The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker (Simon & Schuster – 2013)

Some psychologists argue that humans are compelled by natural disasters because it triggers their deepest senses of empathy. I’d like to think it was this rather than a sense of schadenfreude that attracted me to this book, which revolves around an 11 year old girl called Julia at a time when the Earth’s rotation begins, inexplicably, to slow down.

Julia is an ordinary girl whose shyness, awkwardness and feelings of alienation will resonate with many. She has few close friends and those she has tend to drift away as their families react to the slowing of the Earth by searching for solace and answers within ‘end of days’ religious ideology or alternative communities.

I’m not sure that the author would want this novel to be described as science fiction but, at the least, it is scientifically speculative and, like a lot of good sci-fi, it explores the implications of changing one thing (albeit quite a big one) and then following through the consequences and implications. As the Earth slows, days and nights become longer, circadian rhythms are knocked out of kilter whilst animals and plant life start to suffer drastically.

Life continues, many people simply try to continue their lives as best they can but relationships are stretched and altered by the natural catastrophe. In an attempt to keep order, the government stipulates that people should continue to abide by the regular 24 hour clock. Some disregard this and seek to live a regular pattern of day/awake & night/asleep that sets them apart from their communities and eventually makes them the target of suspicion and bullying. This echoes Julia’s experiences of not belonging to the right crowd.

As the Earth continues to revolve more slowly, gravity seems to be affected as does the magnetic field resulting in the northern lights being seen in California. Significantly higher radiation in the atmosphere means that people must increasingly avoid daylight. Julia’s mother and others become ill with a new disease that becomes known as ‘the syndrome’.

In Julia and her family, the flora, fauna and Earth itself a deep fragility is displayed. Fragility of friendships, family ties, the ecosystem and the human mind. However this is no Eco-warrior allegory, humans are not to blame for their predicament.

Children must often endure as they have little control over their circumstances. Such powerlessness is written large in the novel, not only for Julia but for the human race.

I enjoyed this book and I think that most readers will be gripped by the over-arching disaster whilst feeling a strong sense of empathy with Julia.

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The Imperial War Museum Book of 1914 – Malcolm Brown (Pan Books -2014)

Proving that important anniversaries pique the interest of the casual reader of history, I picked this up as my view of the First World War is made up of the pieces I can remember from GCSE History plus Blackadder Goes Forth (Who can forget Baldrick’s war poetry).

After a period as a BBC documentary producer, Malcolm Brown became a full time writer and historian. He has written several acclaimed books in which he has brought the experiences of the First World War to life using the extensive archives of the Imperial War Museum.

I did wonder whether this book might be a dense explanation of the military manoeuvres of the first year of the war but found it to be a very well written account of the social and political realities of 1914 as well as a page-turning account of the outbreak of war and the military stalemate that led to hundreds of miles of trenches from the coast to Switzerland.

Trench warfare was not anticipated but the advancement of weaponry meant that soldiers on both sides soon moved on from digging rudimentary scratches in the ground and fox-holes to the deeper, more complex and fortified trenches of popular memory. It amazed me that most soldiers started the war in soft caps as steel helmets only became the norm, albeit reasonably quickly, to provide some protection from shrapnel and sniper fire.

It’s incredible to note the number of young men who rushed to join up for the sake of the Empire, or felt that they should, following tremendous pressure from their peers, politicians, the army and the clergy. White feathers were routinely given as a sign of cowardice to men of fighting age who were not dressed in military uniform, regardless of the reasons why. The present general unwillingness of Western governments to put ‘boots on the ground’ in overseas trouble spots makes one wonder whether there would be such a clamour to devote significant troops in future or the willingness of the British people to push young men and women into fighting.

The diaries and letters that Malcolm Brown draws on to illustrate the narrative of his book are wonderfully expressive and speak volumes about the character of the soldiers. Bravery in the face of appalling conditions and experiences is summed up in the writing, whether this is stoic, excited or upbeat to allay the fears of family back home. Even when there has been a large battle the writing is rarely anything less than measured.

The book sweeps us through from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the event that sparked mobilisation, through the key battles in Belgium and France, the development of the trenches, fear of enemy nationals at home, the global spread of conflict and the almost mythical first Christmas of the war.

This is a well researched and impressively written book that does justice to the men and women whose stories are briefly revealed. Highly recommended.

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No Bail for the Judge – Henry Cecil (Penguin Books – 1964)

I’m a sucker for old Penguin paperbacks. The logo, the typeface, the orange ness!

Whilst published by Penguin Books in 1964, the book was originally published in 1952. Some books do not age well, but this is a humorous, often gripping and charming story of High Court Judge, Mr Justice Prout, who through a bizarre, darkly comical and frankly unbelievable series of events, finds himself charged with the murder of a prostitute.

Circumstantial evidence (i.e. Justice Prout wakes up lying on top of the dead prostitute holding the hilt of a knife) points to the Judges guilt, indeed having no recollection of events, the Judge assumes that he must have done it. However, his extremely intelligent, enterprising and somewhat cynical daughter Elizabeth refuses to believe it and launches her own private investigation to reveal the truth and hopefully save her father from the gallows.

In this endeavour, Elizabeth employs the services of a gentlemanly master thief, Ambrose Low, after she sees through his extremely cunning and meticulously planned attempt to steal her father’s stamp collection.

Whilst the story involves murder, theft and prostitution it is in no way gritty or realistic. You would be happy to read this story to your grandma. That is not intended as a criticism of the style, which is intelligent and witty. The scenes in the High Court are real page turners and I was not surprised to learn after reading this book that Henry Cecil was a barrister and subsequently a County Court Judge.

The cast of characters, or maybe that should be caricatures, display qualities which define them throughout the book and helps to fix an image of them almost immediately. Colonel Brain is a cheerful but long-winded and often frustrating old soldier. Sydney Trumper is a devious, shady character but not overtly violent.

The efforts of Ambrose Low to find out the truth continue through the trial, despite the vast amounts of cash (well, for 1952 anyway) that Elizabeth gives him. He has to stretch his ingenuity to the limit in the hope of getting a breakthrough.

This is a very easy and witty read and I will be looking out for further Henry Cecil novels in the future. They are still in print which is a testament to a good story.

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The Outward Urge – John Wyndham & Lucas Parkes (Penguin Books – 1962)

Is it fair to review a book over 50 years after it was published, especially when it is science- fiction? Stories set in the not too distant future are bound to cause wry smiles from the readers living in the time they are set who are likely to see the writers predictions as naive or possibly hopelessly optimistic. Remember the debate during 1984 (if you were around then) about George Orwell.

I’m not sure I can do this book justice from my vantage point, but as I am writing reviews on all of the books I read I will give it a go.

I love John Wyndham’s novels so when I spotted this one in a second-hand bookshop, I snapped it up. It was in pretty good condition for paperback of its age. The previous owner, a Mr Rodney Cooper of Wimbledon had left his name and address label on the inside cover. Well done to Mr Cooper for taking care of it so well.

Whilst the book gives the usual potted biography of John Wyndham there is very little information about Lucas Parkes other than he acted as technical adviser.

The first four chapters of the book were originally published in 1959, with the fifth and final chapter being added in 1961. It does read as a series of short stories rather than as a novel.

The stories all feature successive generations of the Troon family as they follow their seemingly genetically inherited desire to explore space. George Montgomery Troon, otherwise known as “Ticker”. (His initials are GMT geddit!) is involved in the construction of the first space station and strives to save it from a sabotage attempt. The saboteurs are not identified but as it was written during the Cold War the assumption is that is a Soviet plot.

The Cold War comes to a thermonuclear conclusion in the second chapter in which Ticker Troon’s son commands the British Moon Station. This story is probably the best in the book but hardly measures up to Wyndham’s better known works. As opposed to some other sci-fi writers of the time who thought, or hoped, that space exploration would be funded as a result of humankind’s insatiable scientific curiosity, Wyndham views the colonisation of the Moon a least as a political and military strategy which seems more realistic. Manned exploration of space in the future will need something more than simple scientific curiosity to persuade governments to allocate the vast resources that will be needed to fund it.

Obviously this was written well before the Moon landings and so it’s easy for a smile to develop when reading some of the descriptions of how men live in space. Most people seem to smoke, presumably Lucas Parkes as technical adviser thought that was reasonable.

The third and fourth chapters cover the expanding Troon clan’s onward exploration of Mars and Venus. Following the massive nuclear war in chapter two, Brazil appears to have become a global superpower with a large space exploration programme. Given that Brazil found it difficult to get football stadia built on time for the World Cup and that there were street riots protesting about the amount spent on the tournament this caused my eyebrows to raise slightly. But what do I know, the final chapters are set in 2094 and 2144 respectively so Wyndham might be right yet.

The language used by the characters throughout is very much of its time. Even when the Troon’s are on Venus the dialogue made me think of RAF pilots in a war movie. Language develops quickly and one cannot criticise a writer for failing to predict how people would talk in the future. It would be ridiculous to expect them to try. However the dialogue does tend to jar when you are trying to imagine a futuristic scene.

Even though the last two chapters were fairly short, indeed the whole book is only 187 pages long, I did find it difficult to generate the enthusiasm to plough on through. The book lacks an overarching storyline and the fact that the stories are linked by successive generations of one family does not provide and adequate replacement for a cohesive plot. The characters are pretty flat and uniform. It is hard to distinguish successive generations of Troons from the original Ticker Troon. It is harder still to care about any of the characters. The book ends on Venus on 2144 but there is no real conclusion. You feel that it could carry on and on with space-family Troon happily colonising successive planets in the solar system and sparking up a fag on landing.

It’s disappointing to have to be so negative about this book. I’ve really enjoyed other Wyndham novels like Chocky, The Kraken Wakes and, of course, The Day of the Triffids. Although these novels contain less believable scenarios than the exploration of space they are far more gripping, have better characters and say more about the human spirit.

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Palookaville Number Twenty One – Seth (Drawn & Quartely 2013)

I first came across Seth’s work when I picked up a copy of Wimbledon Green, a tale of the world’s greatest comic collector who would stop at nothing to get the an ultra-rare golden age comic. It’s a captivating story that makes me want to read it again every time I think about it. Naturally, I’ve wanted to read more of Seth’s comic books since then.

Seth likes the quiet dignity of the overlooked, the forgotten or the ignored space. A seemingly ordinary object or location can be a source of fascination. In the fly-leaves at the beginning of the book are two pictures of electricity pylons, both at dusk. One is a slightly closer view with the moon behind it. On looking at these I noticed that you can see a square-jawed super-hero within the steel structure, something that Seth has put there to show what observation is all about.

The book is split into three sections. Section one is part four (if that makes sense) of the Clyde Fans story, which shows the lives of brothers Abraham and Simon Matchcard as their business declines around them. Seth’s artwork looks deceptively simple, many pages contain 12 frames in a 3 x 4 grid pattern. His use of shade and dark, the sparse use of speech bubbles and the focus on the ordinary (door frames, bathroom, staircases, flies) creates the atmosphere, which is one of quiet desperation.

Section two contains sections of Seth’s ‘Rubber Stamp Diary’, a fantastic idea in which rather than writing a diary entry in long-form, he has had a set of rubber stamps made from which he can use to make an illustrated diary. It seems to be an idea that would catch on with a wider audience but perhaps most people are too far past using ink and paper on a daily basis now. The entries, which were produced between 2009 and 2011, illustrate quiet walks along little used railway tracks and the sense of peacefulness he feels whilst being completely alone, a feeling that is shattered when the world manages to break into the picture again. The passage of time and a sense of nostalgia pervade the mood. In an entry titled ‘The Dim Quiet’, the dropping of a pen causes some discomfort to Seth who says “I’m a boring person. I don’t want to go anywhere or see anyone.” Many of us can probably identify with the sentiment and I’m not sure it makes him boring.

The final section is entitled Nothing Lasts and is an autobiographical sketchbook of Seth’s early life. His parents moved house frequently and some of his earliest memories are unsurprisingly sketchy but some key recollections are etched in his memory and he is very frank and open about these. For example, his decision as a young boy to stop kissing his mother, which he learnt to regret as he got older. He also illustrates his behaviour in bullying others, mainly, it would seem, to deflect attention and potential bullying from himself. Of course a ‘confessional’ graphic novel is not unique but the fact that he has opened up these memories to the world is no less forceful. In this section he notes that his upbringing formed in him an association between joy and isolation, he says ” Even today, I find it necessary to spend most of my time alone.” This admission is something that the reader is likely to have worked out by reading the Rubber Stamp Diary in section 2 and perhaps it might have been more logical to change the order of the final two sections.

Interestingly he says he believes his “natural inclination was that of an extrovert…but circumstances taught me the value of introversion.” Clearly, Seth’s childhood is something he would prefer not to dwell on regularly so, again, we should be thankful that he has chosen to share these memories with the public.

Despite the fact that Clyde Fans leads off and is less ‘sketchy’ than the subsequent sections, it is the autobiographical elements that stand out and stay in the mind. Overall I was left with the impression of quiet stoicism and melancholy.

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