The Truman Show meets Dickensian melodrama

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Pastworld by Ian Beck

Welcome to Pastworld.  Imagine that London has been reinvented as a theme park; that Dickensian London has been recreated in every detail. Rich tourists undergo immersion training, get costumed and are then brought in by airship to become ‘gawkers’ in this new, old world. Caleb, son of Lucius Brown, one of the park’s original imagineers, is due to arrive for his first visit with his father.

Pastworld is peopled by the ‘residents’, most of whom officially live and work there as Victorians, giving the punters an authentic experience. But there are also some unofficials – pickpockets, fences and entertainers, plus ‘The Fantom’, who has taken on the unofficial role of Jack the Ripper and is working with a band of ‘ragged men’ to strike terror throughout the city. The park’s owners are very, very worried indeed, and they send in a detective to hunt him down.

The last piece of the puzzle is seventeen year old Eve who lives with her father Jack; she has no memories of anything before the age of fifteen. In Truman Show style, she doesn’t know she is living in a theme park. However she is never allowed to go out on her own and is beginning to wonder why. Jack returns from an excursion out and starts to explain a little to her:

‘I have to tell you something, Eve’ he said, in an unsteady voice. ‘You may often have wondered why I look after you so carefully. The truth is that someone is after us. They have been for a long while now. I have deliberately kept this from you, Eve, just for your own protection. I have always been so very, very careful for you. But anyhow this bad, bad person has got a sniff of you, and as soon as it can be arranged we will have to move somewhere else. Somewhere far from here.’
He stood and paced up and down in a twitching panic. I could make no sense of it at all. Here was my mystery.
‘How would such a dangerous person know anything about us?’ I said.
‘He knows,’ Jack said nodding. ‘As I said, he’s got a sniff of you.’
Something alerted me in those repeated words: ‘A sniff of you’. That surely meant it is not ‘us’ at all but just me alone, myself – someone is especially after me. It was suddenly clear to me.
I am a deep secret.
I am a hidden person.
I am to be kept safe for ever. I was a fairy-tale princess, like Rapunzel, locked away from the world in her high tower.

This is the first novel for young adults from children’s author Ian Beck, which has plenty for grown-ups to admire too. I thoroughly enjoyed its cultural touchstones, murderous action and twisty plot. I particularly liked the interleaving of the futuristic and Victorian milieux which resulted in much more than a straight-forward melodrama. Without spoiling anything, there is plenty of room for a sequel (please?).

If you’ve read The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G W Dahlquist and enjoy teen fiction, you’d certainly like this book. (9/10)

My Secret Santa arrived – yippee!

My Secret Santa gift from the Book Blogger Holiday Swap arrived and I couldn’t wait to rip the paper off and see what was inside… Complete joy! two wonderful, and completely different books from my wishlist and super hand-crocheted bookmarks to go with them.

The books were Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, a wonderful author I only discovered this year, and First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde from his supremely inventive Thursday Next litcom detective series. They both go onto the reading pile for after Christmas. As for the bookmarks – I have never learned to crochet, and they are so neatly done and lovely bright Christmassy colours.

A huge thank you goes to Meghan at Medieval Bookworm for her brilliant choices and great crochet skills. Thank you again and very best wishes for a MERRY CHRISTMAS!

My Reading Resolutions for 2009 – how did I do #4 (the final one!)

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By now you might have cottoned on, by the series of bookish but not books-read posts, that I’m suffering a severe case of end-of-term-can’t-read-itis and have thus resorted to fillers; (all this pondering the stats is helping me formulate my books of the year though). Aside from that, I am reading The Moonstone but mostly the same pages over and over before falling asleep. I may have to resort to something fun and trashy again to get me through it… However, this is the last post about my 2009 Reading Resolutions in which I resolved to ‘read more non-fiction’.

This year about 15% of my reading was non-fiction (around 10% in 2008). I’ve read a wider range of subjects too. One of those that has stuck with me was the first book I read this year The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell which looked for those key moments that made a good idea a great one. I always enjoy biographies and memoirs, and this year have read enjoyable ones by Raymond Blanc, Susan Hill and the quirky Stewart Copeland. So a vintage non-fiction year for me.

RESOLUTION #4 – PASSED!!!

My Reading Resolutions for 2009 – How did I do #3

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My third reading resolution for 2009 was to ‘read more world and translated fiction’. Last year I read a dozen which were all Nordic or French except for Blindness by Saramago. This year I did a bit better…

Eighteen in translation, plus a sprinkling from parts other than the UK or USA. I spread my reading around the EU a lot more too including novels written in German, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish. Missing this year are novels from Canada, Japan and Eastern Europe – maybe more Margaret Atwood, Murakami and Stefan Zweig for next year to redress the balance.

RESOLUTION #3 – PASSED!!!

My Reading Resolutions for 2009 – How did I do #2

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On Sunday I told you about the results of my first Reading Resolution that I made for 2009 – here’s the second. I said ‘I will read the Canongate Myths series of books’. Here they are sitting together on the shelf; at the start of the year I already owned the first eight, since added the ninth, and the latest additions are on order as we speak (Hurricane Party by Klas Ostergren, and Baba Yaga laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic). But did I get round to reading any of them? …

The answer is in the visible shrinkwrap still on the signed boxed set of the first three that my other half gave me two or three Christmases ago. Sadly no.

But why? I love re-tellings of myths and legends and fairy tales … often, nothing excites me more reading wise. The real problem is that they were essentially hidden in the TBR mountain by then, and as you’ll see from my previous post, I read so many brand new books in 2009 , I didn’t have time for much else.

Once I got invited to join Amazon Vine which gets you free new books to review, plus Librarything Early Reviewers one and occasional publisher freebies, there’s little time to delve into the TBR mountains. So you can see I’m continuing totry to talk myself into seriously reducing the number of books I acquire… more of that in my Reading Resolutions for 2010 I think.

RESOLUTION #2 – FAILED!

My Reading Resolutions for 2009 – how did I do #1

Back in the New Year of 2009, I made a set of ‘Reading Resolutions’. One of them was ‘I shall read more books published before I was born.’ So including all books read up to the beginning of December, how did I do?

Not very well actually! I managed to read a huge 90 books from the noughties with 37 of them being published this year. Those published before I was born comprise just the five at the top of the doughnut – a mere 4.5%, and of those only two were from the TBR mountain – Oh Dear! However the five were gooduns …

  • Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (1916)
  • The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)
  • Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (1940)
  • The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (1951)
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)

In mitigation, I am now reading Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868). The real question is though – did I read more pre-1960 books in 2009 than in 2008? Well, no – actually I read five less! Hence your suggestions for reading more classic fiction in 2010 would be very welcome.

RESOLUTION #1 – FAILED!

Q&A with science writer Marcus Chown

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It’s my great pleasure today to introduce you to Marcus Chown, author of We Need To Talk About Kelvin who is on a blog tour to promote the book (which I reviewed here). Apart from writing great popular science books, Marcus is cosmology consultant of magazine New Scientist, having formerly been a radio astronomer at Caltech in Pasadena. Marcus’s own website is here where you can see the whole blog tour and find out more about his books.

As to my questions, I trained as a scientist originally and now work in a school as a lab technician, so I was particularly interested in asking about his views on teaching and popularising science at all levels …

Annabel: Everyone likes a bit of Sci-Fi, witness the popularity (still) of Star Trek, but how can you transform that into an enjoyment of proper science and convince readers (and the wider public) that ideas and theories from the cutting edge of science are not fiction and are worthy of serious consideration?

Marcus: Oddly enough it was science fiction that kept me interested in science when the teaching of science at school was dull and boring! Most of my fellow pupils were turned off. I think it was because the science I read about in science fiction, particularly the novels of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov was fun and exciting and mind-expanding, and the stuff I learnt at school wasn’t.

So, I think the answer is clear: Teach all the mind-blowing stuff at school! (I address how you do this in another of your questions below).

My evidence is my book, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You. Now who would have though that a book with a title like that would sell like hotcakes? But it has. Far faster than any of my other books. And the feedback I’ve been getting from readers – many of whom have no science background at all – is: Why the hell didn’t they teach this kind of stuff at school? If they had, I would have stayed interested. Why didn’t I discover that matter is so empty that, if you squeezed all the space out of atoms, you could fit the human race in the volume of a sugar cube? Why didn’t I learn that, according to Einstein, you grow old more slowly on the ground floor of a building than on the top floor? Why didn’t I learn that atoms – the building blocks of you and me – can be in two places at once, influence each other instantaneously even when on opposite sides of the Universe, and do things for absolutely no reason at all? We live in a Universe that is far stranger than science fiction, far more weird than anything we could possibly have invented. If kids realised this, I believe they would be interested in science.

Annabel: How do you strike a balance between making scientific theories accessible and ‘dumbing down’ the often complex physics and maths that underpin theories? There wasn’t a single equation in WNTTAKel, although many were effectively expressed in word descriptions in the text – is that your secret?

Marcus: I don’t think about striking a balance between making things accessible and ‘dumbing down’, and for a simple reason: I write for me! I’m constantly trying to understand things better, get things straight in my own mind. And explaining things in words and images is how I understand things (that’s why I have no equations). By good fortune, the way I explain things to myself happens to be pretty much the same thing as explaining stuff to you or my wife or someone waiting for a number 22 bus. So, when you read my books, often it’s me wrestling to get to grips with some concept!

I was incredibly lucky to be taught by the American physicist, Richard Feynman. I’m obviously in no way comparable to him, but I do remember his criterion of whether he really understood something was whether he could explain it to someone, anyone. That’s the way I feel.

Annabel: Do you have any opinion of science education in schools? Science these days is seen as a ‘difficult’ subject, and many are discouraged from taking it further after GCSE as there are easier options to get grades. This is leading to understaffed and under-resourced science departments and ultimately a lack of future scientists …

Marcus: Recently, I’ve had some correspondence with science teachers who have said they have used Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You with their teenage pupils and have said it’s just the kind of thing they should be teaching. It kind of confirms something I think about science teaching. School science – at least when I was at school – was taught chronologically. So first you do Newton and gas laws and lots of pretty dull stuff. By the time you get anywhere near the present day and all the fun, amazing stuff like quantum theory and relativity, it’s all over and it’s time to leave school. So what I think should be done is that a lot of the fun stuff should be taught first – don’t worry that it’s mind-blowing; younger kids have no fear – then, later, when the children are hooked, fill in all the background.

It’s exactly the same as getting kids hooked on reading by giving them Harry Potter. Later, you can give them the classics. When I was at school, it was the opposite way around. I had to read Nicholas Nickelby when I was nine. And it put me off Dickens for 20 years! And that’s what I think we’re doing at school with science. We’re not telling kids about this incredibly amazing world we find ourselves in, where, for instance, a single atom can be in tow places at once – the equivalent of you being in London and New York at the same time. We’re not telling kids that the Universe is stranger than anything we could possible have invented, stranger than any sf movie they have ever seen. If we did, we might grab their interest.

But, of course, I understand, that with so few good science teachers, you need to get more kids interested enough to do science and be science teachers, to get more kids interested… It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

Annabel: Do you think more effort needs to be made to popularise complex scientific ideas? How much does physics, maths and cosmology suffer from spin, both media and political?

Marcus:
Yes, I do think that more needs to be done to popularise science, for the simple reason that we live in a world where we need to be informed on scientific and technological matters such as the anthropogenic greenhouse effect, nuclear power, genetic modification, and so on. But, you’re right, there are obstacles in the way of popularising. Many of the gatekeepers in the media have arts backgrounds and are ignorant or nervous of science. It is very hard for science journalists to get stories past their editors on, for instance, radio and TV. That’s why we normally only get only alarmist stories such as “the LHC’s going to destroy the world” or the briefest, over-simplified, trite soundbites such as “the LHC is going to recreate the Big Bang”. And, in addition to over-simplification and sensationalism, there is the problem of a non-science-literate media giving a platform to people with an agenda such as those saying “My drug will cure cancer/Parkinson’s/ME/or whatever.”

Annabel: And lastly, just in case no-one has asked you this yet – How did you come up with the title of WNTTAKel – it’s inspired? (Ironically my other half has never heard of the ‘other’ book – but did say ‘I’ll read that after you’…)

Marcus: Good titles are very hard to find, and I drive my wife up the wall, wasting whole holidays, trying to get them! Poetry is good, and songs lyrics… The Universe Next Door came from line of an e. e. cummings’ poem: “Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go!” The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead was a line from Jim Crace’s brilliant novel, Being Dead. Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You was from Adrian Mitchell’s “Mashed potatoes cannot hurt you, darling”. I fought like mad but I wasn’t able to get my publisher to let me have the “darling” on the end. I still hope I’ll get it on a future edition!

We Need to Talk About Kelvin just came to me when I was coming down the stairs of our house. I’d read Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is about a boy who kills his schoolmates and most of his family with a crossbow (!), so it must have been in my mind. The title immediately struck me as a good one. If you know the allusion, great. If you don’t, maybe you’ll think – Who’s Kelvin? Why do we need to talk about him? – which might just intrigue you enough to pick up the book in a bookshop (In fact, the reaction of your partner suggests this may be true!).
Actually, I went to a talk Lionel Shriver did at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. But I was too shy to go up to her and ask whether she would write a Foreword to my book!

Thought-provoking questions! I hope my answers live up to them. Thanks for hosting me on your blog site!

Annabel: Marcus, thank you very much for your considered and insightful answers, and for actually being the first author to be a guest on my blog. Good luck with the book and the rest of the blog tour.

To visit the next leg of Marcus’s Blogtour, click here.

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