Wednesday 23 June 2021

This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise

In a not-too-distant future, Signy, Matthew and their six year old son, Jed, live in London, in a world that's become increasingly dependent on technology. Drones have replaced bees, and policemen. Robots replaced waitresses and doctors. 
Then one day that technology starts to fail. At first it's small things - something wrong with their phones, or a drone behaving strangely - but soon it feels like the world is crumbling around them. Power and water are cut, and people are worried, confused, angry. As things go from bad to worse, Signy and Matthew decide to leave London, and head for the village where her parents live. Surely in the countryside things will be better? The first hurdle is to get there - without electricity there's no way to recharge the car and traffic is jamming the roads - but Signy is determined that come what may she will get Jed to safety- if such a thing can still be found.

In some ways the premise and plot here are familiar; civilisation is falling apart, and the only way to survive is to leave the city and head to the country where life is 'simpler'. Along the way there are obstacles to overcome, fellow travelers who you may or may not trust, and armed troops who may help - or not. It's different maybe (though there are slight shades of Josh Malerman's Bird Box) in that the main character is a woman, desperately trying to protect her child. Despite all the vaguely familiar tropes it is definitely gripping stuff, with plenty of tension, and a strong but relatable female main character. You'll definitely find yourself  siding with Signy against all that gets thrown at her. 
Just occasionally I wondered about the accuracy of incidents - how quickly the freezer defrosts, or how many miles Signy and Jed could travel in a day - and I wasn't quite convinced by the ending - things felt a little too easily explained away - but none of this really detracted from the book as a whole.  

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Still Life by Sarah Winman

In 1944 as the Allies advance north through Italy, a young British soldier Ulysses Temper meets Evelyn Skinner, a 60-something art historian helping to identify and salvage paintings hidden from, or damaged by, the war. Whether it's down to fate or the magic of Italy who can say, but the two form an immediate connection, and a night talking with Evelyn about art, Florence, and love, shapes Ulysses' life.

Returning to London after the war, Ulysses finds it grim, drab, and lacking, though he's not sure how or why. Fate, or Italy, steps in again, and changes the lives of Ulysses and his friends in ways they couldn't have imagined.

Still Life is one of those rare books that are an absolute joy to read. The story moves from war-torn Italy, through the next three decades as Ulysses and his 'family' create a new life in Italy, which is almost washed away by the temperamental force of the river Arno, and then loops back to Evelyn's time in Italy as a young woman when she met EM Forster, and a cast of immediately recognisable characters, in a pensione run by a Cockney landlady. Through it all runs the belief than here in Florence it's possible to live life as it should be lived, filled with passion and love. Here, against a backdrop of art and Medieval streets, food and wine, which nourish body and soul, there's a feeling of standing on the threshold of something momentous. 

I just loved everything about this. It left me with a warm fuzzy feeling, like being wrapped in a warm blanket, or bathing in a big 'tub of love', which is Elizabeth von Arnim's description of Italy rather than Forster's, but which seems totally appropriate.