Wednesday, August 31, 2011

book review: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

Apart from the references to airships which gives away the limits of London's knowledge of just how far technology could go this book could be an apocalyptic vision of any future.

The idea is of a plague spreading across the globe taking man back to a primitive society where the survivors are divided into a hierarchy based on muscle rather than class. There are hardly any people left from the time of the plague but one of the few tells his story to a trio of boys dressed in cave men like skins. His tale charts the first signs of the disease which struck down its victims and killed them in hours. A scarlet appearance was followed by numbness of the feet then up through the body until it reached the heart and killed its victim.

There was no way to fight the spread of the disease because those trying to fight it were killed before they could come up with an antidote. As society fell apart the cities burned and brute force took over. Those that did survive did so because of luck, their genetic make-up, rather than because of modern medicine.

As the narrator retells his story you get the feeling of a world imploding and the impact of the destruction of cities and learned people is to drag things back to a primitive state where language and books are in danger of being forgotten.

Considering the age it was written this is the work of a powerful imagination which was working right at the boundary of what London thought would sound plausible. He pulls it off in the main although of course now the idea of airships makes it all seem a bit Phileas Fogg.

But as an illustration of how science fiction can make you think and ponder on your own reality this is bang on the mark raising interesting questions about class, knowledge and human cruelty.

Monday, August 29, 2011

book review: Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa

The power of music to change lives is well documented but when the life is so damaged and bereft of love the chance for the sounds to do more is perhaps even more heightened. That is the case here as the story of a 16 year-old orphan being raised by nuns unfolds. She has been taught the violin but not taught to love, think or understand the world around her but that changes with the arrival of Vivaldi.

As he uses his music to conjure up the seasons and to draw out of the audience thoughts of the sea, feuding lovers and nature in all its glory he opens the minds of his young players and sparks off a friendship with the focus of the story Cecile.

She is a complicated girl that shares her experiences with the reader in the form of a series of letter to the mother she never knew, the same mother who left her abandoned to be found by the nuns at the orphanage. As she spends her nights writing to her mother in the darkness she is joined by imaginary companions like the snake headed lady who she sees as representing death.

What strikes you as her letters tell of her daily struggle to find some sort of happiness is just how lonely she is and how deep the hole that her absent mother has left in her life. Until Vivaldi turns up with something different even the music she plays so magnificently on her violin cannot distract her from the misery of the convent.

But when that music is unleashed and the challenge to her as a person to live and make a mark in the world is given to her by Vivaldi it is one that she takes providing the reader with perhaps the best evidence that music really can change a person's world.

Written in chunks without chapters this has a lyrical almost dreamlike quality. Sometimes, just as the main character struggles to remember what happened in a dream or for real, so the reader finds themselves wondering where the boundaries lie. But that is a good thing and not frustrating because you know that the effect is to reinforce that you can only imagine but never quite grasp what happens behind the closed convent doors or behind the masks the violin players are forced to wear in public.

Thought provoking and for one of the first times had me going straight from last page to stereo to crank up the four seasons. This lives on if you embrace it in the music and the thoughts that you could allow yourself to have.

Friday, August 26, 2011

book review: Rome Tales edited by Helen Constantine

"Entering the forbidding portal, climbing the staircase and then passing through the darkened rooms of the vast building, I was going through my tunnel, through with no thought or presentiment of all the light on the other side, of what a contrast lay in store for me as though deliberately devised by some friendly genius leading me to discover Rome by subtle pathways and with the keenest sense of adventure."

After reading Rome Tales you are left with a mixture of feelings about the City. You sense its history, both political and religious, its culture and its transition as the population changes and city becomes more multicultural.

Through a series of short stories, by different authors from various eras, it is possible to get an insight into a city that contains its imperial Roman history along with the shame of fascism under Mussolini as well as the superstitions and ghost stories handed down through the years.

This collection is also a place to be entertained with tales of film makers recreating the city on celluloid and intrigued by some of the colourful characters that are drawn to Rome to make money and a new life for themselves.

The collection starts with a story taking a pop at the pope and it ends with one looking out at the City through the eyes of the man sitting in the Vatican. In between there are stories of ghosts, lovers and the sort of details of daily life you would never get from a tourist visit to Rome.

Interspersed with pictures of the city and containing helpful information about the authors and a map to illustrate where the tales are set this would make the perfect companion for a trip to Rome.

What you come away thinking about is not just how much history there is in the city but how much life continues to flow through its streets. The shadow of the Roman history could potentially block out anything else but stories here about a girl heading for an abortion, a lesbian tourist caught trying to embrace a statue and an insight into the streets that were the setting for La Dolce Vita in the late 1950s demonstrates that the heart of Rome still went on beating.

The other point to make about this book is that it proves, not that I think it needs to be proved, that the short story format can be a very powerful way of illustrating emotions and feelings about a place. This collection contains various authors that produced work over hundreds of years but because of the intelligent way it is complied it still manages to flow. The pieces are united by the City but they are also united by talent making it easier to go from one writer to another.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

book review: The Ascent of Isaac Steward by Mike French

"The black horse kicked hooves into the yellow sky; its long mane flowing north across southern plains. It stopped as a red light flared up before it and receded back onto the bonnet of Ishmael's F355 Ferrari. A young boy stepped out and started to wipe it down."

This book wasn't the easiest to follow at times but that's a result of the ambition of the imagination of French and as a reader you have to work hard to stick with it.

Isaac Steward is a fairly simple man when you first meet him but as his memories unfold around him you find out he is coning to terms with a terrible secret that has ripped his family apart and leads him to the very brink mentally and physically.

Once you start getting the pieces of the jigsaw you can get a grip of sorts on the story but this is a bit like a rollercoaster and they were times I was out of the car just holding onto the rail waiting for a period when I could climb back in and feel comfortable again.

That's partly because a decent chunk of the story happens in Isaac's subconscious where his good and bad memories are struggling to control his emotions. Bad memories have the power to do him great harm so happier times with punch and judy shoes on seas side holidays are ferried in to keep the equilibrium going.

the bad memories are locked up secure in HMS prison Gyrus but below the prison wals lies a beach where the punch and judy characters stroll and the battle for control of Isaac's mind plays out.

But if you have done something that caused great tragedy then it will at some point have to recognised and dealt with and sure enough the balance in Isaac's mind finally shifts to a place where facing up to those bad memories is unavoidable.

Partly because of the names, good biblical ones, and the appearance of angels and demons this has the feeling of being much more of a literal fight between good and evil.

This book wasn't that easy to read and there were moments I struggled to visualise hat was happening. But, and this is the important bit, I got something out of it and there was a story that worked for me so in that respect the book delivered.

Monday, August 22, 2011

book review: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

"Typewriters disappeared next, replaced by video display terminals. Overnight, the newsroom's distinctive clack-clack-bing went silent. The rumbling basement presses hushed, too, with the work outsourced to modernized printing sites around the globe. No longer did vast rolls of newsprint slam into the backside of the building in the late afternoon, jolting any dozing reporter awake. No longer did delivery trucks clog Corso Vittorio at dawn as workmen loaded the papers, copies still warm."

Having been attracted to this book because it covers the world of journalism it was with a sense of familiarity that I read of the world of a newspaper facing the challenges of declining revenues and a failure to grasp the importance of the web.

The paper, based in Rome, has seen its readership decline along with its financial fortunes. Set up in the 1950s as a per project by a US millionaire the paper has been handed down from father to son as a weight around the neck for three generations. Nobody seems to know what to do with the paper from an ownership point of view but the financial realities means that the situation cannot last forever.

Chapters arranged to tell you about the different people who work on the paper, from the reporters, sub editors up to the editor and accountants, are interspersed with the history of the establishment of the paper.

In many ways this reminded me of Then We Came to the End with that same feeling of despair and detailing how a corporate environment can shape a person's world. There are the same moments of humour and tragedy but this is perhaps different in the sense this is not linked directly to the recession.

The story of newspapers failing is going to be one that is a theme of the next few years. The world of the web has supplanted the daily newspaper for many readers, looking for the story right now via the TV, twitter and online news sites rather than to wait for tomorrow's paper to tell them all about it. Plus the era of the star columnist, the Keith Waterhouse, is threatened by the blogosphere where there are more voices than you could ever have time to hear.

But in the world Rachman explores what really matters is not just the pounds and pence that drive the media business but the impact a working place has on someone's life. Self-esteem, love and happiness are all tied up with work and in that sense the newspaper industry is just like any other. If anything the decision to place the action in Rome is part of making it more general because you don't identify with the paper as being one you would suspect was one you read.

The moral of the story seems to be around the temporary nature of news compared with the lasting power of love but for many of the characters that lesson is one that passes them by. Well constructed and written in a way that means just as you wonder how many more characters you will be introduced to the curtain comes down and things are rounded off without any loose ends.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Out of this world

The British Library has a track record of putting on some excellent exhibitions that are not only free but packed with thought provoking ideas. I haven't been able to get up to one for a while but wanted to get to the Out of This World exhibition concerning science fiction.

One of the promised highlights was to be able to see some annotated notes by one of my favourite authors JG Ballard, which was indeed worth looking at just to see the extent to which he was prepared to self edit, but there was lots more besides.

The exhibition not only covered books which have been around space exploration and other worlds but also dealt with the ideas of traveling into the mind and the science fiction of a relatively ordinary world that could change once put through a dramatic change. Ballard of course is an expert at that but there were other ideas about the rise of robots, the death of the earth and the concept of co-habiting with other civilisations.

In the middle there was a Tardis which reminded you, along with a copy of Herge's Tintin Explorers to the Moon, that science fiction has always had a place in mainstream culture whether it be in the imagination of children or entertaining us all at prime time on a Saturday night.

A great exhibition and for me personally a reminder not only to get back into some Ballard but to open my mind to other authors that were prepared to explore reality.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

book review: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

"Were they ready to measure up the Soviet way against the American way? Were they ready to let the people see a little bit of the scale of the task that still lay ahead? In his opinion, if you believed that the good times were coming, if you trusted that graph, it was necessary to behave like it."

How do you give an idea of what it was like living and working in one of the largest nations on earth in a critical period of its history? Concentrating on the leaders might be an option or going to the other end of the spectrum and trying to get the voice of the common man.

This book treads a different path, although the leadership thing is there with a view of the world through the eyes of Khrushchev, by concentrating on those that have the ability to really change the future. The scientists, the economists and the biologists who find themselves in the Russia of the 1960s with a real feeling that the system is there to be changed. Not torn down and replaced by improved. The goal is to beat the US to show that socialism can beat capitalism. This is the belief held by Khrushchev and he pushes very hard to inspire the next generation of thinkers to make it happen.

As the years go by different chapters introduce you to characters that believe they can really make a difference with new ideas and exploiting new technology. But they are all trying to do so against the backdrop of a state that is simply not able to introduce some of the economic devices, like free movement of prices, to real deliver the goods. This is an economy and society that has been ruled by fear and so introducing free thinking is not something that comes naturally.

The scenes set in the scientific community in Siberia describes brilliantly the moment when people discover they are among friends and able to speak the unspeakable. But it also goes back later to demonstrate the fickle nature of the regime which liked to follow a thaw with a heavy crackdown.

The best way to think of this book is to read it in its entirety and then let it soak in completely because this is like looking at a number of photographs that are being carefully selected to sum up a generation. Occasionally when reading it you wonder where it is going but by the end you not only get it but wonder why this period of Russian history has not been given greater exposure. It is clearly an interesting time and the country is opening up post Stalin.

Although you feel that the brief was for Spufford to deliver a straight forward history this manages to engage the reader much more effectively than some dry academic study. He makes the economic and scientific arguments come alive because he tells it through people, through stories and emotions we all feel so his decision was the right one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

book review: The Whores of Coxcomb Hall by Egg Taylor

"Sweets, cake, fruit and sundry comforts were stored in the bleak and forbidding tuck box shed. Five hundred boxes lined the shelves. Most were tough as teak, with weighty padlocks, but some- on lower shelves, in easy reach - were pale and new and quite defenseless. By order, the shed doubled as storage for shoe polish kit and the air was tick with Cherry Blossom wax. The wax was a great leveller. Every item in the boxes was scented with it, and the duckboard floor was black and treacherous from the buffing of a thousand toecaps.
This was an emotive place. Within the boxes were those things that had been packed by mothers, and here and there, by fathers too. Special things parents had wrapped with their own hands."

Sex is one of the main themes of this story and one that probably attracts a response from the reader in just the first couple of chapters. But strange as it might sound you quickly forget about that as sex is just one of the weapons used in a power struggle that is raging across various parts of life at Coxcomb Hall.

On the one hand there is a fight between the head and financial reality, another between one teacher and the colleagues who are having an affair with his wife and then the struggles of the boys themselves.

The setting is a public school, a very minor one, in the late 1960s that is corrupt and rotten but stumbling on with its assembled collection of alcoholic and socially isolated staff and boys who have been largely dumped by their parents and forgotten. Into this world steps Mrs White, a young woman married to the aged Dr White, and her determination to escape from her current predicament by accruing as much money as possible. She does that by granting sexual favors to the boys as well as charging for sex from two of the staff.

Her plan seems to be going well but she comes up against a puritan teacher named Jackson as well as the head boy Ossaff who rules by fear. The combination of goodness and pure darkness combine to undo Mrs White's ambitions.

But across the school the pressures of money, hate and jealousy are heading into an inevitable collision that will mean the end for Coxcomb and the power structures that have existed for years.

There are so many echoes in this book not just of other titles but also films. If obviously comes to mind but at points you find yourself thinking of the strange world of Gormenghast as the odd characters of the school are described and placed into a context where they are very much influenced by their buildings.

You keep reading because although the characters are generally nasty, the brutal and manipulative or illegal there is a wish to see the end and work out where liberation is coming from. The way Taylor gets you there is worth waiting for.

It is also worth mentioning that the first few chapters can be enjoyed via Facebook.