Non-Fiction Book Review – The Victorian Internet

  • Title: The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers
  • Author: Tom Standage
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/12/2013

I loved this book! I highly, highly recommend it. The Victorian Internet is an excellent history of the telegraph. But it is not simply a fact-and-name filled book of inventions and advances. It’s a social history – focusing on the social impact and societal change that the telegraph brought to the world. And, cleverly the author compares the changes the telegraph brought to the Victorian world (especially in England) to changes the Internet has brought about today. This makes a study of the history of science seem so much more relevant. It’s also a quick and fun read.

The telegraph gave rise to creative business practices and new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by the skeptics.
– Flyleaf description

People chatted, dated, and fell in love “on-line”, but through the telegraph. Police work was changed by the telegraph. In major cities such as London, there were even problems with overloads of traffic and delays (a problem solved with pneumatic tubes being used to deliver telegraph messages to “the last mile”). It’s a fascinating history, and again, a quick and breezy read too.

I did read this book a few years ago, so I don’t remember every detail. But I do, still, remember some of the major points of the book. And I highly recommend it.

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Book Review – The Mermaids Singing

  • Title: The Mermaids Singing
  • Author: Val McDermid
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 11/12/2012

Val McDermid’s Dr. Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books are not for the faint of heart or young readers, however, for the rest of us this is a fascinating, well-written, tightly narrated novel that moves at a quick pace without running into the problem of “I’m running out of pages let’s reveal the ending now” that too many books seem to have these days.

I’d first heard of Val McDermid’s series when I saw Wire in the Blood on BBC America. I didn’t however see that series from the beginning, I caught it somewhere in the middle. So I have been slowly collecting the TV series (starring Robson Green and Hermione Norris) on DVD.

But I did also read the book Wire in the Blood (turns out it’s the second book) and McDermid’s The Last Temptation. It’s been awhile since I read those two books in the series. But having just watched series (season) three of “Wire in the Blood” on DVD, I was in the mood for more so I downloaded “The Mermaids Singing” for my Sony e-reader in EPUB format.

The book is really good. If you like TV shows like Criminal Minds you’d probably really enjoy The Mermaids Singing. If you like gritty mysteries that don’t shy away from the really gruesome aspects of a serial killer case, you’d also probably really like The Mermaids Singing. If you’re a fan of procedural mysteries you’ll also enjoy The Mermaids Singing

This novel is the first in the Dr. Tony Hill, Carol Jordan mystery series. It’s set in the fictional Northern UK city of Bradfield. McDermid doesn’t do a really good job of describing Bradfield, but I get the impression that’s delibrate… the city is fictional to make it even more clear the book is fiction and to avoid stereotyping The North of the UK. As a side note, I also got the impression from this novel and other novels and films (Billy ElliottThe Full Monty, etc) that Northern England is very industrial and went through a horrible economic depression, especially in the 1970s (similar to the decline of steel and the auto industry in the US at the same time) – in other words, poor, relatively uneducated people, very “blue collar”, etc. That might be a wrong impression (being American even with a good 30 or more years as a British Media fan for both TV and books – understanding the implications of British cultural regions still throws me) but it’s the impression I have.

Anyway, in Bradfield, Carol Jordan is a newly-appointed DCI for the Bradfield police. She’s the first female DCI in the area, and she’s investigating the brutal murder of a young man. There have been two previous murders in various parts of Bradfield and Carol thinks she has a serial murder on her hands, but the Old Guard (British equivalent of a police commissioner) pooh-poohs the idea because the young men who have been killed were found in gay districts of the city. It’s worth mentioning the book takes place back in the early 90s if not earlier and was written a bit ago.

Carol focuses on her job and building her team of officers and doesn’t complain about the blatant sexism of her boss.

Meanwhile, Dr. Tony Hill, who literally wrote the book on serial killers is working with the Bradfield city government and police to establish a local version of a type of national criminal profiling database. This profiling taskforce will focus on all repeat crimes not just murders, and Tony had gotten the job by drawing up a profile for a serial arson case. Two things about the task-force: Tony also thinks Bradfield has a serial killer on it’s hands – but he can’t say anything because it’s not his place, and to “go to the press” or whatever would be not only unprofessional, it would jeopardize what he’s already doing – potentially doing more harm than good. It other words, his hands are tied. Tony, however, is an expert on serial killers, he’s spent most of his career working in secure mental hospitals, and he’s an accomplished profiler.

The database comes up several times – and it’s fascinating because the computer stuff throughout the book seems so out-of-date and anachronistic.

The one person at the beginning of the novel who not only realizes that a serial killer is at work but does something about it is another police officer, and sort-of Carol’s direct supervisor. If this sounds vague – it was, I couldn’t quite keep the ranks straight in my head, and I’ve watched more than one British procedural police drama. Anyway, when there’s another murder, he gets Tony in to draw up a profile, and appoints Carol in charge of the entire newly created taskforce to investigate. He also seconds all the individual DCIs who were assigned to the other murders to Carol. That the new victim turns out to be an off-duty police officer from another part of town complicates things. Tony and Carol, then, need to work together with the taskforce.

Dr. Tony Hill is a very damaged person; what surprised me, having read the second book first, is that Tony’s issues and problems which I thought were a direct result of what happens to Tony in this book actually preceded it. The things that happen to Tony in The Mermaids Singing only make matters worse. But Tony’s deeply personal issues also are what created him, what made him, him, and allow him to put himself in the mind of the killer as he writes his profile. And Tony keeps his background secret – the audience knows it, but the other characters do not, this brings a certain tension to the story.

Carol has her own issues. Yes, she’s just come off a bad break-up so she’s living with her brother and her cat. But she’s got the intelligence at work to “grin and bear it” when dealing with her sexist boss, which is realistic. And she earns the respect of her “men”, the officers in her command by being fair, direct, and working hard without complaining or whining. Also, realistically, Carol is in the position of having to be better than a man would be in her position. Again, not fair, but it’s how it often is for professional women, especially professional women in a “man’s” field.

Because I’d read the second book in the series first, I knew, going in, what was going to happen in the “surprise” ending, but I’m not going to spoil it here. I’m just going to say it’s an unusual twist and I really, really liked it.

I also liked the characters, their relationships (Carol’s brother Micheal the computer games designer is great), and the writing makes the book a fast, enjoyable read. Well, if enjoyable is the right word for a gruesome book of sorts.

One complaint, I read the e-book version, in EPUB, on my Sony Reader and it was FULL of errors and typos. It seriously looked like they’d used OCR to scan a paperback and never bothered to check the scans (“I’ve” was frequently “F’ve” for example). I don’t know where you complain about e-book printing quality but it was really, really, really bad. I’d recommend trying to find a paperback copy of this book somewhere.