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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

The first book in the Gormenghast series introduces us to a strange world peopled with eccentric and curious characters. Gormenghast castle itself is sprawling, all consuming, and with an air of neglect about it. Many of the characters are reclusive and there seems something of a dusty, forgotten feel to the lives there. The 76th Earl of Gormenghast, Lord Sepulchrave, spends his days carrying out antiquated rituals, the meaning behind many of which seems to have passed out of living memory. The book opens with two events that will prove catalysts for more dramatic occurrences – the birth of an heir, the eponymous Titus Groan, who makes few appearances, and the arrival of a new kitchen boy, Steerpike.

The birth of a younger brother displeases Fuschia Groan, the spoilt first child of Sepulchrave, who is nonetheless never allowed to forget her inferior position due to her sex. For Nannie Slagg however, this is a wonderful opportunity to feel increasingly self-important with a new little charge to nurture. Although Titus opens and closes the book, and whose story will undoubtedly become more of a central focus in the later books, it is Steerpike’s actions who shape this novel.

He is charming and manipulative and engineers his rise through underhand methods. He takes advantage of Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice, who are generally excluded from activities in the castle. This solitutde is the perfect environment for their resentment toward their sister-in-law Gertrude to fester. The power hungry twins have suffered ill health, and appear to have low intelligence, having a childish strain to their behaviour, yet maintaining an eerie lack of expression for the most part. They are intriguing figures who don’t seem to think highly of each other. Steerpike convinces them to commit arson and then proceeds to terrorise them to ensure their silence, allowing the reader to feel a tug of sympathy for the neglected pair.

A strange and meticulously imagined novel. I have heard it said that not much happens in it, and although it may not be action packed it focuses instead on building depth into its world and characters with enough dramatic events to keep the story moving. It certainly leaves you eager to dive into the next instalment.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

How To Stop Time, Matt Haig

Haig’s latest offering focuses on the life of Tom Hazard, a seemingly middle aged man who has in fact been alive since 1581. He has returned now to London as a history teacher and walks the streets remembering how they used to look, where his times with Rose, his only love, were spent. During her life he was forced to part from her, fearing that his barely perceptible aging would put her at risk as it had done his mother. He has spent the intervening years searching for their daughter Marion who also has anageria, a condition that makes them age fifteen times slower than your average human. You would be forgiven for thinking that they would not need to hide in the modern world. We don’t drown innocent women to test if they are witches after all, but you only have to turn on the news to see that anybody different, other, is still vilified. This makes the novel feel relevant rather than just a far-fetched story.

Tom fends for himself for centuries before discovering the Albatross Society in the late nineteenth century. This discovery follows him finally finding a doctor who believes in his condition and does not want him institutionalized. Much to Tom’s horror the doctor mysteriously dies shortly after their meeting. The Albatross Society is for people with anageria, the Albas, as they are known, a group suspicious of the rest of the world. In order to ensure their safety they kill anyone they consider to pose a risk to their anonymity. The Society is headed by Hendrich, who is unwavering in his belief that the rules – never to fall in love, and to create a new life every eight years (the price the Albas pay for him to arrange this for them is the occasional assassination job), is for the best. Tom begins to question the truth of this, but were he to leave he would become a target. There’s also the belief that if anyone can find Marion it will be Hendrich. Whether or not he can be trusted is another matter. The reader is made to feel for Tom, stuck in a seemingly impossible situation, unable to tell anyone outside the Society the truth. His loneliness is heartbreaking.

The storyline may sound a touch convoluted when laid out like this, but it reads easily and although the narrative hops around in time it is not difficult to follow. There’s also the odd light-hearted cameo from the likes of Shakespeare. It’s a novel that has a good balance between the humorous and serious. One theme which also appeared in Haig’s bestseller The Humans is the importance of our mortality in giving our lives meaning and a sense of urgency. This combined with musings on what makes life really worth living, and the need for love no matter the potential for pain, means his books always pull on the heartstrings and make you think. Not my favourite of his works, but worth a read (and I’ll certainly be reading the follow-up I’ve heard rumours of).

Monday, 11 September 2017

Australian Travels Part One: Sydney to Canberra

Not long after having arrived in Australia I found myself learning how to handle an automatic and navigating Sydney city centre. This is one thing that amazed me until the day I left – everybody seems to have a car, and drive through the centre of Sydney without a second thought. How different to London where most feel driving to be unnecessary, and for those that do, venturing into the heart of the capital by road is almost unthinkable. A brief drive to pick up my fellow road trippers and we were heading out of the city to make our leisurely way to Canberra.

Gumnut Patisserie
Barely had we left when the roads began to empty and the houses became infrequent. We stopped in historic Berrima for some lunch. At first it felt as though the town was closed, the first few eateries we tried either being shut entirely or having stopped serving. This turned out to be fortuitous however as we ended up in Gumnut Patisserie. We hadn’t expected to find more than a few pies on offer but were greeted with a wide range of beautifully crafted patisserie that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a French patisserie. Having sampled some of their delicious savouries and sweet offerings we went happily on our way. Leaving with pleasant opinions of the place, on further inspection I fear we may have done the town a disservice. It is widely recognized as Australia’s best preserved example of a Georgian village on the mainland, and had we lingered longer I’m sure we would have discovered many more treasures.

The Big Merino
Our next stop was the Big Merino, a 50ft concrete construct, and one of over 150 ‘big things’ dotted around the country as eccentric quirks standing out from the landscape. Originally opened in 1985 but moved in 2007 to capture the attention of more tourists it now sits beside a petrol station and McDonalds. Within there is an exhibition on the history and uses of merino wool and you can climb to the top to look out of the eyes of Rambo, as he is affectionately known. The rest of the structure is taken up with a gift shop selling you average souvenirs, merino clothing, and some merino wool yarn and knitting patterns, which naturally I couldn’t resist.

The final landmark before entering Canberra was Lake George, which admittedly did challenge my idea of a lake, being completely devoid of water. This, in part, is what makes it famous, its constantly shifting water level as well as its location making it one of the most studied lakes in Australia. It may not have had the vast expanse of water I was expecting, but a lookout point on its perimeter proved the perfect spot for some stargazing.

Remains of a telescope at Mount Stromlo
A refurbished telescope at Mount Stromlo
We arrived in Canberra after dark so didn’t see much of it on our way in, however, we did dine by the water, which wasn’t a bad introduction. With the rising sun we went to experience the city by daylight. I had heard that it’s a very green city, but nothing had prepared me for the surrounding mountains, and how much it just didn’t feel like a city. In fairness, we didn’t really explore the centre, but I’m reliably informed that there isn’t really one. Instead, we headed for the mountains and Mount Stromlo Observatory. The original observatory was destroyed in the bush fires of 2003, and as you approach you pass the burnt out shells of the previous buildings. It makes you stop in your tracks and ruminate on the haunting remains. It’s not otherwise somewhere that you’d spend a long time, although I imagine in summer it would make a beautiful picnic spot, and I believe there are a number of walking and cycle tracks in the surrounding area. Inside the visitor centre is a small exhibition and a cafĂ© with gorgeous views, which seemed to be why most people were there.

Our next stop was Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. The exhibition space here is larger and has several interactive displays to keep visitors of all ages entertained. You can see the large antennas across the site and there are boards in the exhibition with details of what they are tracking. We were even lucky enough to see one of them move.

After a short time we were back on the road again and heading for Corin Forest, a mountain recreation resort. There was no natural snow on the mountains but they have a snow play area so icy fun can be had even when the weather doesn’t oblige. After a snowball fight or two it’s pleasant to warm up again next to the open fire in the visitor centre. It wasn’t as forest like as the name suggests but a great place for a family outing. This is also where we saw our first kangaroos of the trip, which definitely made it worth it. Slightly further down the road was a short walking track leading to a waterfall which is well worth a look.

Our trip to Canberra was short but sweet and far more scenic than I had previously imagined.