Artemis – Andy Weir

A lot of the books I review are ones I think that Rob, my other half and an occasional guest reviewer on this blog, would probably enjoy so I try to press them on him when I’ve read them. He, however, doesn’t read at quite my breakneck speed so often doesn’t get round to them. Sometimes I get books which I know he will enjoy even more than I would so, because I am a good wife (well, not a terrible one), I let him read them first. One of the books I did this with was Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian and, as you can see from his review, Rob loved it. I did too so, when I got sent a copy of Weir’s new book I decided that I would get to read it first.  A little bit selfish? Maybe, but I did pass it straight on after…

9780091956943Obviously I was pleased to see that Weir has stuck with the extra-terrestrial setting he established with the Martian – this time the novel is set on the moon. The difference, however, is that we are in an established colony with shops, offices, workshops, tourists (lots of tourists, mostly the super-rich) and, of course, a little bit of crime. Our main character, Jazz Bashara, is one of those criminals: a porter who makes cash (or rather credits – like all futuristic societies everything is credit based) on the side by smuggling in items considered as contraband by those in charge of Artemis. She is getting by, although her personal relationships (particularly the one with her dad) are a bit of a disaster area, and it looks like she’ll take years to raise the amount she needs. But then she is offered a life-changing amount to do one big job and her troubles really begin.

I quite liked Jazz – although she is a very abrasive character – because I could see that she wanted to be better than she is. She’s very intelligent but rebellious, immature but with a strict sense of her own personal morality. If Jazz Bashara makes you a promise she will keep it – even if it costs her. There’s plenty of action scenes, a lot of dark humour and some interesting secondary characters, including a Ukrainian nerd and a former best friend, and also, as you would expect from the author who taught us how to grow potatoes on Mars using our own waste products, there is a lot of science. Which I loved even though I’m not that hot on science myself. I trust Andy Weir to do it right. This my favourite sort of sci-fi – clever, funny and as much about how people learn to live with each other as the technical details of how to live on the moon.



An Astronomer’s Tale

fildesOn my own travels I’ve seen skies above the Libyan desert.  One night, sleeping among the dunes and rock outcrops of the Jebel Akakus, I woke up and was staring straight into the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. You get a shiver in your spine, you feel like you’re falling upwards into infinity. Your eyes range around the sky looking for patterns, to make meaning of it all.  A few years ago I spent a few days observing and photographing at the dark sky site in Galloway.  The star fields have to be seen to be truly appreciated. Until the last 150 years – really since the coming of artificial light, gas lamps then electric light – everywhere in the world was a dark sky site.  These stunning views were there for everyone.

The Kielder Forest in Northumberland is Europe’s largest protected Dark Sky park, and in the heart of it is the elegant work of art and science combined that is the Kielder Observatory. Its founder and lead astronomer, Gary Fildes, has written this really engaging and passionate book, which is now released in paperback, about the observatory, the sky and his life.

Gary grew up in Sunderland, left school at sixteen into the void left by the closing of the shipyards, and became a brickie by trade. But his heart has always been in the stars. The book is an interleaved mix of Gary’s life story and a seasonal guide to the sky. The seasonal guide bits are well written, clear, exciting and informative – you put down the chapter and want to go out there straight away to look. You can see that the exposition of the sky is something Gary has down to a fine art now, through his work at Kielder.

It’s the narrative of Gary’s life and the founding of the Kielder observatory that really made the book work for me. Gary’s life hasn’t always been perfect – he writes with honesty about his involvement with the fighting and hooliganism that dogged football in the 1980s. But even through those times –  and being a young father of four he soon got the wake-up call that he had to change – he never lost his fascination with astronomy, even though admitting it to his mates at the time might have got his head kicked in.

The revival of serious observing starts again for Gary in 1996, when he connects with a neighbour with a telescope. The dream of the Kielder observatory started properly in 2002, and finally reached fruition in 2008, with the help of dozens of people who shared the dream and no small help from the skills of his own trade. Kielder is now receiving upwards of 20,000 visitors a year and has ambitions to become the world’s biggest public observatory.  During the book Gary speaks with great affection for his father, and how he wishes he were here to see what he’s achieved at Kielder. He also reminds us that this is his passion long before his profession – he’s not a professional scientist, never took a degree. Well, so what – you’re in the company of Patrick Moore there Gary!

Anyway, Kielder is now on my ‘must visit’ list for when the dark nights return – and if I get chance Gary, I’ll buy you a drink. Thanks for this super book.

An Astronomer’s Tale – A Bricklayer’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gary Fildes, Century Publishing, 298pp

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Bee Quest – Dave Goulson

It seems I’m on a roll with nature writing at the moment – after Chris Packham’s memoir (with almost poetic reflections on the wildlife he encountered) I dived straight in to Dave Goulson’s third book on bees (and other creepy-crawlies) . I’m not sure why I haven’t read the other two (apart from the usual #somanybookstoolittletime) because I did spend quite a lot of time in the last ten years or so campaigning for Friends of the Earth in general (and bees in particular). After all that I thought I knew quite a lot about the subject but, compared to Goulson, I knew much less than I thought. What I particularly loved about this book is the way that I learned so much almost effortlessly!

bee questI learned a lot, particularly, about conservation which is a rather counter-intuitive field. I would never have considered, for example, that green-field sites often contain much less biodiversity than brown-field ones. Or that the few animals whose presence can delay developments (bats and great crested newts) are actually much less rare or endangered than many of our native invertebrates. It is, it seems, easier to gain sympathy for creatures with backbones than for those without (no matter how beautiful, scare or economically useful in terms of pest control or pollination). I’m certainly going to be much kinder to the bugs in my own garden (leaving some of it wild and unkempt is already second nature, or possibly laziness…)

Goulson is a man who is, self-admittedly, stuck in his 10 year-old ‘bug phase’ and who has used his love of invertebrates in general to carve out a career as a university biology lecturer. I would hope his students do very well as his way of imparting information seems to be both thorough and entertaining – he obviously not only knows his stuff but is hugely passionate about it. In particular he is very eloquent on the subject of conservation – not just for bees and other animals but also for our own benefit. His closing words are a hope that children, in the future, will still have the chance to get out into nature: to explore green spaces and muddy puddles, to get dirty and to meet our wildlife face to face. I’m of an age with Goulson and was lucky enough to have that kind of childhood (rarely indoors during daylight in decent weather, frequently filthy and with a wide range of pets which included a fish-tank full of woodlice). I can really heartily recommend it!


Scientific Romance – Brian Stableford (ed)

I have one slight confusion over this book – the title. And it isn’t for the usual reasons since the book itself explains the origins of the phrase ‘scientific romance’ very clearly. No, I’m just confused that when I searched for it on various websites it didn’t appear under that title but had been expanded out to ‘Under The Moons of Mars: a Collection of Scientific Romance’. I do understand that changes are often made after proofs (or e-proofs) are made but this seems a little bit like a focus group somewhere decided the original was too difficult to understand…*sigh*. Also, very few of these stories are set on Mars.

9ac3279ce001f88a84e462b5d537d502.jpgI really enjoyed the stories in this book even though I’m not usually a big fan of ‘hard’ sci-fi. But these tales, published between 1835 and 1924, are more Victorian (and Edwardian) explorations of the scientific advances which thrilled the society of the day. Their authors range from the incredibly well-known, like Conan Doyle, to unknowns and they hail from France and America as well as the UK. They are, in fact, something like the originals of steampunk itself! There are stories of automata, intelligent machines who, since they are given a social conscience, come to the conclusion that the workers would be better off without machines taking their jobs: one where Scotland becomes a nature reserve and historical theme park (with the help of a device which can control the weather) and one which explores the human costs of ‘perfect’ societies (eugenics and the fact that cultural/religious norms hold more sway than natural emotional responses). My favourites (probably no surprises here) are a tale which explores climate change caused by humankind’s over-use of fossil fuels and one which turns evolution on its head in a lecture given by a gorilla professor on whether apes were descended from humans.

I saw these stories as proof that sci-fi isn’t all about space battles and explosions (as good as Rogue One was…). It doesn’t even have to involve space – science has enough mysteries to keep us going even today.


P.S. As a bonus it turns out that the editor of this collection, Brian Stableford, was born in Shipley. Which is nice…

13 Journeys Through Space And Time – Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution


The first recollection I have of one of my all time heroes – the astronomer Carl Sagan – was when he undertook, for the Royal Institution, the Christmas lecture series at the end of 1977. As a fascinated 11-year-old I absorbed it all and I still remember his demonstrations of lunar cratering with the aid of marbles “except you don’t find marbles down craters”, as well as his talk around the still-new Viking Mars missions and the just-launched Voyager mission with the interstellar record of music and messages to be a present for any future aliens who might find it.

A precis of Sagan’s lecture is just one of the thirteen summarised in this lovely little book – a great present for Christmas – which brings back historic lectures, aimed at young audiences, on the subject of space and time, ranging from  1881 to 2015. The book is a fascinating mixture of lecture history, science, RI archive content such as handwritten letters, and photographs and transcripts. The book explores what we thought we knew then and what has been discovered since. The emphasis of the lecture series has always been ‘don’t just tell – show’ – which is brought out well in the book with drawings and photographs of how children from the audience, from decade to decade, have been invited down to get involved in experiments in the Faraday Lecture Theatre.

The earlier ones – Robert Stalwell Ball of 1881, Herbert Hall Turner of 1913 are lovely period pieces, indeed Ball’s own full lecture notes – available in his book “Star-land” – are full of the more poetic language of the age.  Compiler Colin Stuart compares what was believed then, with what is known now – for example the common belief in 1881 that the lunar craters were volcanic in origin, and the Martian Canals controversy – active from the late 19th to the early 20th century – was a common theme returned to in the earlier lectures.

Classic lectures by the giants of the mid-20th-century follow by James Jeans, Harold Spencer-Jones and a team led by Bernard Lovell, and as we move into the space age proper the latest lectures by Monica Grady and Kevin Fong continue to find ways of showing cutting-edge science to a young audience. In the final lecture Kevin Fong introduces British astronaut Tim Peake via video screen to talk to the audience – live- from orbit in the International Space Station, a sight that Robert Ball would no doubt have loved to have witnessed.

This is a great and unusual little book for all ages to enjoy.


13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution by Colin Stuart, with a foreword from British ESA astronaut Tim Peake. 224pp, Michael O’Mara publishing

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

I am from Essex. I’m proud to be from Essex and love my home county – many of the people I love are there and I have many, many happy memories of my youth spent scrabbling around in the woods and seashore of the county. The fact that I don’t live there any more is partly economic, partly chance and a teeny bit of TOWIE. Fact: I’m rubbish at wearing high heels, don’t tan and can’t drive any car let alone a MK 2 Cortina. But, hey, it should be more widely known that us Essex girls come in all shapes, sizes and skin-tones.

methode_times_prod_web_bin_3802deb2-21d5-11e6-8644-041f71209e1fSome of my best-beloved fellow Essex girls live in the parts of Essex which are so wonderfully described in Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent. They are the parts which are often forgotten – rather than flashy urban and suburban bits like Romford and, my hometown, Basildon this book depicts the beautiful, and sometimes dramatic, north Essex coastline. Not brightly lit Southend but windswept and wonderful Mersea, St Osyths and Tollesbury sprang to my mind as I was reading.

The story concerns Cora, an unusual woman in the late Victorian era, who moves from society London to a village in the wilds of Essex when her husband dies. Set forty years after Darwin published Origin of Species the novel explores how some people’s thinking about nature, science and religion by this new way of thinking. The rise of socialism is also covered as Cora’s companion Martha is an active campaigner for improved London housing. These new ideas are contrasted with both the traditional beliefs of the villagers of Aldwinter and the faith of their vicar, Will Ransom. Will and Cora’s friendship also develops to a point which challenges Victorian morality – in fact most of the relationships in the book are straining towards becoming ‘modern’ rather than ‘Victorian’.

I really enjoyed the plot – Aldwinter is thought to be being terrorised by the Essex Serpent of the title, a malevolent sea creature blamed for every lost child, dead sheep or drowning – which blended folk tale and myth in with the science of the day and the characters were wonderful. All the people we meet are believable and well-rounded so you end up caring about them all (although not everyone makes it through the book unscathed) – I was particularly drawn to Martha, a free-willed and pragmatic woman who probably ends the book in the most satisfactory position, and Cora’s son Frankie, who seems to be even more damaged than Cora by her recently deceased husband. What really made this book for me though was, unusually, the language. I generally read for plot – I can appreciate good use of language and a clever turn of phrase but tend to remember the story more than the words used to tell it. Perry, however, has such a great capacity for description that I think her words may stick with me for some time.



The Vanishing Futurist – Charlotte Hobson

I’m not very good at air travel and tend to use trains for most of my holidays (I’ve just come back from a trip to Florence via Zürich and Turin all done by train). Obviously some of this is down to not being a very good passenger on planes but some is also down to environmental concerns – and of course the longer, slightly slower journey is (usually) much more relaxing and gives me lots of time to read. I think you know me well enough by now to know which of these things is most important to me? Of course, this does mean that I am slightly limited to the nearer bits of Europe, unless I take much longer holidays, but again I don’t have a problem with that. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy have all done me proud on food, drink and art and I don’t ask for much more than that in life. There are other places I would like to visit – including Russia (but I suspect more for art and history than for the food and drink: I don’t like vodka…) and more of Scandinavia (to see if they are all as quirky as their novels suggest!).

12628000_476612229206050_332870725_nOne of the appeals of Russia would be the art – from the architecture of the cathedrals, through the glittering icons and the contents of the Hermitage and, particularly, the art produced after the 1917 revolution. And it is this avant-garde art which features so strongly in Charlotte Hobson’s novel. The story centres around Gerty Freely, a young Englishwoman who travels to Moscow to escape her family and to work as a governess in the months just before the outbreak of the Great War. She is welcomed into the Kobelev family, who seem warm, modern and intellectual – you soon see that they are the family Gerty wants rather than her own dictatorial father and dismissive mother. Of course war soon makes itself felt, but not so much for the relatively wealthy and well-connected Kobelevs, and then the revolution. This is a far more sweeping event and the horrors of those early years, the hunger, fear and panic, are well described. The other key character is the vanishing futurist of the title – Nikita Slavkin – who combines the avant-garde with new discoveries in physics.

This is a love story but also, it seems, a fairly accurate historical description of what it could have been like to live in those dangerous days. I was certainly left contemplating the differences between Communism (which seems to me to make absolute equality its key factor) and more modern Socialism (which for me is mainly concerned with fairness rather than mere equality) – but it is a very interesting book which draws you in with the story but leaves you with a head buzzing with art, philosophy and political thought. Even if I don’t make it Russia I am going to be investigating the art produced there in the early years of the 20th century.