Reviews ~ Catching Up

I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life.  She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place.  “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously.  I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”.  At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst.  Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.

An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris

This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list.  It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself.  Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book.  As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s.  I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent.  Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down.  Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair.  What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.

This is a chilling story extremely well told.  It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers

This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion.  It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed.  The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit.  Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience.  Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand.  I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.

 

Black Summer ~ M W Craven

Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here.  As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time.  Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton.  As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder.  If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe.  Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book.  However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw.   When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon.  Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do.  Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction.  Her incisive mind cuts through everything.  I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation.  Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it.  What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion.  Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series.  If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.

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A Summer of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Sometime back in April I noticed an advert for a group called Coursera who were offering entry to University courses for free.  Unlike those that can be accessed via I-Tunes U, these were real time courses that you followed week by week through video links and which, most intriguing of all, delivered a grade at the end.  This wasn’t the first time I’d come across this company, there was much publicity the previous year when they had linked with Stanford University to offer courses in IT. What was different this time round was that their portfolio had expanded to include subjects from the Humanities.

Now, as anyone who has worked in the Humanities at this level (or any other level for that matter) will tell you, once you’ve done the research for the course what really takes the time is not the teaching, it is the marking.  At this time of year University lecturers across the world are pulling their hair out as they try to meet exam board deadlines.  And that is with perhaps thirty or forty students taking a module.  I believe the Stanford IT module attracted in excess of 40,000.  As my American friends might say, “Do the math’! Even if there hadn’t been anything that attracted my academic interest I would have signed up for something just to see how they were planning on dealing with this.  As it is they have a module entitled Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World in which I am very interested, so I signed up for that.  It starts on Monday.

The primary reading list is quite extensive, although all but two of the books can be accessed without payment on line, and there is no secondary reading suggested so far.  Whether that will come in the videos remains to be seen.  Over the ten weeks we are going to study:

  1. Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales
  2. Carroll — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
  3. Stoker — Dracula
  4. Shelley — Frankenstein
  5. Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems
  6. Wells — The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man, “The Country of the Blind,” “The Star”
  7. Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland
  8. Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles
  9. LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness
  10. Doctorow — Little Brother

I’ve only read the first two of these so I have a lot of catching up to do, but then that’s the idea behind doing the course.  Currently, I am renewing my acquaintance with the Grimms’ tales which I haven’t read since childhood.  I find that at the moment I am giving most consideration to the way in which they are structured because that is my area of expertise, but suspect that come next week’s lecture my attention will be directed into other more psychological pathways as that seems to be the focus of the module.

And what about the question of assessment?  Ah, well that is where I start to have doubts.  If I want a grade I have to submit an ‘essay’ for at least seven of the ten weeks of the course.  Now I don’t know what an ‘essay’ means to you but to Coursera it means a piece of writing between 270 and 320 words.

This post is already over 500.

Of course, brevity is the soul of wit and I’m not one to encourage rambling, but what am I supposed to say of any real value in 300 words?  That essay will then be submitted to four other students for grading by peer assessment and I will grade four myself.  At the end of module my grades will be averaged out with account taken for my participation in the on-line forum.  I assume that will have to be calculated purely numerically by the number of times I log on.

I’m not actually against peer assessment, I think it sharpens the minds of those doing the assessing almost as much as their having to write their own piece, but I do think it needs careful monitoring and I can’t see how that is going to be possible in this instance.  I would be very interested to see the quality feedback on this module when it is over.

For myself I haven’t decided whether or not I shall submit essays for grading.  I have courses of my own to plan for the Autumn as well as the Summer School coming up in four weeks time, and I’m still back and forth to hospital with no indication when that will be over.  On the other hand, I shall definitely be writing about what I’m reading because that’s the way I sort out in my own mind what I’m thinking.  I’ll wait until after the first video session, I think, before I make up my mind.

I wonder, have any of you experience of courses like this?  Given the way in which the costs of a University education are rising in England, I can see that anyone who could crack the assessment aspect in a manner that proved satisfactory to employers would open up a very active market and I’m not surprised that companies are already experimenting in the field.  This is clearly in the early stages of development but it’s something traditional Universities are going to have to watch especially as numbers of applications are already falling rapidly and, with the decline in students staying on to do A levels, are likely to fall further over the next few years.