was writing pre Covid, but he adds a postscript mentioning it !

    Genetic diseases (i.e. caused by a fault in some gene) are more common nowadays because other things don't get us first. Most diseases have a complex array of triggers, and it's impossible to pinpoint a cause. Rare diseases attack less than 1 in 2,000. Some diseases are caused by lifestyle. Flu is dangerous because it mutates so easily. Every flu virus has two types of protein on the surface - H = haemagglutinin and N = neuraminidase. Flu H5N1 (bird flu) combines the 5th iteration of H protein with the first of N. Spanish flu killed millions of people 100 years ago.

    Chapter 21 - When Things Go Very Wrong : Cancer.People in the past often didn't live long enough to get cancer in great numbers. 40% of us will get cancer at some point, but some will die with it, not because of it, and some never know they have cancer. Cancer cells typically divide without stopping, grow by themselves, trick the body into giving them a blood supply, ignore signals to stop growing, don't suffer from programmed cell death, and spread to other parts of the body. Cancer is you attacking you, so it is not infectious. 80% of cancers are carcinomas (start in the skin or organ linings). 1% are in connective tissue - sarcinomas. The risk of getting cancer increases with age. Viruses and bacteria can cause cancer too.

    Mastectomy 200 years ago was a hellish procedure. Years ago too, those treating cancer with radiation didn't know to protect themselves from this radiation - in 1937 a brilliant physicist had invented a particle accelerator, and used it to cure his mother's cancer. Chemotherapy was also added to the treatment list after scientists noticed the affect of mustard gas on white blood cells.

    Chapter 22 - Medicine Good and Bad.The average male lifespan increased from 46 in 1900 to 74 in 2000, thanks to medical science, antibiotics, etc. And it was a similar story everywhere. Infectious diseases used to kill 50% of us, now it is about 3%. Lower infant mortality and vaccinations have also increased average lifespan - as have improved sanitation and food, etc. But even in the UK, poverty means lower life expectancy, and the difference between poor and rich is surprisingly large. But lifespan in America, a rich country, is lower than in some poorer countries because of lifestyle, obesity, day to day risks, guns, etc. Also America has colossal costs for healthcare. In comparison to many countries, Britain has fewer MRI and CT scanners, fewer hospital beds per 1,000 of population, and poorer 5 year cancer survival statistics.

    Overtreatment is an additional consideration, and the liklihood of false positives. Some women are treated for breast cancer they don't have - needless mastectomies. Also you can die with cancer - some cancers you can just leave alone. It's a similar story for men with prostrate cancer - still have the tests but be aware of their shortcomings. "One person's treatment is another person's income stream,"

    Chapter 23 - The End. 20% of deaths are sudden, but 60% are the result of protracted decline. If we increase life expectancy by one year, only 10 months of that is healthy life. Someone born in 1945 could expect 8 years of retirement, but someone born in 1971 20 years - both funded by the same span of working life. There are 3 theories as to why we age :_
    1. Genetic mutation theories - gene malfunctions increase and kill you.
    2.Wear and tear
    3.Cellular waste accumulation - cells clog up with toxivc by-products.
    Hayflick, in 1961, suggested cells could only divide 50 times and then we die. Later telomers (nerve endings) were discovered and these shorten on every division until they disappear. But any one explanation is only a small part of the answer. Free radical attack and antioxidants to counter them was another theory. With age, all sorts of things in the body are not as good as they used to be. At present 1 in 10,000 lives to reach 100, and the oldest person reached 122 years. 1/3 of people over 65 will die with dementia. Living a healthy lifestyle can get you to 80, but after that it's down to your genes. "Eat sensibly. Exercise regularly. Die anyway"

    I have ended up writing a lot more than I intended to, but it's such an interesting book that I wanted to save some of the information learned for later reference. All in all, a great effort by Bill Bryson, and well worth reading / studying, but perhaps not light reading.

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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)

    Sadly, David Cornwell / John Le Carre died in December, 2020. There was an excellent, detail packed obituary in the Daily Telegraph.

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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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    A Legacy of Spies,     (2017)


    I read this book in October, 2017

    In 2017 I knew that after a break of almost 30 years there was a new John Le Carre / George Smiley book out in hardback, and so I put "A Legacy of Spies" on my books to find list. Sometimes it takes ages to find a copy in some charity shop, but by pure luck I chanced almost immediately upon a hardback copy in an "Oxfam" shop for only 2.89. John Le Carre introduced us to world weary English head spy / spy hunter George Smiley in a series of books written in the 1960s. The most famous books were the Karla novels of the 1970s. There was then a gap of some 13 years before Smiley reappeared, and now after a further 26 years we meet again. It is not as good a book as the early Smiley books, and lost a bit in being told in flashback through a series of old reports, but nevertheless I liked the book and in places we glimpsed once again the brilliance of John Le Carre, still there at the age of 86. Well done John Le Carre - you'll get no carping criticism from me, I am just delighted to meet so many old characters once again.

    Our guide and the narrator of this tale is Peter Guillam, one of the young Turks / disciples of George Smiley of the British Secret Service (the Circus). Peter is retired and living in a quiet farm cottage in Brittany, when he receives a letter summonsing him to present himself in London to account for an old cold war operation. The giants of yesterday must submit to interrogation from a generation wholly ignorant of such old cold war times of total treachery when innocent blood was spilled for the greater good by men for whom the end often justified the means. Dirty deeds were done in the name of patriotism - now perhaps a dirty word. The secret service still pay his pension, and so Peter has to obey.

    The case being re-opened is the operation codenamed Windfall where Alec Leamas and his girlfriend Elizabeh Gold were killed in East Berlin. These were in the days before Bill Haydon was exposed as a Rusian mole. Windfall was a double agent run by Georges Smiley, Alec Leamas and young Peter Guillam - with everything on a need to know basis. Doris Gamp (Tulip) had similarly been disclosing East German secrets to the British, but was discovered and had to be smuggled out of the country by Peter. Doris left her son Gustav behind thinking that he would be traded very soon, and would join her in England. In the spy game nothing is ever clear, promises are broken, but secrets must be kept. The question is for how long, and at what cost. With the fall of the Berlin wall, East German Stasi files reveal to Alec Leamas's German son, Elizabeth Gold's daughter Karen, and to young Gustav that their parents were betrayed and murdered. They blame the British Secret Service and want retribution by having their day in court. Apparently no one knows where Georges Smiley is - so Peter Guillam is being thrown to the wolves. But Peter has learned from a true spymaster to whom he still pledges total loyalty. His interrogators seem to know quite a lot from other sources - can Peter disclose just enough to sort of co-operate but still keep the deepest of secrets ?

    I liked the basic story, and all the references to the old characters of yesteryear. Peter Guillam's character was just perfect - world weary, why did we do it, did any of it really matter, was it worth the price ? But I longed for Georges Smiley himself to take centre stage. I won't spoil the story by disclosing if / when this happens. It was delightful, though, to find now very old Jim Prideaux still installed in the same old caravan in the school grounds in Devon where we met him in   "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

    I don't think you will get / like this book unless, like me, you are an admiring fan of the series. I liked the basic premise of the story, but revealing it through old reports reduced the action and pace of the tale. But how bettter to do it ? I don't know. All in all, I am a fan, a great admirer of John Le Carre, and I liked the book.

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