Monday, 24 August 2020

The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert. J. Sawyer



The term ”fission” describing how a uranium nucleus could split into two had been borrowed from biology, and Oppie had a sudden flash of micrographs he’d seen of a dividing cell: an entity pinched in the middle to form bulbous halves. Grove’s belt was the construction and an ample gut billowed out above and below it.”


I’m going to start with a negative here and its no reflection on Robert J Sawyer’s great writing. No, I struggled to get into this novel a little at first because my imagination about the Manhattan project was coloured so deeply by the tv show of the same name. This was a tad confusing for me and I think possibly impacted my otherwise thorough enjoyment of the novel. Nevertheless, my interest was rekindled and by the end I was a complete convert.

The Robert Oppenheimer of Sawyer’s novel is  an enigmatic creature, often caught between two worlds. This is highlighted by the two women in his life. His wife and fellow scientist, Kitty and Jean his troubled, communist lover. Dealing with the destructive outfall of his work and his love life leaves ‘Oppie’ in a tenuous space, until the chance to save the earth with his work transforms his horizons.

The set up in the past is so detailed and appears to be meticulously researched, so when the story branches off from reality into an alternate history, the reader is 100% onboard. I personally adore the way Sawyer puts the ‘science’ into fiction. He makes science a thrilling character of its own in his work. It makes me want to study something in the STEM world.

The political machinations are of course also fascinating and some background from the author’s research explored in the novel unearths some surprising facts. The novel’s publication in parallel with the 75th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is particularly meaningful and was fought for by the author.

I digress though. The tale transforms from a historical narrative to a thrilling piece of speculative fiction which was ultimately gripping and made me happy that I’d treated myself to the hard copy version.


5 out of 5, can’t wait for Mr Sawyer’s next work – I’m a big fan.

Friday, 21 August 2020

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison


"So to recap: on a late October night in my second year at uni I meet Daisy and ask her out."

If you've been reading my reviews you will know my list ticking insanity. I've never met a top 10 list on The Guardian that I didn't immediately want to finish. So this novel was the last one for me from Tim Lott's Top 10 summers in fiction list and what a fantastic list it was.

This novel is peopled by some generally unlikeable people. The narrator, Ian,  is married to Emily and yet still carries a torch for his love from university,Daisy. This is despite the fact that she is married to his best friend from university. Naturally Daisy's husband, Ollie, not only got the girl, but has a jealousy inducing more successful career and lifestyle. 

Appearances can be deceiving and a couple's weekend away unearths the secret of Ollie's terminal cancer diagnosis and a large wager between the two men. Is Ollie telling the truth,?Can Ian be relied upon as a narrator? Is something terrible going to happen?

Well I guess you will have to pick up a copy to find out. This has a somewhat Hitchcock-light feel to it and while aspects were fantastic, I was disappointed that I could predict what was going to happen. The thriller aspect built slowly and then just fizzled a little for me. I don't think I cared enough about the characters and that dulled the story's impact. It still is an engaging read and I'm nit-picking.

4 out of 5, the good thing about being single is no smug couple weekends.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

"Tiffany Aching was the witch, and she had made herself the witch because they needed one. Everybody needs a witch, but sometimes they just don't know it."

In these crazy times, the best retreat is to the Discworld. I'm not joking! Seriously grab some Pratchett and feel instantly better. I guarantee it works. This instalment sees the witch Tiffany Aching really come into her own, it is the fourth story of her adventures and possibly the best.

Unfairly accused of murder, Tiffany escapes to Ankh-Morpork but its more than the law in hot pursuit. The terrifying Cunning Man might just be the end of her and all witches.
Settle in for a glorious adventure, drink up with the Nac Mac Feegles and meet the adorable Preston. Hurry up and grab a copy and if you've read it before, maybe crack it open again.

Big thanks to the always amazing Nicki for lending me a copy.

5 out of 5, who doesn't love a black dress.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Who Slays the Wicked by C.S.Harris (Sebastian St. Cyr 14)

"Sebastian wasn't prepared to take anything Princess Ivanna Gagarin told him at face value."
The long awaited next instalment of the adventures of a certain Sebastian St. Cyr was happily provided by my fantastic partner in literary admiration, book buddy Nicki. This latest mystery starts with violence, and the gore continues. It is hard to be concerned about who done it, when the victim is a thoroughly unlikeable guy, but as the body count rises, the plot thickens.

If I had any quibbles they would probably only be that there wasn't enough Hero for my liking. While the plot meanders with increasing complexity, it is nonetheless, another engaging story from C.S. Harris.

5 out of 5 everybody dies eventually.

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

"Sources were scared. Many refused to talk. But others seemed willing."

I was rather late to the party in reading this book but was compelled to when I listened to the Ronan Farrow's rather excellent podcast on the same topic. He brings a sensitivity, tenacity and intellect to a difficult topic which makes for a compelling listen ( in relation to the podcast) and is equally engaging in the written form.

Perhaps what is the most intriguing aspect of the story, since most people are familiar with the unacceptable behaviour of a certain Mr Weinstein, is the machinations that go on behind the scenes. The threats, the spying, the constant sense of danger and the horrid ability for powerful people to silence their victims.

With the continuing demise of standards in journalism, it is reassuring to hear there are some voices prepared to do the work and do it with excellence.

5 out of 5, some frogs no girl should kiss.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

"Colonial Australia sought to forget the advanced nature of the Aboriginal society  and economy,  and this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after the depopulation of whole districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated, debased, and diseased."
A work colleague commented upon seeing me with this book in the lunchroom that it was a "book all Australians should read" and I'm inclined to agree. Certainly putting paid to the fiction of terra nullius in a well-researched and fascinating way. When you consider all the challenges that this wide, brown land of Australia poses due to most of the country being considered arid and inhospitable, its instructive to hear about the different methods of farming and cultivation that provided sustenance for its original inhabitants.

There's nothing new under the sun and we could learn a lot for the future by revisiting the past. Pascoe does a great job of doing just that. So add this to your home library, give it to your kids and gain a better understanding of the importance of the traditional owners of the land on which we live today.

5 out of 5 new crops could rise from these tales of yore. 

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

"It wasn't that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went."

It has been quite a few years since Kate Winslet took out the Academy Award for her performance in the movie adaptation of this novel. I've managed not to read the book until now and this was one of those instances where my perceptions were very much coloured by the movie and I think I preferred the film. That rarely happens, but in this instance, I think perhaps it stems from the fact that the novel is a rather slim volume where much is up for interpretation and perhaps the movie instils more room for contemplation through its choices. Kate Winslet's performance gave so much more depth to her character, whereas in the book she is both an object of desire and then a figure to be judged and I think the movie was kinder in this regard from memory ( I watched it a long time ago).

The narrator's voice had a maturity that the movie version lacked in my mind.The central tenant that stems across both iterations is the power of literacy and the corrupting power of war, both interesting notions taken to the extreme.

4 out of 5, how do you reconcile your emotions when you loved a monster?