Monday 31 May 2021

The Planets - Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox (2019)


Rating: Admirable

I bought this book thinking that it would give me a quick update on everything that has been discovered about the solar system in recent times. It turns out that I've actually been keeping up with most recent discoveries, however for those that haven't been keeping up, or know very little about our family of planets trapped in the gravity-well of old Sol, then this book would a good place to start. The Planets gives a fairly straight forward summation about each planet by, in most cases, grouping them together and discussing them related to each other, the exceptions being Jupiter and Saturn. Most of the various significant moons and the astroid belt get a look in as well. The basic facts and the more astounding aspects of each planet are presented in easily digestible chapters. Also featured are informative tables and quotes from scientists meant to either underline the main points or to engender a feeling of profundity, although this didn't always work for me, but perhaps I'm a bit jaded in this regard, or perhaps the font was just too small for my middle-aged eyes.

The surface of Titan

One of the best features of The Planets is the focus on the the history of planetary exploration via highlighting the incredible stories of the probes humanity has sent out into the solar system, such as Pioneer 10, Mariner 4 and the two Voyagers. Such achievements are truly significant and without these probes our knowledge of the planets would be quite paltry. Of particular interest is the story of the Messenger probe, which undertook a remarkable journey to investigate the planet Mercury, which is a much more fascinating planet than most people would expect. There's also the Cassini probe, which explored Saturn, at the same time launching the much smaller Huygens probe onto the surface of my favourite moon - Titan. I remember that era of exploration clearly and it was great to read a fairly detailed account of their discoveries. However, detail, or lack of it in some cases, is also a flaw of the book. Obviously The Planets is a fairly generalised account of our solar system, but considering just how little was known about Pluto before the arrival of the New Horizons probe in 2015 there is scant detail about this amazing 'dwarf planet'. There was also little information about the trans Plutonian objects, such as Eris and Makemake. Although this is more understandable considering we have not visited them, some extrapolation would have added something extra to what was a rather truncated end to an otherwise useful and at times inspiring account of what is essentially our home turf in this galaxy of ours.

Pluto: more information please

Sunday 23 May 2021

The Queen's Gambit - Walter Tevis (1983)


Rating: Excellent

Like millions of others I watched Netflix's adaptation of The Queen's Gambit (2020) and enjoyed it immensely, unlike many others, however, I did not take up playing chess as I'm simply too obsessed with Scrabble to undertake improving on my pathetic abilities untested since my twenties. I had no idea at the time that the series was based on a novel, a novel by the amazing Walter Tevis no less. Firstly, the novel and the series are remarkably similar, which is unsurprising considering the novel is almost perfect. Despite knowing what was going to happen and re-experiencing scenes and dialogue that was repeated in the series, The Queen's Gambit was a superb read. Beth Harmon, orphaned at an early age and exposed to the game of chess by the orphanage's resident janitor, Mr Shaibel, grows up both struggling with addiction and flexing her prodigious talent for chess. Chess? Who would have thought that the game could be so compelling? Tevis manages to totally enthral despite reguarly describing the technical machinations of the game as Harmon climbs the chess compitition rankings. My advice is to not worry about trying to understand the game, rather let yourself get caught up in the tension and drama of the competition and simply enjoy what Tevis called his "tribute to brainy women."

Benny and Beth: style and substance

Harmon is an intriguing character, intelligent and, on the surface at least, emotionally cold; she is also a fragile and sympathetic protagonist who easily evokes within the reader a sense of protection and the wish for her to succeed. Although the plot sees Harmon struggle with her demons, she does not suffer too greatly and the narrative rewards the reader with some feel-good scenes without overdoing it. Tevis was an accomplished and economical writer, nothing is wasted and the narrative is never bloated with excess description or character over-development. Support characters, such as fellow chess genius Benny Watts, are rendered vibrant and fascinating within a few paragraphs. In the case of Watts, it is no wonder the series recreates him precisely, as he is absolutely perfect in the novel. As I touched on earlier, although I basically knew how the novel was going to pan-out, I still felt caught up in the tension, which is testament to Tevis' story-telling genius. The Queen's Gambit also has one of the most satisfying and well written end-games ( I couldn't help myself...) that is tense, succinct and satisfying. Despite having read The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) and the short story collection, one of the best I've ever read, Far From Home (1981), I had no idea that Tevis wrote The Hustler (1959) and The Color of Money (1984). I'm not particularly interested in pool sharks, but, like with this novel, I might read them for the brilliant storytelling abilities of Tevis alone.