Thursday 26 May 2022

The Red Arrow by William Brewer

 'A failed American novelist is on honeymoon in Italy, but the day of this story he's travelling from Rome to Modena by the 'frecciarossa' high-speed train (the 'red arrow' of the book's title). He's in the process of ghost-writing the life story of a famous physicist, but the physicist has disappeared - refusing to answer e-mails or phone calls. This has put our unnamed narrator in a fix, as finishing the memoir was the only way he could write off a huge advance from his publishers, but he's hoping to find the physicist at home on his family estate. 

While the train rushes through Italian countryside, the narrator's thoughts wonder back over his life - through years of depression and the life-altering psychedelic drug treatment which saved him. 

The Red Arrow is a difficult book to describe without giving a complete spoiler. The writing is straight forward, very American to my mind (though I'd be hard pressed to describe what exactly I mean by that), but the narrator's thoughts are circuitous, constantly circling round the big 'treatment' event without approaching it. Even so, I found it very readable. 

There's a huge amount of coincidence or interconnectedness to events and characters, and a resolution which resembles the 'which came first; the chicken or the egg?' conundrum. To be honest this seems only fair and fitting as I picked this read up from Netgalley solely on the basis that one of our local buses is named the Red Arrow. What I didn't expect was the brief appearance of my grandmother's next door neighbour, D H Lawrence, but that's coincidence for you.  
All in all, an intriguing book, and one I think I'll read again.

Thursday 19 May 2022

The Mysterious Island by Saviour Pirotta


illustrated by Davide Ortu

Wolf lives in the Neolithic Age on the islands of Orkney, off the north coast of Britain. He's no good at the things that matter to his family and fellow islanders - things like fishing, hunting, or minding sheep - but has at last discovered his place in life and how to help his people, by becoming a shaman. The village's current shaman is willing to help him, but the shaman's son, Rain, who has never really liked Wolf, wants to be the one to replace his father, and his ambition will stop at nothing. 

Now, Rain has stolen Wolf's precious amulet, and in an attempt to retrieve it Wolf and his friend Crow (a young female warrior) find themselves on a journey across seas and unknown lands to an island at the centre of the world. Along the way Wolf and Crow see caves filled with paintings, a mountain that shoots fire into the sky, and temples constructed by long-forgotten people, but the most important discovery comes from within Wolf himself; that forgiveness is better than retaliatory anger.

This third book in the Wolfsong series continues Wolf's story on the path to achieving his ambition of becoming a shaman, to help his people interpret the spirits around them, and to conquer the evil ones that live within him. Aimed at children aged 7 and over, it fits well with Key Stage 2 history, but is first and foremost an adventure story, full of dangers and wonders, bringing the past to life with characters and situations that children can relate to, aided as always by Davide Ortu's illustrations. 

Wednesday 11 May 2022

The Mercenary River: Private Greed, Public Good: A History of London's Water By Nick Higham

Clean water available at the turn of a tap is something we all take for granted, at least in the 'developed' world. If you think about it at all it's when something goes wrong and supply fails, or when a documentary about conditions elsewhere reminds you of the value of water piped to your home. Does anyone wonder where their water actually comes from? Probably not; we've grown to expect it to be there when needed. And does anyone ever wonder about WHO decided to pipe water into our homes, and WHY?

These are the thoughts that prompted Nick Higham to research the history behind London's water system. It's basically a tale of two halves - on one hand of the recognition that fresh water delivered via pipes is a basic need, keeping dirt and disease at bay, especially in over-crowded cities; on the other, the realisation that there's money to be made in providing that service. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that such a basic necessity was so easily turned into a source of profit, and at such an early date, but somehow it does.

Medieval Londoners were supplied with water, surprisingly at no cost, via conduits, but as the city grew, so did its need for water, and, from 1619 with the setting up of the New River company, so did the network of pipes carrying it, and ultimately carrying sewerage away. And with the supply of water came other things - the creation of civil engineering, and a new form of financing; the joint stock corporation. The history of London's water supply is seen to be inevitably linked to so many aspects of life from health and hygiene to powering industry to nepotism and financial corruption. 

Considering the complexity and breadth of the subject, The Mercenary River is very readable, balancing anecdotes about the entrepreneurs, investors, and engineers associated with these colossal projects with the overwhelming amount of facts and figures necessarily involved. It's not a light bedside read but if you've an interest in the who and what and why of the development of society than it's very interesting. 

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland

In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, King James and his officials are looking to track down one of the perpetrators, perhaps even the mastermind behind the whole affair, who goes by the false name of Spero Pettingar, One of their agents is sent to investigate rumours that Pettingar may be in hiding at Battle Abbey, but is soon found dead, struck down and left to freeze in the dreadful cold. So Daniel Pursglove is despatched on the same mission - to infiltrate the household of Battle Abbey, home of Lady Magdalen Montague, a fervent Catholic and known supporter of priests and possible traitors - and to track down the murderer. 

Daniel finds a house of many secrets - a few hidden priests seems to be the least of them - and as with any secret of a dangerous nature people are prepared to kill to protect it. Daniel, obviously, has only his wits to help him solve the crime; no fingerprints or DNA, no minuscule spy cameras to catch people's movements, and it makes for a story that's very different to a modern thriller. The mix of fiction and historical fact is well done, with details such as Daniel's day-to-day role in the household, and the dire freezing winter of 1607 adding to the atmosphere and authenticity. 

This is the second 'outing' for Daniel Pursglove, and I think it's better to have read the first before this. There are a couple of initially confusing flashbacks to his past which I assume would make more sense if I'd read the books in order.