Quark’s Academy- Catherine Pelosi

April 28, 2018 at 21:30 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The last time I reviewed a childrens’ book was I think in 2010, when my eldest daughter was just a few months old. My, how time flies. She’s now devouring books on her own at a prodigious rate – perhaps I should get her to review them on this blog, as it would dramatically increase my post count. She probably reads nine or ten books in the time it takes me to read one.

As a holiday activity, she went to a kids writing workshop at the rather marvellous Better Read Than Dead Bookstore in Newtown, which was in part run by Catherine Pelosi. In preparation, she read Quark’s Academy, a junior fiction book about a strange science academy that takes talented children scientists and supposedly helps then to perfect their inventions as part of a fantastic competition. After she’d finished it, I read it too.

From the beginning the Academy is a rather sinister place, and the three main protagonists – Augustine, Celeste and Oscar – gradually overcome their suspicion of each other and end up working as a team to uncover the horrific secrets of what really happens in all the strange laboratories.

The story is a madcap mix of crazy inventions, clones, robotic animals and time travel and it all reaches a huge finale, which, to be honest, didn’t really make much sense but was fun nonetheless. I really liked that two of the main characters were female and science-y – gender stereotyping in children’s literature is really a thing, so it’s refreshing to find a book without it.

The elder junior chillikebab loved it, and especially liked the twist at the end where it turned out that…….

But that would spoil the surprise. The workshop was great too, and now she has her copy of the book signed by Catherine Pelosi, she’s doubly happy.

 

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The Auschwitz Violin – Maria Angels Anglada

April 6, 2018 at 08:43 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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This slim volume is a delicately written novella with an intriguing premise. A luthier, interred in the terrors of Auschwitz, is forced to make a violin for the camp Kommandant. If the violin is not of an acceptable standard, he faces terrible consequences.

The story is told in flashback; by the now owner of the violin – which possesses a rich and sonorous tone. The story is simply told, and quite affecting. That said, on some level the characters seemed to fall a little flat for me; it’s hard to pin down quite why. Each chapter is preceded by a fragment of a real document from the camps – a regulation, report or correspondence – which are in some ways the most powerful thing in the book.

That said, this is a great read, and being short is easy to take in in a single sitting. It will certainly stay with you for a while.

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – Dalrymple / Anand

March 29, 2018 at 12:05 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I got this book for Christmas, and read it whilst on holiday in January, so sorry it’s taken so long to get to it. It’s the story of the Kohinoor; the ‘Mountain of Light’, one of the worlds most famous diamonds that was owned by various Persian kings and moghuls before eventually arriving in England and becoming part of the Crown Jewels.

It’s a well researched and well written book; the first section (the early history of the Kohinoor, as it passed between the Mughals, Afghans and Persians), and the second section covers its expropriation by the British, as they subjugated the Indian subcontinent. The first section is written by William Dalrymple, the second part by  Anita Anand.

The second part I think is actually slightly easier to read, though that is in part because the history is much clearer and the thread of the narrative more contained. The first section deals with early myths and possible mentions of the Kohinoor; its possible origin in India and the various wars and gifts that saw it passed around various different kingdoms and treasuries in the region. The extraordinary riches, expressed in gemstones, of the region prior to the British invasion is quite staggering.

The section dealing with the way the British treated those territories; the way those treasuries were plundered and the last remaining Punjab prince, the child Duleep Singh, is made unwittingly to sign over all of his vast riches to the British is quite movingly told.

The book finishes with some discussion of the various voices still calling for the Kohinoor to be returned to India.

It’s a great book, and well worth a read.

 

 

Journey to Warudhar – Philip Arnold

December 2, 2017 at 10:51 | Posted in books | Leave a comment

Journey to Warudah is the debut novel from Philip Arnold. Set in post World War One Australia, it is a sort of coming of age story, following Jessica as she is alienated from her family by her mother’s religious conversion and finds love with a returned soldier, Harry Watkins. He then takes her to his remote farmstead in the bush, where the two of them create a new life together. They struggle to leave behind the ties and conflicts from the city, however, and these eventually catch up with them in a climactic ending.

The book is easy to read, and captures the colour and tensions of Australian life at that tumultuous time. The characters are well drawn, and the pace of the book is unusual – it seems to gradually gather pace as it progresses; the ending fairly tumbles off the pages as so many of the threads from earlier in the book are brought together in a crescendo finale that is hard to put down.

It’s a book worth picking up – there is a satisfying depth and complexity to the story, even if occasionally the characters seem a little emotionally two-dimensional.

And perhaps I should make a small disclosure – Phil Arnold is a friend of mine. Indeed, you can find a picture of him elsewhere on this blog (I’ll leave the detective work up to you, dear readers, to find it!). So you’ll have to decide how objective this review really is….

The Mesmerist – Wendy Moore

September 10, 2017 at 12:09 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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A long while ago, I read Wendy Moore’s ‘The Knife Man’, and really enjoyed it. I didn’t review it on this blog, for some reason, but anyway, it’s a good book worth reading.

Remembering that book, I picked up Wendy Moore’s latest offering at the airport before a flight. It is a little similar – a medical history book. It tells the story of John Elliotson, a radical doctor working in London in the early Victorian era. Medicine was a pretty brutal business in the early 1800s, and Moore presents all the gore and terror very evocatively. Many medical procedures were basically useless, and there was little in the way of scientific examination or reflection about the causes and treatment of disease.

Elliotson was one of a new breed of doctors who was more scientifically minded. He was at the forefront of a number of medical breakthroughs, including the use of the stethoscope and using quinine to treat malaria. He also became very interested in ‘Mesmerism’ – better known today as hypnotism. Initially as a way of offering both pain relief in operations and also treatment for nervous conditions, although as his research progressed he become increasingly obsessed with the more fringe elements of mesmerism, such as clairvoyance.

As Elliotson become increasingly obsessive, carrying more and more outlandish demonstrations of mesmerism, the medical establishment become split about the value of mesmerism, and whether it was a genuine phenomenon or merely trickery and quackery. This triggered huge infighting and recriminations across hospitals and the newly emerging medical journals such as The Lancet.

At times the pace of this book flags – Moore sometimes spends too much time on descriptions of all the demonstrations of mesmerism, so the book reads in part more like a set of case descriptions. But mostly this is an easy  read (if not for the squeamish!), painting a vivid picture of the state of medicine at the time, and how new ideas were both embraced and rejected. This ability to make serious historical scholarship accessible and ‘novelistic’ is Wendy Moore’s great strength. A fascinating book.

Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

August 15, 2017 at 10:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I picked up this book at the airport, as a fairly easy read on the plane. Jodi Picoult is of course a very well known and prolific author, although I’d not read any of her books before.

As I expected, this is a well-written, easy to read book that rattles along. The theme it tackles, however, is far from lightweight; it is an examination of racism and racial tensions in contemporary USA. Against the backdrop of racially-charged police shootings, the rise of Trump and issues around immigration and American values, this is both a necessary and brave book.

Necessary, because these issues need airing constantly, and brave, because Jodi Picoult is a privileged, affluent white person – and writing about race is a challenge to do authentically and fairly when you have no lived experience to draw on.

The story revolves around Ruth; a black neo-natal nurse who is on duty when an medical incident occurs to the newborn child of a white supremacist couple. The baby dies, and Ruth is suspended by the hospital, and charged with negligence and murder. She is defended by a public advocate, and over the course of the novel the motivations, lives and prejudices of all the characters are examined. The book ends with a climactic courtroom scene which, whilst gripping, as a rather over-the-top twist right at the end that to me felt very forced.

It’s a novel that certainly illuminates the racial divide in today’s America. Picoult did a lot of research prior to writing this book; she details much of this in an essay that appends the novel. Aware of the sensitivity of the subject, she tries to do the right thing, and also apologises for any missteps she may have made. Racism is an issue that affects all America (and perhaps the whole world), and Picoult makes the point that this is a book to get whites reading about and understanding at least some of the issues – even if her voice is not the most authentic or original. It is notable that the black characters in the novel come across as the least nuanced and most two-dimensional.

I was interested when finishing the book to read the reactions of black reviewers to the novel. For the most part they are generous and understanding – this is not a ‘black novel’, but as a book that adds to the debate and might break through to some readers who would otherwise not consider the issues raised it has been for the most part praised.

I enjoyed this book a lot; it is a rattling good yarn as well as being very thought-provoking.

The Restorer – Michael Sala

July 19, 2017 at 15:18 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Restorer is Micheal Sala’s second novel, and is set in Newcastle, a small city a few hours north of Sydney in Australia. It’s a novel about one family, as their father, Roy, attempts to heal the rifts in their past by buying a near-derelict house in a new city and restoring it – and, he hopes, his family too.

At first, things seem to improve, but the bubbling tensions below the surface continually threaten to erupt, driven by Roy’s unpredictable, brooding violence. This is a very bleak book, and we are drawn into the struggles, dysfunction and violence of both this one family, and the wider society they inhabit.

One of the strengths of the book is that we end up empathising with all the characters; they are all in some way trying to overcome their flaws and break free of their pasts. However, ultimately Roy is unable to contain or tame his violence, and as the book progresses it crescendos towards a devastating finale. This is an intense portrait of a violent family, and has its roots in Sala’s own upbringing, and the fear of provoking his violent stepfather. It’s a beautifully written yet brutal story, and is utterly compelling.

New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

July 4, 2017 at 14:22 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I bought this as an easy read for a long plane trip, and it served its purpose admirably. It’s a sci-fi book (something you might possibly deduce from the title…) set in a world where sea level has risen forty feet as a result of global warming, and the world is finding a new equilibrium. Much of Manhattan is now underwater, but life in the most solid tall buildings goes on, with the streets becoming a sort of Venetian canal network. The weaker, smaller buildings are gradually slumping into the water, whilst even larger skyscrapers are constructed on higher ground. It’s quite an evocative picture of a possible near future, with humanity living both differently yet also rather similarly to today. One similarity is the global financial markets; still managing trillions of dollars of money, all leveraged and borrowed, and ripe for collapse. Both financial and literal liquidity are woven together neatly throughout the book.

Into this scenery is placed an eclectic cast of characters; software coders, a tough policewoman, a social lawyer, a banker, a TV reality star, two savvy street kids and a lugubrious building supervisor. The opening of the book is strong, as these characters are sketched out, and it becomes clear that it is one of those books where the lives of these characters gradually become entangled and drawn together. Ultimately, however, the way this happens and the end result is a bit unsatisfactory – it’s all rather rushed and much too neat. Still, as a book to pass the time its certainly to be recommended, and threaded through it is a commentary on our own time, and our negligence in dealing with the climate crisis the world is currently in.

Postscript: I read the final chapters of this book as the results of the June 2017 UK general election were coming in, and there was a certain frisson in seeing the people perhaps rise up and smash the neoliberal order that has held the world in such a grip since the 1980s – exactly as was happening in the chapters I was reading. Alas, the UK election result was rather more messy and did little more than rattle the hegemony a little, unlike the all-too-neat ending of this book.

Two Caravans – Marina Lewycka

May 26, 2017 at 10:20 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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 Another book plucked from the shelf. So many good books on my shelves waiting to be read! This is Marina Lewycka’s second novel, and follows the fortunes of a group of itinerant workers who have come to England to pick strawberries. There is a memorable and hilarious cast of characters, from the shady Farmer Leapish who houses the workers in two broken-down caravans in his field to the naive nineteen year old Irina, fresh from Ukraine and hoping both to make a living and find a handsome English man like to match the dashing Mr Brown from her ‘Let’s Talk English’ textbook.

Whilst a highly comedic novel, it does shed an uncomfortable light on the conditions endured by such migrant workers, as well as the lack of security and risk of being trafficked they face. The use of language is sublime, with the various characters somewhat broken English adding to the atmosphere; for example the hard ‘mobilfonmen‘ who control the workers, and the sinister Vulk, who calls Irina ‘little flovver‘ as he kidnaps her with nefarious intent.

The first half of the book has a wide ensemble of characters, and follows them as they move around the country (driven away from Leapish’s farm when his wife runs him over in her sports car after finding out he has an ‘arrangement’ with Yola, the Polish supervisor). Along the way they acquire a dog (called Dog), and the pace and humour in this part of the book make for a rattling read.

About half way through, most of the characters disappear, and the book becomes a love story between Irina and Andiry, as they attempt to find stability and peace whilst pursued by Vulk. This part of the novel is less successful, to my mind, and it becomes more forced.

Still, it’s a fun book to read that I recommend. And one that will certainly open your eyes to the conditions endured by the immigrant underclass who make up much of the low-paid workforce.

How does my bike work? – Jan McPherson

May 6, 2017 at 17:06 | Posted in bicycles, books | Leave a comment
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With the junior Chillikebab’s now at school, we have the joy of school readers. Books they bring home to read to us – full of the joy of them learning to read, and the crushing monotony of the repetitive sentences.

The other day, one of the juniors brought home this one – ‘How does my bike work?’. This book I of course approved of. Nothing like some good early education about bike maintenance. Junior read it with aplomb, and I ticked it off on her reading list.

However, it’s not a book I would necessarily recommend as a bike maintenance primer. Take this, for example:

Brake pads press against the tyres? I hope not; that’s a recipe for tyre blow-outs. I resisted the urge to cross this out and change it to ‘rims’ – which in any case I would say is phonically much easier to read…

Still, it’s always exciting to write a post that I can categorise in both Books and Bicycles!

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