Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Michael Collins - Mission Accomplished

Michael Collins (S69-31742, restoration)

I woke up to the sad news that Michael Collins had died. Five years ago the Apollo 11 astronaut inspired the first story I wrote that I was pleased with. I don't remember watching the Apollo 11 mission on TV, but there's plenty of information online which I used as research: Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience, and Glamour: Would you go to Mars? Meet the four women astronauts who can't wait to go, and most importantly, the EP-72 Log of Apollo 11. Here's my story. Hope you enjoy it.




Mission Accomplished

“What are you doing there?”

Static crackled through the radio receiver.

“Nikki!” The guy on the ground was really angry. “This is Houston. What the hell are you doing orbiting the moon when you should be on your way to Mars? Do you read?”

18:07 UTC

It was 20th July 2029. Nikki had planned everything in the minutest detail except what she was going to tell them at this point. She had hoped that in the initial confusion they would focus on finding out how her accomplice had spoofed the telemetry. No need to say too much now. Let them do the talking. Only a couple of minutes until loss of signal.

“Roger that, Houston, I’m just making a short detour, then I’ll be back on course.”

The comment took two and a half seconds to make it’s way to mission control and the reply took another two and a half seconds to reach Nikki.

“A short detour? You call a quarter of a million miles a short detour? Do you have any idea how much your short detour is costing?”

Sure I know how much it’s costing. Six billion dollars, not counting the money NASA spent on my training.

She had never wanted to be anything other than an astronaut. As a kid Nikki listened to her grandpa tell stories about rockets and spacemen. She dreamed of walking on the moon and discovering life on faraway planets. And she had made it happen. The dream had become reality through 45 years of ruthless determination and hard work. It was Nikki who had survived the brutal drill sergeant, Nikki who had completed a 17 month tour of duty, flying fighter jets in the Middle East combat zone, and it was Nikki who now had her own solo mission. A personal mission too.

Hundreds of thousands of miles away the earth looked like a shiny beach-ball, covered with swirls of white cloud, delicate as lace. Such a fragile planet. The first time she had seen that view, she wondered why humans spent so much effort defining their differences. Like grandpa said, seeing the world from up here, where there are no borders and no arguments, you realize just how insignificant we are. From space the world is just blue and white, not rich or poor, not Christian or Muslim, not male or female, just blue and white.

18:12 UTC

There was a burst of white noise in the headset and then an abrupt silence. The spacecraft’s orbit had crossed the boundary between the light and dark side of the moon and radio contact with Houston was now lost. For a minute Nikki’s sense of isolation was overwhelming. On earth eight billion people were going about their daily lives, breathing, working, fighting, but for the next forty-eight minutes they might as well not exist. It was just Nikki, the stars and the vast universe, black as a desert sky under a new moon, but wider and deeper.

She clicked open her seat belt and floated the short distance from the mother ship into the landing module. All systems normal, no abnormalities. Power up lander engines ... start undock procedure ... fire command module rockets.

Astronaut genes ran in three generations of Nikki’s family. She had never doubted that her application to NASA would be successful. But everything grandpa had told her, and all the training, none of it had prepared her for the first few days on the International Space Station. There was the dizziness as her brain could make no sense of what her eyes saw. She was always crashing into people and knocking equipment off the walls. Then her face bloated and smoothed out all the wrinkles. She looked ten years younger and with a military style hair-cut everyone had remarked how much she looked like grandpa. They nicknamed her Mike. At least I didn’t throw up like on the vomit comet. Embarrassing. How many years ago was that? It must have been at least thirteen.

19:08 UTC

With the command module out of the way, the landing craft descent engine could be ignited. In just over an hour Nikki would be on the moon. She had made a dozen space flights and countless simulated landings, but this was the real thing. Her heart thudded against her ribs and her face flushed hot in spite of the cooling vest. All systems normal. Ignition.

20:04 UTC

The ship was descending fast and Nikki’s heart beat faster. She throttled up the engine to reduce speed for the landing approach, now and again catching a glimpse of the barren lunar landscape. The computer counted down the altitude readings in its calm, electronic voice: fifty-five-hundred feet ... three-thousand ... fifteen-hundred. At eight-hundred feet the horizon disappeared and the approaching surface filled the window. Thirty-one feet per second ... twenty-five ... nine. The module cast a faint shadow on the surface, then the footpads touched down with a jolt, stirring up the moon dust.

20:17 UTC

Nikki shut off the engine. The landing trajectory had taken her to the near side of the moon again and mission control would see that she was back in radio range. I’ll worry about that later. Computer readings confirmed that the command module was orbiting as expected. No point worrying about getting back up there either.

At the rear of the craft Nikki slid open the space suit entry hatch and portable life support system. She manoeuvered herself upwards then dropped into the suit, feet first. There was a reassuring clunk-click as the cover and life support locked back in place, followed by a hiss as the backpack started circulating air. She only had to release the suit from its frame on the lander, then she was free to walk on the lunar surface. Her first few steps were clumsy, like a novice skier, kitted and booted, climbing down an uneven slope. At the edge of the lander Nikki gripped the handrail and hesitated above the powdery surface. Just one small step? More of a jump really.

20:22 UTC

In the lander’s lamplight everything was grey. The ground was scattered with stones and lava-mottled boulders, all covered with chalky white dust. It was not long before sunrise but without an atmosphere there was no telltale pre-dawn glow. With only a few seconds’ warning, sunlight exploded over the horizon, transforming the dull terrain with its warmth. Rocks and craters cast sharp shadows over the stark landscape, like a high desert denuded of its joshua trees. The intense glare threw a distant range of jagged mountains into the spotlight and Nikki had a flashback to the time grandpa had taken her hiking in the Providence Mountains. Focus! This is neither the time nor place to reminisce.

It took a moment for Nikki to flick the switch on the lander-mounted video camera, then she jumped to the ground and hopped and skipped a few feet from the ship. She turned to face the camera.

“Hi. Commander Nikki of the Mars Solo Mission here. I know you guys are mad as hell with me, and I guess I owe you an explanation. Well, here it is. When I was five, I told my grandpa I wanted to go to the moon. He told me, “Forget about that old rock, the moon’s not so interesting. But Mars ... that’s the future.” I set about doing everything I needed to be an astronaut like him.

“Grandpa was always supportive. He helped me apply to NASA, introduced me to all his old buddies, and was so happy when I got on the astronaut training program. He was even prouder when I got accepted for the Mars program.

“Many of you in Houston know my grandpa real well, ‘tho at ninety-nine he doesn’t get out much these days. Prefers to stay home, painting, reading, worrying a little about his investments. I go see him whenever I can, and we drink a glass of red wine and look at the stars.

“What he likes best tho’ is spending time with his family, telling tales about space travel. Once I asked him what he thought when people said that Armstrong and Aldrin would go down in history as heroes. Boy, he didn’t like that. He told me, “Astronauts aren’t heroes, we work hard and do our jobs. That’s what we’re hired to do.”

“Well I have a message for you grandpa. You’ve always been a hero to me and I wanted to do something for you, something real special.

“All the times you got grumpy talking about this old rock got me thinking. You kept saying it didn’t matter, but I know you better than that. You said so many times it was an honour to be part of Apollo 11 and that you were perfectly happy piloting the command module. But how could you not want to walk on the moon? You can deny it all you want grandpa, but I know you’d rather have been here.

“So, Houston, I guess at six billion dollars, you could say this is the most expensive selfie ever taken. But what’s more important is that I’m here to say thanks to my grandpa Michael Collins and to make sure his name’s remembered alongside them other two guys.”

As08-16-2593

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The everyday as exceptional

The Complete Talking Heads I studied Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at school and even forty years on I can recall, probably inaccurately, some of the wonderful language. The teacher had to explain what it was that would have made Queen Elizabeth 1 and her court laugh, although as a teenager it was enough to know that one of the characters is called Sir Toby Belch. The thing was tho', the play was rather dry and stolid on the page, and it was only when a group of us went to the theatre to see it performed that it came alive.

And so, I was wary of expecting too much from Alan Bennett's "The Complete Talking Heads",

Monday, 23 November 2020

A Marxist and a monarchist

The Untouchable The British royal family is an anachronism. Don't you find it odd in the 21st century that one family's wealth, prestige and standing is based on its claim to be descended from a French bastard who invaded England nearly 1000 years ago? Geneticists tell us that pretty much everyone with English ancestry is related to William the Conqueror, including Danny Dyer, who's traced his roots back to King Edward III. So why should Queen Elizabeth and her extended family be the exception and hang on to all the loot?

Thursday, 22 October 2020

A daft story with a philosophical theme

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang Imagine the scenario; climate change and ecological destruction has reached the point where a great catastrophe is about to unfold unless world leaders agree to "Turn off the factories, ground the airplanes, stop the mining, junk the cars." What would you do? If you're a member of the Sumners family in Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, you decide to build your own hospital and research centre, and start cloning yourselves to save the human race.

Friday, 16 October 2020

A Dark-Adapted Eye. What's the truth?

A Dark-Adapted Eye I used to love the telly series Columbo. Peter Falk as the shuffling detective in his rumpled mac knew who'd committed the crime right from the beginning. He just had to work out how to catch 'em. In Barbara Vine's book A Dark-Adapted Eye we know there's been a murder, we know the murderer was Vera Hillyard, and we know she was hung for her crime.

Over thirty-five years Vera's family has tried to forget about the incident, and in their own ways have distanced themselves from it. The long dormant memories are reawakened when a true-crime writer contacts Faith Severn, the murderer's niece.

Friday, 25 September 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea? Not my cup of tea.

A Long Petal of the Sea Our book club choice for August was Isabel Allende's A Long Petal of the Sea, published in 2019. Len and Yvonne are fans of the Chilean writer and were keen to read it.

She's a new author for me. Allende's Wikipedia page was encouraging, mentioning magical realism and saying her novels are often based on historical events and real-life individuals. As for A Long Petal of the Sea, it ticked quite a few of my boxes. The opening part is set during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I know little about, during a period of time that I find fascinating - the 1930s, economic depression, competing ideologies of Marxism and Fascism, the run-up to World War II. With a couple of weeks to spare before book club I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and then sat down to immerse myself in Allende's tome.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Romantic fiction or psychological manipulation?

Mission to Monte Carlo I just read my first, and last, Barbara Cartland book, Mission to Monte Carlo. It's a piece of romantic fluff set at the turn of the 20th century and so absurd that I had to imagine it was a parody of itself in order to get to the end. But while I sniggered through its seven chapters, the "happy" ending left me uneasy and fearful for the future of its heroine. I know it's only fiction, but hear me out.

Spoiler Alert

Every Barbara Cartland story, so I'm led to believe, follows the same basic plot. In Mission in Monte Carlo it's this: A man who's had lots of affairs but never been in love, saves an inexperienced girl who's under pressure to offer up her virginity in exchange for secret information. The handsome man and the timid virgin fall in love spontaneously. They marry. The end.

Here's my problem. Our leading man Craig, a millionaire playboy, removes all agency from his supporting actress Aloya in what looks to me like gaslighing.

Friday, 31 July 2020

One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty.

The Uncommon Reader I've been watching Season 1 of The Crown again and particularly enjoyed episode 7, Scientia Potentia Est*. Poor Princess Elizabeth struggles with the intricacies of the UK constitution, schooled by the Vice-Provost of Eton under the beady eye of his pet raven. It was a singular education, tutored at home with her sister Princess Margaret. Apparently she speaks French like a native thanks to her governesses.

If we're to believe The Crown, the Queen's educational achievements have never been tested in the way that your average British teenager would recognize. Alan Bennett's fictional Queen Elizabeth II is also lacking in knowledge and appreciation of literature. In his humorous 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader Queen Elizabeth discovers a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and out of politeness borrows a book, something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she describes as "too hard going altogether." Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate is her second, more enjoyable choice, and the Queen is soon an avid reader. Unfortunately this leads to a less conscientious performance of her duties, neglectful even, as she prefers to lose herself in a good book. Her private secretary is not pleased.

The Uncommon Reader can be finished in a couple of hours and is a wormhole through which to discover new writers, for example the previously mentioned Ivy Compton-Burnett. I wonder how much of Bennett's own preferences are mirrored in Queen Elizabeth's thoughts. Why would you want "to give Henry James a good talking-to?" and is it really worth reading Dr Johnson when "much of it is opinionated rubbish?" And is it a good or a bad thing when a book of Ian McEwan or A.S. Byatt is "leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart."

There can't be many who envy a monarch's life of duty and courtesy. Those who marry into it often struggle. Perhaps someone could put together a list of essential reading for the new Royal, literature "about other lives. Other worlds."

* Beloved quote of librarians and researchers: knowledge is power.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The problem of society's expectations

Girl, Woman, Other How could a white person know what it's like to be a BAME woman in the UK? A good place to start is to read Bernardine Everisto's Girl, Woman, Other.

The book tells the stories of twelve interconnected characters: young daughters, middle-aged mothers, the childless, the celibate, monogamous and polyamory. From new born children to a woman in her 90s, all have experienced discrimination and abuse because of their skin colour and their gender.

It starts with Amma, who's into threesomes and whose play is about to be performed in London, where many of the characters were born and raised. The pleasure is in discovering aspects of each character's life that one can relate to. You might not be BAME, but you may identify the teacher Shirley's pride that "she’s the one who’s made it, not her older brothers who didn’t have to do any housework or even wash their own clothes, whereas she had to spend her Saturdays mornings doing both". Shirley has known Amma since they were at school, but "began to feel self-conscious of her body around her friend" after Amma came out as lesbian. In her profession she believes "intelligence is not innate ... it's acquired", which underpins her desire to help children who show promise. One of these is Carol, who studies at Oxford then works in the City. In a very poignant scene, teacher and student meet after many years when they're invited to Amma's luvvie party.

None of the characters is perfect, just as in any society. Amma kept her "predilection for big tits quiet because it was un-feminist to isolate body parts for sexual objectification". Gas-lighting of women is practised by women too. And Yazz is forced to look at her own prejudices when her white friend Courtney, who has read Roxane Gay, warns against playing 'privilege Olympics', that "privilege is about context and circumstance".

So, a white person may not be able to appreciate the problems of a BAME person, but a woman (or womxn) will certainly relate to the problems of the characters in this book. As Megan/Morgan says, "being born female isn’t the problem, society’s expectations are".

I give the book only 4 out of 5 stars and you may wonder why. As ever, it relates to my predilection for certain sorts of endings.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

What's with the teeth?

The Power and the GloryIs there anything more that can be said about Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory? Three things spring to mind.

First, there are the teeth: Mr Tench the dentist, cautious because "Any dentist who's worth the name has enemies", the mestizo with his two protruding yellow fangs, and the jefe (Chief of Police) with his incessant toothache. No-one in the story has a perfect set of choppers.

Second, there are the references that can be traced back to Greene's Mexican travelogue, The Lawless Roads: the black beetles that "exploded against the walls like crackers", mosquitoes "flashing through the air to their mark unerringly", and uncomfortable travel "bouncing up and down to the lurching slithering mule's stride".

And finally, there's the whisky priest's impossible dilemma, "the slave of his people, who may not even lie down in case the winds should fail". He remains at large to perform mass and hear confessions, yet puts his flock in danger by doing so. "It's your job - to give me up. What do you expect me to do? It's my job not to be caught", he laments, having witnessed an innocent young man taken hostage in order to flush the padré out. Unlike the humble and pious martyr Young Juan in the forbidden Catholic story books, the priest is certainly not happy to go to his death.

So, there you have it. My six penn'orth of opinion to add to the mass of words written in praise of this great book.

Monday, 29 June 2020

A dream-like love story

The House of Sleep The blurb for Jonathan Coe's The House of Sleep didn't really sell the book. It was instead a positive discussion on a podcast that brought it to my attention.

Much of the action takes place in the student accommodation where Sarah, Robert, Terry and Gregory meet. They lose contact after graduation, but a decade later a number of coincidences cause their paths to cross again. At its heart it is a love story.

Sleep, dreams and reality run through the narrative, in fact the book is divided into six sections that follow the sleep cycle. Odd numbered chapters deal with incidents in the 80s, even numbered ones the 90s. This constant shift in time from one chapter to the next initially gives the narrative a dream-like character, which is extended through ending each section with an unfinished sentence and beginning the following section in mid-sentence. It's not as confusing as it sounds.

Coe's work is often described as humorous. This example of his writing provokes most often a wry smile or chuckle, although I did laugh out loud on reading the incident of the fictional film-maker's after-dinner speech and its footnotes. There's another episode that appears to presage horror, also sad moments. Indeed one of the three appendices brought a tear to my eye.

Above all, Coe's skill is to be able to take a reader back in time. It's difficult to pinpoint how he captures the zeitgeist of the Thatcher years in The House of Sleep. Of course, he mentions the occasional cultural reference such as Dallas and Knots Landing, but it's more than this. There's a sort of alchemy to it which he refined for the 70s setting in his 2001 book, The Rotters' Club.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The obsession of a spy

The Long Room Francesca Kay's The Long Room is story about the loneliness and obsessions of a spy, the sort of spy whose life is dull, drab and tedious, not at all exciting.

It's primarily told from the point of view of Stephen, a man in his late 20s, recruited to the secret service at university. He works at the Institute with a team of friendly colleagues, but he doesn't like to socialise with them. During the week he lives in London where "it is a long time since he remembered to wash the sheets." At the weekends he retreats to his elderly mother in Didcot. It's a lonely life.

Stephen's job involves listening to tapes of telephone and house bugs and transcribing them to help identify security threats. This is 1981 Britain, when the IRA are planting bombs and members of CND are considered to be communists. In the course of his work, Stephen has become obsessed with Helen, the wife of a target, PHOENIX. He has only ever heard her beautiful voice, which "speaks poems to him, and her piano playing, and the sweetness of her nature." His thoughts veer towards worship, believing girls like Helen are "pure and vestal, the innocent and the good". His is a devotional, romantic idea of love.

Ultimately The Long Room is a character-driven story with a well-drawn protagonist, however it comes across as a bit too clever. If your literature studies ended at age 16 you might not pick up on some references. A google search after finishing revealed allusions aplenty to Byron and romantic love, Shelley and the quest for perfect union, Goethe and introversion, all of which are themes of the book. In spite of the fine characterisation and descriptions, Stephen's ultimate actions weren't credible, and if you're the sort of reader who needs a fast moving plot, you may find yourself putting it to one side without finishing.

Friday, 29 May 2020

A tale of two Johnsons

A Demon In My View Arthur Johnson has a secret that he keeps in the cellar of 142 Trinity Road, Kenbourne, where Ruth Rendell's A Demon in My View is set.

Arthur is an odd man, old-fashioned and stuffy, but pretty harmless. He does have a strange attitude towards women tho', especially "women who waited in the dark streets, asking for trouble, he cared nothing for them, their pain, their terror." Everything changes for Arthur when a new tenant arrives, a young, lovelorn PhD student by the name of Anthony Johnson.

We know from the beginning of the story what Arthur is capable of and as it unfolds we get to know his character and his past actions. The "other" Johnson, Anthony, unwittingly becomes Arthur's nemesis when an innocent and absent-minded act is seen by the older man as a "deliberate shunning of him".

There are plenty of details that help take the reader back to London in the early 70s, when the local cinema was still in business but under the new name of Taj Mahal and with a program of Indian movies. More specifically the dustmen were on strike. The period is important because some of the plot relies on the fact that people used to communicate with public telephones and written letters through the post.

The book is an easy-read psychological thriller which builds tension not through action, but by slowly revealing Arthur's backstory. Ruth Rendell doesn't try to hide important details, everything is clearly laid out. Nonetheless, there's a surprise at the end which is very satisfying.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Extremely shoddy editing

Hunters in the Dark Some people like to lie on a beach and do nothing on holiday. Robert, the English protagonist of Lawrence Osborne's Hunters in the Dark prefers to do nothing whilst upright. When we meet the 28-year-old teacher, he's crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, where the story is set. He'd just experienced "the happiest month of his life thus far. The happiest and also the vaguest: the two were connected." He has no firm plans for his remaining month other than to roam, and since there "would be little else to do here anyway" he visits a casino, plays roulette and wins some money. His holiday takes a more interesting turn after he meets a louche American called Simon.

Robert is variously described as naive, lonely, mediocre and empty. You could add irresponsible to the list too, as he wonders if there's anything he wants to go back home for. He "only worried about his mother, even though there were other things to worry about, a thousand loose ends left in a chaos of abandoned responsibility." This desire to live elsewhere is perhaps credible, but his actions in the story are less so. Bizarrely Sophal, the doctor's daughter, describes Robert as "a bit Heathcliff," but he's the least Heathcliff person I can think of.

Other characters are more believable, especially Simon's girlfriend Sothea, and policeman Davuth, who has a very interesting background.

Osborne uses Buddhist concepts such as karma, samsara and ghosts to drive the characters, as he does in the more enjoyable The Ballad of a Small Player, and overall it's an enjoyable read and an interesting plot. However, the first few chapters are a bit heavy on the use of frangipani and nagas to describe the surroundings. Much worse is the poor editing throughout the book. I lost count of the number of times I came across a sentence with a missing word. There was also an instance where the character name Sothea had been incorrectly used for Sophal. Worst of all, Simon's last name was inconsistently spelled, sometimes Beaucamp, other times Beauchamp. This is very shoddy.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Can she really be so naive?

Good Behaviour Poor Aroon St Charles. In the opening chapter of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour she insists, "I do know how to behave .... All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives." She reminisces on why so many people she knew have been unhappy, even her bed-ridden Mummie, to whom she's taking a dish of rabbit quenelles for luncheon. What follows is a memoir of Aroon's life at Temple Alice in Ireland, the grand house owned by Mummie when the family had money. She documents relationships between family and friends, as well as those that work for them, shining a light on expectations of behaviour and propriety within the fast collapsing Anglo-Irish society of the early 20th century.

Throughout the book Aroon constantly seeks reassurance and praise. In one bitter-sweet memory of swimming with her brother she says she "stayed up four strokes longer than Hubert and nobody said, 'Nothing to crow about, is there, Aroon? He's three years younger than you, after all.'" We're never told who would have said this, but we can guess. Papa "was the one who patted me and kissed me", whereas Mummie "didn't really like children," but sometimes "would touch Hubert".

Aroon also suffers from insecurity about her looks. Aged 57, she says "how nice that bosoms are all right to have now; in the twenties when I grew up I used to tie them down with a sort of binder. Bosoms didn't do then."

Boys at that time were raised to be boisterous and enjoy the outdoor life. When her brother introduces Aroon to his friend Richard, she relates some of his childhood experiences, which include a flogging by his father. This was not because he told "quite a big fib", which was considered to be natural, but rather for being caught reading a book of verse, since "it's this poetry that bothers me."

Of the other characters, Mrs Brock the governess was the most admirable, the one who seemed to show genuine affection for her charges and "accepted without comment my grotesque, unsentimental fixation on Mummie." Mr Kiely the solicitor was indeed solicitous, but perhaps had a hidden agenda, and one longs to know a bit more about Mister Hamish and Miss Enid, Aroon's cousin with the "hedgehog kiss".

You can't help feeling sorry for Aroon. She seems to be oblivious to the shenanigans that those around her get up to. Can she really be so naive, or is she wilfully ignorant and extending her good behaviour even to her own memories? In her world of emotional repression and Victorian values, "There was to be no sentimentality", even in the depths of despair, "It was the worst kind of bad manners to mourn and grovel in grief."

Thursday, 9 April 2020

How should people die?

Have The Men Had Enough? Margaret Forster's Have the Men Had Enough? starts on a Sunday, at a McKay family lunch. Grandma, in the early stages of dementia, is at the table with her son Charlie, his wife Jenny, and their children Hannah and Adrian. Grandma doesn't live with them tho'. She has her own flat, paid for by Charlie, and is looked after by her daughter Bridget and a team of helpers.

The story is narrated by Jenny and Hannah in alternate chapters. They share their thoughts about how their relatives behave, and their frustrations about caring for Grandma, whom they both love. But love is not enough to help them decide what is in Grandma's best interests as her health deteriorates. Is it better for Bridget to give up her job to look after Grandma full time, or to leave her in a mental hospital. As Hannah says, "is it better to be mad or is it better to be sane and cruel?"

The book's subject matter won't appeal to everyone, although whilst it's quite bleak, there are plenty of moments of black humour. Forster's observations are spot on. Anyone who has had experience, no matter how brief, of caring for someone with even very mild dementia will know that laughing about the absurdities is a great release for the stress. But for some readers it will provide a sounding board, just like Hannah, who at 17 years old determines to consider her own death, thinking, "It can't be meant, intended, that people should die like that, can it?"

It's not just about death and how we care for the elderly tho', it's also about family relationships. Grandma "didn't like men, she saw them as enemies, as nuisances, as tyrants. She saw them as spoiling her life. She only liked women". This attitude had a significant influence on the way in which each of her children showed their love for her at the end of her life.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Is this the future of child birth?

Dreams Before the Start of Time Anne Charnock's Dreams Before the Start of Time is a story that speculates on the future of child birth. It uses as its basis the current state of research and development in human reproduction, including egg production, impregnation, genetic modification and artificial wombs.

The story begins in 2034 with friends Millie and Toni. Millie wants a baby and chooses donor insemination because it's not the right time for her partner Aiden. Toni becomes pregnant unintentionally and naturally by her partner Atticus. For the next 75 years the book follows the lives of their children, families, and people who are influenced by their choices.

The most memorable episode is when Millie's son Rudy meets his sperm-donating biological father, a smug, arrogant man. It was a tense and explosive situation. There's also one character who is more interesting than the others, Freya Liddicoat. She has a tenuous link to Millie through an orphan boy that Rudy and his wife didn't adopt. Her working class background makes her stand out from the rest of the middle-class characters.

Apart from these two things, a tense episode and a working class character, the book was forgettable. It's not that their lives weren't happy, it's that, like most families, exciting things rarely happen, they just go about their lives doing normal, everyday things. It's not that the characters were unlikeable, it's that they were too normal. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the book, it's just that the story was not engaging.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

To avenge her father's blood

True Grit Many will know the story of True Grit having seen one of the two screen versions. Charles Portis's book is nonetheless well worth the read, even if you know the ending.

It's narrated by Mattie Ross, a Presbyterian, middle-aged, successful business woman. She tells the story of how, when she was 14, her father was killed by Tom Chaney. Determined to avenge his death she employs a US marshal to track the murderer down. Rooster Cogburn is her choice, the meanest one, "a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork." They're joined by LaBoeuf, a boastful Texas ranger who's after Chaney for a different crime, and whose "grin and his confident manner cowed everybody", but also made Mattie "worry a little about my straggly hair and red nose."

John Wayne turned Rooster Cogburn into the hero of the story in the 1969 film, but it is the 14-year-old Mattie who has "true grit", and whose character shines through every page. Intellectually she can look after herself, and she refuses to let her youth and gender hold her back. Mattie places a different type of woman into the history and mythology of the American wild west, who is neither a home-maker nor a prostitute.

Finally, there is one important character who we never meet, but who hovers in the background and is used as both a carrot and a stick to help the girl get what she wants. He is lawyer J. Noble Daggett and must be even more formidable than Mattie.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

For fans of John le Carré

The Night Manager At the end of The Night Manager, John le Carré discusses plot and character differences that were used in the 2015 TV adaptation of his book. Let me say, up front, that I preferred the screen version.

The story is set in the early 1990s and opens with the eponymous night manager, Jonathan Pine, waiting for hotel guests to arrive. He's thinking about the death a few years earlier, of Sophie, a woman he slept with and who was killed, probably on the orders of "the worst man in the world", Richard Onslow Roper. Pine blames himself, as well as Roper, for Sophie's death, and it is Roper and his party who are expected at the hotel.

Roper and Pine are perhaps two faces of the same coin. The baddie is a man in whose past "there was neither striving nor disadvantage. Class, privilege .... had been handed to Roper on a salver". In contrast, Pine was orphaned from an early age, and "When God finished putting together Dicky Roper .... He took a deep breath and shuddered a bit, then He ran up our Jonathan to restore the ecological balance". However, I found Pine to be rather wooden and couldn't believe that so many women fell in love with him on sight. Perhaps this is just a feature of the early '90s setting, but none of the female characters exist other than to provide sex, and they are of course long-legged, slim, beautiful and of questionable intelligence. I never really cared about our hero and his mission, and preferred the uneasy, unpredictable company of Roper and his gang.

Another problem was the writing style. There were several instances where, for no reason I could discern, the tense shifted from past to present and back again several times.

The best bits of the book were the manoeuvres of the "espiocrats" in London and America following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Le Carré provides insight into the changes that were taking place within the British intelligence industry, the potential obsolescence of the old style Cold War spy. The story also touches on the hypocrisy of Governments as when Roper talks about cocaine: "Not only does Uncle Sam choose to poison himself with it, but he enriches the oppressed Latinos while he's about it!" And as for the illegal arms trade, the real enemies are the big power governments, "flogging anything to anybody, breaking their own rules". However this is not really a theme of the book.

Aficionados of John Le Carré will probably enjoy The Night Manager much more than I did.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Those who leave home, and those who don't

An American Marriage An American Marriage is an odd title for this book by Tayari Jones. True, it's set in America and it follows what happens to a married couple when the husband is wrongly imprisoned. But the story is about much more.

Three characters narrate the tale: Roy, his wife Celestial, and her friend since childhood, Andre, who was also Roy's friend at college. They slowly reveal how Roy and Celestial met, what their parents are like, and how Roy came to be in prison for five years. We also find out how Celestial coped during those five years, and what happened to their relationship when Roy was released.

An American Marriage is a character study of Roy and Celestial, not a fast-paced, exciting plot-driven story. The couple were always ill-matched. When they fell in love Celestial admits that "Roy came into my life at the time when I needed a man like him". Roy's heroics were mostly about his own ego; "I had to keep running as long as she did. How would it look if I hung back?" Once married Roy speaks over his wife, collects other women's phone numbers and doesn't always wear his wedding ring. Describing Celestial's storyboard pictures showing what she wanted out of life, Roy says they included, "a cottage on Amelia Island and an image of the earth as seen from the moon. No wedding dress or engagement ring".

If not about marriage, then what? The story explores how one's upbringing can clash with one's hopes for the future. And if anything, Roy spells out the problem in the first sentence: "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don't".