Book Review

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Have You Eaten Grandma?, by Gyles Brandreth

This is a departure from my normal reviewing format, in that I mostly review fiction publications, but occasionally, a non-fiction one will catch my eye and, whilst I might not always deem it worthy of a review, this one definitely is. I am known to be a stickler for correctness in written English, and I constantly bemoan the slipping of standards, so this book is an opportunity for me to use someone else’s commitment to underline my own; that someone happens to be a ‘celebrity’, of course, which is of no particular significance to me, but it does mean that my readers—the British ones, at least—should already be aware of him, and his penchant in this area. Whilst I am in broad agreement with him on most of his items, I do take issue with some, which I will detail here, in sequence; which will obviously have more significance if any of my readers is able to obtain the book to follow my points in comparison with GB’s opinion—yes: not law!

In contradistinction to what I wrote above, I will start with a few general points, some of which I consider quite important. GB is in favour of starting sentences with the conjunctions ‘And’ and ‘But’, but I was taught at my grammar school to avoid this, from a style consideration, and I have always followed it, because I think it looks clumsy; and there are better ways to structure a sentence. GB frequently uses a convention which is, in my view, all too common: the use of ‘either’, when what he should use is ‘each’, or ‘both’—‘either’ means ‘one or the other’, so my reaction when someone writes, say: ‘There was a pillar on either side of the door’ is: “So: which side was it?” Curiously, he makes no mention of syntax, the incorrect use of which is a crime committed by far too many people, most of whom should know better; GB is all for clarity & correctness in written English, and poor syntax always gives rise to doubt, which should be avoided. Here now follows my points of contention, preceded by page numbers.

p29 Comma inside quotation marks for direct speech, before attribution; e.g.: “Easy-peasy,” said Gyles. I know it’s the convention, but it’s wrong! A comma implies a continuation, so either a full stop [period] should be used, or nothing. He is correct with continuation: “Yes,” Gyles admitted, “commas can be challenging.”, but sometimes continuation is possible, but ignored, as in: ‘That’s right,’ Gyles admitted, ‘Commas can be challenging.’

p67 Adjunct to the above: “In British English, the associated punctuation is placed outside the closing quotation mark: Money talks. All mine ever seems to say is ‘Goodbye’.” I prefer the American English convention [just for a change!]: “Money talks. All mine ever seems to say is ‘Goodbye.’”, because the quotation is treated as complete, be it a single word or more.

I also loathe & detest the convention which appears to be universal, where if the quotation has more than 1 paragraph, you put a quotation mark at the start of the opening paragraph and at the beginning of each subsequent paragraph, but no quotation marks at the end of each paragraph until the end of the complete quotation is reached: I know general prose & coding are completely different, but to my eyes this convention just looks unnecessary & wrong; and it would cause many problems in coding. Happy to be out of step here! Clarity could easily be maintained by either italicising quotations or extra indentation, or both.

p74 Possessive of personal names ending in -s: a singular name should always have an s following the apostrophe, no matter how odd it might sound, so it’s not Mellors’ as GB asserts, but Mellors’s; another prime example is Brahms, whose possessive many people mispronounce as Brahms’, but that means of Brahm [singular—and should be written Brahm’s], not of Brahms [singular]; the correct form is Brahms’s.

p98 “—stay focussed, please—”: I prefer focused, as in buses, not busses.

p114 “May be — maybe”: GB doesn’t make a distinction between might & may, but for me, the difference is clear—might implies possibility, whilst may specifies permission.

p133> Imported words; especially from Latin [the most common]: I hate Anglicisation! If we import a word, why can we not use its correct plural: my most loathed is referendums for referenda, but there are many others, such as graffiti, which is plural, so it’s ‘a graffito’, not ‘a piece of graffiti’. I also resent foreign place names being Anglicised: what’s so difficult about saying ‘Munchen’ or ‘Nurnberg’? [umlauts deliberately excluded] Or ‘Torino’, or ‘Sevilla’? It’s time we stopped being so insular, when it comes to pronouncing foreign languages.

p249 A very obvious tautology is excluded: ‘repeat again’: very common!

p251 GB is not in favour of euphemisms for dying, but I wonder what he will use for his beloved monarch?

p274 My own view is that it’s unfair to use foreign words in Scrabble, unless they are so common as to be known to all participants.

p283 I disagree with Martin Amis on his definition of whilst: “Anyone who uses ‘whilst’ is subliterate.” Poppycock! They have distinct & separate meanings: while implies the passage of time, whilst whilst implies conditionality. Think about it: you know it makes sense!

p290 Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses: that should never refer to people [as is almost universal in the USA, thanks to the 16th century settlers, and increasingly prevalent over here, as a result of imported US ‘culture’]; always use who. This was lamented in my review of The Man That Got Away, by Lynn Truss.

I could have said a lot more, but this is quite enough for one review! Good on him for spreading the secular gospel of good English, but I reserve the right to vary from the majority observance of the accepted rules. The hardback I read was published in 2018 by Michael Joseph, part of the Penguin Random House group, ISBN 978-0-2413-5263-2; a paperback is also available, ISBN 978-0-2413-5264-9.

Book Review

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State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

The fact that Mrs Clinton had been assisted by an established thriller writer for this story didn’t surprise me; I already knew of the former from her recently terminated political career, and I thought it might be interesting to discover what sort of a job she could do with a political thriller—politics at a high level being her primary area of expertise—having recently read a ‘what if?’ version of her life, reviewed here, but also without being aware of any of her other fiction writing, such as it might be: she has, according to the book’s flyleaf, written seven other books, including one with her daughter Chelsea, but from the titles, it seems most likely that they are all non-fiction [I could confirm that on t’internet, but, ya know…..], so it is probably a sensible guess that she provided the political ‘dope’, and Penny wrote it up. The latter’s name was vaguely familiar, but I soon realised that I had already read one of her books, albeit eighteen months ago [yay, memory!] and reviewed it here, A Great Reckoning.

It is jumping forward somewhat to reveal this, but I was quite gratified to discover that Penny’s primary protagonist in the aforementioned story also appears here, albeit late in the story and in a minor rôle, but as to what his involvement is, the Book Reviewer’s Code of Ethics absolutely forbids me to reveal it, so I won’t. The real identities of two of the principal characters are, to me anyway, immediately transparent: Secretary of State Ellen Adams is Clinton—having undertaken that function herself, so she should, by all rights, know what she’s talking [sic] about—and former President Eric Dunn [the story being written in 2020] is clearly Donald Trump, whose fictional character features highly in the story, although not as a main ‘player’. Adams’s personality is modelled on a former colleague in Congress, and the former’s best friend & advisor is modelled on her own best friend from school days, so they are well qualified to be realistic; Clinton also, graciously, credits her husband, “a great reader and writer [who knew? Not I] of thrillers, for his constant support and useful suggestions, as always”.

Dunn has been defeated in his reëlection attempt, and “After the past four years of watching the country she loved flail itself almost to death”, a fellow [of Adams] Democrat,  Douglas Williams, has been installed as President; there’s one major problem with that, and her current position in the new administration: “It had come as a huge shock when [Williams] had chosen a political foe, a woman who’d used her vast resources to support his rival for the party nomination … It was an even greater shock when Ellen Adams had turned her media empire over to her grown daughter and accepted the post.” So: she was never going to get an easy ride—self-inflicted? arguably—and her first foray into the literal & metaphorical world of international power-brokering, in South Korea, had been at best a failure, and could easily have been interpreted by those so disposed to do so as a fiasco. Not an auspicious start; so when a bus bomb explodes without any warning during the morning rush-hour in London, Adams suspects that she is going to be tested to the extreme, and that does, indeed, prove to be the case. What follows is a tense whirlwind of globetrotting negotiations, all the while trying to locate a psychopathically murderous arms dealer and prevent him carrying out his heinous threat, when the US government has identified it.

In politics, as in the world of espionage, one of the biggest problems is knowing whom to trust, and in Ellen Adams’s world, the dangers associated with making a mistake are gut-wrenchingly great, especially when highly-placed actors [in the life-rôle sense] remain from the previous administration, and this proves to be very testing & difficult for both Adams and Williams, especially given their previous antipathy, which they have no alternative but to work through, if they are going to thwart the jeopardy. The tension racks up very nicely during the narrative; Adams’s son, his girlfriend, and Adams’s daughter, Katherine, the media mogul, are closely involved, and there is even a literal countdown for a final escalation so, notwithstanding one’s attitude toward America’s militarism & arrogant, Christianity-dominated assumption of global moral advocate status, this is an excellent, albeit simultaneously worrying [if one takes the narrative too literally] thriller for our times. Perhaps it should have ended with the classic [British television, paraphrased] Crimewatch advice: “It’s alright: don’t have nightmares!” The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Macmillan] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-7973-9.

Book Review

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Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Perhaps I am displaying my age, and possibly also—although I hope not; but if so, it is regrettable—some gender stereotyping, but I automatically assumed that a person called Curtis would be male: not so. I know I am somewhat prejudiced against American culture, so perhaps I had better not fulminate, but it now seems impossible to assume a person’s gender from the given name, which makes life somewhat less predictable, and for an older person, that can be occasionally unsettling. This book is categorised as “a novel”, but I eschewed including that in its title, as that is not entirely clear; there is a qualifying line under the effective subtitle—the main title being displayed vertically, over a sepia-toned photograph of a younger Hillary—which reads: “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?”, and this crystallises the “sliding doors” scenario on which this story is based. I can’t say I’m more than slightly interested, in general, in American politics, but they can have far-reaching repercussions & implications, and Bill & Hillary Clinton were two of the best known, and possibly divisive [although that surely comes with the territory?] personalities in recent American political history.

I have to assume—lazily, of course, but then again, I’m reviewing it: not writing it!—that the majority of, if not all of the events which occurred before the bifurcation in Hillary Rodham’s life story are true; or, at least, predominantly true. The narrative is actually in three parts: the first is the, presumably, essentially true part, and the following two are Hillary Rodham’s life as she progresses in her career, free of any commitment to Bill Clinton, which she relinquishes in 1974, so a large part of her fictional life must be very different from her real one. Given that this is novel, and not a biography/memoir/hagiography, or anything similar, it is impossible to reveal any other than general details of her later life, which must be discovered from the book. How plausible a life arc it might be is impossible for me to say, but she does seem, from her early life, and stated beliefs & commitments [the narrative is written in the first person], to be the sort of person who would, very probably, have endeavoured to achieve what she does in this story.

Growing up female, albeit white, in postwar America, meant that she would encounter much opposition to her forthright political opinions, so the fact that she espoused & supported causes which promoted women, and people of colour—an underclass at that time—is very easy to believe, but she never considered herself physically attractive, which is why it was so surprising to her that Bill Clinton was attracted to her; and all the more galling when she realised how highly sexed he was. In a nutshell, the latter is the primary reason why she decides not to marry him here: no matter how much he pledged himself to her, which she did believe, he also couldn’t promise, in a way she could believe, that he would never stray, so his post-bifurcation career progresses in a very different way from reality. He doesn’t become president in 1996: this falls to one of the contemporary front-runners, Jerry Brown, with Bob Kerrey as his VP. The following two presidencies are also different: John McCain and Sam Brownback in 2000 and 2004. History gets back on track in 2008 & 2012, with Barack Obama & Joe Biden.

The narrative ends after the 2016 election; outcome not to be revealed; but Donald Trump’s predilection for litigation notwithstanding, he figures highly in this contest, and it is probably well nigh impossible to write something that might have exited his mouth which is [allegedly] so stupid that he couldn’t have said it! Despite this being a novel, in which the author can make the characters do whatever he or she wants, I am not entirely convinced that events could have turned out the way Ms Sittenfeld writes them; also, the conclusion seems to happen very quickly, in contrast to the slow, and very detailed progression from Hillary’s childhood; and, finally, the continual time-shifting can become wearisome—not specifically disingenuous, but why reveal something from an earlier time period later in the book, when it could have been revealed earlier, when that period was covered previously? Having said all that, I did enjoy reading this book, because Hillary [now] Clinton is a very interesting character, who was badly treated by the political circus, the media, and inevitably by extension, the American public: interesting as fiction, of course. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020], by Penguin Random House, London, ISBN 978-0-5527-7660-8.

Book Review – Breaking and Entering

Contrary to what you might think, this book is not a catalogue of actual burglary and/or housebreaking (other than a few minor instances in the early chapters), but the subtitle tells us specifically what it deals with: The extraordinary story of a Hacker called ‘Alien’. It is written by Jeremy N. Smith, and published by Scribe Publications, London, 2019; ISBN 9781911617006 (UK edition). I am interested in matters computer, and enjoy tinkering with code, becoming proficient enough to hand-code (a matter of some pride) a personal website (jonrisdon.co.uk) and a business website (wilfredbooks.co.uk), from which I sell the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon 1896-1967, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and also offer help to aspiring authors. With the best will in the world though, I am no genius when it comes to coding & computers: at best (and, ideally, free of self-deception) I am a dilettante.

I had read, maybe last year (how time flies!) an account of the hacking collective (although even that loose terminology is disputed by its participants) called Anonymous and, although it was acceptably interesting, it was somewhat confusing, given the myriad of groups & splinter-groups under that umbrella name, all, seemingly, with their own variant of a code of ethics (although some would even question dignifying them with so honourable a description); so it was easy to lose focus, and in the end, I was quite glad to finish it.

Jeremy Smith’s book, however, was not what I expected, and had me gripped from the word ‘Go’. It is effectively a part-biography (given that she is still relatively young) of a woman called Elizabeth Tessman, from New Jersey, USA, who adopted the pseudonym Alien when she became a freshman (freshperson wouldn’t sound quite right, would it?) at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This action is not as deceptive or devious as it sounds: simply that she needed a username for the college computer system, and eschewing something as mundane as her initial & family name, she tried ‘ET’. The film was already sixteen years old (this was August 1998) but still one of her favourites; unfortunately, 2 letters wasn’t sufficient; so, she thought back to the oversized essay with which she had clinched her acceptance, which concerned extraterrestials and how beneficent they might be; she tried ‘alien’, which was accepted, so, from there on, Alien she became.

Jeremy Smith takes the reader at a cracking pace through her life story from university to becoming an established, and still growing, independent consulting company in the field of cyber-security; a ‘white hat’ hacker, as they are known. Along the way, she has to face, and occasionally fight, almost unbelievably, at the end of the twentieth century, the prejudice & discrimination displayed by male colleagues, in a world where male ‘geeks’ tend to dominate the field of computers. It is also a salutary lesson, however depressing it might seem, given that it explicitly details an erosion of trust in human relations, that however well protected we might think the computer systems (and that encompasses all devices with processors and an internet connection) with which we interact might be, they are all, without exception, susceptible to attack by individuals and, increasingly, organisations, with malignant intent.

However (and I say this as the father of two wonderful daughters who never cease to amaze me with their skills & determination), this book is a heart-warming story of how Alien succeeded against the odds, which included working insane hours to prove that she was more than capable of holding her own and, latterly, with a burgeoning young family, running her own company in what was a highly competitive field and still, predominantly, a male-dominated world, although that has changed as the twenty-first century has progressed and more opportunities in scientific & technical specialities have opened up for women; when the pay gap is eliminated, these ladies might be able to consider themselves equal. This is an excellent read, and I hope that if you also read it, you enjoy it as much as I did.