The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There

By Sinclair McKay

Rating: 4 stars

This book acts as a social history of the activities of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during the second world war. It becomes clear fairly early on that Mckay doesn’t have any technical knowledge and doesn’t even try to get across any of the technical aspects of ciphers and codebreaking, but that’s not the point of this book. If you want the technical details, then a book like Colossus: Bletchley Park’s Greatest Secret is probably a better choice. However, this book does look at the people at Bletchley and the lives they led during their time there. In this regard, it succeeds, with interviews from survivors and extracts from various documents in different archives.

Various aspects are discussed, from recruitment to Bletchley, and how that changed over the course of the war, to the way the work was apportioned and segregated between the various huts, to the famous social side of the Park. It’s well-written and makes for a very interesting and enjoyable read. McKay has done his research with his interviewees who all sound like a fascinating bunch, but with narrow knowledge (due to the secrecy at the site). McKay is able to draw the various accounts into a more rounded and wider account.

So quite a broad, rather than detailed, account of the work of Bletchley, but definitely fascinating without any jargon to worry the non-technical.

Book details

ISBN: 9781845136338
Publisher: Aurum Press
Year of publication: 2010

Witches Abroad (Discworld, #12)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

It’s been a long time since I’ve read this book. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve read any classic-period Discworld and going back to this was absolute joy. Although the witches aren’t my favourite characters, they’re still a lot of fun here. Pratchett often plays with narrative and the idea of stories in his novels and this one is the epitome of that. In the far-off city of Genua a servant girl will marry a prince. Well, she would if it wasn’t for the witches of Lancre, including her newly installed fairy godmother. Who says you can’t fight a Happy Ending?

The first half of the book is hilarious travelogue, as the witches make their way across the Disc to Genua, leaving chaos in their wake. Pratchett uses Granny Weatherwax to slyly poke fun at the British abroad but you’re so busy laughing that you almost don’t notice. The pace changes when we get to our destination. Then the idea of story comes much more to the fore, as Granny and co are trying to fight the idea of a Happy Ending, or, at least, someone’s idea of a Happy Ending.

I always loved mid-period Pratchett the most, before he started going for nuance and depth of character. Here, the witches are archetypes, but so cleverly drawn and placed in such a setting that it’s not important. And it’s still laugh out loud funny, rather than the odd chuckle or wry smile here and there. That’s always a key marker of a good Discworld novel for me – how much it makes me laugh, as well as think. These few years are the sweet spot when Pratchett was, as far as I’m concerned, at the height of his powers.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552134651
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1991

Imaginary Cities

By Darran Anderson

Rating: 3 stars

This is a very difficult book to describe. The back cover calls it a work of “creative non-fiction”, which I guess is as good a place as any to start. It’s about cities that, by some definition, don’t exist. Whether that’s cities or buildings imagined by architects but never built; cities thought up by writers and poets; cities as they could or should be; or cities that have died.

The book is split into different sections, with short chapters within each section. To be honest, I found it difficult to pick up themes within the chapters, and even, at times, within the sections. Yes, you might get a section on utopia, and its evil twin dystopia, but then you get a section like ‘The Turk’ which just seems to flit from subject to subject without any unifying theme (although, of course, this may be more a failure of me than of the book). This makes it an odd read for me. It’s something to dip into every so often rather than something to read in large chunks with a unifying narrative running through it but I did find it somewhat unsatisfying. I’m not sure what it’s missing, but I do feel it’s missing something.

Still, I learned things about architecture and architects that I didn’t know. Now let’s see if any of it sticks.

Book details

ISBN: 9780992765590
Publisher: Influx Press
Year of publication: 2015

The Better Part of Valour (Confederation, #2)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 3 stars

The second book in Huff’s Confederation series follows on almost straight from the end of the first. Having got the attention of a two-star general (and having got him miffed at her), Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is assigned to protect a scientific mission to a seemingly derelict alien spaceship of a type that isn’t known to the Confederation. Of course, the ship isn’t all it appears and it’s up to Kerr to get her team, and the civilians, out safely.

This is a fun story in the “haunted spaceship” genre. Apart from Kerr and general Morris, we get only a couple of cameos from any of the cast of the first novel, but that does give us time with a whole new bunch of characters to get to know. I don’t feel that the characterisation of these new marines was as good as those from the first novel. You didn’t really care as much which lived and died , although really Ms Huff? Did you actually kill off the character with “Kill Me” tattooed on his forehead? I thought that was going to be some sort of bait and switch, rather than going for the obvious target.

This time round, Kerr gets a love interest, in the form of civilian salvage operator Craig Ryder, who was the one who found the (apparently) derelict ship in the first place. The relationship between them is practically stereotypical, starting from “get out of my way, civilian”, through, “well, he does have a nice smile” to, well, no bonus points for guessing. He does have some interesting characterisation though, which is brought through nicely by Huff.

There’s not an awful lot more learned about the Confederation itself (although we discover that its politics are the same as politics everywhere, as the expedition is led by a glory-hungry, media-friendly officer who’s only there because of political manoeuvring by his people in Parliament). I do sort of think that this might have moved the overall war plot forward a bit, however. Mind you, I’m not sure if I just missed/forgot something, but I’m not sure what the significance of the grey barrels in the last paragraph of the novel was. It felt very much like the close up on a grave right at the end of a horror film as a hand bursts through, but if there was significance, it passed me by (or we’ll find out next book, I suppose.

Like the first novel in the series, this came with a nice wee short story set elsewhere in the Confederation universe, following a different group of marines, not related to the main cast as they were trying to escape from an ambush and dealing with the lengths that soldiers will to go for their comrades.

So a good milSF story that definitely makes me want to read the next in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169681
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2002

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

I had never heard of this series before it won the Hugo Award for best graphic story in 2017. I’m quite glad that I did pick it up though, as it’s got an intriguing story and is lushly drawn. It’s got a very striking first page, with a full page image of a naked woman, and it’s only on second glance that you see the missing arm from the elbow down, the collar and the anger in her eyes. The woman is Maika Halfwolf and the story takes a flying start from there, as we’re thrown into this rather horrific steampunk world, with Maika trying to find out about herself, her mother and her history while trying to stay alive and out of the hands of the many factions who want to either kill or use her.

The world that the story is set in is fascinating. There are dead gods, immortals mating with humans to create a race of magic-using Arcanics and a war that could destroy everything. There’s a monster inside Maika that she struggles to understand, much less control, but as the fox-child Kippa says, monsters are people too.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and although I’ve reread segments, I think it’s probably worth rereading the whole thing. I certainly look forward to the next volume to see what Maika, Kippa, the cat Ren and Maika’s monster get up to next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632157096
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2016

Doctor Who And The Cybermen

By Gerry Davis

Rating: 3 stars

Although I read the Target Doctor Who novelisations voraciously as a youngster, I never found this one in the local library. To date, I’ve not watched the TV story that this is based on (although given that the missing episodes of that story have been replaced by animation, I probably should) so can’t compare the two. This is early in the second Doctor’s era, so Jamie has just joined the Tardis crew, but there’s still no excuse for making him as stupid as Davis does. I think Polly also isn’t served well, but I don’t know if that’s Davis or Kit Pedler (who wrote the original story) at fault. Still, it’s workmanlike and entertaining for a couple of hours.

Book details

ISBN: 9780426105756
Publisher: Target Books, Tandem
Year of publication: 1974

Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book Two

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

The second deluxe edition of the Fables series collects a few short stories in the series as well as a longer story dealing with Bluebeard and his attempts to get rid of Snow and Wolf. We start with Bag o’Bones, a story about Jack, set during the American civil war. It’s a fun piece showing off Jack in full trickster and shyster mode as he deserts from the Confederate army. From there, we return to the series ‘present’ as a journalist attempts to blackmail the Fables and the caper they get up to to deal with it. Storybook Love is the longest piece in the book, with Bluebeard hatching a plot to get rid of both Snow White and Bigby Wolf, involving the somewhat mental Goldilocks, while Prince Charming starts working his way back into Fabletown life, and who has an agenda of his own. Barleycorn Brides is a lighter story in which Bigby tells Flycatcher the story of Smalltown up at the farm and the coming of age ritual of many of the young men from there. The last graphic story in the collection is The Last Castle, in which Boy Blue tells Snow about the last stand against the Adversary and the battle that he witnessed, that gave the last ship out its final chance to escape. The collection ends with a prose story, A Wolf in the Fold, in which we learn a bit more about the Wolf.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. I liked getting to know some of the characters better, and the slowly developing relationship between Snow and Bigby, with the various twists and turns it takes. The Last Castle was a moving piece, shedding more light on the character of Boy Blue and making really curious about the Adversary. I hope we’ll see more of that in future volumes (and possibly even an attempt to fight back at some point?).

I don’t think it was quite as strong as the first volume, but there’s still more than enough of interest to make it worthwhile as part of the Fables series. I look forward to continuing my journey with these fabulous (in all senses of the word) characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401228798
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2010

Summer Lightning (Blandings Castle, #4)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

It’s always a pleasure to spend more time at Blandings Castle, with its, er, eccentric inhabitants and hangers on. This time round, the Empress of Blandings has been kidpignapped and the Earl of Emsworth is distraught. Meanwhile, his brother is writing his memoirs which will upset the gentry in a dozen counties and there are not one but two pairs of star-crossed lovers whose relationships need straightened out. Add to this the return of the Efficient Baxter and even the imperturbable Beach being perturbed and you’ve got a perfect storm.

While I had some trouble getting into this book, that’s more to do with circumstance than the book itself (I wasn’t in the best frame of mind, and I’d hoped a bit of Wodehouse would help. In the event, it probably wasn’t the best choice). Once I put it down for a bit and came back to it, the old Wodehouse magic worked its charm and I was hooked again. I love the outrageous characters, the Mild Peril™ and, of course, the happy endings. Huge amounts of fun, as always.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099513827
Publisher: Arrow Random House
Year of publication: 1929

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