January Books

I thought this year I’d try keeping track of the books I read. I do some of my reading on a very long train journey I make once a week. I write on that trip when I can, but when the sleepies have got me I read instead in an attempt to avoid drooling on a stranger’s shoulder.

January’s list:

London’s Strangest Tales by Tom Quinn.
Not mad keen on the style and the author seems to start each chapter with a sweeping generalisation, but full of fascinating nuggets of information, that could well turn out to be seeds of stories. I’ll be re-reading to follow up on some of these.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
I’m not a great student of history, and certainly not historical politics. I’m also not a huge fan of Ms. Mantel’s style, having found Beyond Black depressing and unsatisfying at the end. I bought this because it was a Booker Prize winner, and I found it in a discount shop.  But Ms. Mantel does a great job of bringing the politics of the Tudor Court to life, as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.

He started life as a butcher’s boy and rose to become one of Henry VIII’s most powerful courtiers. The book covers the period 1529 – 1535 as Henry tries to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.  This edition has a short but interesting  interview with Ms. Mantel at the back where she talks about balancing invention and research. I enjoyed it.

Slide Rule by Neville Shute.
A recommendation from a member of the T party, following a discussion about the comeback of zeppelins. Mr. Shute was a novelist and an engineer. In his autobiography, he talks about his time  in the 30s working on the R100 airship, developed by a private company in direct competition with the Air Ministry’s disastrous R101.

The book is written in a betweeded stiff-upper-lip style and just-roll-up-your-sleeves-and put-your-mind-to-it attitude that seems very much typical of the period. One of my favourite quotes concerns a test flight (in 1930) that runs into a storm:

“Supper was laid on the centre table of the saloon and shot off, downstairs, up the corridor, till some of it reached Frame 2.

I think the ship must have been at least 35° nose down for a bit of cold meat or a slice of bread to get as far up the nose curvature of the ship as this.”

There’s a fair bit of technical detail, and some talk of finances, but accounts of test flights and in-flight repairs on the external strucutre are hair-raising. I still think zeppelins should make a come-back. Three days to India from the UK seems speedy enough and with 50 cabins and a fry up served for breakfast, immensely civilised.

In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau

Mr. Rideau committed manslaughter in 1961, was convicted of murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. After several legal proceedings, his sentence was changed to life imprisonment. He served time in Angola, Louisiana’s vast state penitentiary (5000 prisoners, 1800 staff members, 18,000 acres farmed by the prisoners) and writing for the prison paper, became an award-winning  journalist.

The book highlights the bigotry and injustice of the American legal system surrounding his case, from the 60s onwards.  I was after a bit more on the day-to-day life in prison (research for a currently nebulous next book idea). However, there are some startling snapshots, and an insight into the inmates’ and guards’ psychology and power plays.  It’s a fascinating read.

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