Throwback Thursday – The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham

The Kraken Wakes, 1953 First Edition

I love John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris.

The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, Trouble With Lichen, Chocky. He doesn’t write cosy, cheerful stuff.

I’m old enough to remember the (far superior, despite the model-plant-on-a-skateboard effects) 1981 TV version of DoTT – still genuinely menacing.

The Kraken Wakes, a marine ecology disaster tale, over many years, has a very modern touch despite being published in 1953. The signs of disaster being ignored and misunderstood; (Cold War) blame being attributed to different ‘sides’; the failure of preventative and protective measures; the environmental catastrophe and humanity’s selfishness when resources are scarce. Wyndham’s characters are very real, their mental health isn’t always great, and he doesn’t shy away from weaving a good measure of horror into his tales. I do wonder of all the careers he tried, what brought him to writing apocalyptic stories!

It’s the small threads of optimism and kindness that lift Wyndham’s books out of complete and utter despair. You hope that if it were you in that situation, you’d be one of the goodies, helping your fellows, and not hoarding food in your appropriated penthouse apartment with the aid of a shotgun.

It’s nice to read older books where a phone call can’t solve all problems and misunderstandings. Where there isn’t a technology McGuffin around every plot corner. I do recommend that you seek out Wyndham’s books, they are often on 99p rotation on Kindle if you can’t spot them in a charity shop. I have read that the US and UK versions differ, so now I have to track a US one down!

Top of the TBR pile!

Haven’t posted a review for a while as work is getting in the way of reading, but I have a week off in November to do nothing but! I always have at least two books on the go at any time, this is getting silly now.

I’ve had Science and the Art of Zoo Bus Maintenance for a few months, and I must finally finish it. Dr Mike has presented several excellent science TV programs – my personal favourites being Rough Science and Bite Me. SAATOZBM is the story of his hitting a low point and deciding the best route forward was to purchase and fit out an old bus as a travelling science and zoo exhibit. He writes with honesty and clarity, I’m really looking forward to following the whole story.

Expedition by Steve Backshall is the behind the scenes of his recent travels to unexplored places, where humans have never been, and I utterly loved the TV series of the same name. The man’s a nutter. He experienced huge highs and awful lows during these adventures of him and his team, and while you will chortle, you will get sweaty palms reading some of it!

All Gone To Look For America by Peter Millar is another of my favourite things, a slightly off-beat travelogue. He is setting off on a trip across the USA, by train, an underused and looked down upon form of American public transport. very like Bill Bryson and Tim Moore, Peter is observant and not afraid to point out the scars and strangeness of the places he passes through. There is a good deal of history thrown in to, to help try and make sense of America. I’m just very jealous as I’d love to travel across a continent by train, just looking out of the window.

Extreme Encounters by Greg Emmanuel is one to be dipped into, reading it all in one go could make you a little uneasy! To quote the cover – “How it feels to be drowned in quicksand, shredded by piranhas, swept up in a tornado, and dozens of other unpleasant experiences”. And all in an unusual and immediate first-person style. I love those programs on the further TV channels about dangerous weather and medical emergencies, so this is right up my street. But yes, small doses!

Elephants on Acid and other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese is a much less traumatic read. The author holds a Masters in the history of science, and in studying for this he came across all sorts of weird and wonderful stories. This book is the best of them. It’s like a kind of Ignoble Awards compendium, of offbeat science like finding if your dog would run to fetch help if you fell down motionless, or can you really invent a tickling machine that works? It is genuinely really interesting.

A Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged) by Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry has only arrived this week. If you like the Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry podcast this is more of the same. From the introduction by Alice Roberts which sets the scene beautifully, to the science that follows, explained in ways us mortals can understand, I love this book. I have already bored my husband with an explanation of object permanence!

Review of The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman

Yes, it’s another corker from Mr Osman.

Anyone who has seen his slightly acerbic but hugely friendly banter on House of Games with contestants, those both failing and trouncing, would not be surprised that the characters in this latest Thursday Murder Club outing behave in much the same way with each other. They have a wonderful comfortableness together now, with the odd touch of in-joke here and there for those who have read the first book. You so much want to be a part of the gang.

It seems a shame that some are writing this book off as yet another famous person writes a book, and bemoaning the ease with which said famous persons seem to get book deals , when equally talented writers struggle. You have to admit, a man who has created as much media as Osman has, must have talent. One glance at his Wikipedia page is exhausting enough!

His characters are sketched with a deftness and humour; even the hard nosed drug dealer and millionaire money fixer have their worries and foibles. The murder (or murders? Not telling!) itself is really just a frame to hang the relationships and stories of the Cooper’s Chase characters on, clever though the plot as and satisfying in it’s resolution (this is definitely more of a Midsomer Murders or Christie style than a psychological crime thriller).

I did thoroughly enjoy this book, and can’t wait for number three.

Throwback Thursday – Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton

I absolutely love this giant of a book. I bought it in paperback first, which was huge. I read it, and it became my favourite book for a long while. Then I found the hardback in Poundland of all places and I couldn’t leave it there. So now I have two huge books, on a bookshelf filled with Mr Hamilton’s hefty works. At 1.25kg for just the paperback, this is not one for dropping into your bag for reading on the train. I have the audiobook too (of course) and it’s just under 40 hours long. As Bernard once said on Black Books – “a tremendous sense of value”.

GNR is a standalone, unlike most of his works. It starts off with the murder of a member of a hugely wealthy and successful business family in near-future midwinter Newcastle, and strangely the weapon used cannot be identified.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that they can’t identify the victim either. A rich but physically damaged man can back from war, began a business empire and and used his fortune to perfect cloning of himself, to carry on his business. The murdered man is one of the individuals descended from that process. But no one seems to know exactly who he is. Everyone seems to be accounted for.

It then expands to encompass a whole cast of characters and several planets. The sheer imagination and detail in the world-building is incredible. There is a military element, police procedural, glamourous locations, romance and terrible family hardships. It is all treated in such a matter of fact manner. So yes there is science fiction, but it’s the interpersonal relationships, the central crime puzzle, and the descriptions of worlds so close but so far from our own that enchants me.

I know it’s 1000 pages long, but it’s worth it.

Review of The Warden by Jon Richter

Having read Rabbit Hole by the same author a few weeks ago, The Warden popped up on Kindle Unlimited so it seemed rude not to read this one too!

Written at the start of the 2020 lockdown, and completed a year later, the Covid virus timeline of the real world is woven through the tale. Thus extending the trauma and horrors of the virus to 2024 and Covid-24, that is immeasurably more transmissible than our version; just being outside is apparently too risky.

Residents of the apartment block that the story focuses on do not leave, serviced by lifts carrying Amazon-style spider robot drones, from the same huge company that owns and runs the Tower. A good percentage have allowed the company to brick up their doors and windows to keep out the virus’ miasma. It’s a life of security, but with empty placations to follow The Guidelines and Stay Safe. They are even broadcast to daily by the Prime Minister, a woman with nothing new or useful to say.

Looking past the unnerving flashbacks to early lockdown and the feeling of huge unease and distortion that it brought, this is a good crime thriller where a literally faceless corporation controls too much, creating needs in its customers, and largely ignoring or buying government. There’s a mystery from the start that our protagonist feels with his detective past he needs to solve.

Despite the dystopian (and recent!) feel, I did enjoy this book, and I found the conclusion to be perfectly satisfactory., definitely recommended.

Review of The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh

The Blinds, Adam Sterbergh

Whew, this would make a great Netflix miniseries.

Set in a bleached, dusty Nowhere we find a settlement of people with varying degrees of deliberate memory loss, scratching a life out in a Texan desert. Living with a constant background hum like cosmic radiation, of hope and dread. Of who they were, Before. What they did or what they saw, to end up hidden away in The Blinds.

Again, not my usual read, but I picked it up for £1 and if Dennis Lehane says it’s good, that’s a recommendation I’ll listen to! There’s an element of sc-ifi in the memory wiping, and a rough, temporary Wild West feel to this frontier place, as if it wouldn’t take much for it to all fall apart when the gold seam runs out, or The Institute loses interest.

You pick up on the tension between the settlers, and at each turn there’s something indefinably not right. The Sheriff isn’t really police, the shopkeeper never takes money for his goods, there’s no internet or telephones, and the newspapers are weeks old by the time they arrive. Everything is brought in at the whim of, and from, The Institute, a mysterious and not completely benign presence.

You can leave, but few have, the invisible pressure of what might happen if you do, who is looking for you, holds everyone in place. Are you an Innocent in a form of Witness Protection, or a terrible evil to be experimented upon?

There are twists and turns, I’m not a big thriller reader so I don’t guess beforehand, and a pretty satisfying conclusion is had. I admit with a fifth of the book left I had to read the last page, the tension got to me!

Definitely recommended, and I hope to see it on the screen one day.

Throwback Thursday – Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey

My well loved copy of Shades

First published by Hodder in paperback in 2011, as ‘1. The Road to High Saffron‘.

Now there’s a finally a part two in the works for 2022, that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘long awaited’. The even more elusive part three, well, I’m not holding my breath!

It’s a wonderful example of Jasper’s world building, and I so badly want to visit this familiar yet twisted-around version of the UK. With my postcode firmly etched on my precious spoon… (Production of spoons is, of course, banned…)

This was the first Fforde book I read and it’s firmly my favourite. The much more recent standalone Early Riser has a similar dystopian feel and is a close second for me. I love the idea of sleeping through the darker, colder future Winters, but it’s not quite as simple as all that.

Reading of his world where your ability to see a certain colour decides your life, and everyone lives by the mysterious Rules Of Munsell is intriguing and terrifying.

The seemingly simple colour perception premise leads us into a strange and scary world that’s so matter of fact. Nothing is really explained, (don’t try and think about things too deeply, it doesn’t all make much sense – exhibit A, lawn colouration), and you don’t know what past calamity happened to humanity to bring about this state, but it doesn’t matter. It does explain the ongoing clamour from his fans over the last decade for a prequel or sequel!

You are dropped into the character’s lives; it feels very real, very matter of fact. Rollbacks of randomly banned technology, moving road surfaces… Our hero is sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census (it must not drop below the required 1.8 chairs per person) to learn Humility. He does question more than he really should, and seems a little bit too antsy and curious to really prosper in this proscribed world.

Review of Vuelta Skelter by Tim Moore

It seems I’m only reviewing yellow books so far!

I love Tim Moore’s books, and you do not have to know or care anything about cycling to enjoy this latest. I did used to love watching the Tour de France on telly, as the gloriously sunny French countryside passed endlessly under the wheels of the superhuman athletes. (Tim explores France in his own inimitable way in French Revolutions. Highly recommended).

But this takes the history of the Spanish Civil War and runs (rolls?) with it. I confess I knew next to nothing about this period in Spain’s history, shamefully. But it’s woven expertly into this adventure, using amongst other things period newspapers, and the memoirs of ‘JB’. It’s all very real and the times we are living in make it feel not too far away. (The pandemic looming over the tale adds a strange feel to everything.) The sheer scope and amount of research Tim’s books must take is utterly boggling.

Tim’s genius is in taking a story or a person (usually who we haven’t heard of!) and just running with it. (An early explorer in Frost on my Moustache; donkey pilgrimages in Spanish Steps; the man who introduced forks to England in Continental Drifter.) This is the latest of his ‘touring cyclist’ works, after riding the length of the Iron Curtain on a dreadful locally-made shopping bike, and the Tour of Italy 1914 on a venerable wooden bike with cork brakes. The man does not make life easy for himself, and in Vuelta Skelter it again gets rather perilous.

His hugely self-deprecating style is massively endearing, and he has a marvellous turn of phrase. This contrasts perfectly with the awful Civil War actions of both the Franco regime and residents at the time of seemingly bucolic villages along the route. Just when you are despairing at the state of the country then, he’ll be offered help by a random kind stranger, or describe how the strained grimace of riding in high summer heat has bleached his front teeth.

And I did try tinto de verano, and it’s lovely.

Review of EXIT by Belinda Bauer

How can you not be intrigued by that name and premise? This is in a similar vein to The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, and for that matter The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood. An older character or two take the lead, and it’s both heart-breaking and so, so funny. Felix makes a great action hero. His brain is sometimes writing cheques his body struggles to cash. Especially with a little tree light climbing.

Everyone is well written and most are relatable (some are awful); I love the inner lives that they are all trying to keep hidden or glossed over. If people just talked to each other. It is genuinely tense at times, you are there sharing the desperation or the hope. Some you just want to smack, which I find is a sign of a good writer, one who can get characters under your skin. Pets feature heavily too, which adds another very human dimension to the characters. We are all just butlers to our cats and dogs after all.

It deals with a very difficult topic in the subject of assisted dying, which I can’t go into without danger of spoilers, but it does make you think. There’s a short interview Q&A with the author at the end (or there was on my Kindle edition) which is lovely.

It’s a fairly quick read mostly because you will just want to keep going, even way past your bedtime, I know I did. It’s a reasonable 396 pages. I’m definitely going to seek out Belinda’s other books, Dark Side and Rubber Necker.

Review of Rabbit Hole by Jon Richter

I’ve just finished Rabbit Hole by Jon Richter, and I loved this unusual book.

The plot progresses via chapters transcribing a true crime cold case podcast called The Frozen Files, interleaved with chapters focussing on the host Elaine Napier herself.

She has, it’s fair to say, a troubled existence, and it certainly seems to predispose her to becoming immersed in the hunt for answers.

Rabbit Hole by Jon Richter

The rest of the protagonists in the book are well fleshed-out, from her podcast sound editor friend Isaac, to the retired private detective Wim (my favourite character) who remembers every detail of his work in exact detail.

Background is woven into the story with diary extracts and newspaper clippings. I’m not good at guessing plot and sometimes it really took me by surprise.

The ending was satisfying, with everything tied together, but it’s not really a spoiler to say it wasn’t wrapped up into an unlikely happy ending for everyone. But it did feel just right.

I’m definitely going to look out for books by this author.