Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (luna sanguinis)

The Super Blue Blood Moon of 2018

Being old and fragile, I seldom stay awake for forty-eight consecutive hours these days (though when I was younger I used to do it quite frequently – sleep is for wimps; it wastes far too  much time that would be better spent doing fun things). But sometimes life doesn't give you any choice. At the beginning of this year New Zealand was blessed with a blue moon, a supermoon and a lunar eclipse (a blood moon) all taking place simultaneously over one evening from about 11.00pm until about 3.00am the next day. The last time that combination of events happened was in 1866 and I missed seeing it then because I was born 84 years too late – a considerable margin of error indicative of very bad planning on my part. I determined not to make the same mistake this time around.

Despite the famous proverb, a blue moon is actually quite a common thing. It is the name given to the second of two full moons which occur in the same calendar month, and it happens every couple of years or so.  

A supermoon is a full moon that coincides with the moon's closest approach to the Earth. Technically it's known as a perigee syzygy, but that's far too much of a mouthful for comfort so most people use the more colloquial term supermoon instead. Visually, a supermoon appears to be about 14% larger, and about 30% brighter, than normal. The effect is most marked when the moon is near the horizon, and it can appear to be quite gigantic.

A lunar eclipse, of course, takes place when the moon passes through the shadow that the Earth casts when the sun is behind it. And the lunar eclipse of January 2018, coinciding with a blue moon and a supermoon, would be a blood moon because the sunlight reflected from the moon's surface would be refracted through the Earth's atmosphere, and the angle of refraction would gave the moon a red tinge. It's caused by the same effect that often makes sunrise and sunset appear quite red. In the jargon, the phenomenon is known as Rayleigh scattering and there was a time when I could have described it mathematically – but it has been far too many years since I last did any serious physics and maths and sadly that knowledge has now vanished from my mind.

Anyway, excitingly, for the first time since 1866 we were due to have a super blue blood moon. Naturally Robin and I had to stay up all night to watch it. Perhaps Jake the Dog would want to see it as well.

We had about a week of completely cloudless skies before the great event occurred, so everyone was optimistically certain that the trend would continue, and that the night of the eclipse would provide excellent viewing. But nature is perverse, and that evening New Zealand was almost completely covered with thick clouds. Most astronomically inclined New Zealanders took to their beds severely annoyed with the weather gods. But the small area of New Zealand where I live was reasonably cloudless because Jake and I had both had the foresight to sacrifice a bone and pee on a sundial. Consequently the weather gods were pleased with us and so the visibility was good.

This wasn't my first lunar eclipse. I've seen several others. Probably the most memorable one was some time in the mid 1980s when I was on holiday in America. That eclipse happened while I was in New Orleans and I watched it take place from the deck of a riverboat cruising on the Mississippi. I found the experience to be incredibly spine-tingling and romantic, but of course the eclipse that I saw then didn't coincide with a supemoon. I was eagerly anticipating that New Zealand's super blue blood moon would be considerably more dramatic than any I'd ever seen before.

I told our next door neighbour that Robin and I were planning on watching it. "Oh," she said when I explained its significance, "ring my doorbell and wake me up when the drama happens. I'd like to see that."

All I know about Shawn Inmon is that he has written three novels that take a hoary old science fictional theme and breath a brand new life into it. The idea behind the books is that someone goes back to re-live his life and, during his second time around, makes different decisions so that his life changes – hopefully for the better.

In The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver, the eponymous Thomas is a seventy six year old, drunken failure. He's never really got over the fact that when he was a teenager he did something stupid as a result of which his brother, who he idolised, died. He's spent his whole life blaming himself for his brother's death and trying to wash the guilt away in alcohol. So when he dies and finds himself a teenager again, he realises that he's been given a second chance to put things right...

One of the people that Thomas crosses swords with in his second chance at life is Michael Hollister. He's a sociopath and a serial killer. Thomas knows this because although he is a teenager in body and spirit, he still retains all the memories of 76 year old Thomas and so, of course, he "remembers" the trial that will take place when Michael Hollister is eventually caught. But even now, in this new reality, when they are still all teenagers together, and long before anyone else has even begun to suspect just what Hollister might be, Thomas is absolutely certain that Hollister has not changed his nature and has started up his old tricks. Consequently he tries very hard to save a lot of lives by bringing Hollister's dark hobby to an earlier conclusion than last time. Remember, things can change the second time around. That's the whole point...

The second novel is called The Redemption of Michael Hollister, and it won't take you long to work out from the title that this one is about Michael Hollister's second chance at life. For various reasons not entirely unconnected to the events of the first book, his parents send him away to a military college. Surprisingly it turns out to be the making of him.

At the college he forms a very close friendship with another student called Dominick Davidner who, like Michael, seems to remember a previous (or should that be later?) life. For various reasons that form the bulk of the story Michael and Dominick are separated before they can share their stories. But we learn more about Dominick in the third novel The Death and Life of Dominick Davidner.

As you can see, the three novels are very tightly linked one with the other though not in any of the obvious ways that you might expect. For example, it quickly becomes clear that the Thomas Weaver who appears in the second novel is not the same Thomas Weaver who appears in the first book because, of course, the Michael Hollister of the second book is not the Michael Hollister of the first one either. Is your brain spinning yet? Don't worry – Shawn Inmon handles these little contradictions with consummate skill and the novels are never confusing even though my summary explanations  might be.

I read all three books one after the other in one mammoth session, pausing only for sleep and to take Jake the Dog for his walks. The stories held me enthralled and I was sad when I finished them. But Shawn Inmon assures me that there will be more books in the series. When they appear, I'll be at the head of the queue, unless you get there first.

Tim Washburn's novel The Day After Oblivion also deals with a hoary old SF plot. It's an after the apocalypse novel – the apocalypse, in this case, being a nuclear war that eventuates when the American government's computer system are hacked into. The hackers (could they be North Korean? Heavy hints are dropped...) start the missiles flying. The story is a perfectly competent treatment of the theme, but that's all it is. Apart from the computer details, it could have been (and often was) written in the 1950s. I enjoyed it on its own terms, but it really wasn't anything special and the ending was more than a little saccharine.

Mick Herron is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers in the sense that any new book by him must immediately be bought sight unseen and goes right to the top of my (infinitely long) to be read pile. London Rules is the fifth of his Slough House novels. They just get better and better...

Slough House is where MI5 operatives who have screwed up in big lumps are put out to pasture and given meaningless bureaucratic tasks to perform until retirement. Because they live and work (if that's the right word, I don't think it is) in Slough House, these misfits, cranks and screw ups are known in the jargon as the slow horses. They are supervised by the misogynistic and perpetually flatulent Jackson Lamb (as an interesting sub-plot, in this novel we finally learn just what it was that Jackson Lamb did in an earlier life that caused him to be sent to a well deserved exile in the boondocks of Slough House). Lamb doesn't like any of the people who work for him, but he doesn't like some of them much more than he doesn't like some others. As one does.

Jackson Lamb is the dark side of John Le Carré's George Smiley – he's just as subtle, just as devious, just as cleverly switched on to the Realpolitik of the murky secret world and just as willing to play both ends against the middle for his own purposes. But unlike Smiley, he doesn't cultivate friendships and he is more than happy to ride rough-shod over the finer feelings of his colleagues because he himself doesn't have any finer feelings. Or so he'd like you to believe. In many respects he is a first cousin to Len Deighton's "Harry Palmer" (sic), using the same cynicism, sarcasm and complaint to disguise the idealism that really motivates him. In other words, it's safe to say that Jackson Lamb has impeccable literary antecedents.

Roderick Ho, a slow horse who has been a peripheral pain in the arse in earlier novels, has pride of place in this story – mainly because somebody is trying to kill him (though it's not at all certain that Roderick Ho has realised that fact, since he's rather too self absorbed to take very much notice of what the outside world is up to).

In a post-Brexit Britain awash with every kind of social, political and even religious dissatisfaction, there are any number of possible reasons why someone (everyone?) might want Roderick Ho to leave the world behind. Although he pretends not to care, Jackson Lamb really does regard himself as being in loco parentis over the slow horses, and he's not at all happy about the situation. The ramifications are serious.

Mick Herron's writing style juggles high comedy with low tragedy. His jokes are very funny but they don't stop nasty things from happening. People die and Jackson Lamb is not averse to helping them on their way. This is a very difficult style to master, but Herron is completely in control of it and he never drops any of the balls he's tossed so casually into the air. And the biggest joke of all (and a simultaneous tragedy) is that the slow horses really are the last defence against the bad guys because the official defenders are far too deeply  mired in mismanagement and office politics to see the full picture. If the British secret services really are run like that, then God help us all. But until He does, we can still have a good laugh, and maybe a little weep when nobody's looking.

Force of Nature is Jane Harper's sequel to The Dry which I reviewed last month. It's only a sequel in the sense that the main character is Aaron Falk, the same detective who was involved in the events of the earlier book. But Force of Nature stands alone and it isn't necessary to have read the earlier book.

Aaron Falk works for the Melbourne Financial Investigations Unit. He is slowly building a case against a small family-run firm that is suspected of being a money-laundering front for organised crime. He has managed to convince Alice, one of their clerks, to provide him with documentation about the firm's transactions. But the case he is slowly building is interrupted when the brother and sister who run the firm take their employees on a team-building exercise in the Giralong mountain ranges. But something goes wrong and when the team finally struggles out of the ranges, one of their number (Alice, of course) is missing. Falk joins the rescue team who are hunting for Alice...

Alternate chapters slowly fill in the background to the story and tell us what happened on the hike through the mountains. Meanwhile in the present day Aaron spends his time between the search for Alice and his relentless pursuit of the owners of the company.

Because this novel is set in Australia and because it concerns a hunt for a woman who vanishes into the countryside in mysterious circumstances, I was irresistibly reminded of Peter Weir's movie Picnic at Hanging Rock. And who knows, maybe that movie really did provide an inspiration to Jane Harper? Certainly there are similarities, and they are more than superficial. The feelings that both stories evoke are very similar, though Harper does give us a much more satisfactory ending than Peter Weir ever managed to do.

Jane Harper is a superb writer and this is a superb book. I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for more stories about Aaron Falk.

It has been quite a long time since Laura Lippman has had a new novel on the bookshop shelves, but Sunburn has been well worth waiting for.

Polly leaves her husband Gregg and daughter Jani. She ends up in Belleville, a small town in Delaware where she meets Adam who is waiting for his broken down truck to be repaired. Polly gets a job as a waitress at the High-Ho grill where she is soon joined by Adam who has fallen for her and who gets a job as a chef at the grill so that he can be close to her.

But of course there are complications, and nothing is what it seems to be. We soon learn that Adam has been employed to follow Polly and report back on her to his client. Their meeting in Belleville was not the accident that it seemed to be. We also learn that Gregg is Polly's second husband – she killed her first husband and served a prison term for the crime. When the other waitress at the High-Ho grill dies in a seeming accident at Polly's home, questions are bound to be asked. And the answers may not be comfortable ones.

As the complicated plot winds to its conclusion through a web of sex, lies, secrets, murders, betrayal, and blackmail it becomes clear that this time round, Laura Lippman has excelled herself!

In one sense the very last thing that the world needs is yet another biography of physicist Richard Feynman. After all, Feynman himself published two quirky collections of autobiographical anecdotes and a brilliant physics text for students that summarises his insights into the nature of the physical world. Furthermore James Gleick, Lawrence Krauss, Harry LeVine, Leonard Mlodinow and Ralph Leighton have all written biographical pieces about him. Gleick's biography (Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman 1992) is widely regarded as definitive. So why have John Gribbin and his wife Mary thrown their hat in the ring with Richard Feynman – A Life in Science?

I could be cynical and say they did it because it's their job. Mary Gribbin has a degree in psychology and works in the education field. She has written many books explaining scientific concepts for children. John Gribbin is a well known science populariser. He has a physics degree and many years of experience in explaining complex scientific ideas to interested laymen. And, make no mistake, he's very, very good at it. Probably Isaac Asimov is the only other person who has ever managed to do it better. High praise indeed... So, of course, it's not really surprising that the Gribbins have turned their attention to the life and times of (arguably) the greatest physicist of the twentieth century.  

Actually, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I enjoyed James Gleick's biography. Gleick's tome was more than a little ponderous and I felt that Feynman's personality practically vanished beneath the weight of Gleick's psychiatric speculation. It's completely impossible to understand Feynman's contribution to physics without also understanding that his world view was highly coloured by his sense of humour and his ideas of how to have fun. Gleick found this frivolous and tended to de-emphasise it, but John and Mary understand the point very well, and they concentrate on these aspects, using them to illuminate Feynman's discoveries. So, in a very real sense, this biography paints a truer picture of the man than Gleick's ever did. Gleick was great on detail but not so good on insight. The Gribbins are better at both and, as a bonus, they explain Feynman's scientific discoveries very clearly and succinctly, whereas Gleick tended to be a bit woolly in this area (Gleick is not a scientist – his background is in English and Linguistics).

I can't help thinking that Feynman himself would have found Gleick's biography worthy but dull. I'm sure he'd have been much happier with Gribbins'. In my opinion, if you only ever read one Feynman biography, you can't do any better than this one.

From the moment the moon rose into the sky it was dazzlingly bright. I prepared copious coffee and set up an intravenous drip. I kept popping outside to check on the moon's progress. About 11.00pm, as promised, the shadow of the Earth started to eat up the disc of the moon. Over several hours the area of the moon eclipsed by the shadow gradually got larger and the red colour became more and more prominent. It was particularly dramatic when seen through binoculars. Our next door neighbour came out to join us and she was quite overwhelmed by the beauty of it. "Isn't nature wonderful," she said.

I could only agree with her. "When nature wants to, she is very good at putting on a dramatic spectacle," I said.

Disappointingly, Jake had put himself to bed hours before and he refused to come out and look at the eclipsing moon. He really couldn't see what all the fuss was about. "So it's a super blue blood moon," he said. "So what? I can't chase it, eat it, bury it or play tug of war with it. I suppose I could howl at it, but if I did you'd only tell me off for waking everybody up. So what possible use is it?'

"You're a philistine," I told him.

"That's right," he said. "Wake me when it's time for my next walk." He tucked his nose underneath his tail and went back to sleep.

In the whole of our street, only Robin and I and our next door neighbour were watching the drama taking place overhead. "Doesn't anybody else care about it?" I asked. "Are they all really that incurious?"

"I suspect it's more that they have to go to work in the morning," said Robin. "They need their sleep. We're the only retired people around here. It doesn't matter if we nod off in the middle of a conversation tomorrow."

"You're probably right," I said.

Every so often a small wisp of cloud drifted in front of the increasingly ruddy moon and obscured the view. But the effect never lasted more than a few minutes, and it was never very long before the moon was back, redder than before. By about 3.00am the eclipse was total and the disc of the moon hung bloodily in the sky. It looked for all the world as if the planet Mars had left its orbit and come for a baleful visit.

Robin and our neighbour both went back to bed now that they had seen everything that there was to be seen. But I stayed up because I wanted to watch the effect unwind itself. I topped up my coffee drip and kept an eye on what was going on overhead.

Slowly the moon crept back out from beneath the shadow of the Earth and the red glow faded away from it. As dawn arrived everything was back to normal and there was absolutely no sign at all that anything extraordinary had taken place while the world slept. By now, I had my second wind and I felt quite bouncy. I took Jake for his morning walk and we started our brand new day together.

The next night the sky over New Zealand was completely cloudless again. Clearly the clouds that had obscured our view on the night of the eclipse were the result of a government conspiracy. No other explanation was possible. I discussed it with Jake, making sure that we were both wearing colanders on our heads so that we couldn't be spied on and monitored.

"Write a letter to The Times," Jake suggested. "And sign it Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells."

Shawn Inmon The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver Pertime Publishing
Shawn Inmon The Redemption of Michael Hollister Pertime Publishing
Shawn Inmon The Death and Life of Dominick Davidner Pertime Publishing
Tim Washburn The Day After Oblivion Pinnacle Books
Mick Herron London Rules John Murray
Jane Harper Force of Nature Flatiron Books
Laura Lippman Sunburn William Morrow
John and Mary Gribbin Richard Feynman – A Life in Science Dutton
Previous Contents Next