Monday, 29 February 2016

The Books I Read In February

'Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers' by Grant Naylor
This book covers the first episodes of the first season of the television series 'Red Dwarf' (1988-93; 1997-99; 2009; 2012 - two new series will be broadcast in 2016-17). It is a situation comedy about a small number of characters on a spaceship.  I have seen these multiple times. It was popular among my friends when first broadcast and the woman and boy who used to live in my house, loved it so much that the DVDs were regularly watched.  There is a lot of toilet humour that appeals to children.  The series does tackle issues that are popular in science fiction as the characters travel around space running into debris and encountering other races.  They also get mixed up with wormholes and temporal anomalies and even a 'what if?' history story.

I have a friend who hates it if a movie or television adaptation diverges one iota from the source book.  He forgets that a short story is more than enough to fill a 1-hour television programme, a novel could produce a series.  In addition, viewers do not want a multiplicity of minor characters and it is difficult to include footnotes on screen; it was only really successfully done by 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (TV series, 1981) and even then it had to break up the flow of the action.  For myself, I actually like the divergence between the different media as it means that I do not precisely know what is coming up.  This book keeps incredibly close to the series in almost every aspect and the trouble is that I know what it features far too well.  There is some back story which does not feature in the series and, because the book does not lead off into the series as a whole, the final section is new.

The dialogue for most part is identical to that seen in the series.  However, I found little humour in the book.  It showed to me that the lead characters - Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), a smelly slob; Arnold J. Rimmer (played by Chris Barrie) a self-centred but bitter pedant and the Cat (played by Danny John-Jules) - the ultimate narcissist, are not sympathetic characters.  In the book they come across as pretty unpleasant.  I realised that a lot of the humour was visual, physical stuff and came from the way the actors delivered the lines rather than the lines themselves.  I have 'Better Than Life', the sequel, to read and I hope that this diverges more from the television series.

'Better Than Life' by Grant Naylor
As my current girlfriend allows me to read in bed in a way other woman have not done, the number of books I am getting through at the moment is higher than in the past.  As noted above, this book is the sequel to 'Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers', in fact largely picking up where the last book left off.  It again features the four characters from the television series, initially trying to get out of the game Better Than Life and then deal with the consequences of the computer on board the spaceship 'Red Dwarf' having become senile and then having its intelligence boosted but its life shortened.  Scenes from the television series are mixed in with other elements that did not appear in it.  There is a brief period on the version of Earth where time runs backwards but showing different events to in the series.  There is the use of planets like snooker balls and there is the polymorph which feeds on emotions, shown reasonably like what happened in the television series.  However, there is also Lister on Earth as Garbage Planet with vast cockroaches.  Thus, even for a fan of the television series there is new material here which is interesting in a standard science fiction way.  However, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is very episodic and unfortunately largely lacking in humour.  This books is probably best to read if you have never seen the television series 'Red Dwarf' otherwise it is only a mildly interesting progress through various scenes with you looking out for familiar dialogue or settings from what you know.

'A Man Without Breath' by Philip Kerr
This is another of Kerr's Bernie Gunther stories, largely set in German-occupied Smolensk in March-April 1943; some scenes occur in Berlin.  It is better than 'Prague Fatale' that I read last month:  However, Kerr seems bent on ensuring that Gunther comes into contact with many of the leading Nazis, in this book, Dr Josef Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister and central events of the regime: here two attempts on Adolf Hitler's life and the uncovering of the massacre of 4000 Polish officers by the Soviets in Katyn Forest.  As before, the issue of investigating murders at a time when both sides in the conflict were committing massacres is raised.  However, for much of the time Gunther is shown what he does best, down at ground level disentangling various killings and dodging the internal politics of the Nazi regime.  Kerr is very good at portraying Smolensk and the surrounding areas during the period and the different types of German units there.

Kerr likes to highlight elements of the period that tend to be overlooked such as the German War Crimes Bureau which sought to document war crimes by other nations at the same time as the SS and parts of the Wehrmacht were carrying out very similar or even more vicious war crimes.  He also highlights the experimentation on Communist prisoners carried out by the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War; protest by Aryan women married to Jewish men in Berlin in 1943 that had some released and the Jewish Hospital that continued in Berlin until it was liberated in 1945 with 800 patients alive.  In this book, Kerr also gives an insight into the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

The only real drawbacks of this book is that it goes on a little too long (513 pages of narrative in the edition I read) and yet, as with 'Prague Fatale', the conclusion feels very rushed.  In addition, I do not know why Kerr felt he had to have a deus ex machina to resolve everything.  Given the time that has passed and the distances this seems unfeasible and undermines the grittiness of the rest of the novel.  He should have removed some of the additional murders and could have built to a satisfying conclusion without the intervention he feels compelled to engineer to end the story.

The writing is good and the characters are interesting and well drawn.  It moves along briskly.  It just seems as is a common problem these days even with leading authors, that the absence of thorough editing means that the book is good rather than excellent in the way it could have been with some trimming and rethinking.

'Neither Here Nor There' by Bill Bryson
Bryson is a travel writer and sometime cultural commentator.  He was originally from the USA but has lived for the past few decades in the UK.  I read his 'Notes from a Small Island' (1996) which was one of his bestsellers - a book about living and travelling in the UK, some years back.  I found it reasonably funny in a dry sometimes almost cynical way.  'Neither Here Nor There' was published in 1991 about Bryson's trip across continental Europe from northern Norway to Istanbul in Turkey in 1990 but it also regularly references a similar trip he had made in 1973.

Despite the commentary on the cover, this book is utterly lacking in humour.  Bryson does not stop complaining.  Every country, every town and city is either filthy and full of litter or too pristine to be interesting.  Despite travelling to so many places he seems to have found very few instances when he was at all happy.  He hates modern architecture, but expects the latest facilities wherever he goes.  He expects everyone to understand him.  He expects every town to have entertainment that will delight him without being too dated or too contemporary.  All that satisfies him are a handful of museums, the occasional park and some views and these are all few and far between.  He wants food that is not like that which you could get in an American city but then complains incessantly about what he is served.  Anything which costs more than it would have done in backwoods USA in his youth he deems to be too expensive.  He is incredibly repetitive often moaning about the prices and litter in a particular city more than once.  Almost everyone he meets he finds aloof or rude; drunk or loutish and most he feels are smelly.

Bryson is a useless traveller or he certainly was in 1990 when he made this trip.  Constantly he simply assumed he could go to the next town without checking the transport arrangements, schedules or costs.  As a result many of his plans are frustrated.  He seems incapable of speaking any languages apart from English and as a result is often totally uncomprehending of what is going on or being able to communicate what he assumes will happen.  He constantly travels with no food supplies and often without the correct currency and then is upset when he arrives in a town and is hungry and cannot get food or a hotel room.  Despite his declared love of the picturesque and the historic over the modern, it seems he struggles unless there is a 24/7 service everywhere.

Bryson in this book is the worst kind of traveller.  He is a mixture of an arrogant Briton of the 1950s style, blended with a schizophrenic American who cannot understand why the rest of the world is different and yet also complains whenever it is too American in approach.  This is a book of moaning.  It is the worst travel book I have read and I cannot understand how it got published.  I guess it sells well to UKIP supporters and their antecedents who want their disgust at the rest of Europe simply reinforced to make themselves feel superior.  There is no humour in this book; reading it is unpleasant and it should be retitled 'The Bigot's Guide to Europe'.  Another failure in terms of me selecting books to read.

'The Writing on the Wall' by Will Hutton
This is the third book by Hutton after 'The State We're In' (1994) which I read back in January: and 'The World We're In' (2002).  Like them it looks at the problems for the world of the collapse of civil society; in this book based on Enlightenment values and how this has allowed capitalism to create increasingly divisive countries and ironically for industry and business to become less successful.  In this book first published in 2006, though I was reading an edition from the following year, Hutton looks at the rise of China from the history of the 19th and 20th centuries to its adoption and success with capitalism.  Hutton highlights the challenges this poses for the world but also reassures American readers that the USA has far from lost.

Hutton's book is a very good survey of Chinese capitalism with its peculiarities that in the case of huge savings in part promoted by the collapse of the welfare state and the one-child policy, plus regional support for business that have helped the economy to grow so spectacularly.  However, he also highlights how the state controls so much even now and the dangers of corruption.  Like many commentators on China, Hutton insists that China cannot continue with successful capitalism and yet remain a totalitarian dictatorship.  I have been reading such insistence on what must happen to China since John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman argued this line in 'China - A New History' (1992).  Even nine years on from Hutton's book and 24 years on from Fairbank and Goldman's what they felt must happen, has not come about and shows no sign of doing so.  In Hutton's case his insistence that capitalism must lead to pluralism does seem strange as for the last third of this book as in his previous ones, he outlines how a liberal civil society is being destroyed in the USA and Britain.  Why, if he sees the pluralist elements decaying in the West does he feel that they must thrive in China?  Is it not more accurate to believe as some Chinese have voiced to me, that the West is actually becoming more like China in its authoritarianism.

The book is weakened by the switch to focusing on the USA on its own and not in relation to China.  Hutton has covered these topics before and this jump makes it feel as if you have gone into another book.  At 436 pages in the copy I read, he could easily have dropped much of this section and made a tighter, stronger book consistently focused on China.  Despite this notable flaw, the book particularly in the first two-thirds is decent.  There are some oddities often when Hutton uncharacteristically allows himself to believe myths.  He says that Bologna University was the first university in Europe.  It is the longest enduring but was predated by the universities of Al-Andalus in southern Spain, reference to which has been chased off large sections of the internet.  He later twice says the GMD (Nationalist) forces of China were so exhausted in fighting the Japanese invasions 1931-45 that they were too weak to properly combat the CCP (Communists).  This is rubbish, Chiang Kai-shek [Jiang Jieshi] leader of the GMD was so negligent in opposing the Japanese he had to be kidnapped by his own officers to persuade him to resist them at all.  He spent the war in Chongqing, building up reserves of weaponry but not fighting the Japanese, much to the exasperation of the Americans.  As late as 1944, the Japanese were able to easily launch a large-scale offensive to take vast areas of southern China.  The CCP remained pretty passive certainly from 1940 and it was down to local forces beholden to neither faction, to fight the Japanese.  Hutton even says that the USA effectively won the Vietnam War through delaying the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam until 1975, so apparently allowing capitalism to establish elsewhere in East Asia, though of course, in Laos and Cambodia it did not.  These are surprising mistakes.

Overall this is a useful and interesting book which would benefit from a new edition now that rather than the Chinese currency needing to be devalued, the Chinese are seeking to keep it buoyant; oil prices have slumped to a fraction of what they were in 2007 and his warnings about the US housing market have come true leading to sustained difficulties.  Yet, China is no nearer to democracy and in recent months there has been a clampdown on those involved in labour protests or writing/publishing about the country's problems, hardly the growth of Enlightenment civil society that Hutton insisted was imminent.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Garibaldi Biscuits

 Tesco Garibaldi Biscuits

After a burst of Malted Milks, I have turned to another common type of biscuit in the UK - the Garibaldi.  Aside from Bourbon biscuits, named after the Bourbon dynasty that ruled France (1820-48), Navarre (1820-30), Parma (1854-59) and Two Sicilies (1859-61), Garibaldis are the only ones named after a historical figure, i.e. Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82) after he visited northern England in 1854, though manufacture did not begin until 1861, the year Italy was largely unified.  Italian unification had been central to Garibaldi's political work.

They are flat reasonably plain biscuit filled with raisins.  Unlike any other biscuit I can think of they come in strips and have to be broken apart along predefined lines.  The biscuit should be glazed and they should have some sweetness.  However, even ahead of the general trend to reducing sugar manufacturers seem to have been making them less sweet than they once were.  In a good Garibaldi biscuit this is made up for by the sweetness of the raisins.

These trends explain the problem with these Garibaldis from Tesco.  The biscuits have no real flavour, they would be plain even if they were biscuits for cheese.  There is a bit of a crunch, whereas you expect chewiness in Garibaldis, and this just re-emphasises the lack of flavour.  I only got something like a hint of bicarbonate of soda in the after-taste.  The raisins which can save a Garibaldi, fail with this particular example and themselves taste rather stale, imbuing no sweetness to the biscuit.  There is no moreishness in these biscuits and overall they were very disappointing.  Yes, Garibaldis, despite the name are not ostentatious biscuits demanding attention, but neither should it taste as if you are simply eating packaging.  I hope to find a better variety of Garibaldis elsewhere.


Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Flavour Test of Chocolate Digestives

It is clear that this blog is leading the trend among liberal-minded commentators online as now even 'The Guardian' newspaper is reviewing biscuits.  See their comments on a range of chocolate digestives, a biscuit I have not yet reached:

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Asda Malted Milk

Asda Malted Milk

As the UK biscuit shortages, especially of ginger biscuits has continued, I have had to focus on biscuits I have been able to get hold of.  One of my intentions is to compare the same type of biscuit available from a range of common British supermarkets.  Recently I have not found it difficult to find Malted Milk biscuits, so I am focusing on these at present.  Ongoing road works have made it difficult to get around my home town so it has been a challenge to reach a range of supermarkets.  However, last week I was able to get to a branch of Asda and pick up some of their versions of biscuits; in fact I got three different ones as part of a multi-buy deal, though from what I understand even those kind of deals are now likely to become extinct as they are apparently too complex for the average person.

Though these Malted Milk biscuits look the same as the Tower Gate ones I reviewed just over a week ago: The taste is different.  I am sorry to say that these do not reach the creamy flavour that I have been looking for.  However, these do have the crumble rather than the snap when bitten.  They have a flavour more like a Rich Tea biscuit than a traditional Malted Milk, though with an almost wheaty texture to them.  However, they do not have that sugary glaze feel/taste of the Tower Gate version.  In terms of moreishness they are pretty sound.  However, my quest for a true Malted Milk biscuit needs to continue.


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Fruit and Nut Cookies

Tower Gate Fruit and Nut Cookies

These biscuits highlight the wide variety that can be found under the umbrella of Lidl's Tower Gate brand.  These are probably defined 'cookies' because of the thickness of them, there are probably three times as thick as a standard biscuit.  The are termed fruit and nut but the amount of fruits and nuts though noticeable can vary in proportion between individual biscuits.  The first one I ate was almost entirely nutty whereas third one had a lot of raisin in it but little nut.  The chocolate is slightly dark rather than milky, so has a serious flavour to it without being bitter.  These biscuits are a little too complex with so much going on.  The depth of them means they lack a snap but they certainly do not crumble.  They do have a reasonable level of moreishness.  Thus, they are good biscuits perhaps only spoilt a little by having so many aspects to them, but overall satisfying biscuits.


Saturday, 13 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Malted Milk

Tower Gate Malted Milk

Today I have encountered an anomaly - a biscuit that tastes like a different type of biscuit to the one it is supposed to be.  It not as extreme as if I had encountered a gingery rich tea, but it is heading in that direction.  Malted milks are one of those sub-sets of biscuits that numerous companies make and probably every supermarket and a lot of smaller stores sell.  Over time I anticipate reviewing a number of different malted milks and you can link through to them using the tags at the bottom of the posting.

For my first foray into malted milk tasting, I returned to Lidl.  I managed to lose the first packet I bought so this was my second attempt.  This is another biscuit sold under Lidl's umbrella Tower Gate brand.  The packet is striking with wavy lines in blue and white which I am not certain are supposed to remind you of milk or Friesian cows or even the cartoon character Blue Cow.  The tagline 'udderly groovy' seems to have been thrown in there for no particular reason.

This brings us to what defines a malted milk.  There are a number of characteristics that these ones fit with and others that they do not.  They must be rectangular with an image of a cow on them.  So far so good.  Above all, they must have a creamy taste and this is where the Tower Gate version falls down.  If I had been eating these blindfolded, I would have assumed I had been eating another sub-set, the Nice biscuit.  Nice biscuits are also rectangular, pale tan in colour and usually have a crusting of sugar crystals.  They have a mildly coconutty flavour and strands you find in your mouth.  These malted milks certainly lacked the creamy flavour.  They felt as if they had a sugary glaze and were as sweet as Nice biscuits even though no sugar crystals were visible.  There was more of a snap eating these than you would expect with malted milk and the flavour was like that of a Nice, but without the strands.  They were reasonably moreish which counterbalances a little me having to mark them down a bit because despite how they appear they do not actually taste like malted milk biscuits should.


Thursday, 11 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Biscuit Shortage!

I could not continue producing my biscuit blog postings without noting that Britain is currently in a biscuit shortage.  This is the result of flooding even before of a large United Biscuits factory in Carlisle.  This produces biscuits branded as McVities and Carr's.  The largest impact seems to have been on ginger biscuits which are in short supply even now, two months after the initial flooding:  This has provoked uproar on local radio stations even in southern England and on the dreadful Mumsnet which exists for indignant people.  I had noticed the shortage of ginger nuts even own brand ones in Lidl, Tesco and Asda as people deprived of the brand names have clearly switched to others and have stripped shops of them.  It does show how vulnerable we are to simply one factory going down.  I think Lidl has missed a trick, it should have shipped in more speculoos biscuits from the continent; instead they have just added more digestives where the ginger nuts used to be.  My sympathies go out to all of you unable to get your favourite biscuits but I will be holding on to my small supply of them extra carefully until the crisis is over.

P.P. 06/03/2016
The BBC has an update outlining that the biscuit shortage is likely to be coming steadily to an end over the next few weeks:

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Carr's Melts Cheese

Carr's Melts Cheese

So, you thought this blog only dealt with sweet biscuits.  In this posting I look at some savoury biscuits in another common sub-set of biscuits.  You get 'biscuits for cheese' which are often plain wafers or sometimes digestives that are meant to put cheese on and then you get 'cheesy biscuits' which have a cheese flavour.  These Carr's Melts almost manage to straddle those two categories.  They came from Tesco and are quite complex with what appear to be small seeds and strands perhaps of dried cheese or to give that feel.  They are quite slender and have a shallow snap unlike some biscuits for cheese.  The cheese flavour is subtle but of a more mature flavour of cheese than that you find in most cheesy biscuits.  The one flaw aside from them being rather insubstantial, is that this flavour does not linger and also there is not the smooth aftertaste that I personally look for in a cheesy biscuit.  They are reasonably rather than excessively moreish.  Overall, pretty good, but not the top level.


Saturday, 6 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Everyday Value Ginger Nuts

Tesco Everyday Value Ginger Nuts

As this biscuit blog builds up, I will be comparing the same type of biscuits from different UK stores.  I do not know whether I can bring myself to compared digestives between the different shops, I may leave that to my mother.  However, ginger 'nuts' as they are termed are certainly on the cards as will be rich tea and malted milk biscuits.  Though the sampling will naturally be spread out over weeks, even months, you can link through to all the relevant postings as I am carefully tagging each of them at the bottom.  This allows you to compare what I say about the nature of the same type of biscuit sold in different stores.

This week I have strayed beyond Lidl to Tesco where the woman in my house primarily shops.  These are the large packets of Everyday Value Ginger Nuts.  It says on the side that they have '30 servings' by which I assume they mean 30 biscuits, though I rarely eat single biscuits, usually I count two biscuits as a 'serving'.

I do like the mid-1960s styling of Tesco products introduced 2-3 years ago.  Marks & Spencer did something similar.  For someone of my generation these are very nostalgic as in the early 1970s this seemed a 'classic' styling, so I guess it is ideal for targeting people in their 40s and 50s.  These biscuits are alright especially for a value brand.  They are small in diameter and do not have a satisfying gingery flavour or an after taste which you would expect from a ginger biscuit whether of the nut or stem ginger variety.  They also lack a really good snap when bitten, but avoid being powdery like some of the worst ginger nuts,  They could be a 2½-star biscuit, but lack the tang you can even find in some cheap versions.  They do their job which I suppose is all you can ask for from a value version biscuit.


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Classic Shortbread Rounds

Tower Gate Classic Shortbread Rounds

After the disappointment of the pink wafers last month I did consider abandoning Lidl for another store.  Once I have exhausted Lidl's range of biscuits, I will move on, have no fear.  However, it does mean changing where I go on my way home from work.  Roadworks in my neighbourhood meaning reaching Asda is far harder than usual.  Anyway, after sampling this posting's biscuit, I realised that some good could still be found in Lidl's biscuit aisle.

I have noticed recently that there has been an abandonment of putting loads of white sugar on shortbread biscuits.  Too often you cannot really savour a shortbread biscuit because all it is proving to be is a vehicle for delivering loads of plain sugar into your mouth.  The move away from this approach is something I approve of and was pleased to find when I tried these shortbread rounds.  I imagine the word 'rounds' has been added because a lot of shortbread is either segments of a circle, so triangular in nature or these days is in the form of bars of shortbread.  As with the Deluxe Stem Ginger biscuits of January: there still seems to be the Scottish connection - the same saltire is found on  the box of these rounds.

All of this is fine, you might say, but what do they taste like?  I must say I was very pleased.  They managed to have that buttery flavour that I had been seeking in the Deluxe Stem Ginger but without crumbling or melting away as the old fashioned shortbreads tended to do or go into chunks like some modern ones do.  Thus, they have a very nice shortbread flavour but are still a proper biscuit. It is ironic that these are deemed 'classic' when in fact they fortunately have moved away from the overly crumbly shortbread that once dominated.  I feel Tower Gate has done very well with these.  That is one of the issue of an umbrella brand name used by a discounted store, that underneath it the quality can vary quite considerably.  I only mark them down to four for a little bitter after taste.  In general, however, these are good quality biscuits.  It is a shame there are only nine per pack as otherwise they would be an excellent general biscuit to have in your larder.