‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers

What a great title, I thought, as I passed this by in the book shop. Months later, having been lent it by Ms O, I can tell you it’s a great read.

It’s SF. It’s won awards. It didn’t seem to be my sort of science fiction, because it is a stream of constant invention rather than an exploration of one basic premise- like huge carnivorous plants (Day of the Triffids), or an alien artefact on the moon (2001- A Space Odyssey). After the first 20 pages, I nearly gave up, but I’m very glad I didn’t. Eventually the invention was thrilling. I’ll try to explain.

The basic premise is that a spaceship has been hired to make a long journey to a potential war zone (the small angry planet) to create a hyperspace tunnel. The ship is a motley collection of technology and is crewed by a motley collection of humans and other species, including an artificial intelligence. A lot of fun is in the description of the aliens (how can you not like a book which uses the phrase “chitinous blue exoskeletons”?), their interactions and relationships, even including inter-species sex. (No it’s not pornographic. But don’t let that put you off.) There is no real chief protagonist, though some of the crew get more attention than others.

Then there’s the technology and “science”- which eventually captivated me. Tunnelling through hyperspace- lockjaw clips- ambi- scribs- sib transmitters- voxes- modders- catastrophic cascade failures- fixbots; the list goes on and on. I don’t pretend to understand what all of it does, and especially how a spaceship can run on algae, but the creativity is addictive, without there ever being a cheap “magic wand” solution to problems.

In Ms O’s always highly intelligent opinion, a chief quality of this book is the personal interaction- the human or sapient element rather than the space opera element. There is however also a powerful plot. I have to admit that some of the personal moments actually made me cry. I feel some of the writing is a bit “young adult”, although I can’t find examples, but it’s a lovely book. Pleasingly there is a sequel, ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ which seems to pick up some of the unresolved elements. I look forward to reading it.

small angry planet

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‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham

One of my top three SF novels. But has it stood the test of time?

I have no idea how many time I have read ‘Day of the Triffids’ (1951), or when I first encountered it. I can quote chunks of it. John Wyndham has written other novels with a disaster theme, for example ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, but this is the best known. It has been filmed and dramatised for TV and radio.

20170908_151603Most of humanity has been blinded by a spectacular meteor display, which may be due to human intervention. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the threat of the Triffids soon emerges. They are tall, walking, poisonous plants, grown for their high quality oil. Escaping from cultivation, they take advantage of the blind.

What makes this book such a good read is the logical, reasoned way in which it develops from these speculative elements. It doesn’t invent anything else; it just explores what could happen. Variations in individual morals, from altruism to pure self-interest, cause variations in the way individuals cope. Different communities struggle to survive in very different ways. A great interest is in the human interaction and the effects the disaster has on the country.

Of course, this book has aged; but I would say enjoyably. In many ways, the science is remarkably prescient; nowadays, 66 years on, we would say that the Triffids were genetically engineered. Developments in IT are really not relevant, because of the lack of electricity that would soon develop. Other than the science, there is pleasure in what is now a period setting.

I am not sure how somebody new to this book, especially somebody much younger, would react. It may be that its time has gone, at least until it becomes truly historic. I re-read it with great enjoyment, along with some mild amusement at how it is beginning to date.

Bar El Camino, Puerto de la Cruz

In the unlikely event that you should find yourself in Puerto de la Cruz, I can recommend this tapas bar.

Bar 2Bar

It’s right on a steep path of terraces and steps, so passers-by are feet (sorry, a metre or two) away. The seating is limited: no more than seven or eight tables outside and a few inside. The menu is limited: a selection of tapas of the day. We took the line of least resistance the first time and had the mixed tapas. This was so successful we did it again.

20170901_133212We start with cold Dorado beer; hey, this isn’t England and it’s not real ale, you know. Then there’s warm bread and garlicky mayonnise. (A first: Miss O. the youngest eats it.) Then our tapas arrive. There are lovely soft butter beans; goat in a sauce; pork meatballs in a sauce; fish and potato wrapped in batter; potatoes; salad with olives and fish bits. That might be it. I got so excited I can’t necessarily remember. Sorry about the lack of detail, but it was all delicious. Miss O. has Canarian wrinkly potatoes in a spicy sauce and eats all of them. Wow!

BarraquitosWe follow this with barraquitos: layers of condensed milk (really), coffee, Quarante y Trés liqueur, whipped cream and lemon. I think. My Spanish is minimal. “Do you know how to drink this?” the waiter asks. Of course not. “Take a photograph on your phone, them stir it and drink.” It’s sweet, very much a holiday drink. We pay what seems a very low price for the outstanding meal we have had and wander off for a siesta.

(Bar El Camino, Camino de las Cabras, Puerto de la Cruz. Of course, it would be on Trip Advisor, wouldn’t it? I haven’t read any reviews though. Take it from me, it’s great.)

‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo

I wanted so much to like this novel, because it was given to me at a special time (see ‘A Literary Wedding‘) and it looked like a special book.

Hopeful anticipation is always in danger of disappointment. I want to consider carefully why it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

It begins with a prologue, set at an epic baseball game in the 1950s. Characters include Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, a radio commentator and a boy playing truant to attend.

Next setting is an art installation in the middle of nowhere, at which redundant aircraft are being painted by volunteers. We meet Nick Shay and start to discover his life; it appears he might be the first-person protagonist of the novel. Themes from the baseball game start to reappear, and I feel I’m getting a grip on it, just. Then Mr de Lillo drops in a chapter where every paragraph is a different part of Nick’s life, and I start to find it wearying.

We encounter the civil rights movement, student protest, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, comedian Lenny Bruce, the baseball from the epic game, The Highway Killer, another possible murder, Jesuits, adultery, chess and a miraculous apparition. Among others. Viewpoints, settings and chronology vary wildly.

It’s a book of epic length, 827 pages in the paperback edition, and soon I started making notes. I’ve done this with Dickens and Tolstoy, to keep track of the characters. With ‘Underworld’ I did it to keep track of the plot.

There is some beautiful writing in it: “They’re all back there in the railroad rooms at the narrow end of the night.” The speech of Italian/ Americans is evocatively written. There are some superb set-piece descriptions, for example of the enormous art intstallation of painted aircraft.

UnderworldI am very aware that I’m not a literary reader; I am primarily plot-driven. I can’t grasp the overall narrative arc (or do I mean plot?) of the story. Is it centred on nuclear warfare? The baseball? A murder? A life- Nick’s? I’ve briefly looked at reviews, which seem universally good, and have seen the novel described as “cinematic”; but this is clearly not plot-driven mainstream cinema. I searched in my mental cultural database for a suitable comparison, and could only come up with the Beatles track ‘Revolution Number 9’, which has a similar repetition of themes, only perhaps without the closer ties of the narrative themes in ‘Underworld’. I am however reminded of other variations of chronological narrative structure, such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell as well as books by Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks. I can’t at the moment think of any that are particularly satisfying. (William Gibson tends to write in trios of chapters, each centered on a particular protagonist, but brings them all together eventually; and there are of course flashbacks in all sorts of novels. I am not familiar with more experiment work; I am not going to attempt James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. As I have remarked before, I am over reading books because I think they will be good for me.)

In the end, I just wanted to get to the end, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book.

Oh, and it’s too big, at least for a paperback. It makes my wrist ache. This is a good reason for Kindles.

‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)

Brasserie Zédel, Picadilly, London

It was our 31st wedding anniversary, and the brief was to go somewhere romantic. Brasserie Zédel certainly was. It’s an Art Deco beauty; the food is wonderful and the service is faultless.

Zédel

We went on a day when London was, bizarrely, patrolled by armed police and soldiers, following the sick atrocity in Manchester. The guns didn’t seem to worry most Londoners and tourists. The brasserie is just outside Picadilly Circus tube station; you go through a bar/ café, down into the depths and into what was a hotel ballroom. It’s just lovely. I couldn’t take photos that would do it justice. Look at the website: Brasserie Zédel. From where I was sitting, it reminded me of Manet’s painting of the bar at the Folies Bergere, but it’s far lovelier.

We splashed out, but there are some very good fixed price menus. Mrs O, with her customary sense of adventure, had frogs’ legs, with a garlic mayonnaise, which were excellent, then chicken in a champagne sauce, which was even better. I had a delicious fish soup, with rouille (a sauce of chilli peppers, garlic, etc.) and gruyère. This was outstanding, the rouille adding a lovely tang. My confit duck with lentils was good but not outstanding; to be honest, lentils are not really my thing, and I just find them uninspiring after the first few mouthfuls. We had the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu, a very appropriate and enjoyable white.

Dessert was outstanding. We both had Café Gourmand: a trio of lemon tart, with a lovely crunchy top, a rhubarb crème, and a chocolate roulade, with a cafetière of coffee (just coffee, none of your cappuccino latte frappé thingies). Oh, and a Cointreau. Just to show that lunchtime drinking is not yet dead.

The waiting staff are just remarkable (especially in a restaurant with apparently 300 seats.) I have never, ever had such good service. They were polite, helpful and attentive without being pushy. I get the feeling that they treat everybody, from business lunchers to tourists to middle-aged couples celebrating their anniversary with the same courtesy.

The cost for us was just over £100, with service; however fixed prices start at £9.75. This was an unforgettable meal for us. We strolled out into the London sunshine, rather sleepy, to see the Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain. (A curate’s egg. Don’t worry if you missed it.) We recommend Brasserie Zédel without such reservations.

(I have shown one picture from the website, without knowing any copyright issues; I will of course remove it if there are any problems.)

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina Bivald

I picked this up from a charity stall. The basic premise: Sara, from Sweden, visits a little town in America called Broken Wheel, and sets up a bookshop. Well, you can see why it appealed.

It is apparently a New York Times bestseller and is translated from the original Swedish.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Some time ago I decided only to read books written in English, but occasionally make an exception. I was happy to do so for this book, as I suppose it is best described as charming.

Sara is meant to be visiting Amy, who she has only ever corresponded with. Amy dies; Sara is left without a purpose to her visit. The town take care of her and she responds with the bookshop, thereby gently changing lives.

It is not primarily about the transformative power of books, although that does come into it. It’s more about people and everyday sorrows and kindnesses. Love of course plays its part, without overwhelming the rest of the plot. Characters are sympathetically drawn.

I suppose some might describe this as chick-lit, although I’m never quite sure what that means and wouldn’t see it as a derogatory term. My only slight reservation is that my edition is a ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ edition and has ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ Questions for Discussion. Yes, I could easily ignore that. I wouldn’t mind being in a Book Club, anyway.

To sum up; a gentle, pleasant read. Probably good for holidays. Or just for pleasure.