Rewild Yourself by by Simon Barnes. Nature book where each chapter is a suggestion on how to get closer to nature. Has simple stuff like buying waterproof trousers and binoculars, up to learning how to canoe. Also suggests learning about butterflies, as there are fewer species than there are birds so it's easier to get a good grasp.
Pretty interesting and appealingly written, though apart from carrying a plastic bag to sit on I haven't put anything into practice yet. Might be better in summer.
What I'm Reading 2
Peace Talks by Jim Butcher. There was a long wait for the last book in the Dresden Files series, partly because the planned book ended up too long and he split it into two. I was pleasantly surprised to find two instead of one, but just read them back-to-back anyway.
The first volume covers supernatural peace talks being held in Chicago: Harry Dresden has to solve a problem while also trying to provide security for it and get to know the new characters introduced in the previous volume.
Good entry in the series but the complex continuing plot will make it unintelligible to anyone who hasn't been following it.
What I'm Reading 3
Battle Ground by Jim Butcher continues the story of Peace Talks and expands it into a massive, extended battle scene between two diverse coalitions of supernatural and mortal powers.
This reminded me of the same author's Codex Alera series, which has a lot more large-scale battles than the Dresden Files, which take up large sections of most of the books. From the forums, this has alienated some fans who prefer the old magic-detective thing, but I liked it a lot.
The book has also caused consternation among the fans by killing off some beloved characters.
I thought this was one of the most fun and compelling adventure books I've read in years, loved it.
What I'm Reading 4
Aelfred's Britain by Max Adams. History book about Alfred the Great and his successors, and their conflicts and deals with the Viking invaders and the Danelaw.
Pretty informative. Points out that the Anglo-Saxons were themselves a warrior society: initially overwhelmed by the mobility of the invaders, they still managed to win land battles and even some sea battles. Once Alfred established a network of fortified towns they were able to get the upper hand.
While the Alfred part is interesting, after that I started to find the book a bit of a slog as there's not much overall story to it, just an ebb and flow of various conflicts.
I really liked this Viking-Age Travel Map showing how the invaders used water and road networks to get around. Also discovered that juries were something from the Danelaw which made its way into the later English jury system.
Overall, informative but gets a bit dull.
What I'm Reading 5
Read children's book to the kid, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. First in a series, it's about two children taming a wild pony on the East Coast of the US. I think this must work best for kids who are into horses: he got bored and we put it aside, but eventually got back and finished it.
What I'm Reading 6
Matilda by Roald Dahl. First time I've read this classic about a bright kid who develops telekinetic powers to use against tyrannical headteacher Miss Trunchbull. Good fun, kid and I both liked this one.
What I'm Reading 7
The Beast and Bethany by Jack Meggit-Phillips. This is a new children's book that seems to trying to get back to the Roald Dahl style of casual sadism and horrible characters.
One character is a 900 year old man in thrall to a monstrous beast that demands he feed it precious objects and rare animals in exchange for a potion of immortality. When it asks for a child, he chooses the most obnoxious kid in an orphanage so he won't have to feel bad about it.
Kid and I both liked this, it works really well and the characters are developed thoughtfully.
I didn't really like the coda which undermines the story to set up a sequel, you might want to leave this out.
What I'm Reading 8
Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Classic book about a child who discovers his father has the hobby of poaching pheasant.
Was worried the kid wouldn't like this one. The plot is pretty low-key with no magic or real threat, but it's written more realistically.
However he was absolutely compelled by it and read chapters on his own, he loved it.
This is one of the few children's books I can think of where the child hero and a parent act together. Normally they're either orphans or have terrible parents or are trying to find an absent parent. Strangely uplifing for Roald Dahl.
What I'm Reading 9
Imperial Tragedy: From Constantine's Empire to the Destruction of Roman Italy AD363-568 by Michael Kulikowski. Good book by a serious academic looking at the "fall" of the Western Roman Empire and comparing it to what was happening in the Eastern (Byzantine) empire. It's scholarly but accessible, though it could have done with a glossary to remind us of some of the Latin terms.
It's very good on debunking some of the myths. In particular he stresses that a lot of the divisions between "barbarians" and "Romans" are fairly arbitrary. There was a lot of mingling, apparrent invaders would sometimes seek official status and residence. Sometimes writers wanting a barbarians v. Romans narrative arbitrarily take some people with external ancestry as Romans and some as Barbarians, but the sources don't actually make these distinctions.
Kulikowski is also skeptical about theories of Hun migrations causing other groups of steppe nomads to put pressure on the Empire. Some groups tried to stay, but others happily disappeared when paid off, which implies they could just head back. He also points out that the number of people in an army is much less than the numbers of the total population: the sizes of invading armies don't support the idea that they were migrations of entire peoples.
One thing that surprised me is that some parts of the Western Empire actually experienced peaks of prosperity in this era, from the archaeological evidence.
One factor that Kulikowski identifies importance is the existence in the West of powerful Senators with large estates giving them independence. The magnates of the East relied on state offices for their power and influence, and had a common interest in keeping the state functioning. So the powerful men of the West fought endless internal political struggles, withdrawing to their estates under pressure; while their Eastern equivalents cooperated more.
Another factor is that in the periphery of the Western Empire, Romanized elites were getting little benefit or protection from the central government, but were increasingly capable of their own self-defence. Romanized Gauls didn't see any point in being part of an empire anymore.
So while there were a lot of factors involved, the Western Roman Empire didn't fall because of mass migration or barbarian invaders, but more because their super-rich elites preferred to fight internal battles knowing their vast wealth kept them secure.
Overall, good book, worth reading though a bit on the heavy side.
What I'm Reading 10
The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison, author of the excellent "The Goblin Empire". The sort of book you didn't know you were missing until you read it: Holmes and Watson in a world where the supernatural is real and accepted, except that Holmes is a winged angel and Watson is Dr Doyle with a dark secret.
Enjoyed reading it a lot: has a fascinating and well-realised alternate-Victorian world, some brisk episodic plotting, and lots of well-spun variations on the original themes.
Couple of downsides: doesn't have much in the mystery/whodunnit side; the combination of the familiar original stories and the difficulty of plotting in an SF/Fantasy world where you don't know what's possible get in the way.
Another thing bugged me which is common to everything in this genre, and I noticed in the Dresden Files. That is, in fantasy worlds where angels or other supernatural but religious elements are known to be real, why does religion seem to be exactly the same as in our world? Surely at minimum everyone's going to church a whole lot more and praying as much as they can if every day they're seeing definite proof of God's existence. There should be much less crime and poverty in a Victorian London where everyone knows for sure they're going to burn in hell for eternity if they're not charitable and good enough. The established churches, bishops and popes should have at least as much power as in medieval or late antique times and maybe much more: secular rulers are going be very reluctant to risk excommunication. How would the Reformation have even played out in this kind of world?
Overall though, a good read if you can suspend disbelief.
Going to be a strange Christmas. London's in Tier 4 lockdown with everything closed. Wife has been in Germany for a week and was planning to stay there till January anyway, and now that travel's banned that might be extended. So, it's just going to be me and the kid.
So far the kid seems to be taking it all cheerfully, he's looking forward to Christmas and his presents. I'm finding it fairly relaxing, though I have to do a certain amount of work to get ready for a new technology stack they've moved us onto at work.
I think the big challenge is going to be getting from Boxing Day to the start of school, by then the boy will be getting bored and restless, and I'm going to be under more pressure to get up to speed with the code.
Articles. A grand unified theory of Gregg Wallace. The Muppet Christmas Carol has amazingly accurate costumes. US military issues report on submersible UFOs which emerge from the ocean and buzz fighter planes. The colognes of famous men.
Sci/Tech Applying insights from magic to improve deception in research: The Swiss cheese model. Anti-Vaxxers and how to combat them (long PDF report).
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