I still haven’t sorted out my reading, and while I suspect I will complete the 150 book challenge on Goodreads – I have to read 17 books in December to make it, but I usually read a book a day over Christmas week – it still feels like there are more books sitting around my house that I want to read right now than in previous years. Maybe it’s just been a good year for new books – or indeed old ones that I’ve bought. In fact, I’ve read fourteen books published for the first time in 2015, which is I suspect not much different a figure from previous years’ reading.
Trapped Under the Sea, Neil Swidey (2014). I seem to recall stumbling across this book while searching for books on something else on eBay. But it sounded interesting, so I checked out the author’s website, and then ended up adding a copy to my next order with Amazon. And after it had arrived, I flicked through it, found myself sucked in… and finished it a couple of days later. Until recently, Boston harbour was apparently one of the dirtiest harbours in the US, thanks to millions of gallons of untreated sewage being pumped directly into it. So the city built a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant on Deer Island, part of which included an outfall tunnel stretching ten miles out to sea under the ocean bed, and through which treated effluent can be dispersed into the surrounding water. The diffuser heads on the ocean floor, however, had been sealed during construction to protect the workers, but once the tunnel was completed all electricity and ventilation was removed… leaving those diffuser heads still sealed. So the contractors hired a diving company to send five men along the ten-mile tunnel to remove those seals. They would have to be divers because without ventilation, the ten-mile tunnel no longer contained a breathable atmosphere, even though it was still empty. The diving company came up with what it thought was an innovative solution. Since they couldn’t carry enough bottled air to last the journey and the hours they would be working (they used two specially adapted Hummers to travel to the end of the tunnel), the divers would be fed blended oxygen and nitrogen from tanks of liquid gas, mixed using a special piece of equipment imported from Denmark. But it all went horribly wrong and two of the divers died of asphyxiation. Because the equipment was never designed to be used to feed oxygen and nitrogen to human beings, its safety features had been disabled through ignorance, and the man running the job refused to admit his plan was unworkable or even dangerous. A fascinating read.
The Conscience Of The Rich, CP Snow (1958). I like British postwar fiction, and among its more celebrated examples CP Snow’s – he of the “two cultures” thing – Strangers and Brothers series of eleven novels seemed like it might appeal. So I decided to read them – but not in order of publication, in order of internal chronology. The Conscience Of The Rich is the third book in the series, but was written and published seventh. It’s the late 1920s, Lewis Eliot has moved to London and joined an inn of court, under Herbert Getliffe. He meets a fellow trainee barrister, Charles March, the eldest son of a wealthy Jewish family, and is slowly drawn into their fold. Eliot is there when Charles gives up the law for medicine; and when he decides to marry a distant cousin with ties to the communists, Eliot is also there. Much of the novel is taken up with the March family’s domestic crises – not just Charles’s career and marriage, but also his sister’s marriage to a gentile, Getliffe’s younger brother. The two sort of come together in the final third of the book, in the late 1930s, when some shady dealing by barrister Getliffe seems to incriminate the March family patriarch, a Whitehall mandarin and Charles’s uncle, and a communist-backed magazine to which Charles’s wife contributes intends to publish details of it all. There’s a considered, and mannered, voice to Snow’s prose, more evident I felt in this novel than the earlier two I’ve read, and while the plot is not exactly gripping, the characters are well-drawn and engaging, and the whole is an interesting window on an earlier time.
Owners’ Workshop Manual: Gemini, David Woods & David M Harland (2015). Like Haynes’s earlier Owners’ Workshop Manual on Soyuz, this is not a how-to-fix-it guide to NASA’s Gemini spacecraft. It is instead a detailed exploration of the Gemini program and spacecraft. Perhaps it doesn’t boast the number of diagrams of NASA’s own technical documentation, but it comes pretty close. It’s also very readable. And very interesting. I hadn’t known, for example, about the difficulties experienced by Gene Cernan during the US’s second spacewalk during Gemini IX-A. Good stuff.
The Sand Men, Christopher Fowler (2015). I read this book for review in Interzone. I’d been intrigued by it since first hearing of it, since it’s set in Dubai, a place I know well (although my knowledge is now some ten years out of date). I grew up in the Gulf states – including living twice in Dubai – and later spent a decade working in Abu Dhabi. Sadly, I was not impressed.
Changing Planes, Ursula K LeGuin (2003). There’s a cunning pun in that title there. It goes like this: a person waiting one day in an airport to catch a connecting flight accidentally discovered a way to visiting other worlds, or, as Le Guin has it in this collection, other planes. Get it? Aeroplanes and alternate universes/planes. And hence this collection of, well, fables, all based on other planes visited by a narrator from Earth. I am not a big fan, I must admit, of fables, though I am certainly a fan of Le Guin’s fiction. So while I can appreciate the art and cleverness with which Changing Planes is put together, I didn’t much enjoy the stories. Meh.
The XY Conspiracy, Lori Selke (2013). I’d been planning to buy a couple of Aqueduct Press books for a while – Necessary Ill and Elysium – and browsing their site one evening, I saw the description of Flesh & Wires and that sounded interesting too… So I placed an order, and bunged a couple of Conversation Pieces novellas into my basket as well – The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze. Jyn is am exotic dancer (stripper) and a UFO nut. When she spots a Man in Black lurking outside the San Francisco club where she works, she panics and decides to leave town. And since she’s doing that, she decides to tour all the important UFO sites as she heads north to Washington, across to Montana and then south through Colorado and Texas into New Mexico and, er, Roswell. Jyn also has a theory that the Y chromosome is a mutation, part of an experiment by aliens to prevent parthenogenesis in mammals. An interesting and sympathetic narrator and good use of UFO mythology. Worth reading.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118