The Z Murders

Book Review: The Z Murders, by J Jefferson Farjeon
I picked this up from the station book-swap shelf several months ago. In the wake of the terrorist attack in Westminster, some comfort reading seemed to be in order, so what better than golden-age crime fiction? Hmm.

Richard Temperley, who arrives in the early morning at Euston station having travelled with the person who turns out to be the first victim and who undertakes his own, determinedly independent investigation, is reminiscent of his namesake Hannay. The book doesn't tell you very much about any of the characters: his occupation is unspecified, and his motivation is provided by his belief in the innocence of the young woman whom he passes in a corridor moments before discovering the body. From beginning to end, the story extends over about 36 hours, and consequently, for all but the most avid readers, it takes longer to read it than the action it depicts. It's definitely a period piece, with the motor car and the aeroplane as the heights of technology. The policemen aren't stupid, and Temperley dodges them as much for sport as anything else. The underlying plot turns out to be a little bland, but is in keeping with my imagining this more in the medium of a black-and-white film from the time.

Clouded Over

Book Review: Amazon Web Services in Action, by Andreas Wittig and Michael Wittig
We're a heavy user of AWS at work; in fact, someone once described Amazon as "a cloud provider with a bookstore on the side". As such it's inevitable that you get a view of some services and just enough knowledge to get by, but without a real understanding of the bigger picture. I hesitated to buy a book, because it could become obsolete so quickly, but from the table of contents this looked like it covered the fundamentals, which aren't shifting so rapidly.

The book is a decent attempt at providing the bigger picture, though it quickly becomes clear that the picture is big and disparate; CloudFormation looks like a jumble, because it is, as it is a way of creating so many different types of resource. I'm not going to suggest this book will make anyone an expert on IAM, VPCs and ELBs, but it puts enough body on the bones of the alphabet soup. Much of the book focuses on EC2 and S3, which are indeed the services I'm most familiar with, but it also clarifies EBS and dips into topic such as RDS and SQS. There's a chapter on DynamoDB, which is in fact a weak spot in the book: the query APIs aren't very well explained and it just looks like gibberish - I suspect it's a big enough subject that would deserve a book to itself. Amazon is adding continuously to the available services, and there are some that aren't covered at all, but it's a good grounding in the technology.


Some time ago we decided we should go on the Unite for Europe March, and though there was some momentary doubt and confusion about whether it was going ahead after Wednesday's terrorist incident, we felt it was the right thing to carry on. GWR ran their train from Reading to Paddington rather slowly, and we were a bit late getting to the Lib Dems' meeting point at Marble Arch, and subsequently we didn't meet up with strange_complex immediately. As the number of people there became clear, this felt rather reminiscent of a Pride event sometime in the 1990s where friends had agreed to meet "by the Ministry of Sound tent" - a hopeless task despite an apparently clear location. Fortunately, after a series of texts and strange_complex's unique placard, we managed to meet up.

As we waited for the march to start, out of nowhere we suddenly had Tim Farron passing just in front of us, presumably heading to the front of the Lib Dems' section. We waited. And waited. Someone said the start of the march was delayed. In the end it took us an hour and a half to move from Bus Stop A on Park Lane, to Bus Stop B. But once we were off, things proceeded in a fairly orderly fashion. The crowd had strong feelings but was good-natured. Amidst the more obviously political placards, and lots of bad "EU" puns, I particularly liked some of the more individual ones, such as I AM QUITE CROSS and TUT. Eventually, though it did take some time, we spotted a DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING. With a more serious message, there was a banner in a traditional Trade Union style, with a tribute to Jo Cox.

The march became more spread out as it proceeded, and by the time we got to Parliament Square we'd missed the early speeches, including one by Tim Farron. But we did get to hear several good speakers: Peter Tatchell, Alastair Campbell, David Lammy, and Nick Clegg. Other speakers were more mixed, some not speaking close enough to the microphone to be clear. Sitting down on the Tube, I began to realise how much unusual effort is involved in standing still or crawling along for long periods of time, and on top of losing an hour overnight I do still feel rather worn out, although I'm glad I made the effort to attend.


Book Review: The Porcelain Thief - Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China, by Huan Hsu
I picked this up in a work book sale over a year ago. Initially I had assumed it was fiction, but closer inspection explains that it is the author's search for porcelain owned by his nineteenth-century ancestors, buried in 1938 as the Japanese army approaches, and subsequently lost in the fog and aftermath of war. I have a romanticised, tranquil, Confucian view of China, which can never have been real and which Hsu quickly disabuses; as an American-Born Chinese, he says, he "feels Chinese in America, and American in China", and he readily draws attention to flaws in behaviour, living standards, commercial and government practices, and so on. Taking a job in a relative's electronics factory, he uses his spare time to learn Mandarin and to visit surviving relatives, who give vague accounts of the family history. Undeterred, he visits the area of Jiujiang and talks to dealers, researchers and current practitioners of the mostly defunct porcelain industry. What emerges is an interesting extended family portrait, from the years of the Republic of China, through World War II, the Communist takeover, Taiwan (to which some parts of the family fled, including his own branch, with his parents later moving to the US), and the Cultural Revolution, to the present day, but Hsu's obsession with the porcelain - that it must still be buried somewhere - is rather at odds with all the evidence, and he struggles with the idea that it might just have gone, that it might have been stolen, that any concept of absentee ownership might just not have meaning in this jurisdiction and over this time period, and although it's the raison d'être for the book, his denial and stubbornness rather sours it at times.

Brush up your Shakespeare

There were free tickets available at work for The Taming of the Shrew at The Globe. I'm not a Shakespeare fan at all, and further investigation that the production was designed for a family audience didn't improve things, but I decided that it was at the very least an opportunity to see The Globe. It turned out that our seats were in the front and dead centre. It took me a while to realise how lucky we were - it was the analogue of a position I have become used to over the years as a Prommer.

It was certainly a spirited performance, and not knowing the plot in advance didn't matter too much, though I'm sure if you do know it, you will get more out of it. Once of twice the campness headed towards that of a children's TV presenter or the Legz Akimbo Theatre Company; but on the other hand, there were also some dark moments and themes, on the position of women and domestic violence. It was interesting to compare and contrast with the Proms the use of the standing space. At the Royal Albert Hall, if a performance is using part of the arena, it's generally marked off on the floor as a no-go area; but at the Globe, the actors and stage hands just barged and cleared their way through when necessary, presumably a more authentic touch.


Book Review: Angela Merkel - Europe's most influential leader, by Matthew Qvortrup
Unsurprisingly, a fair few political books show up in the work book sale, and I thought this would be interesting. Politicians are often viewed differently at home and abroad - Thatcher and Gorbachev are two obvious examples of leaders whose overseas reputation is much more positive than the domestic view.

There were some surprises from the off. I hadn't realised that Merkel was born in West Germany; her family moved to the East a few weeks later, where her father had a job as a Lutheran pastor. It seems clear that Merkel was brought up in a family that complied with the regime, but no more. A promising education led to a university career, but with that, a short-lived marriage. The characteristic of long and careful consideration and consensus-building is one that Qvortup introduces as 1989 approaches, with Merkel tentatively entering into political discussion, but then, having first joined a small party in the last months of the DDR, she found herself propelled upwards rapidly into the CDU. During the 1990s she had a largely successful career, though not without occasional setbacks and bruises. Another theme emerges - that of being a survivor, biding time, and taking out political enemies when the opportunity presents itself.

Qvortup's biography paints a sympathetic picture, and it would be interesting to discover alternative perspectives. One thing that is striking, given the current political climate, is that Merkel is in many ways an outsider in the CDU/CSU - much less socially conservative than the grass roots of the party, but more popular with the general public, at least until the refugee crisis. It's not yet clear whether she will survive this year's elections, or whether Enoch Powell's comment about all political careers ending in failure will be validated again.

A Golden Age, Revisited

Book Review: Five Go On A Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent
I'm behind on book reviews. I picked this up in a recent book sale at work as a bit of a joke, having seen it and others in the series heavily advertised. What with this and the Ladybird parody books, there seems to be a bit of a thing at the moment for revisiting childhood books of the mid twentieth-century.

I wouldn't have sought it out, and didn't have high expectations; it seems like the sort of thing that could very easily just go wrong and not work at all. However, I am pleased to say that it was quite fun. Julian is a senior manager at some multinational, and has of course without a whiff of nepotism hired the rest of the gang. No-one (bar perhaps the ever-earnest Anne) is looking forward to the strategy away day, and let's just say all the tensions between the characters are laid bare. Lashings and lashings of ginger beer have been replaced by illicit cans of cider, though Julian has clearly been hitting harder stuff the night before. Throw in the Secret Seven in the room next door, a dash of cock-up, and the British weather, but also just enough mystery and adventure to pay homage to the originals, and it's quite successful.

Degas, Picasso, and Hiroshige

We went up to Oxford last weekend to meet up with the in-laws and visit the Ashmolean. Degas to Picasso was perhaps a misnomer for the exhibition, which ranged rather more widely, collecting influences from the late eighteenth century onwards. Although there were a lot of works in the exhibition, many of them were pencil drawings or sketches for larger pieces, and I didn't feel especially engaged. There were a few items that caught my eye: Honoré Daumier's The Legislative Stomach, Louis-Auguste-Gustave Doré's Mountainous Landscape, Cézanne's Study of Pine Trees, Andre Lhoté's The Harvest and Ferdinand Léger's study for The Three Musicians. Georges Rouault's The Way is Long looked at a glance like a modernist take on Atkinson Grimshaw, and it required a closer look to reveal its more disturbed post-World War I theme. The Picassos tended to be more geometric, which may have been no bad thing.

There was a also a free exhibition in one room, with a selection of prints from Hiroshige's Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. To be honest, these were more to my liking and I'm glad we stumbled upon them. The Ashmolean is, to my mind, famous for its oriental collections, but as we wandered I was reminded again that it has quite a lot of European art; we focused on Turner's artistic licence in his depiction of The High.


None for ages, and then two come along at once. Last year, 82 portraits and 1 still-life; this year, the Tate's blockbuster Hockney exhibition. We booked well in advance and visited last Saturday. It was, of course, busy; but as usual, the rooms further into the exhibition became more comfortable. The exhibition takes a broadly chronological journey, beginning with the very swinging 60s, moving on to his time spent in California, and then through to more recent years interchanging Yorkshire and the USA. A variety of media are on display; as well as paintings, there are also photographs (including some demonstrations of multiple perspectives), videos, and works produced by Hockney on an iPad. The paintings certainly highlight his characteristic use of bright colours, with the greens and browns of Yorkshire giving way to earthy reds and deep blue skies in the Grand Canyon. I didn't find the iPad works especially engaging; they were animated to show their construction over time; I gather the artist's modus operandi is a subject of particular interest to Hockney, but not really for me. On the other hand, I did find the "slow TV" video walls of Four Seasons quite absorbing. My favourites were probably the later Yorkshire landscape paintings.

The Great Financier

Book Review: The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope
The subtitle of - and quite a few references in - Empire of the Fund prompted me to seek this one out. In fact, as a few months had passed, I only spotted one of the quotations directly.

It's a long novel, and it's clear that it was written for serialization; frankly it often felt rather wordy. The book starts off with some wearying stereotypes of nineteenth century fiction, marriage and problem gambling. Who is to marry whom, whether the social and financial status of a potential partner is appropriate, and so on. The widowed Lady Carbury can't keep her wayward son Sir Felix in the way he has become accustomed, and can't marry off her daughter to her eminently suitable cousin Roger. Meanwhile, everyone expresses social distaste at the marvel of the age, Augustus Melmotte, despite his apparent riches, because he isn't of the right breeding - or indeed, of any known breeding, suspected of being foreign and with no respectable history. Though, despite all this, his daughter has her suitors, and Lady Carbury encourages Felix to join them, in order to procure an income. It's mostly quite predictable stuff. Melmotte's latest enterprise is the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, to which he is introduced by the honest but weak Paul Montague, and the questionable but irrepressible Hamilton Fisker. Various characters in the book become directors in the company, though no-one really understands what is going on. There is a turning point, around half-way through the book, where Melmotte's rise stops and his fall begins, and things become more interesting. As you might imagine, by the end of the book, most of the characters have received their just rewards, for good or ill.

There were spoilers in the introduction to this edition, and the first pages suggested not to read the introduction until after the book. But then, why not put it at the end of the book, as a commentary instead? Overall, I enjoyed the book, though the expositions of some of the themes were a bit tedious. Whilst much of the behaviour clearly belongs to another age, there is something curiously contemporary about a man of dubious reputation making a stellar but precarious rise to the very top, being contemptuous to others yet thin-skinned to any criticism himself, and ultimately being exposed as a fraud.