Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Silo Trilogy, Hugh Howey

Disclaimer: I’m reviewing all three books of the trilogy (Wool, Shift, Dust) in one post, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers but it’s possible that the odd thing may slip out. Read on at your own risk…

The Silo trilogy spans a 400 year time period starting around 100 years from now in a world that is very different from our own. The entire world has been condensed down so that only a few people remain, people who live in a rigidly structured society within a massive underground silo. The world we know is destroyed, to go outside would mean almost instant death and to even speak of doing so is to consign yourself to that fate.

WoolThe trilogy begins in Wool, a book I’d seen floating around, copies on the tube, reviews on Goodreads and so on but I hadn’t really been tempted by. But then a friend lent me her copy as I mentioned something about it and she had just finished reading it so I promised I’d give it a go.

To be honest, I wasn’t impressed. The story launches in somewhat, giving me as a the reader the feeling that I’d walked in on the middle of a conversation and didn’t have a clue what was going on. I suspect the point of this technique is to grab my attention and pique my curiosity (who is this Holston? Why is he going to die? etc. etc.), but I’m afraid what it actually does is put me off (you don’t want to tell me what’s going on? Fine, I don’t care anyway.).  But I persevered and although it was slow going to start – a lot of stair climbing and unrealised love between two individuals I didn’t particularly care for – it did manage to intrigue me. I couldn’t quite get my head around this silo they all lived in, what ‘cleaning’ was and what on earth had happened to the world outside.

So I kept reading but it wasn’t until roughly halfway through that it really grabbed me. Jules, our hero, hadn’t made a huge impression on me, I found her rather too predictable and a bit of a hero stereotype, but when Solo was introduced I felt the whole book changed. His was an entirely different story and I loved getting to know him and teasing out his history.

And then, just as it was getting really good, Wool ended! I was furious! Especially because I was aware that for the next installment we would be going back in time to find out how it all started. Yes I’d get the answers that by now I really wanted, but how long would it be before I would find out what happened to Jules and Solo and all the rest of the characters I’d just started caring about?!

Well happily lot too long as the same friend was able to lend me both Shift and Dust so at least I didn’t have to hold on until I found my own copies. (And after reading this review by Buffy, I was glad I didn’t have to wait too long!)

ShiftSo, book II. Shift alternates between two timeframes for the first part of the book – following Donald in 2049 and Troy in 2110. Troy is confined to a silo whereas Donald is a member of the pre-silo world and their paths zigzag across the chapters.

I wasn’t expecting to like Shift, I find the whole prequel thing kind of annoying but actually I think this was a really clever way of doing things. If I hadn’t already visited the silo and built up a curiosity about it, I might have lost patience with the political wranglings of this second book and I think the whole thing may have made less sense. As it was I already knew what direction things were headed in and I really enjoyed seeing them unwind.

Troy confused me somewhat although seeing his eyes slowly open to the world around him was a nice touch, but it was Donald who I really came to care for. Here was a man who was blindly led into an awful world, whose innocence and naivety were his undoing but who managed to keep fighting, even once it seemed like it was too late. I think he went on a harder journey than any of the other characters and I enjoyed travelling that road with him.

It was also nice to get a sense of background to some of the other characters from Wool and there were some fun moments of ‘oh, I know who that is!’ And Mission’s story damn near broke my heart.

All in all this was by far my favourite book of the trilogy and it left me with big hopes for Dust, the concluding chapter.

Alas I feel that it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

DustDust picks up from the end of Wool and I think it might have helped if I’d gone back and re-read the last chapter of the first book before starting this one as I was slightly confused as to how much I’d forgotten happening and how much had happened in my absence.

For the final volume Dust is surprisingly thin and I can’t help thinking that it could have used a bit more padding (not a common complaint!). There seemed to be less story-telling than in the other books and what there was started to feel repetitive. By now I knew how the silo came to be and I knew how the various characters played their parts, there was no need for this to be reiterated every five pages. And I did lose patience with some of the politics, I’m not sure the reason for the destruction ever became entirely clear.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that the ending brought a smile to my face and my immediate feelings after completing the trilogy were incredibly positive. It’s only looking back now that all the negatives come to light.

So it’s a lukewarm review when all said and done but Shift stands out as being a brilliant piece of work sadly bookended by two weaker volumes but don’t let me stop you, I’d still recommend reading the trilogy if you’re into the dystopian mystery vibe!

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The Book Benches of Olde London Towne

Those who know me will tell you, I love a quest. Actually anyone who’s read this blog and seen my list and my world map will probably agree with that statement. So when I heard that some utter genius had come up with the idea of decorating benches to look like books and positioning them all over London, how exactly was I supposed to keep myself from tracking them all down?!

Happily my mum was paying me a visit last weekend and being a fellow book-lover she was more than happy to accompany me on this madness. Even more happily, the books are set out on proper trails and with the help of a few downloadable maps they’re pretty easy to find.

There are 50 in total so I’m not going to add photos of them all to this post but I am going to give you a taste of my favourites. Hold on to your hats, it’s going to be a whirlwind!

Let’s begin at the beginning (a very good place to start or so I hear). The first bench we found represented The Chronicles of Narniby CS Lewis and had a magnificent view of Aslan on the back:

Narnia book benchIf you notice the background to this picture you’ll probably think that a cemetery is an odd place to put such a thing. Well prepare yourself for my finest London fact: most of the parks and little green squares in London used to be graveyards and if you look closely you can still see gravestones around the sides of many of them. This one (St George’s Square) just happens to be more honest than most about its history.

Next I’m going to whisk you across to the other side of the Thames and one of my all-time favourite books: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Long before it was turned into a West End hit and a Stephen Spielberg BAFTA winner, the story of Joey and Albert brought me to tears and taught me about the human (and equine) cost of World War I. And now it’s been turned into one of the simplest and most beautiful benches in London:

War HorseHow incredible is that?

Now for another bout of nostalgia. As a child I loved E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children (book and film), I was heavily into trains as a tot but long after I outgrew that phase, something about this book spoke to me and there was a magical quality that captivated me time after time. This bench shows a key scene from the book in which Bobby saves the day (photo credit goes to my mum because mine didn’t work properly):

The Railway ChildrenAnd here’s me showing that my love of trains isn’t entirely in the past:

Railway Children and me!

Where now? Let’s stick with the theme of children’s books and consider the J. M. Barrie classic, Peter Pan. Two artists had taken this on, with significantly different outcomes:

One –
Peter Pan 1Two – Peter Pan 2

I don’t know about you but I much prefer the second interpretation except for this little detail on the first bench:

Which I think completely makes up for the garishness of the rest of the painting.

This post is starting to major on the children’s literature but there’s a couple more that I have to mention. First of all, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. Partly because finding it was a mission worthy of the book itself.

Hunting A Bear Hunt

We couldn’t go over it, we couldn’t go through it. We couldn’t go under it, we had to go ROUND it!

We're Going on a Bear Hunt!

Worth it.

And speaking of bears, what list of children’s books would be complete without a dear friend from deepest, darkest Peru? Not this one that’s for sure!

Paddington Bear

Alright let’s grow up a bit. How about I show off my mature side with an appropriately arty shot of The Day of the Triffids? Alright then:

Day of the TriffidsI hope you enjoyed that, it’s about as artistic as my photography gets.

I think now is a suitable moment to pay homage to two of London’s greatest literary sons. First of all, the man who defined the English language by cataloguing the whole thing so that we never need by stuck for words again. I’m referring of course to the great Dr Samuel Johnson. Even he did have something against aardvarks (major cool points for anyone who gets that reference).

Samuel Johnson

 

And secondly, the man who created more of our words than you would believe and used them to create some of the finest works ever published in the English tongue. The one, the only, William Shakespeare! Shown here with some of the landmarks of his beloved London as it was in the 16th century:

Shakespeare

I’d love to show you so many of the others but this post has already run on far longer than I’d planned so I’m going to leave you with two final images which I think sum up my life and which will feel familiar to many of you I’m sure. The book being represented is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend but the artist has entitled it Girl Engrossed and it actually showing herself as an avid young reader. The front panel represents a typical day in her life, surrounded by clutter and lost in a book:

Girl Engrossed 1Whereas the back shows the same room after she’s been instructed to clean the place up before reading another chapter:

Girl Engrossed 2

Familiar to anyone?!

I’d love to know if anyone else is visiting these benches over the summer (they’re here until September and will be auctioned off to raise money for the National Literacy Trust on 7th October) and if you are which are your favourites?

The Shining – Stephen King

Ahh Stephen King. I’ve mentioned before that I was a latecomer to the fantastic writings of this wonderful man but I’m doing my best to make up for it. Of course one of the books from King’s back catalogue that I was keenest to read was…The Shining. I watched the Stanley Kubrick film many years ago and if I’m honest I didn’t love it as much as I expected (apart from Jack Nicholson who is amazing) but I was keen to see what the book was like. I found a copy in my local charity shop but I had a lot to get through before I could let myself indulge.

Boy was it worth the wait.

Stephen King has an incredible gift in that he creates stories that keep you reading even when you’re not actually interested in the story. Before The Shining I also read Lisey’s Story and Dreamcatcher neither of which particularly appealed to me – too much gore in Lisey’s Story and a load of extraterrestrials in Dreamcatcher – but I couldn’t put either of them down.

The ShiningThe Shining, however, was different. From the very first page I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to start teasing out the mysteries that were central to the book: who is Tony? What’s in room 217? And what is redrum (alright I  might have already known the answer to that one but I still wanted to see how it was revealed!)?

But first things first, and in case you’re not familiar with the story of The Shining here’s a brief summary. Down on his luck Jack Torrance is forced to take a winter position as caretaker of The Overlook Hotel up in the Colorado Rockies. Cut off from the world by the deepening snow, the hotel starts to come to life and works on the fears and vivid imaginations of it’s winter visitors.Jack, his wife Wendy and their young son Danny become increasingly disturbed by the happenings around them and as each of them attempt to deal with the hotel’s darker side in their own way they struggle to stay together. Much of the book centres on Danny’s’s uncanny ability, or ‘Shining’, which allows him to tap into the heart of the hotel and see things that others can barely even imagine but what effect does this have on the Overlook? And will it help or hinder his family in their battle for survival? Only time will tell.

Like I say it didn’t take long for me to fall for this book, King’s writing was as perfect as ever and beyond that, Jack and Danny were both fantastic characters who I was firmly behind from the very beginning. The glimpses we see of their past and the fights that Jack had already survived only made me love them more and cross my fingers even harder for their continued survival. But lets be honest, this is a Stephen King novel so it was never going to be an easy ride.

The plot was a slow burner but burn it did and the little hints dropped along the way built to a flaming crescendo with sparks flying left, right and centre. I’m going to stop with the fire metaphor now but rest assured the emotions it stirred in me smouldered for a good while afterwards.

I’ve tried but I genuinely can’t think of a downside to this book, I can see how it might be too slow for some people but I loved the way it gradually unfolded , mirroring the steady unravelling of Jack’s mind. A slow burning plot with lots of character development and revelations a-plenty is exactly what I love in a book and The Shining has it all. It’s another A* offering from Stephen King and a perfect example of why so many people are in love with this man’s writing. I cannot wait to get my hands on Doctor Sleep!

Where in the world have I been?

Hello out there! I’ve been quiet for quite some time haven’t I? And I have so much to tell! Mostly that seeing as it’s been two almost three months since my last post I have three new countries to talk about so here goes….

First: a confession. It turns out that my knowledge of world geography and the politics thereof is not quite up to scratch. In May I decided to read a book from the Faroe Islands which apparently are NOT a country. They are in fact an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark (located, in case you, like me, are not quite up to speed, in the Norwegian Sea between Scotland and Iceland).

Faroe IslandsBut they have their own language (Faroese which bears heavy similarities to Danish), culture and history so as far as I’m concerned they can count as an entry on my world reading challenge. And it’s got nothing at all to do with the fact that I bought a Faroese book before looking up their politics.

This book was: The Old Man and His Sons (Feðgar á ferð) by Heðin Brú which was first published in 1940 in the author’s native Faroese and was chosen by the Faroese people as their “Book of the twentieth century”.

It’s a touching tale of one man and his wife’s struggle to clear a huge debt that he incurs when he gets overexcited after a whale hunt.

Ketil and his wife belong to a generation who are becoming outdated and ridiculed by their more modern children as the values they lived by are fast disappearing. But Ketil remains true to himself throughout his hardship and makes do in the only way he’s ever known. Ketil and his wife were a lovely couple and it was awful to see the way his “modern” children treated them. It was a really interesting book as it showed both the modern and traditional side to the Faroese people and reflected how fast change can happen, leaving a trail of the less adaptable in its wake. Something which is as true here as it is in the remoter parts of the world.

A word of warning though – any animal lovers may want to skip the first chapter, the whale-hunting scenes were hard to stomach!

JordanJune took me far away to the Arabian Kingdom of Jordan and a book called Willow Trees Don’t Weep by Fadia Faqir. Another tale of family relationships and their cultural importance, alas Willow Trees Don’t Weep did very little for me.

It’s the story of Najwa whose father left when she was a toddler and whose mother has recently passed away. Left with only her ailing grandmother, Najwa is forced to set off into the unknown to find her father as Jordan’s strict Islamic society forbids a young woman from living alone. An excellent premise but unfortunately very poorly executed.

Nothing in this book felt real. The characters were one-dimensional and wooden, the conversation stilted and the action very, very flat. It took me 10 days to read under 300 pages, a number I can usually get through in less than a week. There were days I just couldn’t face reading this book it was so bad! And it’s such a shame because the subject matter was interesting, and the twists that came as Najwa uncovered her father’s troubled life should have been captivating but it was just too badly written.

AngolaAnd so onwards to July. I bought all three of these books at the same time but I saved this one for last as it sounded the most interesting. This was my Angolan offering: The Book of Chameleons (O Vendedor de Passados which actually translates to The Seller of Pasts) by José Eduardo Agualusa.

The Book of Chameleons chronicles an eventful period in the life of one Félix Ventura, an albino Angolan who makes his living by creating pasts for those who’d rather forget theirs. One night a foreigner arrives at Ventura’s house and a few weeks later he leaves as the Angolan José Buchmann. The consequences of this change in identity play out over the next few months, the whole thing story being told in Ventura’s living room and being relayed to us through the voice of the gecko who is Ventura’s best friend and rarely misses any of the action.

In contrast to last months offering, I zipped through my Angolan choice, the writing was poetical at times, funny at others and the mystery at the heart of the novel was so intriguing that I couldn’t wait to turn the next page. But for all that it’s a very gentle book, in essence it’s a conversation between two old men who are musing on their pasts and the philosophy of memory which makes for a slightly slower pace than might be expected.

So it’s been an interesting clutch of books but how’s that affected the graphs? Let’s take a look shall we?


07-14 map

 

 

My experience of donating stem cells with Anthony Nolan

Deviating from my usual topic slightly (I will start writing about books again soon I swear!) but this is worth it…

If you’re a follower of this blog you may already know that I’m a scientist by day but you probably don’t know that since March I’ve been working for Anthony Nolan, a bone marrow registry in the UK. My job is finding donors for patients who are in dire need of a stem cell transplant and one of the hardest parts of my job is that the register is desperately short of donors. Personally I signed up as soon as I turned 18 (the age restriction recently came down to 16) but I know that the concept is very scary for a lot of people who are concerned about what it involves and have heard horror stories of massive needles being jammed in the back. Well if that sounds familiar to you, this fantastic post should allay any fears – the donation process is the same right around the world and involves a couple of needles in the arm, no different to giving blood.

If you’ve ever considered being a donor or if the thought’s never crossed your mind, please read this post and think about signing up, you could make a very real difference to someone’s life.

Donating my stem cells

Wow – I wasn’t expecting that!

I’m just a normal bloke. I’m married, I have an 8yr old son, I work in a builders merchants, I play guitar in a soul band, I have a passion for cycling and I enjoy spending time with my family and friends.

That’s why the text message I received in April this year was such a surprise! At first, I thought it was just a marketing message but then a few hours later, I received a call from my wife to say that Anthony Nolan were trying to contact me and could I call them.

Being told that I was a potential match for someone in need of a Stem Cell transplant was a huge surprise – I’d actually not given much thought to the fact that I’d signed up to the Anthony Nolan register since sending off my “spit kit” a number of…

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