Friday, July 31, 2009

Just Like Tomorrow - post I

The tone of the voice in Just Like Tomorrow is younger than Dreams from the Endz but no worse for that. The story is similar with it being about a girl stuck on the paradise estate. Here she lives with her illiterate mother and has to cope with social services trying to get a foot-up in life.

She seems to be getting left behind as her school can no longer find a place for her and the social workers try to help her come to terms with the decision of her father to abandon them and return to Morocco.

The story is told with humour but also a conversational style that brings the reader in. It is almost as if you are being spoken to and if this is a private diary then you as a reader are privileged enough to be reading it.

But this is fiction and you hope that the miserable life that 15 year old Doria has to struggle with will change.

More Monday…

Thursday, July 30, 2009

book review - The Colony - Hugo Wilcken

There are some books that echo in your mind because they retread paths taken by others. So it is with Papillion and a bit of Heart of Darkness that you start to get pulled into The Colony.

First impressions are of a writer confident enough to describe a world that he hasn’t experienced in a period that has been clearly well researched. You quickly believe in the proposition and want to know how the plot will develop.

The story focuses on a couple of characters with the first, Sabir, being introduced as he waits on a prison ship to land on the penal colony in a remote forgotten outpost of the French empire.

You are sucked into a bleak world of suffocating heat and little prospect of escape. The most they can hope for is to escape from their minds but there are fears of murder, losing what little comfort you have.

For Sabir it is to lie and get a role as a gardener working directly for a commander with dreams of creating a new penitentiary in the jungle. He is failing but doing so sharing his mind and drink with Sabir.

But the prospect is to escape and for the former solider who fought in the trenches of the first world war the desire for liberty is much stronger than that for the cushy number as the gardener. Most of those questions hover around Sabir’s old comrade from the trenches Edouard one of the main drivers behind the escape. Very little about him tallies up and you suspect that underneath all the lies there is one about desertion.

The question of desertion from the war and desertion from the Colony are both inter-twined and Sabir does have regrets as he leaves behind a life as a gardener and the fantasies of the Commanders wife, who is shortly to arrive to try and validate the paradise the dreamer is building.

There is a great deal of description about location but most of the barriers are mental rather than physical. But as the story moves to the post Sabir escape the focus moves back to the Colony and picks up the story with another character. Again Edouard is the connection with an old solider and fellow deserter coming to find him. The relationship between Manne and Edouard seems to be a strange one with it more based on mutual respect than friendship.

Manne retraces Sabir’s footsteps and finds himself with the commander and his wife in a strained relationship. He then follows the convict to the same position of escaping for his life. They are almost the same person with Manne carrying out Sabir’s fantasy of sleeping with the commander’s wife and staying around the garden.

What does it mean to be a prisoner and at what stage do you give up your liberty? When do you know that your ideas will never come to fruition? How do you carry on in situations when it would have been better to have died?

Those are the things I will be trying to fathom out following this because those are the big questions that emerge from what on the face of it appears to be a relatively straightforward story with a select cast of characters.

In many ways this feels like a film in the sense that your imagination is called on to roll out the scenes of jungle captivity and this would be one of those movies that left you debating it and thinking about it from the minute the lights came up.

This is not about heroes and villains or even so much about the physical idea of captivity but for me it is about the idea of being a prisoner to your own fears and thoughts whether they come to you in a trench or on an island prison miles from home.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dreams from the Endz - post II

As she weaves in and out of blind dates, failed moments of love with deported immigrants and into a more secure job Ahleme puts her own dreams to one side as she steps into look after her father and brother.

The brother she warns is losing his way finally proves it and gets excluded from school. With her brother in trouble, her father losing touch with reality and her job becoming more stable she decides to take the family home for a trip.

You sense that a return to Algeria could sort her brother out, help her father and for herself give a chance to slay the dragons of the past. Although she doesn’t have that lottery winning moment to take herself out of things she manages to know herself and that wisdom is her reward and strength.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dreams from the Endz - post I

In a rush I picked up the second novel By Faiza Guene rather than her first Just Like Tomorrow. It doesn’t matter too much because the stories are not interlinked but it would have been good to start at the beginning so to speak.

Still once opened the story is so easily accessible that you get straight into the story of Ahleme who lives with her father and brother. She is not the shy retiring type and so manages to defend herself in the housing estate in the mindset of drug dealers, criminals and those without a future.

This is not written as some sort of plea to be listened but more of an objective account of a world that to most of her readers is completely unknown.

This is about a young woman who has been denied almost everything not just as a result of poverty but because no one will believe in her dreams. She has been abandoned by her adopted country France and no longer has a place in Algeria her birthplace. She exists as an embarrassment to those that approve her immigration papers and fail completely to help her or her family.

More tomorrow…

Monday, July 27, 2009

A run in with a librarian

It is not often that the blog becomes a platform for moaning but having gone to the library there was something I had to get off my chest.

My kids have signed up with great enthusiasm for this summer's reading challenge, Quest Seekers. Six books have to be read and for each two there are stickers and a reward. The children are very excited and really motivated in a way I have not seen before to read, read, read.

So imagine the horror when getting to the library to register our success finishing stage one. A grumpy librarian subjected the kids to an oral exam asking for plot, characters and a review before handing over the stickers. Why I agree it's good to ask if they enjoyed reading this felt like a test that someone wanted us to fail.

Sometimes you want to scream from the rooftops. If I worked in MacDonalds my main measure of success would be to see people tucking into their burgers contendedly. If I worked at a library surely i would measure success by seeing readers, particualrly from the next generaton, showing such interest in books?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

bookmark of the week

The kids are really enjoying taking part in the summer reading challenge at the Library this year. Quest Seekers is the theme as you go through challenges to get the golden prize beating the dragon. This is a really exciting challenge and the inventiveness really comes across in the characters and the story.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Quest Seekers

For the past couple of years the kids have taken part in the summer reading challenge at the library. Last year was a sport theme with Team Read but this time around the theme has really got the attention.

Quest Seekers is not just a fantasy theme with Dragons and missions but manages to really get the kids fired up with the stickers and rewards for each two books read. The ultimate goal is to read six.

Whoever thinks up the ideas for the summer read challenge is going to have their work cut out topping this year but well done for making this summer one when books and reading are part of the holiday fun.

Friday, July 24, 2009

book review - Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut

Going from Cats Cradle onto Breakfast of Champions this is a book that quickly reminds you of Slaughterhouse 5 in a much more direct than Cradle. The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout is back in the spotlight but Vonnegut is having fun with the writing process here spinning the relationship between author and his creations.

The phrase Breakfast of Champions is an advertising slogan for a cereal and one of the main themes of the book is around consumerism. This is an America that has grown fat on its own economic success. The main setting Midland City, is a town shaped by the money of car dealer and hotel owner Dwayne Hoover, who is slowly but surely having a breakdown as the story unfolds. He becomes increasingly unstable as his life of luxury and boredom unravels. The final push into insanity comes when Hoover meets Trout at an artistic convention and reads some of the sci-fi author's work.

As Hoover loses it and some of the other characters are dragged into his destructive breakdown Trout heads off for a meeting with his creator - the author. As Vonnegut flips the conventions of a normal book to challenge the perception of what is reality you have to ask if you are also facing a Hoover moment. After he reads a message from the creator telling him to shake off the shackles of being a robot and show free will are we also trapped in the same way?

Vonnegut is encouraging you to ask what really constitutes happiness. What is success? If you are so tied into a system that prevents you from expressing your true feelings then are you in fact not much better than a robot being controlled by society. Of course that message, which is enough to start a spiral of self introspection, is wrapped up in great humour and imagination. It is impossible not to review the book without making a mention of the illustrations that Vonnegut litters the text with. They are not only funny but help immerse the reader into some of the signs, shared language and consumerism of mid-town USA.

The more you read Vonnegut the more you get to his motivation. If Dostoevsky was determined to spread the message of brotherhood then here is an author equally passionate challenging you to think about what is real. As the money flows and the neon signs get brighter and those with wealth become more removed from reality it becomes frightening. Overlay that with nuclear weapons, a race on the scientific front to produce ever more deadly and mysterious weapons and you have plenty of material. The way Vonnegut can weave it all in and leave you not only wiser but wanting more is the sign of a great writer.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lights Out for the Territory - post V

The writing takes an almost autobiographical turn as Sinclair starts to unravel the stories of some of those around him. As a result it becomes possible to start seeing how the environment of London impacts some of those that are perhaps more open towards its power.

So you get artists living in bunkers and performance artists collecting dust from old warehouses. These people are portrayed with a good mix of fondness and detachment. Sinclair doesn't allow himself to always get dragged along with every passing fad but as a result of opening himself up to some of them he manages to meet some interesting writers and artists.

One of the points that you feel he is making, particularly with the artist in the bunker, is that while it is easier perhaps to concentrate on the large Henry Moore pieces that litter the landscape of the capital it is perhaps underground both literally and metahporically where just as much energy and interest lies.

More soon...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lights Out for the Territory - post IV

Although this book in some respects is showing its age, an irony for something that is so good at charting history, what nails it to the 1990s is the pedestal that Jeffrey Archer is placed on.

Since his spell at her majesty’s pleasure and his virtual disappearance from the political scene it is hard to remember when Archer was able to provoke strong feelings.

In previous days I remember driving friends past his home in Granchester and putting my foot down as they took the opportunity of a slow turn past his gates to wind down the window and shout abuse. But that was when it felt like he could do something.

Now his name and the reaction of Sinclair to it make this book seem older than perhaps it would have been. There is a moment when Sinclair describes the potential meeting with Archer as pivotal to the whole Lights Out project. You wonder if he would say the same now.

What doesn’t stop is his ability to engage the reader’s interest. You don’t just have to be a Londoner, or living in the City, to appreciate the power and influence that the past can have on the present.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lights Out for the Territory - post III

Lights Out for the Territory is not an easy read. That is not to say it’s difficult because of language and story. It is simply a challenge keeping up with the wealth of information and images coming at you.

As Sinclair takes the reader around the City and recollects the temples of Mithras and the imagery of bulls he takes you on a conveyor belt between the mid 1990s and the days of King Lud.

This is a journey through London’s history as much as a physical journey through its streets and avenues.

Sinclair is also playing the role of historian sharing his references as he charts his own memories. Both he and his companion photographer Marc Atkins become part of the story, are stitched into the fabric of London’s history and as the story unfolds they chart their own reactions to it.

More to come…

Monday, July 20, 2009

Drowned World - post III

Just as life in the hot but bearable drowned world of London becomes stable and Kernans for now has put his desire to embrace the return to the neo-Triassic period on hold Ballard twists the story again.

The waters of the lagoon are disturbed by the alligator army that accompanies the pirates and looters of Strangman’s private army. This odd figure, who in many respects represents the past but as a result is like a ghost, shakes up the trio. He drains the lagoon and forces them to confront the past and contemplate the future.

But Kernans cannot put off his search for an alternative and as the pressure to fight the water, heat and the inevitability of the future overtakes those around him he strikes out for the South. There he meets Hardman a visible reminder of the death that waits but he cannot stop his journey as a "second Adam searching for the forgotten paradise of the reborn sun”.

A review will come eventually…

Sunday, July 19, 2009

bookmark of the week

My niece is very active in St Johns Ambulance which do a great job teaching young and old alike how to save lives. This is a leather bookmark that shows the well known logo. Well done to all of those that are members and do their bit to make going to events much more safer.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Drowned World - post II

The tension builds up over the question of whether or not the main character Kernans will depart as the rest of the soldiers and scientists head for the cooler climate of the North. Beatrice, who Kernans seems to be semi-enchanted by, it is clear is not leaving so that raises the prospect that there might be others prepared to stay.

One of them emerges early with one of the soldiers Hardman running off to follow his desire to head for the South. That leaves Kernans, who starts having dreams that are the start of some primeval urge to return to the swamps, waiting to weigh up his own mind.

The decision to stay, which you always suspected, comes quickly and Kernans is not alone with fellow colleague Bodkin helping him scuttles the scientific research station and retreat to different corners of the lagoon. Bodkin cannot leave because of his memories of London under the water and Kernans cannot leave because like Hardman, like all the dreamers, he is being called back to the South.

More soon…

Friday, July 17, 2009

Author interview - Kate Pullinger

Having read Kate Pullinger's book The Mistress of Nothing charting the story of Lucie Duff Gordon and her main Sally across Egypt Kate kindly agreed to answer my questions on her book.

The story weaves in several themes of love, class, duty and the scents and sounds of a different world in Cairo and Luxor. Into that mix are Sally the loyal maidservant and her mistress Lucie Duff Gordon. They are friends, at least Sally thinks so, and as Duff Gordon's illness worsens and she heads to the deserts for drier air the two women become almost equals. But the arrival of the local man servant Omar changes the dynamics and his affair with Sally threatens to ruin everything.

How did you first stumble across this story? Did the Duff Gordon letters pull you into the story of Sally or was it the other way round?

In fact I first came across this story in Katherine Frank's biography, 'Lucie Duff Gordon', which I read in 1995. It's a wonderful biography, which tells the whole of Lucie's life story, and the story of Sally is a tiny episode - just a few lines really. Frank described what happened that Christmas Eve on the Nile and my imagination was captured by the drama of that scene and the fact that Sally had hidden so much from Lucie.

Did the idea of setting a book in Egypt and the realisation you would have to travel there to do research excite you or were you wary of the amount of research and travelling you would have to do?

I've always been fascinated by Egypt - I spent several weeks there travelling when I was twenty. While writing this novel I was only able to return to Egypt once - I spent four days in Luxor in 1999. But being able to dwell in Egypt in my mind's eye, in my imagination, and through the research, was pure pleasure. I'd done historical research for a couple of my other books ('Weird Sister', a contemporary novel, was based on an actual witch trail that took place in 1593, and 'The Last Time I Saw Jane' had one of three narrative threads that was based on a true story from the 19th Century) so I knew what it would entail. I'm not keen on historical novels where you can feel the writer's research, so for me the bigger challenge was to find ways to leave the research behind and escape into the story. While I would have loved to have spent more time in Egypt, I told myself that I couldn't visit Egypt in 1863! But Luxor is, basically, a sleepy old town, especially at night when the vast majority of tourists get on their Nile tour boat-hotels and leave. I found those four days gave me enough of the smells and sights - the night sky, the Nile - to go on.

There are at least two occasions where Sally voices her feelings commenting that she could find it easy to hate Lady Duff Gordon but she doesn’t. Did you make Sally voice those views to try and keep the reader open minded about the characters?

For me it was more about imagining how Sally would feel - she loved Lucie and she found it hard to stop loving her, despite Lucie's awful actions. Also, I think when people feel guilty about something they blame themselves, and obviously Sally was as much to blame over what happened as both Lucie and Omar. So it wasn't so much about thinking about the reader in that instance, but more about trying to figure out the complex cocktail of emotions that Sally must have felt. There was much to admire about Lady Duff Gordon, and Sally wouldn't have forgotten that. She'd been in her household for so many years. Also, I think some readers will identify with Lucie as well and will see what Sally did as a betrayal.

You manage to paint a background of political unrest, conflicting behaviour because of religion and the tension between the classes without ever overdoing it. Was it a challenge weaving all those themes into the story?

This was a big challenge for me - to get the facts right at the same time as using the political backdrop to add to the tension. My North American agent, who always wants everything I write to be bigger and louder and more dramatic, felt strongly that I should make much more of these events, but I wasn't comfortable with pushing the story in that direction. I stuck pretty close to the known facts of Lucie, Sally, and Omar's lives together; I only really escaped into fiction when it came to imagining what Sally felt, and then imagining what happened to Sally once she left Luxor.

You mention in your author’s notes that this book too quite a long time to come to fruition did you ever fear you would not be able to tell the story?

You know, I never considered abandoning it completely, despite the fact I had to leave it to one side and write other things many times. I just had to find a way to tell the story, and the story never lost its power for me. The embarrassing thing is that it took me ages and ages to figure out that it had to be completely from Sally's point of view - I didn't do that with the novel until very late in the process, but it seems completely obvious now. Sigh! When I teach creative writing I bang on and on about the importance of point of view, getting point of view right from early on in the process, but I flailed about like an idiot with that on this book.

In a way the story of Sally is left with room for more exploration. Would you ever consider a follow-up novel? ‘The tale of Sally’s adventures in Cairo’?

I would consider it, yes! But not for a few years... I'm going to see what happens with this book before I make any decisions at all about what kind of book to write next. I've got a bunch of digital projects I'm involved in, lots of collaborations, as well as libretto for an opera based on 'Dorian Gray', so I'm really enjoying not having to grapple with a novel currently! Writing a novel can be so overwhelming - so many words, so many things to juggle - wonderful to be finished!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Kate Pullinger interview coming

In a bit of a first for this blog there will be an author interview with Kate Pullinger posted tomorrow. I have been given the opportunity to ask questions about her book The Mistress of Nothing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Drowned World - post I

One of the great joys of this year has been discovering JG Ballard. Following on from Millennium People the Drowned World shows him flexing his imagination even more with London flooded and inhabited by giant mosquitoes and lizards.

For those of us used to the idea of global warming this is of course a nightmare prophecy that might well come true. But the skill in the writing is that after just a few pages an environment of waterways, lagoons of abandoned office blocks and giant reptiles has become clear in the reader’s mind.

This is not done in a way that might put you off with too much description and explanation. If anything the real horror of the situation is the casualness with which Ballard describes how the world has heated up and how the human race is slowly dying out.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Midway review of the year - part II

If there is a theme to the second half of the year then the phrase coined by J.G. Ballard seems best to sum it up as a period of reading strange realities. Ballard himself provided Millennium People but there were also contributions from Don De Lilo.

Falling Man was a brilliant response to the grief, anger and confusion of 9/11 and left you understanding the reactions of those touched by the events even if like them you were no closer to understanding the motives for the attack.

But then Cosmopolis is a great Ballardesque commentary on wealth in the digital age where millions can be spent at the flick of a button and as digits cross a ticker on a screen.

Although you had to tilt the head to get the best out of those books it didn’t involve the schoolboy engagement with the text that Golding, with his images, does. The Spire was a story of faith, deceit and human fragility with the building of the spire echoing the destruction of its visionary creator the dean of the cathedral Jocelin.

Back to the science fiction was Kurt Vonnegut with his ability to make you laugh out loud even as he writes about the world ending. Cat’s Cradle and then The Breakfast of Champions were great insights into the imagination of this writer but also provided views from an America frightened of its own power and wealth.

With the first six months under the belt the only downside is that compared to previous years the reading rate has dropped slightly. This is partly because of changes in the commute that have reduced reading time. But it is a slight cause for concern that will hopefully be addressed in the second half of the year.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Midway review of the year - post I

The year started with a foreign theme with Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky quickly followed by some Huraki Murakami. The Dostoevsky was great to see a great writer show a more human side. This was repetitive and obnoxious in places with a sense of humour that didn’t always work. Following it up with his debut Poor Folk showed just how polished he could be.

Murakami’s book about running was more a book about writing with the author talking about discipline and routine and the fact they worked well for both running and writing.

Then things took a German theme and specifically the holocaust with The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and Crabwalk by Gunter Grass.

The Reader was a clever book that challenged perceptions of victim status with a camp guard unable to read being sent to prison for amongst other things deciding who should die on prisoner lists. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was childlike but very powerful. The story of the boys on either side of the barbed wire ends in tragedy but the senselessness of racist persecution comes through strongly. Finally Crabwalk is Grass writing about modern technology and the power of the internet to spread hate. He tells a story about the power of the past and the failure of a guilty generation to teach the young the lessons they should have learnt.

Then came the marathon that was 2666 and the Red Riding quartet. First of all the Bolano. This 1,000 page opus is in many ways an odd book. Produced in a way that the deceased author never wanted – he had hoped for separate books – and without a conclusion it is a real challenge to stick with it.

The pay-off as far as I was concerned was that it showed an author who was clearly on a journey towards a grand narrative. The hundreds of women that were being killed in an industrial Mexican town were linked with a reclusive author. No doubt it would have all come together and you could appreciate the vision.

The Red Riding quartet, which benefitted from a TV series on Channel 4, was in some ways as dark as the Bolano with murders and corrupt policemen but this was closer to home and grittier. David Peace takes the reader into a nightmarish world where the lines between right and wrong have gone and night and day become a blurred living hell. As the story of corruption in Yorkshire unfolds through 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 so do a collection of inter-connected characters. Peace is writing not just about corruption but real evil and the imagery used and the content of these books is going to stick in the mind well beyond 2009.

Part two coming up…

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thanks for the support

managed to do the race in 1.05. The last km was particularly hard but in the end the sense of satisfaction at having finished was worth it.

£115 will allow Book Aid International to send nearly 60 brand new books to libraries in sub-Saharan Africa. Their (conservative) estimate is that at least 5 people will read every book we send yearly so those books will be read by 300 people.

thank you everyone who sponsored me.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Running for a good cause

Tomorrow it's the London 10k taking a route through central London. I am taking part and raising money for Book Aid International. The charity shares the gift of reading with some of the poorest children on the planet sending books to those in Africa that would otherwise never be able to get access to them.

If you would like to sponsor my efforts then please make your donation online:



Friday, July 10, 2009

Lights Out for the Territory - post II

This book is so dense that you almost end up re-reading parts of it in order to consume all of the information. Sinclair is being fluid with time delving back into the past to show its influence on the present and throwing names of writers, film stars and directors as well as criminals all into the mix.

Nowhere is the mixture of time more in evidence than the funeral procession for one of the Kray twins. The old east end comes back to the 1950s and the touches requested at the funeral are harking back to a Victorian era even before that.

Sinclair is looking for the things that make an area and is prepared to highlight the negative. The chapter focusing on dogs and dishes is both funny and disturbing. He is prepared to wage a war with the pen against the pitbull and the satellite dish owner.

No one ever said that London was some sort of paradise on Earth and it’s good to see Sinclair prepared to wade in and show the underbelly of the capital.

More soon...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Mistress of Nothing preview

I have been given the opportunity of interviewing Kate Pullinger next week but in preparation have been reading The Mistress of Nothing.

The book is set into three sections – Life, Death and Afterlife – and tells the story, based on the factual experiences of Lucie Duff Gordon and her adventures in Egypt. I am not going to reveal much more at this stage other than to mention that there should be a Q&A on here with Kate Pullinger next week and a review of the book to follow.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

On the stacks - fiction

Loads to catch-up with here over the summer.

Half started are:

Couples by John Updike
Lights Out for the Territory by Iain Sinclair

But also want to read:
Bejing Coma by Ma Jian
The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy

Plus some more I will add to this later

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On the stacks - non fiction

This is a sort of summer reads list except these books will probably take longer than the summer to get through. In an ideal world over the next few weeks I might get through these:

D-Day by Anthony Beevor
Naples 44 by Norman Lewis
The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton
The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

There is also a memoir by Eva Figes and a real doorstopper of a book about French history since 1900. Those might be too ambitious for the summer.

Monday, July 06, 2009

book review - The Russian Interpreter - Michael Frayn

In many ways this novella leaves you feeling that there could have been more. Maybe there should have been but the reader is expected to fill in the blanks themselves.

When you sit back and think about it the Russian Interpreter is a tightly contained story with a small cast. Ultimately it is a love triangle but with three men instead of the usual two. But it is also about the cold war and the suspicion that westerners were held in at all times by a Communist Russian State. The problem with the last theme is that is feels too stereotypically done.

He idea of being followed, having to stick to the rules and arousing suspicion at the slightest default from them is a very old concept. Spy thrillers have made the KGB man lurking in the shadows with his Mac pulled up to his chin something with a cartoonish quality.

At the heart of this story there are two characters. Manning. a student studying for his PhD and Proctor-Gould some sort of cultural enterepeneur who has a passion for Russia.

The story starts with Proctor-Gould looking for Manning and in the time it takes for that to happen you are filled in on the students life. He is frustrated by his studies, bored with Russia to the extent he dreams of getting away and keeps friendships with his minder at the university Sasha and a friend Katya who seems to be a victim of the regime.

But this is clearly not Stalinist times as there are references to the country no longer having a cult of personality so you are left to assume it must be 1970s or 1980s because it is still clearly in the period of the cold war.

Manning starts working for Proctor-Gould and the student finds himself taken further away from his studies and he is introduced to the mysterious and flirtatious Raya who seduces Manning but only to get to Proctor-Gould. That leaves Manning, who works for as a translator in the odd position of having to translate love messages between the pair.

But Raya becomes a problem stealing the belongings from Proctor-Gould's hotel room and stumbling across a secret that involves the books that the English businessman hands out to Russian friends. In that collection of books there is something important enough for the businessman to resort to breaking and entering and to lie to his friend Manning.

As Raya is exposed as a thief and exits stage left the spotlight falls on the two friends and their relationships becomes clouded by the distrust that seems to pollute the Russian atmosphere. Manning winds up wondering just who can he trust. He is lied to by everyone and ends up being booted out of the country.

If there is a message as such from the book then it is around this idea of trust. When no one can be trusted and the price of backing the wrong horse is so high how can you survive in that kind of society? The problem is getting to that question involves giving to get through what often feels like a parody of a John le Carre type world.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

bookmark of the week

For the last couple of years my children have taken part in the summer reading challenge at the local library and one of the incentives for doing so is a free bookmark. This year it is about a quest to find the golden book and the bookmark shows some of the characters that are being used to encourage the children to read.

The challenge works by getting the kids to read six books and for each two they receive stickers and rewards like pens and cards. At the end they receive a certificate that always makes them proud of having made the effort.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

book review - Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

This book is going to rank as one of my favourites of the year; it is certainly one of the best of the first six months.

The reason why is because of the clever mix of satire, wit and science-fiction that are weaved together by Kurt Vonnegut. He manages to describe the end of the world in a way that both horrifies and amuses which is no mean feat. The way he does so is to describe and develop a select cast of odd balls that have the power to destroy the world left to them by a man who almost did just that.

The idea of a writer following through what happened to the fictional co-creator of the atom bomb Felix Hoenikker on the day the bomb was dropped on Japan is where the book starts. But quickly the narrator moves away from his original purpose and starts to follow the threads of Hoenikker’s dysfunctional family. The scientists three children are all damaged by an upbringing starved of love and normality. One has become a dictator’s aide on a remote island in the Caribbean, another a strict repressed clarinet playing housewife and the last is a dwarf who has a history with the circus and an equally small Russian spy.

What ties them together is their father’s last deadly discovery, Ice-9, which has the power to turn water instantly to ice. The impact of using it would be to freeze the oceans and rivers and bring about an environmental catasprohe not too far removed from nuclear war.

And that is the point because this is set against a backdrop of the cold war and the horror that a bunch of idiots in positions of power could, as easily as mistakenly dropping a chunk of ice-9 into the sea, press the button and end the world.

What keeps you reading is the humour and the various sub-plots with a primitive religion holding sway on the island making the remote Caribbean world seem like a million miles away from civilisation.

Underneath the occasional oddity and incredibly imaginative story lies a biting commentary on the era. Even down to the cycle factory owner who is relocating from Chicago to the Caribbean to exploit cheap labour this book is picking big targets including consumerism, nuclear war, and the shallowness of power and the dangers of science.

Just because it is possible to invent something in a lab that can destroy the world is not necessarily a reason to unleash it on the world. The lethal mix of science, politics and war which became so visible with the mushroom clouds is a fear that might have been acutely heightened in the 1963, when Vonnegut published this book, but they still speak to us now.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Lights Out for the Territory - post I

Sinclair often makes references to JG Ballard and so it seemed like a logical jump to go from one writer talking about London to another. In Lights Out for the Territory Sinclair sets out the ambition of making nine journeys across the capital using graffiti and signs to chart the real feelings and mood of places he walks through.

This is a very similar idea to London Orbital where he walked round the M25 noting the asylums and the decaying communities made accessible by the road but at the same time over taken by the concrete and the exhaust fumes.

here he starts by setting off from his native Hackney with the intention of walking to Greenwich and then back again over the other side of the river to the M11.

He packs it full of information not just about what he can see now but also the links to the past. he is a mind of information and facts and figures that come out almost like a stream of consciousness. This is a tour not just of the streets but a world of booksellers, film makers and communities that have gone, but because Sinclair is here, not been forgotten.

more next week...

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Millennium People - post V

This book has not only been a pleasure to read but reminds you of just why those authors that bend reality, Vonnegut is another that springs to mind, can ask some very important questions but couch them in humour and against a background that is slightly surreal.

The result of reading about disaffected lawyers and doctors planning to use terror as a way of over throwing attitudes in society could be grim if it was not done in such a way that all sides of the argument were shown in a sympathetic light leaving the reader to answer their own questions. Ballard manages to do that because Markham is in the middle. Not just in terms of relationships but in his own mind.

At the climax it is his own inability to resort to violence that confronts him and helps him go back to his middle class life. Seeing the horror that can be caused by hatred and fanaticism he pulls back from the brink. Although understanding the idea of a random motiveless attack he could never carry one out and could never really condone that action.

in the current climate with the war on terror still raging this is a book that makes you think. it's not just about class and apathy but also about terror and what it will take to shake us out of our slumbers. But there is a clear warning in the form of Gould that behind the entusiasts and the politically commited are the fanatics ready to kill and maim for personal pleasure more than to prove any particular point.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Millennium People - post IV

Increasingly Markham finds himself caught between the two groups of active but relatively contained protesters at Chelsea Marina with Kay and the residents blocking the streets, fighting with police and burning their homes in protest.

Meanwhile Gould seems to have split away and each time he meets with Markham things get darker. As it emerges that he did in fact plant the Heathrow bomb, kill the TV presenter and have involvement with the Tate bomb the danger to Markham ratchets up a notch. he was the intended target in the airport and he seems to remain as a target for Gould. By now the doctor working with children abandoned by their families because of their mental illnesses and short-term futures has clearly lost his grip on reality. No longer working in an official sense and no longer able to curb his interest in violence he leaves Markham in a car park in heathrow postponing the final confrontation.

Back at Chelsea Marina the police swoop and the bailiffs come kicking through the doors and the middle classes abandon their protest. Their attempts to undermine the status quo by attacking video shops, refusing to pay for private schools and trying to prick the balloon of the system ends with a two fingered salute which is willingly misunderstood by the authorities.

More tomorrow...