28 May, 2007

Rad Decision, by James Aach. Book review

Edition reviewed, Impressive Imprint, 2006, ISBN 978-0-6151-3657-8.

Rad Decision is set in a fictitious nuclear power station in Indiana, USA, in 1986. There’s a walk-on part for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and a few scenes set at the Chernobyl reactor accident. All the main characters and events are fictional.

Fairview Station is a nuclear power station supplying 580 million watts of electricity to the US national grid. Unknown to its manager, Steve Borden, one of his team of trusted employees is a Soviet spy planted in the US almost ten years before and awaiting the signal for sabotage. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, rogue elements in the Soviet espionage system order this agent, Vitaly Kruchinkin, to activate his plan to wreck Fairview. A mole has alerted the FBI to potential danger, but can agent Liz Rezhnitsky identify Kruchinkin in time? And if she fails, can Steve and his team of engineers prevent an accident turning into a disaster?

As I said in my review of Pompeii, I’m always pleased to see a thriller centred on an engineer rather than a spy or a soldier. In Rad Decision the technology and control systems of the power plant are central to the plot, not just unexplained shiny objects in the background to a gunfight. The author, James Aach, is an engineer with twenty years’ experience in the US nuclear power industry, and this no doubt explains the atmosphere of verisimilitude in the novel. My background is in the biological sciences, not power engineering, so I am utterly unqualified to judge whether the technical details are correct. They feel real, in the same way as a convincingly constructed historical novel feels real.

All necessary technical information is explained as the story unfolds, partly through the eyes of a recently qualified graduate engineer learning his way around Fairview Station, so the reader knows enough to understand the story but doesn’t get overwhelmed. The characters are neither entirely good nor entirely bad, regular guys (and gals) each with their own concerns and hopes. Even the saboteur is given convincing reasons for his actions. There are a lot of characters, with no single individual dominating the story, and some readers may miss having one or a few central characters to identify with. I personally liked having a range of people to get interested in, once I got used to the idea that there was a large cast.

I found the beginning rather confusing. The story threads that will eventually combine at Fairview Station in May 1986 begin with different people at different times and places, and as the narrative skips back and forth between them it can be hard to follow. I had to go back and read parts again as I’d forgotten who people were and whether I’d met them before. It settles down after about 30-40 pages, once the story has moved to Fairview as an operational plant and most of the cast are in place. I also found the story seemed rather slow to start, with a lot of build-up before we get to the main event.

Once the event happens, the tension becomes genuinely thrilling as the engineers race against time to repair the damage before Fairview goes into meltdown. Who could have thought that attempts to fix an oil pump and a diesel generator could have a reader like me, with no mechanical knowledge, on the edge of her chair? For me, this aspect of the novel was far more gripping than the espionage aspect. The FBI and the KGB get to play a role, as they do in any number of thrillers, but the real heroes of Rad Decision are the mechanics and engineers battling recalcitrant machinery in an effort to avert a disaster. Will they succeed? Will the fix work? Will something else go wrong? That’s where the suspense comes from. I was reminded of the film Apollo 13, which also manages to generate nail-biting suspense without recourse to conventional mayhem.

A gripping thriller, firmly rooted in the real world, that will also painlessly teach you a lot about nuclear power.

Has anyone else read it?

23 May, 2007

Fictional characters you would like to meet

This is a variation on a meme on Tanzanite’s blog. As I’ve already listed historical characters I would like to know more about elsewhere, this list is fictional characters only.

Three fictional characters I’d like to meet:

1. Lord Peter Wimsey, from the detective novels by Dorothy L Sayers. He’s intelligent, witty and has exquisite manners, so even if he thought me an idiot he’d never let it show.

2. Faramir, from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Another intelligent, articulate man with courteous manners. Hmm, maybe there’s a pattern developing here?

3. Elizabeth Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Sparkling wit and vivacity, coupled with sound common sense.

Three fictional characters I’m heartily glad that I’ll never have to meet:

1. Mr Collins, from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Unctuous, self-righteous, snobbish creep.

2. Bertie Wooster, from the Jeeves novels by PG Wodehouse. The hapless Bertie is hilarious in the pages of a novel, but in real life I should imagine a little of his company would go a very long way.

3. Most of the cast of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Yes, I know it’s a classic and all that, but I’m afraid I find Heathcliff, the older Cathy and both Lintons about as sympathetic as spoiled children.

Three fictional characters who scare me:

1. Mrs Danvers, from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, who stalks the corridors of Manderley like a malevolent black spider.

2. General Woundwort, from Watership Down by Richard Adams. Don’t believe a rabbit character can be scary? The General is.

3. Ralf Isambard, from The Heaven Tree by Edith Pargeter. Chilling study in obsessive hatred.

Anyone else care to join in?

21 May, 2007

May recipe: Plaice rolls with asparagus

Asparagus has been used in the kitchen at least since the 3rd century AD, when the Roman writer Apicius included it in his cookbook. Apparently it’s the source of the name of the amino acid asparagine. I never knew that, even though I used to be able to draw asparagine's chemical structure; there are some things they don’t cover in biochemistry courses.

May is the height of the asparagus season in Britain. We have a row in the garden, nicely mature now after being planted about 10 years ago, and as asparagus spears can grow at an amazing rate when the weather is warm, we have rather a lot of it at this time of year. Luckily there never seems to be a problem eating it all. I particularly like asparagus with delicate dishes, such as fish, omelettes and quiches. Here’s one fish dish that goes very well with asparagus and the first of the season’s Jersey new potatoes. If you don’t like or can’t get asparagus, substitute another vegetable of your choice or a green side salad. I imagine the rolls would work equally well with any thin white fish fillets, though I always use plaice.

Plaice rolls (serves 2)

2 plaice fillets
2-3 oz (approx 50-75 g) mushrooms
2 large spring onions
1 tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) chopped fresh herbs of your choice, e.g. parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon (or dried herbs if fresh herbs aren’t available)

For the cheese sauce:
0.5 oz (approx 15 g) butter
0.5 tablespoon (0.5 x 15 ml spoon) flour
5 fluid oz (0.25 pint, or approx 140 ml) milk
1 oz cheese, grated, crumbled or chopped into small pieces. The only requirement is that it should melt in a reasonable time. I generally use an inexpensive medium Cheddar, but any hard or semi-hard cheese of your choice will do.

Chop the mushrooms and spring onions.
Fry gently in butter until softened.
Remove from the heat, stir in the herbs and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Spread half the mushroom and onion mixture on each plaice fillet, and roll each fillet up like a Swiss roll.
Put the plaice rolls in a buttered ovenproof dish.

To make the sauce:
Melt the butter in a small saucepan.
Remove from the heat and stir in the flour.
Gradually blend in the milk a little at a time, stirring thoroughly after each addition to remove the lumps. (Despite the dire warnings of school cookery teachers, a few lumps aren’t the end of the world, so don’t worry if your sauce isn’t perfectly smooth. As long as you don’t slosh in all the milk at once it should work well enough).
Return the pan to the heat and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. The sauce will thicken as it starts to boil. Reduce the heat, stir in the grated cheese, and simmer for a minute or so until the cheese has melted. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour the cheese sauce over the plaice rolls.
Bake in a moderately hot oven, about 180 C, for 25-30 minutes until the plaice is cooked and the sauce is bubbling and just starting to brown.
Serve with asparagus (or other vegetable of your choice) or salad, and new potatoes or rice.

15 May, 2007

Merlin Trilogy, by Mary Stewart. Book review

The Crystal Cave
The Hollow Hills
The Last Enchantment

Set in Britain in roughly the second half of the fifth century AD, Mary Stewart’s take on the familiar King Arthur legend is narrated by Merlin the enchanter.

The first novel, The Crystal Cave, introduces Myrddin Emrys (Merlin) as the illegitimate son of the unmarried Princess of South Wales and an unknown father. His lonely childhood, tolerated rather than accepted at his grandfather’s court, takes a turn for the better when Merlin encounters the wise Galapas, a hermit living in a cave above the town. Galapas teaches the young Merlin not only medicine, music, natural history and languages, but also how to use his strange spiritual gifts of vision and prophecy. The Crystal Cave of the title refers to a crystal-lined geode off Galapas’ cave, where Merlin first experiences his power of second sight. His grandfather’s death and his uncle’s ambition send Merlin, aged 12, in flight for his life. Chance - or fate - takes him to Brittany where Aurelianus Ambrosius, rightful King of Britain, is living in exile and building up an invasion force to reclaim his throne. Ambrosius (Latin form of the name Emrys) is revealed as Merlin’s real father. Merlin joins his father’s cause, and his powers of prophecy and vision place him at the centre of tumultuous events as Ambrosius challenges the usurper Vortigern for the throne of Britain and Ambrosius’ brother Uther burns with illicit passion for another man’s wife.

Beginning at the point where The Crystal Cave left off, The Hollow Hills traces Merlin’s fate-driven quest for the great sword of Emperor Magnus Maximus, known in Welsh legend as the hero Macsen Wledig. As the hermit of the Green Chapel in the Wild Forest in England’s Lake District, Merlin is tutor and guide to the young Arthur, born as a result of King Uther’s illicit tryst with Ygraine of Cornwall and being brought up in anonymity as the ward of Count Ector at Galava (modern Ambleside). Once again Merlin’s powers are called upon to bring the young Arthur to his destiny as Uther’s heir and successor – but not even Merlin can guard Arthur against the dark seed of destruction sown by Uther’s daughter Morgause.

The last in the trilogy, The Last Enchantment, tells the story of Merlin during Arthur’s reign. Having brought Arthur to the crown and the sword of his destiny, Merlin’s powers are fading and he is growing old and ill. Arthur’s two sisters Morgause and Morgan are brewing poison and treachery, and as the danger gathers Merlin seeks a pupil who will be able to take up his role as Arthur’s enchanter when he is gone. In the lovely Nimue Merlin finds his heart’s desire and recognises her as an enchantress with powers as great as his own. But how is she connected with Merlin’s foreknowledge of his own fate, entombed alive in his own cave in the hollow hill?

The trilogy is beautifully written in limpid prose. Landscape, wildlife and the changing seasons are especially well conveyed in vivid descriptive detail, bringing the world fully to life. The author says in the Note to The Crystal Cave that all the places described are authentic. There is no equivalent statement in the Notes to the other two novels, so I am not certain whether the same philosophy was carried throughout the series. Some of them can be pinpointed on a map, such as the Roman forts in the Aire Gap, while the site of the Green Chapel seems to be somewhere near Grasmere in the English Lake District but I wouldn’t like to say exactly where.

A series of novels with Merlin as the central character is always likely to contain magic, and sure enough there are some fantastical elements. Merlin has magic that works, can call fire from the air, can see events far removed in time and place, and fate or destiny dictates some episodes that would otherwise be outrageous coincidences. An interesting feature, perhaps connected with the importance of fate as a driver of events, is that Merlin’s magic is not entirely under his control. Whatever its nature, his power ebbs and flows, and Merlin interprets this as showing that he is being used as a tool by the god. God, singular, in Merlin’s world view. He accepts and honours numerous religions and deities, but believes, “All the gods are one God.”

The characters are complex and interesting, rarely either entirely bad or entirely good. Good people do bad things, and even the evil Morgause is accorded some measure of understanding for her actions. Merlin himself is an attractive character, which is just as well since the trilogy is narrated by him in first person and so the reader is perforce in Merlin’s company throughout. I often find first-person narratives frustrating, restricted as they are to a single character’s experiences and values. Fortunately Merlin is observant, curious, tolerant, a traveller in both body and mind, ever eager for new knowledge whatever its source, and his second sight allows him to recount events beyond his own experience. This has the effect of widening the scope of the narrative and allowing the story to unfold on a broader canvas than might otherwise be the case.

Most readers will, I would guess, be familiar with the Arthur legend in general terms before reading the trilogy. In a way this perhaps mirrors the experience of the storytellers of old – a Welsh bard getting up to recount The Dream of Macsen Wledig or an English scop reciting Beowulf must have recognised that most of the audience already knew the ending. Some stories seem to have an indefinable narrative life that makes them absorbing even when you know the ending, and the Merlin trilogy manages to achieve that. At least it did for me – the episode of the entry into Tintagel and subsequent escape at the end of The Crystal Cave remains gripping no matter how many times I read it, even when I know perfectly well what happens to everyone involved.

The starting point for the trilogy was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regium Brittaniae), according to the Author’s Note to The Crystal Cave. This immediately gives you fair warning not to get pedantic about historical accuracy (insofar as there is any such thing in an era with so few sources and so few facts as post-Roman Britain). Geoffrey’s tale has a cheerfully cavalier approach to history. The author describes Geoffrey as a “master of romance” (with which I would agree), and says of his book, “...he produced a long, racy hotch-potch of “history” [...] arranging his facts to suit his story, and when he got short of facts (which was on every page), inventing them out of the whole cloth. Historically speaking, the Historia Regium Brittaniae is appalling, but as a story it is tremendous stuff.” In the note to The Hollow Hills, she quotes Geoffrey Ashe and goes on to say, “.... any given episode of my story can be ‘taken as fact or imagination or religious allegory or all three at once’. In this, if in nothing else, it is wholly true to its time.” The trilogy is best read in that spirit.

The novels can be read independently but work better if read in order. I found The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills to be the most compelling. The Last Enchantment did not work so well for me. This may be because The Last Enchantment deals with the period of Arthur’s reign around which many legends have accreted – the twelve battles, the Round Table, Guinevere’s abduction and alleged adultery, the massacre of the innocents, the theft of Arthur’s sword, Camelot, the Holy Grail, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin’s affair with Nimue, Merlin’s imprisonment, Arthur’s two sorceress sisters, Merlin’s madness in the Caledonian Forest, and so on. The Last Enchantment has to touch on all these, which makes it rather meandering. By contrast, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills cover Merlin’s early life and Arthur’s boyhood, which have far less legendary material attached and consequently allow a freer rein for the author’s imagination.

Enthralling retelling of the Arthur legend from Merlin’s point of view.

Has anyone else read this?