Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir sure puts the 'science' into science fiction with his first book, The Martian. Hooking you in from the page one, the Martian of the title is quickly revealed as astronaut Mark Watney, who six days into a mission to Mars with five other astronauts, finds himself abandoned by his crew-mates and believed dead.
    While the rest of the team escape what could have been a disastrous storm, Watney wakes up and begins the difficult task of saving himself in the short-term and making plans for his long-term survival. Another Mars mission is scheduled in four years' time and he's determined to be ready for it.
    It is lucky that Mark is a trained botanist and that NASA thought that the crew would like some real potatoes to enjoy for Thanksgiving. Using a mixture of Mars dust, faecal matter and lots of water - he figures out a way to produce this in abundance - plus the potatoes, Mark builds a mini market garden inside the Hab, the dome that was to house him and his colleagues for a month.
    The science gets a lot more complicated than that as he figures out how to contact NASA to let them know he is alive - though a smart young scientist had spotted activity already when watching some satellite images. He also has to figure out how to get himself several hundred kilometres from the Hab to the site of the next mission using an exploration vehicle which has been designed for short trips only. There are lots of technical details which I did my best to keep up with, and for someone who doesn't really know a lot about chemistry and physics (I could kind of keep up with the botany), it made for oddly exhilarating reading.
    But Weir doesn't just throw a lot of science at the reader. He knows about how to keep the plot boiling along as Watney encounters numerous setbacks and NASA breaks rules and argues about what to do and somehow his old crew-mates come on board the story as well. And you can imagine how they must be feeling.
    Though the star of the show is really Mark. He is a terrific character: funny as well as clever, determined and vigorous. There are plenty of comic touches, including the seventies music and old tv series that Captain Lewis thought to bring along and which Mark resorts to for the sake of something to break the tedium of his aloneness.
    The overall effect of The Martian is a tribute to human inventiveness and the will of people all over the world to help out someone in trouble. It is also a bit like watching a cross between Kerbil Space Programme and Mythbusters. Not many writers could pull off a book like this and make it work. And it's not surprising that Ridley Scott has plans to turn the novel into a movie starring Matt Damon. I can't wait!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Language of Others by Clare Morrall

The Language of Others is the story of Jessica Fontaine, tracing her life from her childhood at Audlands Hall - the crumbling mansion her biscuit baron father bought to please her mother - through to her present day struggles with her grown-up son and her estranged husband.
    As a child Jessica's mother found her daughter unfathomable, possibly even retarded, unlike her sociable and attractive younger sister, Harriet. While her mother organised treasure hunts and parties and Harriet ran about the estate with their cousins, Jess would sit at an upstairs window reading or skating down the long gallery. Until she discovered music.
    Jess is in fact smarter than she looks, and takes to playing the piano with a huge amount of commitment, enough to get herself into music school where she meets Andrew. She falls in love with Andrew the moment she first sees him, playing the violin. Andrew has a bucketload of talent but lacks the emotional maturity to use it. He resents his pushy mother for the path his life has taken and all the hours he spent practising as a child. Clearly, both have mother issues.
    The story weaves in threads from Jessica's growing up and the early years of their marriage with her present-day life, working at a library part-time and playing piano duets to small audiences with her good friend, Mary. At home Jess's twenty-three year old son, Joel, still expects his mother to house and cook for him in spite of Joel's success in the computer gaming industry. To Jess's knowledge, Joel has no friends or ever had a girlfriend, and this worries her.
    But her peace is completely shattered when Andrew gets in touch after seven years of no communication. Andrew has always been difficult, and refusing to play his violin for years, has never settled to any particular career path.
    How Jessica comes to understand her son and Andrew while she is coerced into considering events from the past is the main thrust of the story. There is a lot of detail of a musical nature and Morrall recreates the house of Audlands with a finely imagined pen. This is a quiet story, that nevertheless builds to a dramatic finish, as friends and family come together one last time for a final barn dance at Audlands Hall.
    But really this is a novel about self-awareness and how when you understand yourself, it puts into perspective your interactions with other people. Like previous books I've read by this author, she has created some unusual characters, who nevertheless engage the reader's sympathy and are carefully drawn.  What stands out for me is the wisdom present in Morrall's novels, which though pleasurable, also leave you feeling enriched. What more could you ask for?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall

I cannot believe how much I enjoyed this early book by Clare Morrall, or how long it took me to get around to reading it. I was particularly impressed by her last novel, The Roundabout Man and I had always planned to read her earlier work. Natural Flights, similarly deals with oddball, damaged characters - in this case, the premier oddball is Peter Straker who lives in a disused lighthouse. Straker is so burdened by guilt he never talks to anyone, believing he has caused the deaths of 78 people around twenty-five years ago.
    In fact Straker was damaged before that happened, coping with a family where he was overshadowed by his much smarter brother and terrifying father. Now something of a hermit, he shuns all human interaction until he meets Doody (aka Imogen), who has inherited a run-down cottage in the Devon village nearby.
    The first thing you learn about Doody is that she doesn't mess about with the niceties of polite conversation. She starts yelling at Straker when she's up a ladder examining her decrepit roof, and loosing her temper, becomes entangled in weeds. Straker finds himself making a strange sound he doesn't recognise at first - it turns out to be laughter - and slowly the two develop a peculiar friendship.
    Doody is also damaged - her childhood marked by tragedy and a serious lack of love, on top of which her husband walked out on her, also twenty-five years ago. Since then she's eked out a living as a school caretaker. The cottage gives Doody a chance at independence, while she gives Straker a chance to interact with another person. Both have been quite abandoned by their mothers, though Doody maintains a somewhat heckling relationship with her successful younger brother.
    These are such unusual, difficult, yet oddly likeable characters, and as a reader Morrall really puts you through the ringer, as you hold out a faint hope for what might happen to them in the future. How can Straker even have a future when his past is such a burden? And running through his mind are constant conversations with the dead - he knows who they are because he has done his research at the library and collected newspaper articles. The only way he can keep his sanity is by counting - steps, minutes, intakes of breath - and all the while avoiding the number 78.
    The story builds towards a climax as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accident that took those 78 lives rolls around, a showdown involving a vintage plane and a busload of angry, grieving and determined relatives.
    For such a grim scenario, Natural Flights is wonderfully readable, charming and at times even humorous. Morrall manages a clever balancing act between the potentially leaden themes of loss, guilt and family dysfunction and wryly observed, quirky characters to produce a plot that slowly builds tension and drama towards a surprising and satisfying ending.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Reckless by William Nicholson

Many books I read take a bit of an effort to get into; you decide to allow them say fifty pages, and if they don't grab you by then, you put them aside. William Nicholson's novel, Reckless, had me hooked from page one. The novel recaptures the military and political stand-off over the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Scenes include Kruschev and John Kennedy and British Chief of Defence, 'Dickie' Mountbatten.
    The build up of tension is subtly done and the viewpoints flick from character to character - it would be easy to get lost, but Nicholson handles the whole thing deftly, keeping a lot of balls in the air and imagining the period so well. He does this through his three main characters.
    Rupert Blundell is an advisor to Mountbatten, has been since the war, before which he was studying philosophy. He's very shy with women, even his outgoing colleague, Joyce, and has decided love and marriage are not for him. His philosophy gets in the way it seems - for how can any person really know the heart of another?
    Rupert is forty-four when he meets Mary, whose lovely, open and desperately sad face attracts his attention while walking across St James's Park. A second meeting in the same spot leads him to rescue her from a kind of imprisonment at a convent. As a child she'd been the recipient of several visions, during which Christ called to her and said a great wind would bring about the world's end. It was the time of the bombing of Hiroshima and now with the Cuban missile crisis, the end of the world is a distinct possibility.
    Rupert brings Mary to his friends, Hugo and Harriet, who have a young daughter. Harriet is often unwell, and Mary proves to be a godsend. The role of nanny/home help was supposed to fall to Pamela, the step-daughter of Hugo's business partner. Eighteen-year-old Pamela has begged to be allowed to live in London, and staying at Hugo's is a kind of compromise.
    Pamela has envisaged for herself a romantic life involving a grand love affair, and dazzling the world with her gorgeousness.  She meets Stephen Ward at a very artistic cafe and he invites Pamela and her friends to a risqué nightclub. All at once Pamela is thrown into the hedonistic world of the idle rich, among them key players in what will erupt as the Profumo Affair. She learns, as one character points out, that society is full of 'lonely people looking for love and bored people looking for fun'.
    Reckless gives a very vivid picture of a time when the world seemed on the precipice of disaster. Nicholson has done his homework and recreated scenes based on actual events and real people. But it is also very much the story of Rupert, Mary and Pamela, who are all immensely sympathetic. A number of the characters from Reckless appear in Nicholson's earlier book, the acclaimed Motherland, and have links to characters in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and All the Hopeful Lovers. I haven't read any of these as yet, but if they are anything like Reckless, they are sure to be full of warmth, wisdom and sharp observation and I have a wonderful treat in store.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

A Cold Treachery by Charles Todd

Charles Todd's Inspector Rutledge mystery novels are currently my go-to series for a diverting read when nothing much else catches my eye. I always enjoy the winning combination of smart plotting, a tortured but appealing protagonist (and his ghostly sidekick) plus an atmospheric setting. The period of Britain post World War One also gives these novels an edge.
    In A Cold Treachery, Rutledge is sent to the town of Urskdale in the Lake District, where five family members, including two babies, have been shot dead, while a ten-year-old boy has run off into the snow. A large search party has gathered to hunt for young Josh Elcott, who is also on the list of suspects. But could a ten-year-old boy really murder his family?
    It's a long cold journey in the snow, and it's nighttime - terribly easy to veer off the road - so it's lucky that Rutledge spots a carriage that has crashed, its horse distinctly dead. Rutledge rescues the wounded young woman inside and takes her to the nearest farmhouse. But why did she bring a gun with her and hide it under her carriage seat?
    The terrain is rocky and dangerous to the uninitiated, so when Rutledge arrives in Urskdale, he leaves finding the boy to the townspeople, while he talks to witnesses about the family involved in the tragedy. Soon several motives arise.
    The Elcotts were a happy family, but Grace Elcott was previously married in London with two young children. The war office declared her husband a war casualty and believing herself to be a widow she remarried. When her first husband surprisingly returned from a German POW camp, she was already pregnant with twins. Hugh Robinson has done the honourable thing - he and his former wife have become estranged, after all, but his relationship with the family remained cordial.
    Gerald Elcott was also away at war, and his farm managed in the interim by his brother, Paul, whose attempts to run a pub in the village have never turned a profit. It seems possible he was jealous of his happily married brother, and would have liked the farm for himself. Rutledge's rescued damsel turns out to be none other than Janet, Grace Elcott's sister and she seems prepared to stitch up Paul Elcott for the murders. But could she have had a reason to kill the family herself?
    It seems every character, including Rutledge's dipsomaniac landlady and her furtive husband has a secret. And while Rutledge ponders why any of them would go so far as murdering a family, drinking endless cups of tea, young Josh is still missing and likely dead from the cold. This gives the plot a bit of momentum while our determined police inspector is stymied by a dearth of clues and takes a while to make a breakthrough. The locals are a taciturn bunch and don't want him tramping about by himself in case he ends up needing rescuing himself.
   A Cold Treachery is a classic whodunnit with plenty of troubled and quirky characters and a wonderfully realised setting. The cosy interior of the kitchen at Rutledge's guesthouse, the wild and rocky hills dotted with sheep, and the bleakly wintry lake are all vividly brought to the page as events build to a final showdown. Rutledge finally brings the killer to justice just when he is about to be replaced by a rival from Scotland Yard, and we all breathe a sigh of relief.