2012 Historical Fiction

Brilliance by Anthony McCarten

Brilliance Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: invention, light bulb, Edison, electric chair, immorality

I’m drawn towards books with shiny gold covers so Brilliance stood out when I was browsing a local charity shop. I’d heard nothing about it, but the simple blurb persuaded me to give it a try:

A novel about the brightest and darkest sides of human invention.

I’m so pleased I took a chance on this book – it was entertaining, informative, and shocking in equal measure.

Brilliance is a fictionalised biography of Thomas Edison, showing the experiences of this famous inventor as he goes from the high of inventing the electric light, to financial lows as he fails to monetise his invention properly. Whilst at his lowest he is approached by the banker JP Morgan, who persuades him to invent the electric chair. This leads him into a disturbing new life, introducing a series of moral dilemmas.

I’ve read many books which mention Edison, but this was the first to really bring him to life. His relationship with his wife was touching to read about and I loved the way their hopes are fears were exposed. There was a real emotional depth to the text, made all the more special by the quality of the writing. 

It was also the first book to make me appreciate how groundbreaking the invention of the electric light was. I hadn’t realised how fearful the public were of this new product and how hard it was to change their minds. The scene from the Columbus Day parade was particularly revealing:

Families applauded and laughed from behind the cordons. But the happy shouts died away to silence and even fear as the Edison Electric Light Company’s new promotional exhibit rounded the corner.
At first, parents covered their children’s eyes. There were screams. Women put hands into their mouth. Men peeled off their bowler hats in slow motion. What was this? Were they witnessing a catastrophe?

There was a bit of science in this book, but it never felt dry or overly technical. It was all well-researched and came across as authentic for the time period. Some people might find the scenes involving the testing of the electric chair too distressing, but I felt they simply explained the facts, which are disturbing however you describe them.

Overall this was a gripping read that gave me a new insight into this period of history. Recommended, especially to those who appreciate good science in their literature. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

McCarten does more than rewrite Edison’s biography, he gives him a voice. River City Reading

If the book has any weaknesses it’s due to the fact that it’s not a full blown biography but if it were and had just stuck to the facts it would lose all its colour and charm. The Truth about Lies

It’s shocking in places, funny in others and I did find myself really feeling for Thomas Edison. Novel Kicks

2012 Recommended books

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra

Into That Forest

Five words from the blurb: girls, lost, wild, Tasmania, tigers

Into That Forest is a powerful book about two girls who find themselves alone in the wilderness after a tragic accident. Lost in the dense forests of Tasmania, they are cold and hungry; but their lives are saved by a Tasmanian tiger. They develop a relationship with a pair of these wonderful creatures, learning to hunt and communicate with them. Over time they begin to forget their human past, developing the posture and expressions of the tigers. This book does a fantastic job of questioning what makes us human and how close we are to being wild animals.  


Tasmanian tigers are large, carnivorous marsupials. I knew nothing about them before reading this book, but the atmospheric descriptions brought them to life. By the end I felt I completely understood the behaviour of these animals. They were thought to have become extinct in 1936, but recent discoveries indicate that there may be a small population surviving in remote regions. I hope that this is the case. 

The two girls were fantastic characters, each with their own unique personality. I loved the way they had different reactions to the situations they faced. It all felt very realistic and I felt immense empathy for them both throughout. 

The book was narrated in a halting dialect. It took a few pages to become used to this style, but it quickly became natural:

There were no reason to remember English any more. Words were no use to us when we were talking to the tigers, it were much easier to use our own language of grunts, growls, yawns, snuffles, coughing, looking, staring….Me parents, well, they just slowly slipped out of me mind. They were like dreams, not real people.

My only problem with this book was the small section towards the end involving the ship. I can see why it was included, but I felt that much of the emotional power of the text was lost over this section and I wish it hadn’t been included. Luckily this episode was brief and book quickly returned to its fantastic plot, finishing with appropriate power and sentiment.  

This book had me gripped from beginning to end. I loved the originality of the story and the way it introduced me to the lives of these half-forgotten creatures.  Highly recommended.


Has anyone read anything else written by Louis Nowra?

Was it as good as this one? 




2012 Books in Translation Chunkster

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman

Traveller of the Century Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia

Five words from the blurb: mysterious, city, literary, love, translation

When Stu announced he was holding a blog event to celebrate translated literature published by Pushkin Press I immediately pencilled Traveller of the Century onto my list. It had been receiving almost universal praise from the blogosphere and I was keen to sample its literary magic. I’m so pleased that Stu pushed this up my TBR pile as it is one of those timeless classics that encourages you to look at the world in a slightly different light.

The book begins with a man arriving in a mysterious city. Every day he walks around the local area and is slightly puzzled by the way buildings and roads appear to change location overnight. This section had a magical feel that reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but the writing quality meant I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoyed reading about the weird occurrences.  

As the story progressed it became more grounded in reality and I found that I had to read the book in small sections as the information was so dense – it felt more like a series of essays than a novel. Much of the book focused on issues around translation, particularly of poetry. I have to admit that I’m not a big poetry fan and so some of the discussions did nothing for me, but luckily these were soon followed by ones that did. 

It’s the opposite of what I expected, she said, metre in German or English poetry resembles a dance, while in Spanish it is like a military march. In German poetry the dancer marks the rhythm until he decides to turn round and go to the next verse, regardless of how many steps he takes. It is more spoken, more from the lungs, isn’t it? Spanish verse is beautiful and yet there is something rigid about it, something imposed that doesn’t seem to originate from speech, one has to count both accents and syllables, it’s almost Pythagorean.

The plot was simple, but contained a beautiful love story and some (interesting?!) sex scenes. There was very little forward momentum, but watching the love blossom between the two characters was so heart-warming. I prefer books that are more plot driven, but it is impossible to ignore the quality of the writing in this book.

If you have any interest in the process of translation then you should buy a copy now!




Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

Hope: A Tragedy

Five words from the blurb: hiding, attic, history, Nazi, family

Hope: A Tragedy begins with Solomon Kugel, a Jewish-American man, discovering Anne Frank in his attic. Kugel’s attempts to inform authorities are met with disbelief so he decides to look after the elderly woman himself. This leads to many entertaining scenes, but the humor is cleverly used to deliver deeper messages about the guilt faced by Holocaust survivors and how society feels it must atone for the suffering of others during WWII.

I loved the sound of this book when I first heard about it a few years ago, but was reluctant to read it as I haven’t had much success with Jewish comedies before. Then I came across a cheap copy in a charity shop and decided to give it a try. I’m so pleased I did because it handles difficult subjects with originality and wit.

We are rational creatures, Professor Jove explained: hope is irrational. We thus set ourselves up for one dispiriting fall after the next. Anger and depression are not diseases or dysfunctions or anomalies; they are perfectly rational responses to the myriad of avoidable disappointments that begin in thoroughly irrational hope.
Kugel wasn’t sure he understood. Professor Jove smiled warmly.
Tell me, he said. Hitler was the last century’s greatest what?
Kugel had shrugged.
Optimist, said Professor Jove. Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years. That’s why he was the biggest monster.

Some of the passages could be considered offensive (especially to those with strong religious beliefs) but I felt the satire was justified as it highlighted many of the problems with today’s society.

There were a few references to the Jewish religion that went over my head, but these didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. It will probably resonate more strongly with those of Jewish descent, but most of the themes are universal and tackled in an original and thought provoking way.

Stay away from Hope: A Tragedy if you find the idea of Holocaust humor abhorrent, but if you have an open mind and are willing to tolerate some outrageous plot developments then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this book.



2012 Non Fiction

Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben

Into the Abyss

Five words from the blurb: plane, crash, remote, survivors, criminal

In 1984 a small commuter plane crashed into a remote Canadian forest. This book explains the reasons for the tragedy and shows how the survivors reacted after the event. The author, Carol Shaben, is the daughter of one of the passengers and has an emotional connection to the tragedy that is evident throughout.

The book was beautifully written with the tension building slowly:

Lightning split the clouds and the sky hummed hot and electric around him. Seconds later the air cracked with a deafening boom of thunder. Erik felt his insides churn, and a clammy wetness glossed his palms where they gripped the yoke.

Events were described with a sensitivity that enabled to me read about what happened without becoming disturbed. It was also very well structured and information about everyone involved was woven cleverly into the action.

Unfortunately (and I feel bad saying this about a true event) the story wasn’t interesting enough for me to be able to recommend it to others. The survivors were rescued quite quickly so they didn’t have time to demonstrate any real survival skills or to form complex relations with each other. I lost interest in the book about half way through (when they were rescued) and wish I’d abandoned it at this point as the details of their lives after the crash failed to engage me.

The blurb of the book emphasized the presence of a criminal on the plane and I expected him to play a far greater role. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that he was a fairly normal man and the adrenalin filled comments on the cover were very much exaggerated.

I also think that this book would have had a greater impact if it had been written 25 years ago. The dangerous practices of the commuter plane industry are no longer relevant and the navigation problems have been solved by our new technology. It was a mildly interesting glimpse into the problems of the past, but I often felt that she was preaching to the converted.

It is all such a shame because Carol Shaben is clearly a skilled writer. I hope that she finds a more complex subject to write about for her next book and if she does I’ll be at the front of the queue to try it.


2012 Commonwealth Writer's Prize

Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba

Beneath the Darkening Sky Shortlisted for 2013 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

Five words from the blurb: child, soldiers, Africa, plight, resonates

Beneath the Darkening Sky is a very important book. It highlights the plight of African child soldiers; explaining how they end up carrying guns and murdering people at such a young age. It is narrated by Obinna, a nine-year-old boy who is taken from his village and forced to become a soldier. It shows how innocent children become hardened to suffering and death and how abuse slowly turns them into violent individuals.

Obinna is an engaging narrator. His thoughts and emotions jump from the page and give the reader a shocking insight into the horror these children have to endure. The way Obinna’s attitude changes over the course of the novel is cleverly done as it enables the reader to understand and empathise with someone committing atrocities – a rare and special thing to find in fiction.

The descriptions were shocking in their simplicity. The passage below is a good example of the level of violence contained in the book and the sad confusion experienced by children who have never witnessed it before:

The Captain steps away and points his shining machete at one of the boys, an older one with scars on his cheek. The boy screams like he’s won something and runs forward, his own machete raised. What’s he doing?
The boy swings his machete down, onto the old man’s neck. The old man’s head is not joined to his body. Both are lying on the ground, blood pumping out of the neck just like a goat killed for a feast. The rebels cry out in celebration. The killer boy grabs the head from the ground. The old man’s eyes are still open. Maybe he’s still alive. Maybe they can put the head back on.

Beneath the Darkening Sky is powerful book that doesn’t shy away from the truth. It can be seen as a cry for help; giving a voice to the thousands of children who aren’t allowed to choose their future. It is also a fantastic story with lots of twists and turns. If you enjoy reading about the darker side of humanity and like to experience a full range of emotions then this is the perfect choice.

Highly recommended.