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Getting behind again - a few capsule reviews to catch up.

Jul 2010
Big Bangs - Howard Goodall - Vintage, 2001
* * * *
You need at least a passing interest in classical music to appreciate this one, but I liked it. Goodall (the composer responsible for the theme tunes to Blackadder and QI) describes five major developments in musical history (notation, opera, temperament, the piano and recording), explaining the technical details in clear and engaging prose. Occasionally he overdoes the matey humour, but the personal interludes, particularly the one where he describes the process of composition, are fascinating. At least to a wannabe composer like me.

Sep 2010
Travelling Heroes - Robin Lane Fox - Allen Lane, 2008
* *
Mary Beard has spoilt me for non-fiction books about the classical world, and it doesn't help that this one is sold on slightly false pretences. It sets out to show that Homer's epics were not drawn directly from middle eastern sources but were authentically Greek creations, with their mythic background coming from the peregrinations of the Euboeans (inhabitants of Evia, a large island just off the Greek mainland) in the Mediterranean and the near east. Unfortunately, demonstrating the range of Euboean settlements in the eighth century BCE involves two hundred pages about pots that only a fully-paid up archaeologist could love.

Later parts of the book, tracking the appearances of various myths in different parts of the Mediterranean, are more interesting, but ultimately futile. Fox mentions in the final chapters that Homer probably lived on the island of Chios and had little connection with the Euboeans and their travels. Most of the myths he has so carefully tracked are not in fact referenced in the Iliad or the Odyssey and there is no indication that Homer knew them. If, like me, you were expecting some insight into Homer's life and world, you will be seriously disappointed.

Jan 2011
The Oxford Despoiler -Gary Dexter - Old Street Publishing, 2008
* *
Parody is to satire what sarcasm is to wit. It is essentially frivolous and, once it has achieved its aim of pointing up the pretensions and quirks of the writer being satirised, has little more to say. It therefore works best as a short story. Being in that format already, the Sherlock Holmes tales are particularly susceptible to this kind of treatment and this is the latest in a long line of parodies of them. Its unique selling point is that all the mysteries relate to unusual sexual practices that would not normally have been discussed in Victorian England. The parody is very well done - the Holmes cognate Dr Henry St Liver and his mousey but open-minded assistant Olive Salter are both memorable and amusing characters (I particularly liked the teasing references to Olive's book 'The Story of an Australian Barn', which is clearly highly salacious). But after two or three stories the concept wears thin, and there are eight in this book. The characters do not develop and the main interest for the reader becomes guessing the sexual practice on which the current mystery is based.

Feb 2011
Falco The Official Companion - Lindsey Davis - Century, 2010
* * * *
A quick mention for a book that will be of interest to all lovers of Lindsey Davis' Falco series. It is a reference guide to the places and people in the novels with some characteristically eccentric asides (such as the importance of thermal underwear in the genesis of the series) and trenchant opinions. There are also well-researched notes on Roman life and a revealing potted autobiography that explains a good deal about where the characters came from. It would probably be wise to be completely up to date on the series as there are numerous spoilers.

Sadly, from comments in this book and from updates on her website, I suspect that we have reached the end of the line for this particular series. Luckily, I still have three to read.

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