Book Review – The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Oh my goodness. I have just written about 300 words of intro to this book review, and just managed to loose it all because I went to look up which airport you need to go to if you want to climb Everest! I was in the middle of a pretty good descriptive passage and WHAM, lost the lot. Thanks interweb. Much appreciated.

I will do the cut down, whistle stop version of what I had written to give you a hint of the wonderful whitterings that have been lost to the digital aether:

  • I don’t write reviews and blog posts during the week as my brain is too full of work.
  • Writing is hard.
  • Blogs are not too bad, but I don’t get to edit much. Brain dump, press publish.
  • I want to write a book.
  • That must be hard?
  • A bit like climbing Everest.
  • I will get to the top one day.
  • Thought: How do I manage to get this great piece of writing back on track as a review of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi?
  • I know, I will suggest, using the metaphor of climbing Everest, that I might have travelled to Nepal by plane and therefore needed a good book to read on my pretend trip to the figurative mountain that I might one day climb…

Anyway, it’s bloody well Tribhuwan International Airport. In case you ever need to know!!

**The author of this blog post has now managed to calm down, and normal post content will now resume **

20150209_201833The Periodic Table is a very clever book that winds tales about Primo’s life into the fabric of the table that defined his vocation. Each chapter of the book represents a different element, and they blend together into a more or less coherent chronology of a life defined by chemistry and pulled in every other way by uncontrollable events. The reviews on the front and back of the book suggested a very well written, must read book. I can’t disagree with either of those statements.

I was expecting a much darker book than The Periodic Table actually is: the reviews and blurb suggest that Primo’s experiences of the war are part of the story. They are, they run throughout the book, but are always just out of sight, dark and malevolent; like a murder in the next room. There are one or two footnotes, and one of these states that Primo wrote other books that cover his war experiences in all their hateful detail. Primo’s description of his writing after the war suggest that it was a cathartic expungement of those experiences. A cleansing of as much of his soul as was possible. It must also be said that given Primo’s ability to so descriptively and eloquently describe the events in the Periodic Table, I would expect his other books to be amongst the best of his contemporaries who wrote about what so many went through during those dark times.

This is the first Premo Levi book that I have read, and it hints at a power and and honesty in the written word that is not commonly seen. Primo managed to describe the events in the book in a multifaceted way that conveyed; his experience, the universal truth of all human experience and the emotions of everyone involved with reference to the particular element that was the basis for that chapter and that story. The honesty in the way that Primo writes bought memories of Out of Chingford, but with a much darker story to tell. A soul laid bare: Primo manages to add to this with a prose that is almost poetic in its construction. There were so many individual instances where I could have tweeted a profound sentence that I would have almost serialised the book onto Twitter; I’m pretty sure that would not be allowed?

Even though the backdrop is dark, and events described not usually particularly happy, the book left me with a positive feeling when I read it. I think that there was an optimism to the book, and this emotion becomes all the more effective when employed during dark times. Primo also played with words and created an enjoyable, almost fun prose. I’m realising as I type this review that the book I already really liked was in fact a beautifully balanced juxtaposition of dark and light. Painful times told in a light way with a chemical structure to diffuse, yet set the story in iron.

The Periodic Table on Goodreads

Rating 9/10

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Book Review – Out of Chingford by Tanis & Martin Jordan

2015-01-20 18.21.23Since first seeing the wonderful cover of this book I felt sure that I would enjoy it. I am of course, an adventurer myself, and so to read a book about such amazing exploits as those undertaken by Martin and Tanis was wonderful.

At first their approach to their whole life amazed me. I have trouble actually getting on and doing things, not because I can’t be bothered, but because there is always other things that get in the way. With microadventures, I even get caught up thinking about where you should or shouldn’t go? If you go where you think you will be allowed and you get caught, what do you do? In essence, there are many things that can stop you doing what you want, and Out of Chingford is a shining example (along with Alastair Humphreys and others like him) that you’ve just gotta do it. I grant you, stepping outside the back door isn’t quite as big a step as disappearing into the Amazon. The commitment to live life in that way and to have the tenacity and patience to spend what was sometimes 18 months preparing for a trip was truly astounding.

But the real meat of the book, the part that drew me in and kept me reading was the adventures themselves. I felt that I relaxed along with Martin and Tanis when they finally got back to the parts of the world that they identified with and I was in part living along with all of their exploits as they went up and down the various rivers and in and around the rainforests. I have to admit that I have sat in a boat a short distance from what was a very small large Caiman crocodile in Australia and the thought of being any closer to much bigger animals would far from fill me with happy thoughts. The book therefore allowed me not only to discover an Amazon that is no longer there, but also to experience second hand a multitude of situations that I know I will never see. I might manage to hit a few, but not all, definitely not all, and that makes me feel sad.

I have indicated in other posts that I gave this book 5/5 on goodreads. You will see at the bottom that I have scored it 9/10 in this review. Why so high? I think it’s largely because:-

  • Because I identified with Martin and Tanis.
  • And because they were both so unerringly honest that you really got to know them during that time.
  • And because it was in many parts funny, emotional, conflicting and almost everything in between. It is one of the most complete descriptions that I have read, even though not everything is written down and sometimes the narrative flicks around, particularly at the start.
  • And because I think I was lucky to find the book at all. I don’t think that it was a massive best seller?
  • And because I was lucky that Martin and Tanis were able to go on their adventures, and that they decided to write it all down, edit it together and get it published.

A perfect storm for me, and I appreciated it hugely as I read.

So, there you go. Go read it!

Good reads link

Rating 9/10

P.S. just because it is fun, here are the other travel titles listed in the back of the book that you could have bought ‘back in the day’ when Out of Chinford first came out.

A Traveller on Horseback by Christina Dodwell

Up Mount Everest without a paddle by Derek Nimmo

To the Navel of the World by Peter Somerville-Large (Yaks and unheroic travels in Nepal and Tibet)

We bought and Island by Evelyn Atkins

Book Review – Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

I suppose that to start with I have to say that Altered Carbon is a very very good book. And that concludes the review. Thank you very much. Good night.
“Why, why?” I hear you cry. Harumph, Oh OK then.
I really got caught up in it’s pace , and since finishing it, I am having slight withdrawal symptoms! It’s an odd feeling I have only had for this long with a couple  other books. I’m now beginning to get into The Sword fo Shannara, but it has taken a while to calm down and relax back into nice calm forests, friends on adventures and the odd Warlock Lord’s minion whipping about creating terror. That seems pretty sedentary if you read it straight after Altered Carbon’s frenetic exploits!

Altered Carbon is a Complex cyberpunk murder mystery. I was originally skeptical of this claim as it seemed like a steep hill to climb.The whole cyberpunk genre is typified by it’s destructive activities, so how does one murder find its way to the top of the story line through all the conspiracy, cracking, hacking  or other subversive carrying on? How do you define one murder as central to the plot over all the other carnage on offer? Altered Carbon manages to deliver this via an additional dimension to the standard murder mystery paradigm introduced by, and not in-spite of the advanced technical setting. The use of the environment and the way that our evolution into it is used allows for many situation that should feel alien to us 21st century beings, but Richard Morgan’s captivating prose managed to take you along for the ride of your life (he he blurb cheese added on purpose.)

In the context of what I have read since starting this blog and why I’m doing it, I need to mention the society that Altered Carbon portrays. A far future where humans inhabit other worlds and have managed to shrug off their reliance on just one body provides a very interesting setting of a book. But look behind the main story and Altered Carbon is also a beautiful rendering of a future where capitalism is still the way things work. More to the point, if you strip away the technology and the years from Altered Carbon, you get a society not too far removed from that depicted in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists! The rich get richer and the poor are used and abused. The basic premise is further exacerbated when the Meths (a reference to Methuselah from the Bible) can live for hundreds of years and their superiority over normal people is further confirmed.
As I said (tweeted?) when I started this book, there is a lot of reviews splattered over the back page and the first couple of the edition that I have. I usually think that a book is trying too hard if it has that many reviews, but as they are there, I have copied them out below and formed the remainder of this review on what other people said 🙂

“Outstanding. This seamless marriage of hardcore cyberpunk and hard-boiled detective tale is an astonishing first novel.”
The Times

“Hits the floor running and then starts to accelerate. For a first novel it is an astonishing piece of work. Intriguing and inventive in equal proportions and refuses to let go until the last page. A wonderful SF idea.”
Peter F. Hamilton

I completely agree with Peter’s review, and coming from him that is praise indeed. I imagine what it would be like to write a book and then have such a glowing review come in from such a highly regarded author. WOW, that must be amazing.

“Carbon-black noir with drive and wit, a tight plot and a back-story that leaves the reader wanting a sequel like another fix.”
Ken Macleod

I definitely agree about the withdrawal symptoms as mentioned above. Like so many of the drugs described in the book. But I’m always apprehensive of sequels. I have been told that the remainder of the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons are epic, but the first book and specifically the end of the first book is so good and so complete in its own right that I can’t bring myself to read the rest (and I don’t own them so I can’t just yet anyway 🙂 )

“Brilliant. Unputdownable. Lots similar blurb-writing clichés, only in this case true. I lived it. It is expertly plotted, grips you throughout, a high-tech ride in which the shocks and excitement are placed with machine-tooled polish. It is also superbly written, passages of cool, detached writing that is wonderfully atmospheric, alternating with passages of ultraviolence brutal enough to be genuinely shocking ”
Adam Roberts

I like the cliche reference, very self conscious and I know what he means. Great to juxtapose these reviews with the really short one from Raven (near the bottom of the post.) Also, the book has a few sex scenes. They were very well written and didn’t make me cringe! Further more, the first major sex scene in the book was actually part of the plot! In my experience that is almost unheard of.

“Morgan’s first novel is a brilliant start to what promises to be an outstanding career. ALTERED CARBON captures the best of SF and spins it in a new direction that will not only have existing genre fans crying out for more, but will in all likelihood attract the biggest new readership since William Gibson made SF cool again. This is without doubt my hottest recommendation for 2002.”
Michael Rowley, Watertstones Enigma magazine

Michael might just be right that this book could be a gateway to the harder SciFi available on the streets these days. Maybe I should get my mum to try it, or my Bro’ as he got it for me in the first place? Comparing it to William Gibson, that’s a big claim, and to be honest, fair. It’s that good.

 “An exhilarating and glossy adventure punctuated by bursts of extreme violence. The plot reaches terminal velocity early on and stays there. What makes ALTERED CARBON a winner is the quality of Morgan’s prose. For every piece of John Woo action there is a stunning piece of reflective description, a compelling sense of place and abundant 24-carat witticisms. A commanding novel.”
SFX magazine

I agree. I’m not so sure about the wit though? One of the other reviews also mentioned wit. Don’t get me wrong, most of the wit is fine, but there was a couple of occasions where an overly cheesy line clanged a little and pulled me out of the book. In older cyberpunk and SF novels, these  lines weren’t so cheesy, they were new and fresh. A generation of books and films later, and they are beginning to be past it in a book as slick as Altered Carbon. So, should Mr.Morgan have abstained? no, of course not 🙂

 “A crisp, tight SF mystery. Its plotting is nothing short of first rate. The level of sheer pulp violence is almost exhilarating. ALTERED CARBON may be high-octane pulp, but it’s pulp that does exactly what it sets out to do.”
Locus

Sometimes the violence may have been a bit overdone. In most places the action is very well grounded to make the story feel real, but occasionally fingers get broken when the situation didn’t really call for it. The story wouldn’t have lost anything with a tiny teeny weeny bit less violence. I agree that the plotting was amazing. How did he do that?? (Grrrr.) Is it pulp?? Not according to me and all these other reviewers!!

“I was completely blown away by ALTERED CARBON. From the very first page, it’s a pure adrenalin rush of slick, hard-hitting prose, superb characterisation and a plot that grabs you and won’t let go. A superbly rich and varied feast of fiction. Richard Morgan is destined to be a very, very big name in science fiction circles for a long time to come. Welcome to the next big thing.”
The Alien Online

This is the first mention of characterisation in the reviews. Surprising since it is good, nay “superb”.

 “A superb SF Noir-thriller…truly remarkable. Brash and violent, highly intelligent and highly entertaining. Morgan bounds on to the stage with his debut performance and totally astounds the audience.”
SF Revu
“A first novel so exciting, so addictive and so bone-crunchingly in your face that it beggars the need for such virtual reality as it occasionally employs. This is a ceaseless, permanently off-balance sprint through an all-to-grimly-familiar future where miraculous technologies are degraded through everyday use and abuse. There are occasional throwaway mentions of background details here that beg entire novels on their own; ubiquitous pieces of history dismissed in single lines that had my nose twitching, scenting something far bigger lurking, hidden under the surface.”
Infinity Plus
The whole point of the Virtual reality is that you can be even more violent in it! The whole Altered Carbon idea detaches consciousness from body to allow the option of immortality if you can afford it, or at least the option for much more interesting torture techniques. The only thing people really have to deal with is the pain, and ain’t that the truth of life!!
The second half of this review is basically a long way of saying that Richard Morgan has successfully created a realistic world via the use of good story telling and strong preparation / imagination. Basically bloody good writing!
“Dazzling. An excellent, no-holds-barred, fast paced thriller with a strong central character and plenty of betrayals, twists, shocks and action.”
Dreamwatch Magazine
“A tautly plotted slice of noir…the sense of wonder is in the details. Morgan gives notice that there’s a new star in the SF firmament”
The Third Alternative
Nice use of the word firmament. Cap doffed.
“A homage to old-school cyberpunk…ALTERED CARBON reads like a hypermodern vampire novel.”
The Guardian
Obviously the vampire reference is due to all the castles, crypts, fangs and blood sucking??? I kinda get what they mean though.
“High-tension SF action, hard to put down, though squeamish readers may shut their eyes rather frequently.”
David Langford, amazon.co.uk
I’m not sure if this was an official review from amazon or a review that was plucked off the site?? Either way, when its a book and not a film, shutting your eyes doesn’t work! The bad bit won’t go on without you if your face is pointing at a book!
“Combining thought-provoking ideas with page-turning, intense narrative is no mean feat, but ALTERED CARBON delivers. Richard Morgan looks set to become one of sf-noir’s best, diamond-bright practitioners.”
Interzone
So, there you have it. Half my review and half other peoples, but I think you will agree that it conveys my enjoyment of reading the book and my respect for Richard Morgan for writing it. Especially as it is his first novel. Having had a couple of novels floating around my head for many years, I know they need a lot more polishing (and actually writing something) before I risk them against the outside world as Richard Morgan has so successfully done.
Rating: 9/10
Altered Carbon on Goodreads

Book Review – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernières

By the time I post this blog article, I will have posed the raw notes I took as I read the book. I am really enjoying making these notes. Creating them adds depth to the experience of reading and I find it worth taking the time as I read. When I was looking up some of the detail after finishing the book I also found bookdrum.com that provides background information about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and couple of hundred others that warrant special attention. This is similar to my list, but, like, actually good… Great stuff!

I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when I started reading it. I had been told by lots of people that it was really good, and I watched the film when it came out, which was long enough ago that I have forgotten everything except that; it’s set in Cephalonia, is about WW2 and has Nick Cage in it. I was disappointed to find that Nick Cage is not in the book Only Kidding 🙂 I guess my illogical trepidation is the reason that I have not read the book, and so many others in my collection. Was it worth committing the time to read it??

YES!

I found the start of the book quite tough going, not in content, but in the way that the text is written. The whole book uses a lot of long, obscure words and I found that were a few too many of them getting in the way of a simple introduction. In general the book is very well written. I would be contradicting a huge number of previous reviews if I were to suggest otherwise. It did however take me a good few pages to decide that I was, actually, enjoying it. Later in the book it is revealed that Greeks like to use the longest words they know whenever possible. I wonder if that is why the book starts the way it does? The story does start with Dr.Iannis who particularly enjoys his words. If not that then it could be the over-enthusiastic “good start” that an author can sometimes produce, or more realistically, just me adjusting to a competent writing style? (I’m currently re-adjusting as I read The Fog, but more on that later…)

As you settle into the book the vocabulary used and the way that different languages are portrayed really draws you in. There are lots of foreign phrases wound into the dialogue and as someone who knows some French, a tiny bit of German and the basics of a couple more languages, it left me understanding enough to give me a wonderfully immersed experience while also invoking that feeling of separation that you experience when you overhear an unfamiliar language spoken. The book takes this still further via a very clever use of accent to portray a person’s mastery of a different language. This is use a few times in the book to great effect, no more so than the British agent (Bunny Warren!) who learnt some Greek at school. His dialogue is written in English, but ye olde English to indicate the difference between the ancient Greek that he learnt and the modern Greek that everyone actually speaks. As the novel progresses and Bunny learns from the locals, his dialogue becomes more and more normal. I have read other books that use accents and Phonetic speech very well, but Captain Corelli’s Mandolin manages to tell a very multilingual tale competently without ever feeling disjointed.

The whole book winds many arcs of story together, and manages to produce and well balanced progression through each that allows evil people to coexist with funny events, to tell a story of actions while allowing the story of someone’s life to grow as it would if you actually knew them. When I think of the emotional attachment I built up for Pelagia I am surprised that I identified with her as a young woman, as effectively a widow, and even as an old lady. I had been on her journey and I knew the depth of her emotions.

There are many ends to the book. The main story ends with the end of the war, but then each story line is ended and the book continues to march on into the lives of Pelagia’s daughter. I initially had a feeling of foreboding that the book might continue on past what could have been a powerful poignant ending. I have to say that my concerns were completely unfounded. In complete defiance of the risks, the book manages to deliver multiple strong endings that fall into line with each other perfectly. The actual finale of the book is relatively quite and understated, but the power of the book really hits home. There is so much story, so many emotions that have gradually built, that although the end is delicately stated the weight of emotion pulls no punches.

So in conclusion, I was going to give this book an 8/10. I appear to be settling on that as the standard rating for books I read for this blog. I suppose that means that so far my hunch was correct. Books I own are easily as good as ones I could be buying. I am very glad that I read Captain Corelli‘s Mandolin. I have proved with the review written that this book deserves more than an 8/10. It surprised me, and definitely in a good way.

Rating 9/10
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on Good Reads