Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

hollow city

This is the second novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children. It is about a group of kids with special supernatural abilities. As we learn in the first book, some of these kids have been alive for a very long time, and have been in a time-travelling loop in Wales being kept alive by their part-woman, part-bird custodian. Our narrator is the slightly more normal but still quite peculiar sixteen-year old Jacob, from Florida.

The story on it’s own isn’t bad, but the thing that makes this book (and the last one) so special is the pictures. The book is illustrated by old black and white photos found by Riggs on his various travels. Many of them show weird and wonderful people and he uses them to embellish his story.

I find myself wondering about Riggs’ process. I imagine him with a huge box of old photographs, sorting through them, and saying to himself “hmm… maybe this boy brings these clay dolls to life,” and “maybe these men in bed with the skeletons have been aged forward to avoid being captured by the bad guys,” and “perhaps this little girl is hiding in a bathtub because she thinks the bombs can’t hurt her there.” I would love to know who the real people in the photos are, because they are almost all genuine, unaltered, weird found photos. But I also like Riggs’ imaginings of them.

The story feels like a medium to tie the photos together rather than a story for it’s own sake, but as long as Riggs keeps finding such weird and wonderful imagines I will carry on reading his tales.

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Autobiography by Morrissey

Morrissey at book signing

I am not Morrissey’s biggest fan, but I do find him a very quotable bloke, so I decided to listen to his autobiography, read by David Morrissey (no relation). Personally, I have the very strong belief that the author should read his own audiobook. David does a good job, but I feel that Steven would have put across a completely accurate meaning. There are many gratifying references to his own lyrics, and it would be nice to hear Steven delivering his own jokes.

As everyone who has ever listened to any of his music knows, he is not the cheeriest of people. He begins by telling us of his childhood. His family did not have a huge amount of money and he disliked school. Nothing unusual there, but he gives the impression that he somehow considers himself to be so much more tragic than the average tragic teenager. It would appear that he decided one day to become a singer, then the very next day the Smiths existed. There is a bit more to it than that, but he really does not give very much attention to the beginnings of his music career, which seems odd, because isn’t that the main thing that the kids want to know?

He spends an awful lot of time grumbling about what various people have said about him. This journalist printed that, this band member lied about this, that record label boss did the other, and poor old innocent Steven is so hard done by. I suppose this is his chance to talk to the world in his own voice, but I find it hard to be sympathetic to this “oh, the world has been so unkind to me” attitude.

This is not the first time that I have read an autobiography and found that I do not like the author very much but with this one I feel that I still do not know a great deal about him. He goes through some things in tortuous, ranting, waffling detail. There was a court case involving royalties for ex Smiths band members that Morrissey goes into into in intricate detail that can only be born out of endless sleepless nights of replaying conversations in his head. That said, I enjoy his insights to how life is being an artists at the whims of the music business, and his story highlights how the hugely popular artists can be poorly handled to the detriment of all involved. This is an interesting book, even for those who are not huge fans of Morrissey, because his music has been so influential.

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Water 4.0 by David Sedlak

water sedlak

As Sedlak says himself, modern urban water systems are unobtrusive by design. We rarely see them or think about them, as long as they are functioning correctly. Sedlak suggests that the infrastructure of the system that brings water to our homes is in great need of an upgrade. This book explains how civilisation has developed a water system over the past three thousand years or so, beginning with the Romans’ Water 1.0 as he calls it, through Europe’s developments in treating sewage and dealing with disease (Water 2.0), up to our current system of Water 3.0.

I never thought I would find myself typing this sentence but he says some very interesting things about chlorine. And he says some rather disturbing things about storm drains. The book is quite dry, but this Berkeley professor manages to explain everything in simple enough terms for a non-sciencey person such as myself to follow.

We are reading this for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Club because water is a subject of discussion in this city possibly more than many other cities in the developed world. We live in the desert. We do not have a great deal of water here, but there is still a surprising amount of lawns here. Sedlak talks about Vegas a little, and explains how lawns might be sustained here in the future. He tells us of historical instances where the chemicals that us pesky humans release into the water can affect all the other species on the planet. He does not speculate too much on what might yet to be discovered, but I suppose one could write an entirely separate book on just that.

Sedlak suggests several credible and thought-provoking options for future water systems, but basically concludes that each community will probably come to various different conclusions depending on it’s natural resources and cityscape.

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Water 4.0 by David Sedlak Discussion Questions

We will be discussing Water 4.0 at the Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Group in a couple of weeks.  These are the questions I will use to keep the conversation flowing.

 

Had you given much thought to water supply previous to reading this book? What did you know about it?

 

Has Sedlak made a good job of explaining the complexities of urban plumbing in the developed world?

 

Do you think we have advanced much in three thousand years or do we still have a long way to go?

 

With hindsight, where do you think city planners have made mistakes in the past with water systems?

 

Do you have any special knowledge of any of the methods Sedlak discusses as being part of Water 4.0 (or Water 3.1)?

 

Would you personally consider re-using your home’s wastewater, getting rid of your lawn or installing a vacuum toilet?

 

Will you feel differently next time you swim in a lake or the ocean after reading this book?

 

What do you know about what is happening here in Las Vegas to improve our water system? How do you think things will change in Las Vegas in the near future?

 

What problems do you envisage in this area in the near future?

 

How do you think people will react to water bill price hikes to spend on improving the system for future generations?

 

Do you agree with Sedlak’s suggestions for the future? Do you see any drawbacks to any of his suggestions?

 

 

 

 

 

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The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

liars club

This is a memoir of Karr’s childhood, growing up in the ’60s, mostly in a small town in East Texas, and a little in a town in Colorado. Karr’s parents are alcoholics and it is an understatement to say that they do not take very good care of their children.

The subtitle is “a wickedly funny account of an apocalyptic childhood.” It was recommended by one of my favourite non-fiction writers, Mary Roach. So I suggested it for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Club. I think my expectations were too high because, although it was funny in parts, I don’t find this sort of thing particularly amusing. Actually, I found the story utterly tragic. It has a happy ending because Karr and her sister turn out just fine and both seem to be quite successful. But it all could have gone very badly for them if it wasn’t for their own intelligence, resilience and good luck.

I do not think this family is especially unusual. I know of many families headed by alcoholics, and in this case at least Karr’s parents’ marriage was fairly loving and stable, at least for the majority of the time. Awful things have happened in her mothers’ past and with no mental health support she turned to drinking to deal with her problems. The book consists mostly of anecdotes about when terrible things happen to Karr and her older sister.

I read most of this book in a horrified state, and not at all as amused as the jacket promised I would be. One of the quotes even said “the essential American story,” which I find astonishing. This was a sorry tale of child neglect and abuse and I am glad that I am finished with it. It seems that Mary Karr is now a very successful writer, and I am so glad that she could rise above her tough childhood but I will not be reading any more of her books, I cannot cope with the trauma of it all.

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This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

this is where I leave you

This was an absolute breeze to read. It was funny and charming and entertaining. Our protagonist, Judd, has been called back to his childhood home to sit shiva with his family following his father’s death. Shiva is a Jewish tradition of putting up with your family for not just one but seven days following the funeral of an immediate family member. He has a messed up younger brother, a sister bound to an idiot husband and three screaming kids, a sister-in-law desperate to conceive, an eccentric mother, and various friends and family who pass by to add some spice. Judd himself has recently caught his wife cheating on him with his boss. Hilarity ensues.

There is a story here, of the characters and their conflicts and resolution. There is a nice beginning, middle and end. As a story it is fun to read. But it follows a theme of life itself. It centres around a death, but the characters are all generations of the family, from the almost-dead aunts and uncles, to the parents of grown-up kids, the grown-up kids and their spouses, and the kids, and of course, the embryos.

A film has been made of this book and it is due for release this year. I refrained from checking who was cast in the roles until I got to the end of the book, because they never cast as I see them. Sure enough, the actors are nothing like the characters were in my head, but it looks like a good cast, so I look forward to seeing the film.

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Looking for Alaska by John Green

looking for alaska

The Alaska in this novel is a teenage girl. Our protagonist, Miles, decides that he wants to go to boarding school to seek “the Great Perhaps” – to have new experiences and meet new people. He makes some cool friends and one of them is Alaska, who he quickly falls in love with. Actually, everything happens pretty quickly because the novel is 220 pages long. It is aimed at young adults, and maybe that is because they all have such short attention spans these days.

I quite liked it, but I read it because The Fault in Our Stars was such a work of beauty, so maybe my expectations were too high and I did not love it. There’s rather a lot of sex and swearing and drinking in this book. I know there is a lot of those things in the average teenager’s life, too, but I don’t see it too much in the books aimed at them, by the time I was this age I had moved on to adult books, as I expect most kids have, so maybe it’s the younger ones that are reading this stuff.

I liked it, but I wonder if he was trying to tackle too much in too short a time. The characters are difficult to believe when I think of what myself and my friends were like at that age.

Miles likes to learn famous figures from history’s last words, so the book is peppered with them. Alaska likes poetry and novels, and they discuss Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s beautiful The General in his Labyrinth. In it, a fictionalised Simon Bolivar says “how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” (of suffering – ie life). And this rather over-dramatic and depressive teen discusses this idea throughout the book (because she’s seen so much pain, at seventeen or so at a posh school, yeah, right). This, along with a little religious instruction from Green / a teacher we are guided through a crash course in life, death, the universe and everything. Did I mention that it’s 220 pages long?

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