Stalin & UFOs – a philosophical SF thriller

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts.

This novel was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction novels last year, but it’s really more of a philosophical thriller and a commentary on the fall of Communism than out and out science fiction.  It’s dark, thoughtful, thrilling and hilarious by turns and I loved it.

It’s 1946 and the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (aka WWII) has ended.  Stalin believes that the Soviet peoples need continued conflict to remain together under his thumb and he comes up with an idea.  He gets a group of the top Soviet science fiction authors together and orders them to come up with a plan for an alien invasion that could be faked if necessary.  They devise a race of ‘radiation aliens’ beings of pure energy who they decide should destroy the Ukraine…

How could we plan such a monstrosity so very casually? This is not an easy question to answer, although in the light of what came later it is, of course an important one. Conceivably it is that we did not beleive, even in the midst of our work, that it would come to anything – that we felt removed from the possible consequences of our planning. But I suspect a more malign motivation. Writers, you see, daily inflict the most dreadful suffering upon the characters they create, and science fiction writers are worse than any other sort in this respect. A realist writer might break his protagonist’s leg, or kill his fiancee; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not prodce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?

Nothing ever came of these plans (phew!), in fact the group were ordered never to talk about it. Years go by and our narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, never wrote any more SF taking up the vodka bottle instead, but he pulled himself together enough to make a meagre living as a translator.  Now it’s 1986, he’s in his early sixties and his life is about to take a very strange turn indeed, when one of his former colleagues turns up – now a KGB officer and he says he has proof that aliens are here …

‘Let’s be clear,’ I said. ‘The six of us concocted that story of space aliens.’
‘We did.’
‘We didn’t base it on anything factual at all. We invented radiation aliens. Crazy, really. I don’t believe a single one of us even approximately understood the physics of radiation.’
‘That’s right.’
‘It was fiction. It was our fiction. We made it up. It’s not real.’
‘Fictional and unreal are not synonyms,’ said Frenkel, smiling as if he had articulated a piece of profound wisdom.
‘Ivan, you’re saying that the story we invented is somehow, I don’t know, happening in the real world? That there’s proof that radiation aliens are invading?’

Then things start to get rather Monty Python as Konsty gives Frenkel the slip and ends up in front of an audience of UFO enthusiasts who see him as the prophet of the alien invasion, just like that scene in Life of Brian where his followers hang on every word and revere his gourd. An American whom Konstantin had been translating for earlier (wanting to establish the Church of Scientology in Russia), reappears and things get nasty – and Konsty ends up having to make a break for … Ukraine – and can you remember what happened in there in real life in 1986?

I loved this book on so many levels. Firstly it was a cracking good adventure with thrills, spills, cross and double-cross and even romance. Then there was the philosophical paradox in that UFOs don’t exist, but enough people believe that they do to create tremendous conspiracy theories which feed paranoia and keep the secret services busy. I loved how Roberts has taken many real facts and events and woven them into a rich sort of alternate history with these big ideas. The book also has a fantastic sense of farce – there’s a marvellous scene towards the end about Russians and queuing which had me guffawing with laughter. Konstantin, our unreliable narrator is not a typical Russian – he is known as an ironist and his skewed view on life pervades the story from the start; he can’t help but make wisecracks all the time, but is ultimately a rather loveable older man and his account of his great adventure was a brilliant read.

An absolutely brilliant read. (10/10) I bought this book and I want to read more of this exciting author’s books.

* * * * *

Boring Postcards redux

One of my favourite artbooks is Boring Postcards by Martin Parr. It elevates the worst examples of the humble picture postcard to art. You can see my 2009 post about the book here where I gave it five stars it was that good. 

Another of the things I brought back from my Mum’s was her postcard collection.  Two big shoeboxes stuffed with every postcard she’d ever received and many, many blank ones too.  My daughter and I have been spending the morning sorting them a bit into locations.  We’ve come across many interesting ones, but the most fascinating are almost by definitition the most boring!  Here are a few for your delectation …

The Civic Centre, Plymouth which seems to have been sent to show the recipient where Guildhall is – ie behind the office tower block.

* * * * *

Then below we have another civic centre or Stadhuis in this case, in Brunssum in Holland.   Dated 1981 and sent to my Mum at work from ‘R’ – very mysterious!

* * * * *

Next comes the Motel des Pierrettes, 5 minutes from Lausanne in Switzerland. It always gets me that people send postcards of their hotel, when the view would be nicer – but perhaps less interesting.  Sent by my great-aunt in 1965.

 

The fourth card is a classic – doesn’t that just make you want to pack up everything and head down to Dorset and stay in a caravan in a crowded field in rather overcast weather?  This was to my Mum from Win – not quite sure of the family relationship, but she was off to Barrow next in 1959.

* * * * *

Next a postcard from September 1954 – from Butlins Ocean Hotel at Brighton. It’s addressed to ‘Mrs Thorn’ and the other occupants of her office and it’s from ‘Ray’. This is significant, because my Mum, Mrs Thorn was just back from her honeymoon in August. The card was sent by a colleague in Brighton at a Bowls tournament.

The last pair are a little less boring but no less interesting, well to me anyway …

We have a card from Butlin’s Holiday Camp somewhere in Northern Island.  The card appears to be hand-tinted – the colours of the ballgowns standing out rather violently.  On the back my late Uncle Brian thanks my Mum for the shirt.

* * * * *

And finally, a very oddly coloured card of the Salle de la Roulette in the Casino at Monte-Carlo. I chose this one as, empty, the room is strange and although ornate, rather unspectacular considering its reputation.  I imagine this room humming and full of glamorous film stars and men in tuxedos – where’s 007 when you need him?  A vintage 1960s scene, sent to my Mum at work from one of her friends.

 * * * * *

 Well I hope you enjoyed these works of art. I will get back to writing about books soon, although I do have some other treasures from my Mum’s archive stored up to share too.

To purchase the book mentioned from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Boring Postcards by Martin Parr

* * * * *

In Praise of Good Old-Fashioned Autograph books

These days your average school leaver gets everyone to sign their shirt with marker pen on their last day as a souvenir of their time at school.  Turn the clock back a few decades and you reach the time when people kept autograph books, and their friends wrote silly little poems, or drew pictures, or even a sentimental verse.  I had one of these – but only for junior school, and I don’t know what happened to it. I’ve been clearing my Mum’s house the past few days and have been too tired to blog until coming home. 

I’m continuing to find treasures, and one I wanted to share with you today is her autograph book – the entries within date from around 1941 onwards so she’d have been ten then, and it carries on through her senior school days at Belfast’s Methodist College.  I remember it well from my childhood – we often used to look at it for inspiration for rhymes to write in other people’s books.  But for me the stars in Mum’s book were always the drawings people did.  Here’s a few of them, and some rhymes too …

Your Highness sublime
Your Highness so mighty
I wish your pyjamas were next to my nightie
Oh! Don’t be mistaken
Don’t be misled
I meant on the clothes line: Not on the bed.

M Ritchie, 1946

 

 Oh Maureen dear I love you,
You know the reason why,
Your eyes are always blurry
And your nose is never dry.

Rona McAlpine, 1046.

 

Three things to remember on your wedding day –

Aisle, Altar, Hymn.

I’ll alter him!

Flo Blair, 1942

Aren’t they wonderful?  Bring back traditional autograph books – so much nicer than marker pen scribble on an old shirt.

Did you have an autograph book?  

Any good ditties or pictures to share from it?

 

I’m going against the trend here …

Hector & the Search for Happiness by François Lelord

About a week ago I’d just started reading this book when Simon at Savidge Reads (him again!) posted about it.  Simon wasn’t keen, and it seems the majority of commenters weren’t either – finding it too cute and patronising, but I was rather enjoying it as did Rosy B at Vulpes Libris who has written a brilliant piece about it.

It’s a simple premise. Hector is a young psychiatrist; he loves his job and is good at it, but he’s finding that sorting out depressed people every day was beginning to drag him down too. Also his longterm relationship with Clara is stagnating.  So he decides to take time off and travel around the world visiting his friends and colleagues to see if he can find out the secrets of happiness. He flies off around the world where he meets and falls for a Chinese callgirl, encounters a very wise old Chinese monk, negotiates with drug barons and gets kidnapped in Africa, and visits a professor of happiness while staying with friends in the land of ‘More’ before returning to work via another visit to the Chinese monk to tell him what he’d found out. All ends are tied then up neatly.

Hector’s author is himself a psychiatrist, and in the short Q&A at the back, he tells how he wanted to write a sort-of self-help book as a novel, but it is this epithet of ‘self-help’ that seems to have put peoples’ backs up.  If you ignore this aspect and read it as a novel, it is great fun, full of great observations about life, and it definitely has a droll sense of humour. The naive fablelistic (is that a word?) style may not be to everyone’s liking but suited me fine, although the neat ending was a bit of  a copout.

This the fourth title I’ve read from Gallic Books and I’ve enjoyed all of them, finding a strong liking for contemporary French literature. (8/10) I bought this book.

To order from Amazon.co.uk click below:
Hector & the Search for Happiness (Hector’s Journeys)

Weekly Geeks – Reading from the decades.

Weekly Geeks is a bookish community site that posts weekly tasks for readers to participate in if they wish, and this week’s one is about examining a book (or books) which were published in your birth decade. Tell us about a book that came out in the decade you were born which you either loved or hated. Is is relevant to today? Is it a classic, or could it be? Give us a mini-review, or start a discussion about the book or books.

If you follow my blog, you may know that since my big birthday this year I’ve decided to remain 36 in my brain for as long as I can get away with it – but I was actually born in 1960. There were some great books published in my birth year, so I’ve decided go no further into the 1960s, and introduce a few that I’ve read…

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner was one of the best children’s fantasy novels I’ve ever read. I’ve been meaning to re-read this one for ages though as I the only thing I can remember about it is that it’s set around Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  A true modern classic that I underappreciated when I first read it as a teenager. Another that I must re-read soon.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark. 

I read this one a couple of years ago, and found it to be awas a delightful short novel. It’s about a young man who arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then he disappears. Is Dougal Douglas the devil or just a very naughty boy? 

Spark’s prose is sparse – there’s not a word wasted. Thinking about this book reminds me that I must read more of her work very soon, and that I must get hold of Martin Stannard’s biography of her which is now out in paperback.

Also see Margaret’s Weekly Geeks post over at Books Please

To buy any of these from Amazon.co.uk click below:
The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen (Collins Voyager) by Alan Garner
To Kill a Mockingbird (50th Anniversary edition) by Harper Lee
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark by Martin Stannard

A Cosy Mystery That Hits The Spot

M C Beaton, the pen-name of Marion Chesney, is a prolific author of cosy mysteries with two hit series to her name…

You may be familiar with Agatha Raisin – a bossy urban sleuth who now lives in the Cotswolds and is delighted to stick her nose into things to keep busy. While I’ve read the first few ARs and enjoyed them in a throwaway kind of way, I find the character too ‘Margot-ish’ (A bossy housewife in the BBC comedy ‘The Good Life’ back in the mid 1970s). I refer you to my pal Simon at Savidge Reads for a better appreciation of Agatha. Incidentally, there are now 21 titles in this series which Beaton started in 1992.

MC’s other series which she started earlier in 1985 and has a 27th book due out next year features Hamish Macbeth

The BBC made a TV series in the late 1990s which starred Robert Carlyle as the canny young Scottish policeman – I loved it.  It fitted the Sunday night drama slot perfectly with the lovely Scottish locations and gentle humour with a slightly surreal edge to it.  There were some great characters, especially TV John – an old clairvoyant who helps Hamish, and Hamish’s on/off relationships with the two female co-stars.  There was also Wee Jock – the policeman’s West Highland Terrier.  Undemanding and always entertaining.  Will the books live up to that …

I’ve only read the first so far – Death of a Gossip, but personally I much preferred Hamish to Agatha.  The Hamish of the books is different in physical appearance to Carlyle, being tall and lanky with fiery red hair, but the approach to the policework was very similar.  It’s not that Hamish is terribly lazy, but he’s so laid back he’s almost horizontal!  He has a very laissez faire approach to his work – rather than actually arrest anyone for poaching, he’ll let them know that he knows and the poacher will lie low for a bit so the problem goes away – until the next time.  His investigative approach is similarly low-key.  The fictional Lochdubh is a picture postcard location, nestled on the lochside with a backdrop of rolling hills and moorland.

So to the murder … The Cartwrights running a fishing school, teaching small groups the art of fly fishing with access to normally out of bounds trout and salmon pools and rivers.  The latest group of eight very different students have arrived.  Within hours of starting it becomes obvious that one of the group, Lady Jane Winders is getting on everyone’s nerves.  She continues to wind everyone up, so it’s not a surprise when she ends up dead in a salmon pool!  It had to be one of the other seven students or the Cartwrights whodunnit.  Hamish was going to investigate in his own quiet way, but then DCI Blair and his team from Inverness arrive and shove him out of the way, treating him like the yokel plod he clearly isn’t.  Uncharacteristically, this winds up the normally placid PC …

Hamish changed into his uniform, admitting to his reflection in the glass that he, Hamish Macbeth, was a very angry man. In fact, he could not quite remember being so angry in all his easygoing life. He was determined to go on talking to the members of the fishing school until someone said something that gave himself away. He was not going to be frightened because it was a murder investigation. All criminals were the same whether it was a theft in the school or poaching deer in the hills. You talked, asked questions, and listened and watched and waited. The hell with Blair.

The penultimate sentence from the quote above sums up Hamish perfectly.  He does just that, and is rewarded with doing a ‘Poirot’, getting all the suspects together to reveal the murderer.   Obviously, most of the suspects, who were not locals, came out as thinly described stereotypical characters, but those who will crop up again in future books are more strongly drawn.  Although angling is of no interest to me, it didn’t dominate proceedings too much, and the necessary explanations were woven into the lecture sessions that were part of the course. 

I liked Hamish very much, and I will definitely be carrying on reading this series when the need for a cosy mystery appeals again.  (7.5/10) I bought this book.

*****

To buy from Amazon.co.uk click below …
Death of a Gossip (Hamish Macbeth) by M C Beaton
Hamish MacBeth : Series 1-3 (6 Disc Box Set) [DVD]

Air-freighted asparagus? Never again!

 How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee.

I love popular science books and programmes.  As a trained scientist, who still does useful but not challenging science at work, (I’m a school lab technician), at best, these books are great at keeping the science bit of your brain ticking over while managing to also entertain, but it’s great when you learn new things from them and use that to spark off question and debate.

That was definitely the case with this book.  Berners-Lee which I shall abbreviate to B-L, (by the way, I was unable to find out whether he is related to Sir Tim B-L, the creator of the interweb – does anyone know?), is a environmental expert in calculating the total carbon footprint of everything.  The important word here is ‘everything’.  His method factors in not just manufacturing, but the footprint of the ingredients too and the corporations that make and sell things, plus the footprint of the item in use through to its eventual disposal – ie the total contribution of an item to global warming (its CO2e – equivalent).  This complete way of looking at things throws up some amazing results, but more on that in a minute.

After the explanatory introductions, the book is presented in increasing CO2e from under 10g to 1 million tonnes and beyond, and is compared against a target lifestyle of up to ten tonnes per year for the average human.  One thing B-L is clear on is that in aiming to improve our own carbon footprints we should all apply a sense of scale. What good is choosing a better hand-drying option when you spend your life on planes?  But having said that, he says we should pick our battles, and work out where we can get the best return for our efforts.  It was fascinating reading, although I found the lower CO2e first half more interesting than the big emitters at the end as these small things have a daily visible impact.  B-L has a style that is fairly serious and earnest, but with occasional jocularity to keep things light.  I’d recommend this book to anyone thinking about what they can do to green their lifestyle in small steps – which all add up eventually.

Let me share just a few of the many surprising facts I got from this book

  • The supermarket plastic bag is not so bad!  It represents around one thousandnth of the CO2e of a typical shop, and ironically has less impact than a paper bag.  Paper uses more paper and glue for equivalent strength, and the manufacturing process has more impact too.
  • Bananas aren’t actually that bad as they’re usually shipped – on ships.  It’s the air-freighted asparagus and continental out of season hothouse tomatoes that are amongst the worst fruit and veg.  Out of season and air-freighted  fruit and veg have around 100x the CO2e of locally grown in-season produce.
  • But what about cycling a mile?  Assuming the cyclist burns around 50 calories per mile… If you’re looking at the total CO2e you need to consider what provides the energy that you put into cycling – ie what you eat!   If you’re a fan of bananas, that’ll produce around 65 grammes of CO2.  If you had a bacon butty – it’s around 200g of CO2.  If you had a plate of air-freighted asparagus the CO2e is 2.8 kilogrammes.

It’s all good fun, but I’ve learned a lot and will put lots of little bits into action in the future .  As the author suggests, it will, (now I’ve read it), make an ideal toilet book! 
(8/10) I bought this book.

*****

Buy this book from Amazon.co.uk …
How Bad Are Bananas?: The carbon footprint of everything by Mike Berners-Lee

Click-through clarity

While I clearly state on my ‘Info & Stuff’ page above, and mention from time to time in posts, I haven’t been shouting from the rooftops that when you click through on a book title link (or films etc), you’ll get taken to Amazon where you can order said item (or anything else for that matter) and I’ll get a commission from the sale. I’ve been an Amazon.co.uk affiliate for about eighteen months, and so far, readers’ click-throughs have earned me an immense £12.89 – which I haven’t seen yet, as I have to earn £25 to trigger a payment.

Obviously I’m not in blogging for the money! It is nice to get a few freebies here and there which are very much appreciated. I do get a lot from blogging though – my personal gain is all about talking books and ‘stuff’ with you, and interacting with you, my brilliant blog-friends.

So, I shall try a new format … In the interests of clarity, so that links in my blog text are links to places other than online retail emporia, (unless explicitly flagged up as such), I’m not going to include them in the text. Instead I’ll include the Amazon link(s) at the bottom of a post. While this may seem a more obvious way of promoting my affiliation, it’ll save you getting annoyed, (and doubly so if you’re not in the UK) if you click a link in the text and get taken to Amazon UK when you’d hoped to be taken somewhere else. As WordPress.com doesn’t support external widgets, I can only include the links, not the Amazon buttons, so it’ll look fairly subtle I hope!

Using the two books I’m currently reading as examples – here’s how it will look at the bottom of a post. Please do let me know your thoughts…

*****

Buy these books from Amazon.co.uk …
* Yellow Blue Tibia: A Novel by Adam Roberts
* Hector & the Search for Happiness (Hector’s Journeys) by François Lelord

When motherhood all gets too much?

The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah.

Sally and Nick have two young children and they both work hard.  The year before, Sally was feeling the strain of juggling motherhood and her career, all the multi-tasking; she was desperate for a break from it all.  When a business trip fell through, she didn’t tell her husband. Instead she went off anyway to a hotel, looking forward to a week of spas and sleep. 

In the bar, she met a man – a considerate one, a man who seemed to understand her needs, and they had a week long daytime affair. Revived, she returned to work, but life carries on and she still gets stressed …

There’s probably nothing important that I’ve forgotten, but it would be nice to be certain, as I always used to be. Now that I have two small children, my work has an added resonance: every time I talk or write about Venice’s lagoon losing dangerous amounts of the sediment it needs to keep it healthy, I find myself identifying with the damn thing. Two strong currents called Jake and Zoe, aged four and two, are sluicing important things from my brain that I will never be able to retrieve, and replacing them with thoughts about Barbie and Calpol. Perhaps I should write a paper, complete with scientific diagrams, arguing that my mind has silted up and needs dredging, and send it to Nick, who has a talent for forgetting he has a home life while he is at work. He is always advising me to follow his example.

At home the news is full of a gruesome double death – presumed suicide of a mother and daughter.  Their names are familiar – they’re the family of the man she had an affair with – but the man on the TV is not Mark Bretherick!

This is the setup for Sophie Hannah’s third novel, another dark and devilishly ingenious psychological thriller. I’m not going to talk about the main plot any more, it’s complicated and I don’t want to give any spoilers. Suffice to say, it’s complicated and chilling, and mothers and fathers reading it will get little twinges of guilt when they recognise situations within in which they could have been better parents themselves at some time. 

Toiling away in the background are the Spilling constabulary – they are the constant in Hannah’s novels.  Back again are detectives Charlie and Simon, who have a long-running on-off relationship, which is complicated by her being a sergeant and him just a constable.  Although the crime is the star, they provide a satisfying and grounding backdrop to the main event.

I like to read novels with interlinking story arcs in order, and Sophie’s third was the best yet for me, totally unputdownable as usual!  I’m looking forward to great anticipation to her next books now.
(8.5/10) I bought this book.

Sophie Hannah Giveaway Result

I used a TG Green Cornishware blue and white pudding basin retrieved from my Mum’s as a container for the names and my daughter picked two slips out.

So the two winners are:

Kerry & Chasing Bawa

I’ll be in touch to get your addresses. Thank you to everyone who entered and told me their favourite crime authors – I now have a few more to investigate!