Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bonus Book Blog!

To celebrate having read 50 books on this trip I have reviewed every one of them – number 50 is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Yeah, I know, 50 books – why didn’t I just stay at home and read on the banana lounge next to the house and not bother with this whole travel-the-world thing? I’ve tried to give each book some background of when and where I read it, a short plot summary and a super-subjective star rating (out of five). The rating is largely based on how much I remember enjoying reading the book and how well I thought of it at the time of writing the review, so don’t be surprised if a literary classic gets two stars and a pulp sci-fi gets 4.5 (but what pulp!). I’ll be updating the reviews as I read each book, and can get to an internet café to write about it, so remember to keep checking this blog if you’re interested in finding some more good (or bad) reading material or want my expert opinion of books you’ve already read. Enjoy!

Roma Eterna - Robert Silverberg
This book was lent to me years ago by a friend at Uni because I was studying Ancient Rome. I’d been guiltily seeing it sit on my bookshelf for many years without picking it up and so decided that this trip would be the perfect opportunity to read it, as it’s always intrigued me (just ignore the fact that it means I would now never be able to return the book). As it happened, it sucked. It started out well as I lay on a deck chair by a pool in Kuta, Bali, vividly describing Ancient Roman life and extolling the Gibbonesque premise that without Christianity the Roman Empire would have continued into the present day – but the imagined ramifications of this alternate universe were poorly thought through: a single Viking was enough to inure the entire New World against the Romans; there were no advances in science or technology until it all came holus bolus in the 20th century; and that Roman society would remain largely static during all of this time. They never even encountered China! There were so many exciting possibilities and ramifications never addressed it left me feeling annoyed and frustrated, despite its lucid writing style.

Anathem - Neal Stephenson

I bought this 900 page behemoth – a typical size for this author – on special in the Port Melbourne Readings for this trip, and I’m sure glad I did that! What a world he invents – atheist scientist monks living in cloistered seclusion in a parallel universe evoking a technological middle ages. I first heard of this book through the web-comic xkcd, criticizing its extreme use of neologisms, (mobile phones are ‘jeejaws’ for example), but all this is justified by the events in the final chapters. As a nerdy science lover, this book was heaven – mathematical dialogues, analogies ad absurdum, and epic adventures described with a cosmic perspective. It’s like Harry Potter but with celestial mechanics instead of magic, all written with the insight and depth I expect from Stephenson’s excellent style. The plot involves a collection of university-style monasteries in a parallel universe discovering, interpreting and eventually meeting an alien spaceship from a, err, parallel universe. The final scene in orbit is intricately precise, and I was also pretty excited about a rod dropping from space onto a volcano... causing a hyper-realistic pyroclastic flow (how awesome's that!?) – very apt reading for Indonesia. I reckon it's one of the most engrossing reads I’ve had. I left this book at an obscure homestay in Ranu Pani – one day I hope to return to see if anyone’s picked it up.

Morality Play - Barry Unsworth

I was given this book for a long forgotten birthday by my auntie, Ruth, and still hadn’t got around to reading it – another guilt inducing spine on my bookshelf I would soon consume. Reading this on Gunung Bromo and at the base of Semeru added to its rustic feel. It concerns a traveling band of early morality play actors caught up in murder and intrigue in the middle ages, presaging the introduction of dramatic creativity in English society. A little slow to get into, especially after Anathem, the plot builds up into a fairly gripping tale. Well written with believable characters, and not too long, although not all that amazing either.

Collapse - Jarrod Diamond

A must read for any historically or ecologically aware thinking person, especially for Australians where many of the environmental lessons are deeply instructive and explanatory. Quite a tome though and difficult to slug through – particularly in the early sections where JD goes on and on about Montana which I found difficult to care about (it took me almost the whole central part of Java to get through them). The sections on the Pacific Island communities were amazing and bringing the lost ones back to life was an emotional experience. Not as good as Guns, Germs and Steel, but well worth the wade.

Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein

I’d been trying to get my hands on this militaristic science fiction ever since falling in love with the movie of the same name directed by Paul Verhoeven (one of my favourites) in the 90s which is both a celebration of the book and a mockery of its extreme philosophy. I’m a big fan of Robert Heinlein, especially of The Door into Summer and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, despite (or because of) his right-wing libertarian views, but this book disappointed me. It took itself far too seriously and was way too self-righteous – no wonder the film was such a piss-take. Set a whopping 5000 years in the future where humans fight an alien insect race across the galaxy, the plot and characters are a bit cardboardish, largely lacking in Heinlein’s constant wit and humourous observations. I did enjoy recognising the quasi-fascist phrases from the film, used seriously here but ironically on screen (which probably inoculated me against the book), and the monsoonal setting of my reading it, on the garden rooftop of a Bandung hotel eating mangoes, certainly enlivened the experience for me.

Double Star - Robert Heinlein

Finally, Heinlein at his best! I’m glad I read this book straight after Starship Troopers because this is everything the previous book is not: witty and humourous, not taking itself too seriously, with an excellent twisting plot that torments and changes the characters within it. No concept is impervious to Heinlein’s insight and boisterous flippancy as he spurts out terrific lines and opinions that dig deep into one’s central cortex, whether or not one agrees with them, or even their underlying premises. An unemployed actor finds himself impersonating a similar-looking global politician with polar opposite opinions and realises that he plays the part better than the man himself. A short and terrific read.

Fall of the Roman Republic – Plutarch

Having been a student of Latin and Ancient Rome I’d often encountered Plutarch and read a few sections of his work, but never delved too deeply into his writings. Seeing this book on the shelf of a second-hand bookshop I knew it was time. He writes well and concisely, with many interesting insights into Roman society and the historical times – the end of the republic – while focusing on the chief characters of the changes that brought the empire. I don’t fully agree with his insistence, so common amongst Romans, that the Great Man is a bigger influence than historical forces, but it does give the book a good structure by focusing on individuals such as Marius, Sulla and Julius Caesar. The collection itself is a modern construction, selecting only the biographies of relevant characters and one day I hope to read the rest of the surviving works of Plutarch, although I always feel guilty reading books from Ancient Rome in English. A good analogue for the chaos of Jakarta.

I, Claudius - Robert Graves

Continuing the Roman theme, I was given this book as a parting gift by my friend Pip at home. I’d seen the BBC TV series and was very impressed with it’s evocation of the imperial Roman world of the Julio-Claudians. The TV series is a believably accurate representation of the machinations and intrigues on the Palatine Hill as depicted in Robert Graves work, but the book goes into much greater detail and character depth. Although all of the actual events described could possibly have happened, the license the book takes is quite divergent from our historical knowledge of the time – but it sure makes it a great read! The central thesis that Augustus’ wife Livia basically killed everyone in the imperial court for her own filial ambitions is dubious but certainly entertaining. Claudius, as the competent intellectual masquerading as an idiot who comes to rule Rome, is a terrific central character and the book engenders great sympathy even for his despotic decisions. Warmly welcome reading during my first lonely nights in Sumatra.

The Day of the Triffids - John Windham

Another terrific book! Where do I find them? Well I picked this one up from a bookshelf at home. I tried to read it when I was quite young but it too advanced (and frightening) for me at the time. My second attempt, in the lazy Sumatran seaside city of Bengkulu was more successful. Soviet-engineered intelligent carnivorous walking plants utilise the mass blinding of humanity to feed on their bodies and dominate the earth. A small group of English persons, discovering themselves sighted in a world of the blind, try to form disparate communities under wildly different social systems to repel the invasion. It’s a brilliant and gripping science fiction thriller and social commentary - a true classic of my seemingly preferred genre of civilisation collapse novels.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

I bought this book at home for my trip, having begun reading a condensed version of it aloud to the Eastern Arthurs bushwalking group in Southwest Tasmania a year ago. I was so impressed with its witty use of words that I just had to read the whole monstrous tome (mostly while lying on Sumatran beaches), especially as it has become a top classic of the English language. The plot centers around a traveler named Ishmael and his voyage upon the waling ship Pequod with its monomaniacal captain Ahab who has devoted his remaining life to the extermination of a particular ‘white whale’. But the main character in this book is Melville’s total mastery and control of his language to convey layers of meaning, wry humour and as a vehicle for his indefatigable intellect. And it sure goes into the art of whaling and whaling ships. The life of the whaler becomes a part of one’s own self after finishing this book. Despite some boring and tedious technical sections, most of the novel is hard to put down and the climax is of biblical proportions… but hath Ahab killed the white whale??

Methuselah's Children - Robert Heinlein

Yes, I do love Heinlein. I know, I know, super-right wing nutcase that he is. But this book seemed a bit of a mess – lurching between a hyper-intelligent and immortal sub-group of seemingly normal humans (almost all Heinlein’s books involve a secret group of super-men destined to become a new species of human, gradually finding each other and then scoffing together at the inferiority of the rest of humanity – it appeals to one’s sense of superiority, but is just soooo elitist), global persecution of said race, sudden interstellar travel whose methods are not satisfactorily explained, meetings with new worlds and cultures, then a just as sudden return home. It was quite inexplicable, and some of the characters, like Lazarus Long, seemed to be exiles from other books (some are featured in spin-off novels I hope to read to clear things up a bit). Some good concepts (especially one where they meet a race of domestic animal aliens thinking they are the master-race – and are in for a shock) but I can’t escape the conclusion that Heinlein can be hit and miss, with this being a miss. It was good fodder for my Bukit Tinggi hotel in central Sumatra, though, having bought the book in a bonanza science fiction section in a Pangandaran bookshop back in Java.

Persuasion - Jane Austin

Jane Austin is a bit of a change from the largely science fiction genre of my reading to date. Since I’d now largely run out of the books I’d bought from home I was at the mercy of local bookshops and fellow backpackers (but I’ve always secretly been a bit of a Jane Austin fan). The main theme of the book involves Anne Elliot slowly realising her mistake in being Persuaded out of marriage to a now successful man ten years earlier, all while being involved in the intricacies of friendship and politeness in upper-class 19th century provincial England. The famous ‘letter-writing scene’ towards the end forces the reader to look back on all the events and observations so far described in a completely different light. A fairly exciting read really and a good distraction from my violent ferry ride across the Straits of Malacca.

Sophie's World - Jostein Gaarder

I’d been meaning to read this book since early high school and, reaching university, felt I’d missed my chance. After all, a mature adult like me can’t be seen with a book written for 15 year old girls – and the cover’s pink! Well, out here no one cares (until I got to a hostel in the Cameron Highlands and everyone started asking me awkward questions). Simply written and easy to understand this book follows a Norwegian girl’s education of the history of Western philosophy through a middle-aged (and somewhat creepy – don’t they have pedophiles in Norway?) mysterious man. I found the history lessons extremely interesting and well-structured, but the plot a bit convoluted, especially when (spoiler!) Sophie discovers that her entire universe doesn’t actually exist and is really a fiction of a completely different 15 year-old girl’s imagination. The characters asked the question about whether there’s a God – but of course there’s a God in a novel – it’s The Author! Plus I thought this point about us not knowing if we really exist was a bit laboured – but a good way of twisting the plot in essentially a philosophy text book.

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

What. An. Epic. In, for once, the true sense of the term. 500 characters; 560,000 words; 1000 pages in 6 point text. Exhibiting endless historical notes and footmarks elucidating this wild and vivid translation of the vast battle for control of Russia in the Napoleonic Wars and its effects on the many and disparate characters. Un-put-downable despite its enormous length – I read it in three weeks through Malaysia and Singapore. The characters are real, the scenes intense and, buried within the cascade of sprawling events and consequences, images of extreme realism and beauty are conjured up to burrow deep within one’s emotional consciousness. The central theme of the book is Fate – whatever choices we make we cannot escape our destiny, like characters in a Greek tragedy, and great events are beyond our control to influence – even by powerful leaders such as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander. Unfortunately, Tolstoy spends the last 100 pages tediously hammering this point into the reader like the blunt instrument he isn’t (even giving a shout-out to Charles Darwin – he’s not a fan). But he can be forgiven after the rest of the book. Tolstoy’s deep-seated conservatism is also apparent, which I found more charming than repulsive compared to my own views, and his great love of Russia is exuded from every page. I originally bought this book for a trip to India five years earlier, based on its price per word, but couldn’t face it then. It’s the last book I read which I’d brought from home. I’ll be reading Anna Karenina soon and I hope it’s a tenth as good as this book. What a ride – reading will never be the same again.

The Ruthless Greek's Virgin Princess - Mills and Boon

“What’s this?” I hear you ask. “Is this a long and improbable typo?” No, in Kuala Lumpur I and a couple of fellow travelers found ourselves wandering a bookshop and discovered about a cubic metre of Mills and Boons. Glancing at the titles we chose the most absurd (it was a tough competition) and took turns reading the book to each other (I can’t remember the actual author, not that it’d be a real name anyway). Of course, the others lost interest after the opening sex-scene so I was left to finish it myself in Thailand after reading War and Peace (yes, an interesting contrast). I have actually read a fair few Mills and Boons in my time – at one point it was joke material on Mountaineering Club bushwalks, where we’d burn each page as it was read aloud (but I know we enjoyed them despite ourselves) – and this one was pretty similar to the rest. They always involve a beautiful but chaste (but willing! but struggling! but yielding!) and misunderstood young woman’s enmity with some strong, handsome and successful Adonis. They hate each other but slowly the leader-in-every-field human show-beef realises how his naïve assumptions about this girl from his childhood have been mistaken, so they have sex and get married. I needn’t go into the particulars. I wasn’t bored but neither was I interested.

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

More from the genre of the destruction of civilisation, this time by a mysterious substance named ‘ice-nine’ that freezes water at room temperature. It’s certainly a fun and interesting fountain of social commentary, humourously written. The apocalyptic ending seems strangely out-of-place in this book about the family relations of a brilliant physicist – although he is portrayed as a father of the atomic bomb. Ultimately a bleak and pessimistic view of humanity, though funny and entertaining in a detached way. I got this book from my good friend Deon with whom I stayed in Singapore and I’m grateful that she managed to give me a novel so suitable to my own interests. I read it while sitting on my balcony in my hotel at the Thai seaside town of Krabi, overlooking estuaries and karst mountain formations.

Ark - Stephen Baxter

The sequel to Flood, which was one of the most exciting and thought consuming books I’ve ever read. I’d been eagerly awaiting the publication of this book since I read its precedent by a pool in Bali with my folks many months ago and finally found it in a KL mega-bookshop. Its central premise is that the world’s oceans are inexplicably rising at a geometric rate, ready to drown Mount Everest within 50 years. What happens to society? How does it cope? Does it work together for a way out or destroy itself in anarchy? If Flood focused on the second possibility of the last question, Ark focuses on the first. A group of rich Americans in Denver (the new US capital) design and build an interstellar spaceship using the Orion concept (old Bang-Bang – nukes flung out the back of the ship blasting it into space) to carry its children to another star. My main annoyance with this book is that, like Methuselah’s Children (where the characters live forever anyway), it uses a faster-than-light drive when it needn’t – it takes 30 years to reach their destination anyway, why not just pick a closer star and stay within know physics? It drives me nuts! But the rest of the science is beautifully accurate, and the struggles of the child-voyagers as they age across the stars finding a new home to escape their drowning birthplace, forming and dissolving many different brands of society, is expertly envisaged. I found myself so engaged with the plot I continued to read the book in my Phuket hotel room while suffering from an eye infection causing excruciating pain whenever my eyes were open. Can’t beat that recommendation!

Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

I’d been recommended this 19th century English novel by countless bookshop owners over the previous few months so I thought it was about time to give it a try. Unfortunately, although the romantic exploits of Bathsheba Everdene as she grapples with being an independent woman in a world that demands her to have a providing husband, were somewhat engaging, I found myself bordering on boredom for most of the book, without quite slipping into indifference. I think it suffered somewhat from being read straight after the super-engrossing Ark, and while enjoying the beautifully pristine beach of Surin Island National Park, some way off the western Thai coast. The brain-implodingly stupid illustrations that came with this Indian edition also did their part to attract my enmity.

Reach for Tomorrow - Arthur C. Clarke

I read this whole collection of science fiction short stories from AC Clarke’s early years in the 40s (well before the Rama and 2000 series) while on the train to Bangkok, occasionally glancing out the window at karsts and coasts while struggling to accommodate two extremely large Thai women sitting on either side of me. The stories are all vivid and imaginative – true Clarke style. One about an alien race coming to rescue humanity from a supernova, only to discover it has already left… to conquer them. Another, an old academic abandoned in Oxford during a sudden ice-age listening to rescuers bombing their way towards him – suddenly realising the explosions are actually advancing glaciers. One about a team of paleontologists, following a Jurassic set of footprints, discovers their own lead-researcher fossilised at the point of consumption. Finally, there’s a story about a man flipped into his mirror image by an experiment gone wrong and then starving to death for lack of the correct-handed proteins – certainly the inspiration for an analogous scene in Anathem. Clarke sure was a brilliant and creative writer; it’s a shame to lose him.

Anne of Green Gables - L M Montgomery

I’d been curious about this book ever since my cousin Rose read it as a youngster, and I’ve heard many other girls reminisce over it since. Reading this on the train from Bangkok to Chiangmai having bought it way back in Sumatra I instantly began to love Anne. She is so precocious, so energetic and so curious about the world I felt she instantly became a part of me in some way. The plot involves Anne being sent to a family from an orphanage, but, much to her new parent’s surprise, she turns out to be a girl rather than the prescribed boy. The writing-style is humourous and witty and describes Anne’s escapades on Prince Edward Island in Canada such that one cannot help identifying with Anne’s wonder at the world. What a shame she is brought up as a conservative! I wonder how many votes progressive parties have lost around the world because of her.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Jules Verne

Being one of the earliest ever science fiction books, there was no way I could avoid reading this classic, undertaken in Thailand’s Chiangmai and Pai. Unfortunately, the dodgy publishers made so many typos it was rendered almost unintelligible, with whole sections missing including the voyage to Atlantis (I had to fill them in using the internet). Other than that, it was certainly an exciting read following Captian Nemo and his submarine crew around the world on a journey reminiscent of Ahab’s from Moby Dick. I have to forgive Verne for his fantastical license of impossibility due to his ignorant era and his audience’s only nascent hunger for hard science. They must have been tumultuous times of discovery. I swapped this book for a grass tea in Pai when I’d finished it.

The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins

What a great story! This is Dawkins at his best, and I should know because I’ve read almost all his other works. It lacks his usual antagonistic snake-poking atheism of The God Delusion, and instead focuses purely on how life evolved, what are its mechanisms and what a wonderful world we live in. In Moby Dick Ishmael tells us that whales are a type of fish. I scoffed at this at the time, but Dawkins has shown me that he was right – for all mammals a subset of fish-kind (and reptile-kind in turn). Why do humans look so unlike apes, but similar to infant chimps? Humans are merely Peter Pan-like chimps whole adult stage has been lopped off. It really is a fat book, told in the manner of the Canterbury Tales – a pilgrimage back through our ancestry – and it took me the rest of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam to finish it, but despite being particularly frantic and sociable back then I was always excited to pick it up. Thanks to Auntie Su for sending it to the Bangkok Poste Restante!

Emma - Jane Austin

I only made a serious attempt at this book when I began my solo cycle tour of Vietnam after my friends from home had high-tailed it at Hue – their conversation was too interesting to shun. I found Emma to be better than Austin’s Persuasion – Emma herself seemed to be a deeper character as she wrestled with her maturing ideas of herself, other people and the ways of the universe, from someone who thinks she knows who she is to someone who doesn’t. The story involves Emma trying to find a suitable match for her lower-class protégé, Harriet, but discovering herself to be more involved with the matches than she realises. In my Penguin edition the notes were so good they even attempted to triangulate the real-world location of the outdoor scenes from Austin’s description of the surrounding environment.

The Gods Themselves - Isaac Asimov

I’d been looking forward to this book ever since I bought it in exchange for Ark in Phuket Town, being a big fan of Isaac Asimov and having read a good percentage of his total output during the endless summers of my school days. The central concept of this sci-fi is that a new method of power generation has been discovered by exchanging material from this universe with another governed by differing physical laws. Unfortunately, this exchange leaks the laws of each universe into the other, weakening our strong nuclear force and thus accelerating our sun’s burn-rate into the supernova danger zone. Meanwhile, the aliens on the other end of the ‘electron pump’ are losing power from their own sun through the opposing mechanism and dissident scientists from both universes try to communicate with each other to prevent mutually ensured destruction, against the wishes of their respective power-hungry majority. All well and good. My main criticism is that the story is divided into three equal and almost independent parts that is frustrating and confusing for readers easily emotionally attached to characters and settings.

The Maracot Deep - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle should stick to Sherlock Holmes I reckon. This thin book, read amongst karst mountains on my solo cycle tour through Vietnam, was a fairly poor cousin to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and all my criticisms of that book are exaggerated here: the main premise is that a submarine capsule lead by the brilliant Dr Maracot encounters sea monsters and then an ancient Atlantian city at the bottom of a deep ocean trench. It is even told through the narration of a poor dupe caught up in the adventure exactly like in Verne’s book. But here’s the killer: how do they survive the extreme pressures kilometres under water? “P=dgh has never been proved” says Dr Maracot. Come on!

Claudius the God - Robert Graves

This sequel to Graves’ I, Claudius is just as good as the original. In some ways I thought it was better – since Claudius is now emperor rather than court jester and unwilling bystander there is scope for the horrible moral dilemmas and tragic consequences of trying to do good in a world of bad from a position of absolute power. Sure, Claudius in real life was quite different to this well-meaning old chap, but Graves expertly portrays the emperor’s delusional justifications for his despotic actions – all to bring back his beloved republic. Exciting, powerful and occasionally funny, in a tragicomic way. Thanks to Pip for donating the book via the cycle-tourists – a good read for my solo ride.

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

This mega-best seller was given to me by an English couple I befriended in Laos, and it being about ‘issues’ and ‘people’ (blugh!) I had been a bit dubious. Reading it amongst the constant jack-hammering at the Hanoi Backpackers (everyone else there had read it too) and on my balcony at the hill town of Sapa, I came to realise the cause of its popularity. An interesting story of a boy (quite a spineless, unpleasant character really) growing up in Afghanistan, migrating to America, then realising that he must return to right an old wrong that had been playing on his mind all this time. The ending was a bit pulpy though – suddenly old characters have conveniently reappeared, and the violent scene at the end with the Taliban is just way too unbelievable. But it’s fun in a temporary way.

Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë

What a stormy read this was! I picked it up in Sumatra, began reading it in Hanoi and finished it on my solo cycle tour to the Chinese border, where the weather exactly matched the tenor of this book. It’s such a classic I had to read it sometime, but I must admit it was very different to my expectations, not least because of the frequent use of the word ‘slut’. Not one character engendered sympathy from me, all the main ones were either dead or you wanted them to die from the very first chapters, and, man, they had such ridiculous, over-the-top, destructive emotions I couldn’t get a grip on their obviously diseased brains! Catherine loves the foundling Heathcliff so she marries some other dope (!?) and dies, then Heathcliffe departs and returns a rich man devoting his life to the destruction of everything even remotely associated with her. What crazy shit had Brontë been smoking!? People say this is the greatest romance ever written – I say it’s the biggest emotional nuclear attack ever launched in the 19th century. I give it three stars out of sheer brain-bendingness.

No Time Like Tomorrow - Brian Aldiss

There are some interesting ideas in this collection of science fiction short stories from the 1940s, but I found myself constantly comparing him to Asimov and Clarke from the same era and Aldiss just doesn’t cut the mustard. They’re all about aliens and time travel as though those things were new and exciting. In one a man finds himself stranded on a desolate moon after dark with a creepy alien carnivore, in another volunteers are sent hundreds of millions of years into the future to soothe humanity’s destiny as a race of ‘failed men’ and to ask why they have descended into such moroseness. Fairly interesting, as I sat on my Mon Cai balcony trying to figure out if my bike was repairable, but stretching credulity too far.

Watership Down - Richard Adams

I’d been meaning to read this book since I was freaked out by the animated movie of it when I was a kid, and what a great book it is! I picked it up yonks ago in Malaysia and read it traveling through the southern Chinese cities of Nanning, Guilin and Yangshuo, mainly on trains in the rain. It follows the exploits of a brave but low-caste rabbit and his fearful soothsayer as they abandon their doomed warren and try to establish themselves somewhere else in the English country-side. I’d been forewarned that the second half of the book was inspired by the ‘rape of the Sabine women’ – the story of how cock forest Rome propagated itself into the sixth century B.C.E. – and came to find so many other Roman analogues I think of this now as a retelling of that city’s founding. Although a gripping tale written with great enthusiasm, it suffers from a cringe-worthy sexism that grates in this new enlightened millennium.

Speaker for the Dead - Orson Scott Card

Having read its space-battle predecessor, Ender’s Game, I kept finding the third, fourth and first of these books in bookshops until coming across this one in Penang. I’d been saving it as a ‘reward book’ (for finishing a hypothetical future boring one) since then – and it largely met my expectations. The story is set centuries after the original, when Ender is a middle-aged man (yes, relativistic effects of near-light-speed travel – this book follows Ursula Le Guin’s compromise of slower-than-light travel but instantaneous communications) investigating a newly discovered alien race whose unique cultural differences include randomly eviscerating the internal working parts of people while keeping them alive and in extreme agony. Great characters and storyline, but man you should watch some of the dreams I had reading this! It certainly made the Tibetan-style hostel I was staying at in snowy ‘Shangri-La’ unnerving.

Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts

Another book sent to the Bangkok Poste Restante by Su, and what a brick of a book to lug around since then! Especially after I discovered every single backpacker I’ve met has a copy they’re keen to offload. A sprawling epic about macho/intellectual Roberts’ escape from Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, his flee to India, life in a small Maharashtran village, adoption as a slum doctor in Mumbai, confusing involvement in an Afghani war, and finally his settling down to a quiet life of passport trafficking and mafia killings. Well written and engaging, keeping one guessing how much is really true (it’s not a biography as that would violate an Australian law against profiting from crime – how did Chopper manage it?), it presents Robert’s thoughts and feelings, loves and fears, and his rambling and totally stupid philosophy on life – often with frequent axes to grind which he wields bluntly. He reads like an evil Kim Stanley Robinson – getting right to the character’s soul in a chaotic universe, but instead of curiosity and world-building dreams we find a belligerent antagonism. It’s quite a tale, though, and great for long Chinese train rides. Interestingly, my auntie Ruth (thanks for the correction, dad) met Roberts while he was on the run from the cops – it’s nice to have a local connection.

Men at Arms - Terry Pratchet

I’ve had this one for a while – I got it in exchange for Sophie’s World from a Dutch backpacker in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. I found it quite difficult to get into after the all-consuming Shantaram, but my gears soon engaged and I was plunged into a magical world of irony, social commentary and creative similes. All Pratchet’s novels seem to blur together for me, but I believe the plot involves an eclectic night watch of fantastical creatures trying to solve a murder mystery while looming political intrigues threaten the magical society. Chock-full of wry Pratchetisms and a fun ending, but a bit vanilla compared with its literary companions. I read the whole thing on the train from Chengdu to Lhasa.

Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson

Yes! Stephenson again! This one’s quite different to Anatham, though, as it’s set in our very own universe, but in 17th century Europe during the enlightenment. I’ve been trying to find the time to hack into the gargantuan Baroque Quartet for years now and it was certainly worth the wait. I read this through Tibet and most of the Annapurna trek in Nepal. It’s a vastly intricate and complex (one could say Baroque) tale of discovery, intrigue, violence, romance and blithe curiosity about the world set during the bubonic plague, Great Fire of London, siege of Vienna, Royal Restoration and the invention of a clock’s second hand, whilst featuring such diverse historical personages as Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Whatshisname Liebniz and William of Orange. Brilliant and fascinating and, yes, very long. I remember standing in a Chiangmai bookshop for an hour trying to decide whether or not to buy the second installment – if only I had! Stephenson is clearly a genius. My only complaints are that the middle section gets a bit tedious, that the lead character, Daniel Waterhouse, is bland and wussy, and that (again!) there’s a description of eviscerating a live dog, instigating yet more horrible dreams on my part – well, those were the times… and it was for science. I guess.

Hammer of God - Arthur C. Clarke

Rob and I went halves on this one at a bookshop while trekking, Rob having run out of books and me being a fan of Sir Clarke. As it happens this short and rather light novel had been adapted from a Time story on future scenarios – and it shows. Usual Clarke themes are invoked – space is colonised and becomes routine, religion evolves more hydra-like heads to threaten the stability of the globe, and the human race becomes entirely populated by stiff and characterless yet keen-as-mustard engineers. But suddenly an asteroid is discovered hurtling towards the earth! Will the available engineers be able to sacrifice themselves in time? Won’t Religious People somehow thwart their valiant efforts to save the human race? Will some obscure orbital mechanics phenomenon that only Clarke knows about suddenly affect humanity’s chances of survival? Read the book to find out!

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

I have a great memory of this sci-fi, borrowed from Rob’s collection on the trek, not least because it was read in the most scenic environment in which I’ve ever found myself: the Annapurna Sanctuary, but also because of its large scope, gripping and complex plotline and, most importantly, adherence to known physics (Reynolds is an astrophysicist by training). A brilliant and charismatic scientist and lead planetary colonist discovers an ancient alien civilisation and realises that its demise augers poorly for his own colony. Bussard ramjets accelerating at one gee to hug lightspeed as the complex mystery unfolds gave me the best education on special relativity I’ve ever had, to the extent that I now realise I never understood it at all. Great tough characters, all-absorbing plot-line and physics to salivate over certainly compensate for its byzantine plot and the increasing absurdity of the many concepts, already explored to their logical conclusions, towards the end.

Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson

This book has been near the top of my reading list ever since I read Anathem. I saw it being sold in Bali in my first week of traveling, but was loathe to purchase it knowing that I could have picked up the copy sitting on a bookshelf at home a week earlier for free. The arrival of my dad from self-same abode extinguished this regret as he conveyed said book as part of my birthday offering. The novel is an interweaving of several characters’ lives in the 20th century (as in the style of Quicksilver) – some during the Second World War, and one, a Randy Waterhouse (presumably a descendant of Daniel Waterhouse from the Baroque Quartet) living in the 90s in the Philippines. Many themes featured in Anathem are used in this Celebration of Nerd as the characters explore concepts of WWII cryptography, its modern relevance to computer science and information security, and try to crack the seemingly undecipherable code by which women communicate. It’s written with Stephenson’s usual flawed and complex characters experiencing intricate and incredible adventures punctuating a wry, insightful narration. It had me grounded in my hotel room and gardens for the duration of its reading.

The Greatest Show on Earth - Richard Dawkins

I’d been looking forward to this book, which I bought after the trek in Pokhara, ever since reading The Ancestor’s Tale, and watching Bill O’Reilly attacking it on YouTube. Although I found it interesting in parts, having read every other Dawkins book (okay, I couldn’t fathom The Extended Phenotype – I’ll try again someday) I found most of it too simple and tedious, repeating the same points I’d read in his other works. It’s mainly written for people who are antagonistic towards the whole concept of evolution, and although I certainly enjoyed Dawkins repeatedly bashing them over the head, I knew this book wasn’t written for me. However, it has is a terrific section on actual lab experiments witnessing mutation, reproduction and selection in real time – yes, even genetic mutation! I read most of the book at an empty rooftop café overlooking the great Bodhnath Stupa.

The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin

Another book kindly donated by Pip from home and the first book I read at the Nepalese orphanage, this classic tale seems to be a sort-of prequel to the Left Hand of Darkness – also a top book – in which the technology that allows the ‘ansible’, the instantaneous communication tool in a universe (thankfully) constrained by the speed of light for matter, is invented. The physicist who comes up with the idea lives in a duple-planet system: his half being peopled by revolutionary anarchists ostracised from its more fertile, and super-capitalist, twin. In order to develop his ideas he must forsake his home and learn to cope on the more technologically advanced yet barbaric mother-world. Le Guin, almost unique as a female sci-fi writer, brilliantly marries hard science with believable and diverse societies, populated by real characters. And for once someone realises that you don’t actually need interstellar travel to portray intercommunicating civilizations in space – you can do with an interesting planetary system. None of this “He wanted to see a new society so he travelled to another star” overkill.

Travels with Herodotus – Ryszard Kapuściński

Tim gave me this memoir on Kapuściński’s days as a Herodotus-reading foreign correspondent for a Polish newspaper, which he’d been telling me about for the last two years, for my Kathmandu birthday. I’m a big fan of the Herodotus’ Histories, it being the Western World’s first true written history, and having studied it at uni, but I’m sorry to say I was quite unimpressed with this book. The travel anecdotes described within it are fairly bland and humdrum (unlike my own fantasmogogical adventures of course), and their relevance to the interspersed Herodotus quotations was, well, borderline. The commentary on the Herodotus text itself seemed to involve repeating what he’d just quoted and then exclaiming “Wow, what about that eh?” Sorry Tim, I appreciate the thought of this birthday present, but the book didn’t grab me (but I managed to sell it for a whopping NRps 200 in Kathmandu – howzat?!).

Footfall – Larry Niven and Gerry Pournell

Man – what an exciting book! From the moment it begins we’re launched into a world imperiled by a newly discovered alien spacecraft decelerating towards the Earth. Have they come in peace? Nope. The story of conquest and destruction amid orbital bombardment, airborne invasion and nuclear war is told through several dozen American, Soviet and alien characters who struggle to survive in the new order. For once humanity is enslaved by a, yes, inferior race, depicted as elephant-like herd animals (clearly a dig at Communism) who are eventually (spoiler!) defeated because they lack thumbs. Good ol’ Orion (that’s Dr. Bang-Bang to you) – science fiction’s favourite short-order heavy-lift launcher – lends a hand too; as does a crack team of sci-fi writers (typical of Niven’s gumption). This lengthy but absorbing novel generated much ill-feeling from orphans concerned I was neglecting them (they kept calling it ‘Football’). If only I’d read it during the years it’d piqued my curiosity from the bookshelf at home. One more anecdote I have to relate: when selling it at the Kathmandu bookshop, I accidentally called it a 'classic'. "Classics are cheap" the buyer exclaimed, waving a mere 50 Rps in my face. Foolishly I took it, knowing that sci-fis sell for multiples of that. Sure enough, upon returning to the bookshop, I saw it sold for nearly 300 Rps. I still haven't got over how badly I valued this worthy sci-fi!

The Quiet American – Graham Green

I’d picked this book up at the Hanoi Backpacker’s hostel and it survived for so long because it was too short to make much of a weight difference. I’d been long recommended Graham Greene by my Auntie Ruth, and this particular story from having seen the film starring Michael Cane. Thomas Fowler is a British newspaper correspondent living in Saigon while the French fight for their colony against various local factions. Meeting an eager young ‘Quiet American’, Alden Piles, he finds himself in a complex relationship jockeying with him for the love of a local girl – until Piles mysteriously winds up dead after entangling himself in an enigmatic ‘Third Force’ between the French and the Communists. But what was his real cause of death? The main character in this short novel is Greene’s sardonic wit and humourous phraseology, however, Fowler is such a genuine person he evokes deep sympathy, emotionally binding one to the book in a manner rarely mastered. I have left the book at the Kathmandu Guest House to swap it with Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.

That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis

This book sucks. Sure, Lewis’ Narnia books were awesome (apart from that shockingly blatant Proselytizing one, The Last Battle, in which all the characters either become good ‘Christians’ or die horrible deaths) but this one fell flat. Badly flat. It’s the third installment of the Cosmic Trilogy (beginning at Out of the Silent Planet and continuing with Paralandra) but I haven’t read the earlier books, despite spending the eight months since I bought this one in Java searching for its predecessors. Maybe this made it far worse than it should be, but I found reading this book painful. The two atheist main characters are both so silly and annoying I just wanted them to fail in everything they did; and after some mediocre rising tension towards the end some magical stuff happens in a few pages and everything suddenly turns out fine. I grant that the early pages on media manipulation and corporate thuggery were fairly engaging, but some of the 1940s concepts about marriage and faith were so antithetical to me I felt like throwing up. I had to set myself a quota to keep my eyes on the page and get through the damned thing.

The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin

This biological revolution is one of the most important books ever written and it’s hard not to find your spine tingling when you read Darwin expostulate his world-changing theory. You can really see just how the world went from being a mysterious God-created entity to a materialist place we can understand, right in front of your eyes. Darwin’s reasoning is totally devastating, and I discovered reading it that he carried Natural Selection so far into its logical extremities that the superficial arguments of Creationists and ID theorists today had been answered in the 1850s – get them to pick up the book! The style is very approachable (although his sentences are punctuated by truckloads of commas in bizarre places) as he takes the reader on a world tour of the living Earth, into such familiar places as the Victorian Alps, Southwest Tasmania and the volcanoes of Java. I was lucky enough to pick up a first edition copy in Kathmandu, with fewer references to God (where you can almost hear Darwin coughing). Why don’t I give the book five stars? Well, it’s a subjective rating based on reading enjoyment, and I found some of the middle chapters hammered (now) obvious points home too tediously – the book is written to bludgeon over the head an audience that no longer exists: Victorian-era taxonomists. No thinking person now has not already taken a side in the debate.

Expedition to Earth – Arthur C. Clarke

This is true Clarke! Here Clarke is at his early best. This collection of short stories from the 1940s, which I picked up in Pokhara as a bargaining chip for Dawkin’s latest book, is written with a passion rarely seen from Clarke. His ideas are no grander than his others, and the stories are driven from the situation rather than the usual twist at the end, but in almost every story my spine tingled from the awesome perspective. One story involves two astronauts deciding who should die so the other might like in an oxygen constrained spaceship; another about two cultures, one mastering abstract thought and the other dexterous ability, combining to revolutionise their world; and finally, The Sentinal, the inspiration for the Stanley Kubric film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, describes the first encounter with an alien artifact buried on the moon millions of years ago. Oh yes, and watch out for the hilarious vacuum tube computing action!

The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin

I was given this Ursula Le Guin classic also by Pip and read it within a few days at the Nepali orphanage. It’s a collection of the first four Earthsea novels written in the 60s and 70s. The first, A Wizard Of Earthsea, is definitely the best, about a boy becoming a wizard (like in Harry Potter) and embarking on a Search and Destroy of evil demons. The second is shorter story about rescuing a priestess from meaningless worship, the third a fairly good quest involving the reversal of magic’s diminishing powers in the world (a metaphor for the enlightenment perhaps?) and the final a long boring tale chiefly about how women are mistreated and misunderstood by men – although true it was hammered home so hard I found it a bit too tedious to rouse my indignation. The novels also seem to lack the enthusiasm and grandeur of Peake or Tolkien, and I was only fully engaged about half of the time. However, in the third book there’s an amazing scene depicting self-sufficient raft communities floating freely around the Indonesia-style archipelago world – it felt like something out of Kim Stanley Robinson or Stephen Baxter. I donated the book to the orphanage as some of the kids were keen to give it a go (good luck!).

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

I’d been meaning to read this Woolf stalwart ever since my dad once complained about how disappointed he was that the characters never actually get to the lighthouse. Those interested in a maritime adventure tale should probably look to books like Moby Dick rather than delve into the family relations of this introspective classic. A standard 1920s English family contemplates its impact on the world while planning a boat trip to a lighthouse. The theme of the book is Immortality: we must all die, but do we live on through our works or our children? Both options are depressingly portrayed (but at least Woolf is famous for her literary contribution, grrr). The dialogue is excellent, but can get tedious, while punctuated by poignant scenes of people forgotten, bringing our ephemeral nature into focus. However, I found myself getting a bit annoyed at the writing style sometimes – Woolf’s depression feels gluggy after a while. But guess what! They (spoiler!) really do get To the Lighthouse!

Mansfield Park – Jane Austin

This completes the troika of the authress femme-fest I’d embarked upon. Of Austin’s works I now have only Sense and Sensibility to go, and this one is certainly among the best. Strangely, I accidentally saw the word ‘adultery’ in the blurb before reading it which caused me to view the novel as a Dostoyevskian catastrophe, rendering the first 90% exciting and tragic, and the last 10% ordinary and disappointing as I realised my mistake. Fanny Price, a low-class nine year old girl, is adopted into the family of her rich auntie and falls in love with her cousin. But her fate is already being decided by other men from the aristocratic society. Longer than usual, this novel is extremely readable and flows smoothly on the page (if that metaphor makes any sense at all), creating well-layered scenes through Fanny’s inner perspective. It was very enjoyable while I tried to zone out from the shouting orphans around me.

Heretics of Dune – Frank Herbert

Finally! It’s taken me nine months to find the fourth sequel to Herbert’s spectacularly successful Dune and it was certainly worth the wait – I didn’t hesitate at its Kathmandu bookshop home, despite choking on the ludicrously expensive price-tag (four times Mansfield Park). I was bitterly disappointed in the preceding novel, God Emperor of Dune, a waffling wank, but Herbert has clearly taken the Dune books into sci-fi’s 1980s renaissance, with exciting and interweaved plotlines, characters I actually cared about and beautifully envisaged planetary settings (at last venturing beyond Arrakis). It still focused on the infighting of a few factional officials, as the rest do, but links them with a much wider world. 1500 years after the emperor has been ‘divided’ humanity has scattered throughout the universe, but Arrakis’ spice malange is still the currency of the old systems. A brilliant military commander; the recreated entity of Duncan Idaho; and a small girl who can control Dune’s giant worms all struggle for power in the new order.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Ah, it’s great to get back into another Tolstoy epic. I’ve carried this kilo of carbon ever since Yogyakarta when an American gave it to me on the proviso that I ‘pass it on’. The longest I’ve possessed any book on this trip it was also my first overseas acquisition. I brought it on my Vietnam cycle tour and even the Annapurna trek in Nepal. But finally, holed up in my Kathmandu hotel room after the orphanage, I spent six full days living inside this 800 page imagined world. The story follows two diverging 1870s Russian marriages – Anna Karenina’s disastrous break with hers as she falls for a young nobleman named Vronski, paralleled with the autobiographical Levin’s long courting of Kitty. The narrative spreads like a parasite through the aristocratic Russian society as characters are introduced and enmeshed into the web – many of whom spend a lot of time being charmingly befuddled, as though the book is infected by a plague of Hugh Grants. Is this novel better than War and Peace? AK is certainly more consistently readable – every couple of pages I came across a stunningly witty and insightful concept or phrase, and I never got bored as I did in some sections of War and Peace. But I still think Tolstoy’s earlier work is superior because some of its settings climb to vivid heights his later epic never reaches. However, it takes a lot to make me tear up during a book, but one scene in AK pulled it off. I also found myself quite despondent when I got to that point in the mechanics of paperbacks when the mass to the left of one’s thumb is noticeably heavier than the right. Although the final chapters on Levin’s idiotic (spoiler!) religious epiphany had me rolling my eyes at the page (he’s obsessed with knowing his ‘purpose in life’ – get over yourself!). I have now passed the book on to another American – maybe it’ll end up where it started.

Farmer in the Sky – Robert Heinlein

After the fatness of AK (the book that is) this 1950 teen sci-fi was quite a change. I picked it up, like many of the books I’ve been reading nowadays, at Kathmandu’s best organised book shop. It follows a 15 year old boy who emigrates with his family to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede to be a farmer. The planet-sized moon has already (disappointingly) been terraformed by this stage so all they really have to do is escape the cold and the quakes and get on with the neighbours. For 1950 this novel is surprisingly accurate about what life on a tidally locked giant-hugger would be like, although some oversights are quite noticeable: the atmosphere is pure oxygen, clearly dating the book to before the Apollo 1 disaster; the 8 Rem per day of radiation bathing the surface has conveniently not been discovered yet; and Earth strangely appears as a pale 'green' dot. But the ‘By Jiminy’ Boy Scout style gets a bit annoying after a while, and the (spoiler!) alien stuff at the end feels totally out of place, but apart from that it’s an entertaining American pioneer story set beneath Jove’s unsetting gaze.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Hi hi hi there my old droogs! I’d been meaning to read this classic dystopic novel ever since seeing Stanley Kubric’s excellent film of the same name. For such a short book it sure is slow-reading: the language is so slangy and convoluted, employing hundreds of Russian words, that I found myself reading it at speaking-speed. Alex, a 15 year-old urban hooligan, metes out random acts of ultra-violence with his young ‘droogs’ until he is eventually captured and rehabilitated through conditioned response therapy. The main theme is morality and free will – can a person be considered ‘good’ if their goodness has been mechanically imposed upon them? In the original edition I read the answer is emphatically ‘no!’, but the edition used for Kubric’s film, without the irritatingly happy ending (Burgess complained bitterly about its removal), is more morally ambiguous. Being on the side of Determinism and as a repudiator of the concept of ‘free will’, the idea of what morality Alex would ‘choose’ ‘naturally’ is a bit lost on me – people don’t have intrinsic ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, but are products of their environment (actually like Clockwork Oranges), so I had trouble grasping exactly what was so ethically repugnant about this hypothetical treatment (although I have practical reasons to be against it). But the moral consequences are well thought through and the infectious narrative is grotesquely vivid. However, I thought the music was better in the movie.

Time Enough For Love - Robert Heinlein

I'd been looking out for this one ever since I saw it new in the KL super-bookshop several months back. A few days ago I got it in exchange for AK from the American girl in my Kathmandu hotel. Unfortunately, as I read the first few pages I realised I’d made a terrible mistake. Lazarus Long, the main character from Methuselah's Children, is, inexplicably, 2000 years old and living on a distant planet. The leader of this planet has foolishly asked the rambling old man to tell him random and stupid stories from his past, giving the lecherous bore an excuse to waffle on ad nauseum for the next, literally, 600 pages - way way way too long. And what a fruitcake this dude is! He seems to spend most of his life adopting baby girls and then sleeping with them once they reach puberty. Written in 1973, the book is full of the "Shut up woman or I'll paddle your fanny" seventies sentiment, as well as being a vehicle for Heinlein's obsession with nudity and cats. Its only saving graces are his amusingly outrageous aphorisms and a readable last 100 pages - where he goes back in time to WWI... and sleeps with his own mother (there is a LOT of incest in this book). At least it counteracted the signs on many of the Nepali buses I see here: 'No time for love'.

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway

This 100 page novella seems pretty straight-forward: Old man, sea, old man at sea, etc. Even the introduction eschewed usual literary interpretation in favour of a blow-by-blow plot summary that rendered an actual reading of the actual book superfluous (always read intros after-wards). An unlucky old fisherman is abandoned by his young apprentice before catching the fish of his life, and spends many days and nights mano-a-mano with The Sea in order to allow its eating and sale (of the fish that is). The language is simple almost to the point of stupidity, winning it the Nobel Prize for Literature presumably in an act of reverse-snobbery, but the old man's thoughts and environment are evoked with a quiet vividness. I did find myself sympathising with the dude's monomania, Captain Ahab style (expressed in inverse verbosity), for his goal. I read practically the whole thing waiting interminably to vote at the Australian Embassy's one-person queue.

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

“Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta.” I’d been meaning to read this book since… okay, pretty much every book here I’d been meaning to read for at least a decade (I can’t believe I’ve reached the age at which I can say this). But, yes, I’d been meaning to read this 1950’s controversial classic since watching the films of the same title. Continuing the theme not only of Stanley Kubrick adaptations but also incestuous hebephilia (two books back), I’d bought it before ensconcing myself at the Nepali orphanage but decided to hold off reading it until later (Chitwan National Park) for obvious reasons. At heart the book is a comedic American Road Trip novel, which might come somewhat as a surprise, underlying a plot concerning one Humbert Humbert’s obsession with young ‘nymphets’. His ‘fortunate’ acquisition of guardianship of one such nymphet – the eponymous Lolita – ensues a blackly humourous (black as night) tale of jealousy, desperation, sex and amusing observations of the American landscape and motel culture. Yes, this book is funny – laugh out loud funny. The quirky observations, dead-pan dialogue and imploring narration of Humbert Humbert are told with meticulous precision, extreme visual awareness and a lot of word jokes – it exudes a real love of language. I actually tried to read the book as slowly as possible to squeeze out every treacly word.

Absolution Gap - Alastair Reynolds

Another fat Reynolds book - nearly 700 pages this time. I thought so well of Revelation Space that I bought this one in another Kathmandu bookshop just on spec. Unfortunately, I skipped the two intervening books in the series (backpackers can’t be choosy), infecting this one with in-references I didn't really get, but the narration was quite helpful. As humans expand to colonise the nearby star systems (still slower than light, thankfully) they disturb an ancient army of machines called the Inhibitors who seek to exterminate all intelligent life in the galaxy. One colony on the ocean world of Ararat finds an unborn messiah to lead their evacuation to a new star system exhibiting a vanishing gas giant that might hold the key to their survival. So yeah, pretty crazy plot – and, like Rev Space, it spins way out to weirdness towards the end. Quite gripping though, with a pretty fast-paced narration. It’s nice the way the galaxy is being over-run by Poms still armed with a range of modern British slang. Also, building on the concept of religion being a virus of the mind, one colony has to force its inhabitants to submit to an injected Indoctrinal Virus for them to keep their faith. Cute. Rev Space had slightly better physics, but this book was better written with a more comprehensible plot. A trekking read (Langtang this time) like Rev Space before it.

The Secret Sharer/Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

Everyone talks about Heart of Darkness, and not just Apocalypse Now fans. Sooner or later I had to read it so I could get in on all those 'depths of the soul' analogies one hears everywhere. Sadly, I couldn't quite get a grip on the actual source material - I can partly blame the astonishingly loud Hindipop blasting away right next to my hotel room in Gorakhpur for that, but I also point the finger at Conrad's unrelenting sombre introspection and the way the entire story is told through nested quotation marks. Marlow, a young captain, is sent upriver on a steamboat deep into the Congo wilderness where he encounters the bizarre Kurtz, the manager of the Inner Station who has gone savagely feral. The quite dissimilar movie was more enjoyable. The second short novel in this volume, The Secret Sharer, concerns another young captain who hides an escaped murderer in his cabin, but this secret impairs his captaincy. Easier to follow, this story is horribly stressful reading.

Cradle - Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee

This book was totally unbelievable. I don't know what it is with Clarke in the 80s, but he just went psycho with his characters during this period (hard not to blame Lee really - alouthgh they were good in the Rama series). The first two thirds of this overlong novel goes into meaningless detail about the backgrounds of the various characters involved, and they're so formulaic - their personalities are derived from formulae whose only input are 'moving' emotional scenes from their past. It's as though the authors heard that sci-fis need 'character development' so they lifted a few chapters from a Mills and Boon novel. At least in the late 90s sci-fi authors began to realise that science and real people could actually coexist. Here a navy missile goes missing in the Gulf of Mexico and three treasure hunters, while looking for it, discover a ridiculously stupid alien spaceship under the waves. This one was read over the Ganges in Varanasi, but it did not engage me.

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austin

Having now read every one of Austin's novels I can say that although I think Emma is the best, this one is the worst. It may be because it was her first novel, or because I read it during a distracting time in Varanasi as I was getting engrossed in the Indian internet speed's ability to deliver me almost instant podcasts, or maybe it just wasn't very exciting. The plotline sags badly in the middle and the good characters are made of cardboard - luckily the foolish and nasty characters maintain some of the interest, and the dialogue is fairly precise and well-constructed. Two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, embodying Sense and Sensibility respectively, both fall for men who become ineligible for different reasons. Sadly, it wasn't enough to keep my mind from wandering, but at least it'll make a pannier lighter.

Chapterhouse: Dune - Frank Herbert

Well, Herbert stuffed it again. This sixth and final installment of his epic and usually brilliant Dune series is the waffling wank God Emperor of Dune is, totally avoiding all the awesomeness advances his plot and characters made during Heretics of Dune. In fact the plot doesn't even begin until two thirds of the way through the book, the first 250 pages comprising smug introspective dialogues between pompous pseudo-characters. When stuff finally does begin to happen, the war between the all-female Bene Geserit and the all-female Honoured Matres (who have returned from humanity's recent scattering throughout the cosmos to destroy the Bene Geserit worlds for no visibly apparent reason), the action happens in such saltatious punctuations that all the important bits are described as already having happened! Grrragh!! And then the book, and thus the whole series, suddenly ends and I still don't know what exactly is going on. Since it was written just before Herbert's death I think that must have seriously affected his writing. Read on my awesome balcony in Varanasi overlooking the Ganges and continuing on my cycle tour beyond.

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins

This book has a special meaning for me. This is the book that terminated Dad's regular evening book-reading to me and my bro Rupert 15 years ago or so, because we thought it was too boring. Plus my excellent friend Thomas Firth recommended it to me a few years ago. And it's hilarious! So many great characters and interesting ideas. An elderly servant who treats the book Robinson Crusoe as the Bible, an incredibly annoying proselytising pious Christian woman (Collins' Atheism really shows here) who is an absurd stereotype, and a man who has been educated in four European countries cycling his personality through each national identity in turn. An Indian diamond (the Moonstone) has been pillaged from the siege of Seringapatnam (a journey that mentions many Indian locales I am visiting now) and is bequeathed to a young lady in rural England. When the diamond goes missing during the aftermath of a dinner party, all the guests and staff are implicated. But who really stole the diamond? I can say that I picked it half way through, but the suspense is very well executed.

Holy Cow - Sarah MacDonald

I finally gave in and bought this book in exchange for The Moonstone in Khajuraho - it's sold in big stacks everywhere in India. But the old saying that you can be so open-minded that your brain falls out certainly applies to this travel story. Former Triple J presenter Sarah MacDonald finds herself living in India while her boyfriend reports for the ABC and undergoes a spiritual journey that takes her through all of the various roads to religion from an atheist base. The book is excellently written and it employs my favourite literary device of alliteration and assonance with amusing abundance while describing the frustration of all the brain-boggling bureaucratic bungling and cultural craziness of the Land of the Hindus that I myself am experiencing. However, it's often just too credulous about the teachings of religion, failing to employ any of her sceptical faculties. "Wow, each of us has lived millions of previous lives because this guy says so, gee". Plus the abandonment of Australian spelling and metric units of measurement made me feel she'd sold out. But it an amazing story, told with excitement and honesty and featuring many of the places and experiences so familiar to me as I cycled from Gwalior to Delhi.

Against the Fall of Night - Arthur C. Clarke/Beyond the Fall of Night - Gregory Benfold

This is really two books, but since they're crammed into one volume I'm being consistent and calling them one. I picked this up at that same awesome bookshop in Kathmandu and had been looking forward to getting stuck into them for a while, finally achieving this aim in Delhi and the Golden Temple at Amritsar. The first novel is a classic Clarke story written in the 1940s and set an unbelievable one billion years in the future (this must be some kind of record) after Earth has won and lost a galactic empire and is now suffering from the dessication wrought by its expanding sun. A boy called Alvin is bored being confined by Earth's single known city and discovers the remnants of Earth's lost civilisations. Beyond the fall of night is so different from Against that I'm amazed Benfold bothered to make it its sequel. This one involves a woman being chased around a newly rejuvenated Earth by a 'Mad Mind' and out into space via a biological orbital tether where she and a ferret-like being explore the explosion of space-based life-forms. Amazing ideas, like Benfold's other books such as Heart of the Comet, but the whole thing was way too rushed - he crams in about 500 pages of action and ideas into 170. The ending is resolved on the last page almost as an afterthought.

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Wow - stressful book! I picked up this well-worn lump of moldy paper in it's final stages of life at the Kathmandu Guest House, replacing it with The Quiet American. Rodion Romanovich is an impoverished former student in St. Petersburg who has a theory that humanity is divided into 'Napoleons' and 'Normal People'. To prove to himself he's a Napoleon who's capable of transgressing moral rules on the road to greatness he murders two women - but finds himself horribly wrong as he descends into near insanity due to the horror of his crimes. The witty and conversational style is quite similar to Tolstoy, as is its focus on the failings of atheist protagonists (grrr). The novel's largely written from Rodion's point of view so of course you want him to escape conviction - but do you really?? And he's such an unpleasant person, why are so many people devoted to him? Running beneath the narrative is a gold mine of allegory and little jokes easy to miss. This exciting novel deprived me of much-needed sleep during my week-long cycle tour from Amritsar through Himachel Pradesh and back to New Delhi.

A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

This book is fat! 1474 crammed pages. I'd been intrigued by it for many years, mainly due to its morbid obesity, seeing it sitting on my shelf at home and it being about India, a country to which I've been many times. Dad gave me the book from Rob, who was chucking it out, in Kathmandu and it's travelled with me over mountains and across country for thousands of kilometres, weighing down my backpack and panniers (and wrecking my pannier rack) all the way, finally being read on my two-week Delhi bludge. The book itself is vast, complex, heavily peopled and amiable, concerning mainly the search for a husband for the 19 year-old Lata as India holds its first general election in the early 1950s. I actually found the style and structure to be quite similar to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, although not as emotionally charged. It's very engrossing, and a page-turner, but I found the characters to be almost caricatures of themselves and often simple and difficult to identify with. I also found that the description of Indian life in no way matched my experience of it being here, with most of the educated characters speaking fluent English at home and adopting way too many English customs - but maybe they were like that in the 50s. In fact, I kind of felt the whole book was just to say that India is really a European country. On the other hand, it was difficult to put down (despite its pressure on my wrists), definitely absorbed me into its world, and was written in a style easy on the eye.

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein

This book had so much promise: 'Most famous sci-fi novel of all time', a Heinlein classic, the 'reward book', bought back in Kathmandu, for finishing A Suitable Boy... but it failed so miserably! It began well with a man born on Mars just as his parents were killed in the first manned mission to that planet, being raised by Martians Romulus and Remus style until being 'rescued' 25 years later, and being imprisoned by the world government until rescued again... but then got SHIT. As soon as Michael Valentine Smith got out of his rescuers' home - a typical Heinlein group-marriage-affair, he went weird. Joining a circus because of his magical Mars powers (we all have innate telekinesis abilities only Martians have mastered) he soon starts his own utopian religion. Unfortunately, Heinlein's hard sell of this future cult - an adaptation of happy-clappy spiritualism and free-love (he dropped the ball predicting that future for religion) seems just as stupid and annoying as current religions. I cringed through this at the beginning of my Rajastani cycle tour.

Dubliners - James Joyce

Another book acquired in Kathmandu - my last actually. This is my first step on my road to reading Joyce's Ulysses, a book my year 8 English teacher tried to foist on me in photocopied installments for some reason. It seemed tough to get through so I'll need some preparation. As for this one, it's a series of short stories about the lives and experiences of some select eponymous Dubliners, beginning at childhood and ending in death. Simply written, some of these are very emotionally powerful and really get into the characters' heads. Others were pretty incomprehensible to me, but I won't hold that against the book. The best part is that all the stories are quick and pithy, only a few pages each, allowing me to get through a story while waiting in a road-side gazebo for the rain to stop on my way to Jaipur.

Middlemarch - George Elliot

I first heard of this book when reading the introduction to Moby Dick, which said it's is the greatest English novel (Moby Dick being the greatest novel in English). Then Virginia Woolf went on about it obsessively, saying it's the only English novel written for 'grown-ups' - so I had to give it a go, considering myself a bit of a grown-up in some ways. The plot focuses on two main characters in the town of Middlemarch during early 19th century England, the young ambitious doctor Lydgate and the pious woman Dorothea. Both find themselves in unsatisfying marriages and are soon surrounded by the spiralling catastrophe of a town scandal. The writing is excellent and witty, although it's pretty dialogue-heavy. I can understand Virginia Woolf's obsession with it, being about how we find meaning in life and being obsessed with detail, but I got the feeling that a lot of the interesting stuff happened quickly and outside the narrative of the book, while a lot of the slow viscous things took up too much of this fat-arse novel. Pretty good in a tragic way, though, being a bit of break from the light-hearted happy times of Jane Austen. This one took me from Jaipur to Mumbai. Oh, and George Elliot is actually a chick.

Earth - David Brin

This book, frequently recommended by my excellent friend Rob Hutton, gets more and more ridiculous and implausible as it goes on. And it begins with a black hole being dropped into the centre of the Earth, left to orbit between the core's atoms' nuclei until it might eventually grow large enough to consume the planet. But wait! It turns out there's a SECOND, even MORE dangerous black hole down there - put there by... aliens!! Having said that, I have an amazing ability to suspend my disbelief - even in the face of physical impossibilities flying fast - especially after a team lead by brilliant physicist and black-hole creator Alex Lustig starts ejecting matter from the earth using a gravity 'laser'. However, this longish epic is actually more about geo-eco-political predictions of the year 2040, such as rising eco-awareness, rampant global warming and the full development of the internet. It's a very thoughtful and exciting book, even if it's thoughtful when you want it to be exciting and exciting when you want it to be thoughtful. It's great the way the entire Earth is explored, rather than just the thin surface layers like most books on Earth. I had a blast reading this on beaches on my ride to Goa from Mumbai.

The Odyssey - Homer

Well I have actually read large chunks of this foundation-stone of Western literature of various uni subjects on Ancient Greece, but I'd never tackled it from end-to-end until now. Picked up at a Mumbai bookshop in exchange for Middlemarch I ploughed through this one, suitably, on my cargo ship journey from Mumbai to Salalah in Oman (although my own trip was somewhat less eventful than Odysseus'). To my surprise, the famous events of Odysseus' umm... Odyssey were compacted down into books about 6 to 12 of 24, and even then related off-hand to a random local. The rest of the book involves the Telemachy - the journey of Odysseus' son Telemachus, and a way over-long description of the great man gradually revealing himself to his family at home. This culminates in a massive slaughtering of his wife's suitors that will question modern readers' empathy for the storm-tossed man. Other than that, it was interesting to read the source of so many references from the modern world. A down-side was that Homer seemed to use the book as a platform for hammering home his theories of the guest-host relationship and the high status of bards. Since 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favourite flim, and I'm soon to begin reading James Joyce's Ulysses, I had to read this one. Oh, and coincidentally, the woman in the dorm bed next to mine in Mumbai randomly began reading the same book at exactly the same time as me - weird.

The Dragons of Eden - Carl Sagan

This book had been sitting on my bookshelf back at home, beckoning to me, for many decades. After listening to about three different podcasts going on about how great Carl Sagan in (yes, he is a Dude) and then finding this book (along with The Odyssey) at that Mumbai bookshop I could not resist. Also read during my long sea voyage I intersperced the chapters of this book with the audio book of Dawkins' Greatest Show On Earth (which I'd read and reviewed in paper form earlier). Since it came out in 1977 I basically discounted everything written in it as 'out-of-date', but it still came up with some interesting ideas. Basically the premise of the book is how our neo-cortex, the 'human' part of our brains, competes with the R-cortex, the reptillian part evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. There are some excellent anecodotes and factoids here but I found the book lacked a real focus or narrative - although maybe that's a result of my comparison of it with Dawkins' books. I'm a big fan of Sagan's ideas and it's written very well and was pretty enjoyable so I certainly can't critisise it too much - maybe my expectations were just set too high. I swapped this book, along with The Odyssey, with White Tiger and a book on Seneca left on the cargo ship by two disembarking cycle tourists.

The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca - Seneca

I grabbed this classical classic off the departing cycle tourists on the cargo ship and got through it during my long sojourn over Oman. I must say it felt a little like I was cheating by reading it in English, having had sections of Seneca thrust into my face during Latin classes some years ago. Seneca sure has a lot of opinions about things - religion, death, being a Roman. He even had a section there on travel, appropriately - it's pointless, he says, since you can never take a holiday from yourself and that's the real reason people do it. This collection of letters and essays was somewhat coloured by my knowledge of the man's death in which Seneca puts his money where his mouth is and does the necessary deed without fuss, accepting the inevitable. However, although I found many of Seneca's expostulations intriguing and often fairly modern (I can certainly understand the Christian interest in this ancient philosopher), I felt his writings dragged on a little, hammering the same point home for too long, and the editing seemed a little disorganised.

A Civil Action - Jonathan Harr

When I met the Austrian cycle tourist in the UAE desert he begged me for some reading material and I apologetically told him that I had none to spare. Well once we'd parted I immediately thought of this book as perfect for him, given to me highly recommended by the Austrian couple on my Konkani Coast ride. On the other hand, I'm selfishly glad I didn't hand it over - it was a rivetting read. A courtroom drama about an environmental spill possibly causing the deaths of several New England residents, I raced through the 500 pages of this one in only two days, sitting in my Sharjah youth hostel in the UAE (Incidentally, I blame not finding out about the Iranian ATM failure due to being wrapped up in this book). The emotional impact is exacerbated by it being a non-fictional account of the actual trial. A young and ambitious lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, spends nine years trying to fit the scientific method into the courtroom over this case, metaphorically banging his head into a wall. A very frustrating, although gripping, read that makes you realise how bad the court-system (in America) can be in deciding matters of science

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

Another pick-up from the cargo ship cycle tourists this book is the perfect antedote to A Suitable Boy. Rather than Vikram Seth's soppy fantasy-world of India, Aravind Adiga (also an Indian) sticks the knife in. There's a lot of stuff that's stuffed up about India and I found myself cheering the book's totally cynical take on the country I've spent so much time in. Balram Halwai, a.k.a. The White Tiger, is a poor uneducated villager who becomes a chauffeur for a rich New Delhian. Realising that life in India is like a chicken coop where your role is determined for you, he kills his master in order to break out of his dead-end destiny. The novel is written to the Chinese Premier explaining the nefarious secrets of success in India with excellent wit and dry black humour, picking apart all the negative aspects of the Indian psyche. An excellent short read in the rain as I rode from Bandar-e-Lengeh up to Lah in southern Iran.

Ulysses - James Joyce

Man, what a trudge this was! I'd been meaning to wade through the gelatinous pool that is this book ever since my year eight English teacher shoved the last 50 photocopied pages of it at me to say I don't use enough punctuation in my writing. Since then it's always held a certain fascination for me, and over the last couple of months I read Joyce's earlier Dubliners and the original Homeric Odyssey in preparation. Picked up at a footpath bookshop in Mumbai this novel focuses on Leopold Bloom's 16th of June, 1904 as he wakes up, goes to work in advertising, contemplates his wife's infidelity and has a sordid evening with his new wannabe intellectual friend and protege, Simon Daedalus (Telemachus in the Odyssey). The punctuation in this book is truly awful and I can't escape the conclusion that Joyce is just trying to show off how smart he is. Saying that, there are real moments of clarity and realism as we follow the characters' every thought real-time. The final chapter, an unpunctuated soliloquy of Molly Bloom, I found incredibly moving in the context of the rest of the book. I swapped this physical wad of paper for its electronic version once my eBook reader finally coalesced with me in Esfahan (thanks again Su!). If you try this one, make sure you have a couple of weeks riding solo through the desert with no other English-speaking company or you'll lose concentration.

The War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells

What a Sci-Fi Classic! Gouged out of my new eReader, I chose this book because in Yazd I was talking to German backpacker about how many times the word ejaculates is used here. The answer is a lot. Usually in response to the Martian tripods tearing people's homes apart. An unnamed first-person English narrator observes projectiles being launched from Mars and their subsequent arrival on Earth. What follows is a gripping account of running away from laser-wielding Martians who eat people and wreck their cities. People flee the country, society breaks down, different opinions of how to survive in the new world order are proffered and abandoned. It's all pretty brutal, with a description of people getting trampled to death while fleeing London going into way too much detail. It's also extremely pessimistic, with authorities being incompetent to the point of absurdity in dealing with the situation. The ending is kind of disappointing, though, with the (spoiler!) Earthly environment killing them off to complete the book's analogy with colonialism, but it's an exciting read - especially for long desert rides in Iran.

The Importance of Being Ernest - Oscar Wilde

The wit oozing out of this Wilde play is smoother than the BlueBand margarine we get here in Tanzania. Another book preloaded onto my ebook and read during my ride through Iran, finishing it in the exciting city of Tehran, the action centres around the identity of an English... ummm... dandy purporting to be named Ernest. The book focuses on the disconnect between expected social behaviour in upper-class Victorian England and how people with no real job and plenty of money really do behave. The two main characters, friends Algernon and Jack, both invent alter-egos they employ to get out of boring family engagements. The whole house of cards begins to topple when both friends decide to marry people unsuitable for one or the other of their constructed counterparts. A fairly simple and light plot it left me feeling like I'd been tantalised but not satisfied, but Wilde's incredible wit certainly kept me entertained throughout these few pages. So many quotable lines!

The Secret Adversary - Agatha Christie

Read in Tehran and on the train to Istanbul, this extremely light and somewhat childish novel disappeared into the 'Finished' section of my ebook in no time. I think I missed the bandwagon with Agatha Christie - for years when I was younger I'd been planning to read a few of her books since everyone seems to rave about them, but now I just can't quite appreciate them. In this novel, two out-of-work friends of opposite sex, Tommy and Tuppance, seek adventure and financial gain by infiltrating some strange conspiracy. They make friends along the way, get captured and interrogated, and engage in car-chases. Admittedly, there are a lot of twists in the plot, and I certainly failed to anticipate a lot of them, but I found that the crazy adventures these characters went through were just too unbelievable and, well, pat. This was especially true as I was suffering from some of my own excitement in Tehran I'll describe in my real blog.

Minding Tomorrow - Luke Burrage

This is the first real new use I've made my ebook reader - rather than reading the electronic version of a book made of trees I actually read a book published for free the internet. In this case it's a novel written by the famous juggling extraordinaire Luke Burrage (also presenter of the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast). I was quite surprised at how good his first online book turned out to be too - quite a page turner (if pressing a button counts as turning a page). The book is written out of chronology about a guy who finds a way to travel back in time and relive his life in new ways. Each life is relived over a 20 year period in a different way but with knowledge of the future. It explores how one might change the future, the moral dilemma of fooling your past self into becoming a host for your future self and the mechanics of bringing other people back with you. Quite a few good ideas, fairly well written, but could certainly use a good spell checker. I read this one while travelling by train from Tehran to Istanbul, still smarting from my kidnapping experience.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

This book totally surpassed my expectations. It's been mentioned to me pretty frequently when I put my ear to the literati ground, like when I saw the excellent musical, 'Keating!', and the eponymous had his career compared to his eponymous counterpart (does that make sense?), so I had to read it at some stage. My new ebook reader afforded me this opportunity and the novel was consumed snug from the snowy weather of Istanbul. Full of outrageous witticisms, as one expects from Wilde, the story focuses on the Narcissistic young Dorian Gray from when his portrait is taken by a friend. His beauty now apparent, Dorian wishes that his portrait, rather than himself, should bear the brunt of age. Over the years, his beauty and youthful innocence intact, Dorian's wish becomes reality - with terrible consequences. The portrait reveals the twisted and grotesque nature of Dorian's soul that his appearance masks. Full of pithy and hilarious observations on life, this novel also holds so many powerful ideas on how we see ourselves and our mortality that I'm forced to include it in the list of the best novels I've ever read. It's a fairly quick read too!

The Mote in God's Eye - Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell

This book was read after a long delay from the previous one. Arriving in Africa I was surrounded with travelling companions to stave off boredom. I was also affected by the loss of my ebook reader through a mugging and I didn't have any physical books as backups. Luckily, Steve, one of my companions from home coming along for the ride, relieved me of this dearth of reading matter by finishing and donating this book. A great gift too - I'd been curious about it ever since Dad had read it years ago, and I loved the authors' 'Footfall' which I read in Nepal. Anyway, the book is about an interstellar human empire a thousand years in the future encountering their first intelligent aliens. The aliens, although seemingly more advanced than the humans, have yet to acquire the human's interstellar drive and are found traversing through space the slow way. Much of the novel concerns the mutual discovery of the civilisations' respective cultures and whether each is a threat to the other. Quite a gripping tale with some of the awesome space engineering concepts for which Niven is famous. The main downside is the seventies-ness of the writing: constant 'tossing off' of scotches, painfully out-dated attitudes to women and relationships, and totally bizarre predictions of future technology (telegrams in the 3000's!? Interstellar drive by 2008!?). It does turn pages though.

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton

In my last book swap of the trip I picked up this famous tale along with the next book from a backpackers in Livingstone, Zambia, in exchange for Sasha’s Shantaram and Steve's The Mote in God’s Eye. Reading it on the bus to my flight from Lusaka, and on the subsequent plane, I found the book quite difficult to put down. In a nut-shell, a nasty, possibly extra-terrestrial strain of a lethal virus is unleashed on a small American town after a returning space probe is cracked open. A group of five crack scientists is assembled in an atomically armed underground bunker to figure it out and find an antidote. Of course, if there is any contamination the bomb will go off, giving the narrative that extra level of anxiety. The book is quite medically technical and informative, following Crichton’s background, but seems to express the same suspicion of science and scientists as Jurassic Park and Crichton’s later climate scepticism. If a scientist can make an error, he does, and with the most catastrophic consequences. Apart from that, the scientists are definitely ‘good guys’ and have some actual character devoid in a lot of contemporary sci-fis. The ending was pretty uninspiring, though.

Three Singles to Adventure – Gerald Durrell

Dad had been pressing me to read Durrel’s My Family and Other Animals for many years, but I could never get into it. This book, found at the Livingstone backpackers, was short enough to commission my interest. It was actually a very appropriate book to read for me, as I kept comparing it jealously with my blogs. It follows the author and his friends’ capture and collection of wild animals in South America and described is vivid detail all the many humourous animal anecdotes associated with these adventures. The language is my favourite kind of verbose, with descriptions of scenes so well-worded it made me want to read them aloud. Half-way through, though, having arrived back in Australia, I found it difficult to re-engage with the narrative – the stories don’t really lead into each other and are more stand-alone. The title seemed pretty non-grammatical but there's an explanation for that.


The bus ride out of the Annapurna Trekking Zone with Rob and Dad was an enjoyable trip for me: I sat listening to all the good songs on my ipod, watching the mountains receding around the horizon. And not a moment too soon – what an exhausting trek! Back in civilisation we furrowed our brows with serious intent getting to work chilling the hell out. This proved to be of some difficulty in our cramped three-bed sweltering mosquito den hotel room, which we hired out of shear brain exhaustion, but the easy-going atmosphere, beautiful scenery, somewhat cheaper beer and the many interesting bank queues of Pokhara helped assuage our nerves.

Having book-bought, re-visa-ed, plugged ourselves back into the digital universe and had my camera fixed again (it just won’t die!) we ticked off some real tourism: biking around town, visiting Devi’s Falls (named after a Swiss tourist who, not content with plummeting to his watery grave alone, dragged his girlfriend in after him) and failing to find a cheap swimming pool. In this context Rob and I discovered a spectacular geohash actually inside a river some distance out of town, so we hastily hired a motorbike and submerged ourselves for one of the world’s more exciting geohash locations – sadly, the ride home was just as exciting: acquiring a flat tyre and monsoonal rains simultaneously.

But the question I was dying to ask had its answer back in Kathmandu – how ride-able was my bike after its crazy adventures in the Postal Universe? Black hole Roche limits can play havoc on unwary young bicycles, not to mention the constant asteroidal bombardment out there. The results were not good: after ascertaining that the back wheel hub was so muddy from Vietnam it could only be used as a fixy, we tried to install the new metallic brake pads kindly couriered by Tim, only to discover that my brakes’ discs resembled Dali’s clocks. Luckily, a bike shop fortuitously installed next door to our guest house set it all to rights with surprising ease.

Dad departed soon after these escapades, and, in the next few days, so would Rob – like drowning sailors lost at sea. But not before a token tourism jaunt in the form of a walking tour, Dhurbar Square appraisal and hill-topped Swayambhunath meander: exhibiting fine views of the Kathmandu Valley, ancient votive sculptures and procreating monkeys. Ticking off ‘tourism’ from the list we got down to the serious business of exploiting free wireless cafes to upload our vast photo collections from the trek and, naturally, a detailed critique of all endemic beer varieties.

This left me alone and with, finally for the first time in… ever, no stressful deadlines. I had a beer with dinner on my first night alone for months, but that has been my last alcoholic drink since that time now five weeks ago (breaking my Sumatran record). Alcohol is great for uninhibiting social situations and facilitating conversations about how awesome the Terminator movies are, but when you’re trying to grasp a book’s detailed reasoning or intricate plotline, or simply to sit around contemplating the world, it’s just annoying.

And I certainly did a lot of that stuff: I basically parked myself in my new (and much cheaper) yet deserted hotel, as recommended by a cheese-making Aussie expat on the bus from Pokhara, reading another excellent and embroiling Neal Stephenson book entitled Cryptonomicon, more Dawkins and an Ursula Le Guin sci-fi, and occasionally watching a movie on HBO. Apart from devouring every article the world has written about Julia Gillard’s ascendancy and a day of semi-tourism riding to a stupa, my main activity during this week-long book bludge was leeching off the facilities of my fancy old hotel, the Kathmandu Guest House. I’d made sure I checked out in uncharacteristic clothing so the staff wouldn’t recognise me mooching off their computer systems, free drinking water, safe bike parking, exquisite gardens and, yes, hot showers. Mwah ha ha!

Seeing a phone number in a restaurant set me onto a path that would land me teaching English in an orphanage in a small village outside Kathmandu, via handing over US$120 to an agency to do a ring-around. Arriving with my bike laden with pack and panniers I introduced myself to my new community – I am the first volunteer they’ve ever had and the first white person many have ever met. The place is a cream-coloured three storied building that looks like it was abandoned rather than completed (like these blogs), but with stupendous views over Kathmandu and its surrounding mountains. I was told it is financed by a Dutch foreign aid group as an orphanage, but some parents seem to have somehow snuck in their unorphaned children.

This is the time to get into real Nepali life. A typical day begins at five a.m as I’m woken by the TV of one of my room-mates. He’s an ex-Nepal army dude who, apart from his occasional duties going to town as the designated Communicator With The Outside World, seems to watch his TV turned up to 11 as a biological necessity, so as to repeatedly prove to the neighbours that he has one. My bed itself is a thin blanket wrapped around a not-quite-Felix-sized block of wood, so rousing myself is never a difficulty.

The next five hours are spent by the 54 kids frantically preparing for their day at their respective schools. I spend most of this time helping with their English the small rotating band of kids who only require four hours to prepare.

Joining some of the students heading to a nearby state school I then transform myself into English Teacher Extraordinaire and take up to five classes a day, ranging between grade 6 and year 10. Upon my return to the orphanage I usually take a break sitting on the rooftop overlooking the diverse biota of the valley below. Selected, naturally, as a fitting environment for reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

I then spend a few more hours teaching the kids English and Maths (the two languages I can understand), helping them with their homework, learning Nepali, eating the second Dhal Bhat meal for the day (it never gets boring!), various cultural bungling and then going to bed at about 10 p.m. – trying to read while I wait for the eardrum puncturing TV to be turned off. My reading is always met with looks of complete perplexity, as though I’m trying to scoop my eyeballs out with a spoon.

The kids themselves, ranging from age 4 to 14, are outrageously cute and friendly, full of irrepressible giggling and hesitating shyness. Their appearance occupies the full ethnic spectrum from Tibetan to Indian (it’d be interesting to line them up that way) with a gender ratio suitable for interplanetary colonisation seed-stock. Some surely have interesting stories behind them that I’m too tactful to tease out – one sweet and smart girl wears a prosthetic leg and sports nasty scars on her remaining limbs. Some are boisterous and loud, while others quiet and subdued. Some largely ignore me, others queue up to fawn over me. They’re all obsequiously polite and eager to help: serving me food and tea, washing my dishes and showing me around – I have to fight for my right to clean my own clothes. The establishment’s sole tap gives the place an iron-age tribal feel, overlaid by a ‘Communism for Kids’ organisational structure.

They live in an environment that would not be tolerated in safety-conscious Australia: playing with Frisbees on the top floor of the building, whose handrails must have fallen off prior to installation; exposed reinforcement and poorly strewn hacksaws litter their school grounds; and the orphanage’s facilities are shared with an assortment of some of the largest snakes I’ve ever seen. The huge populations of rats and mosquitoes are of more annoyance to me, but an upside to their commune with nature involves a nightly neon invasion of flashing fireflies floating through the open-air rooms.

As part of the deal I involve myself in their various religious observances: touring the local deities incarnated as shrines and sculptures, consumption of Shiva’s Body (what kind of religion requires the eating of its own god?), regular application of a forehead tikka, and, my absolute favourite, Thursday night chanting to Krishna. The girls sing with infectious passion and are demons on the madal. I’ve been forced to learn some Nepali dance routines, but show little promise.

My Nepali language is slowly coming along though. I’ve pretty much learned how to read (although Devanagari ostensibly has 432 characters they follow such obvious patterns it's easy to pick up), but understanding the words is a different matter. At least I’m now in the Indo-European language family. ‘Nam’ is ‘name’, ‘tara’ is ‘star’ and ‘aht’ is ‘eight’. Also, my seven years learning Latin have finally born fruit, it employing a similar grammatical structure to the Indo- languages, not to mention their overlapping vocabularies. Unfortunately, Nepalese is a second-language to most of these guys too: each valley, and even every caste within each valley, cannot intercommunicate in its native tongue.

During the day, six days a week, I’m teaching (the Saturdays off are spent playing with the kids, being taken on walks and, yesterday, sneaking off for more geohashing). On my first day at school I was confronted by a piece of chalk proffered by the retreating regular English teacher informing me that, “Today’s year ten class is on the past participle and the passive imperative. Go.”

“Ummm… okay… Good Morning class. Okay… the ahh… the passive imperative is, well, you know, one of those things…”

He was kind enough to lend me a grammatical text book – it was in Nepali. However, in little time those seemingly frivolous years memorising arcane grammatical constructions for Latin came once more to the rescue, and I’ve since been giving the classes a pretty damned robust education in proper English composition (blogging errors are to be denounced in the comments section below). For the lower classes I’ve been given comprehension passages to read out and discuss, and here some small cultural insights can be unearthed. I cringe when I have to read that “The Gods made the trees” (this is a state school!); creepy example conditional sentences such as “If you’re friends are involved in evil activities, report them to your seniors”; and a disturbing number of stories involving the protagonist beating his wife. Their dictionary cutely defines ‘Good-formatting’ as ‘A useless person’, but I let through a claim that dolphins are fish – cladistically, we reptiles are all just a type of fish. Many more moral dilemmas arise from the uncanny density of grammatical, typographical and spellafical errors liberally adorning the texts – do I detach their dependency on text-books or enunciate a tongue-twisting typo?

However, in most respects I’m given a fairly free hand. I’m starting to get a real kick out of the attention of captured audiences (and wielding of despotic power). Having spent my many months alone in resuscitating songs and poems from my memory (the internet helps too) I can now teach them Waltzing Matilda (a big hit), Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (channeling Bart Simpson they reckon it’s boring) and the odd show-off Gilbert and Sullivan tune. I also satisfy their ardent demand for insights into Australian culture, even beyond describing the Melbourne/Sydney divide as the ultimate battle between Good and Evil. One of the English comprehension passages, that coincidentally happened to concern Australia, stated that Australians never wear formal clothing. I was about to correct this gross (yet typical) generalisation when I realised that, despite the school’s almost military dress code, I was in shorts and t-shirt. Another time, when informing the class that Australia is an island, I actually felt a tear welling up in my eye – these land-locked youngsters have never seen the ocean.

Between classes I chat to the other teachers in the staff room, answering such questions as, “Are you of high or low caste?”, “What is your annual income?”, and the always awkward, “What is it like to live in a country where sex is easy?”. My fellow teachers are fascinated by Australian male/female relations. They almost fell off their chairs when told that our Prime Minister‘s boyfriend is a hairdresser and she has never been married.

I have befriended the school’s regular English teacher, Jay, who has taken me to eat mangoes at his uni-student flat in Kitipur (he’s studying for his Masters degree). He’s an interesting character: a 27 year old top-caste Brahmin and heir to a profitable mango plantation yet also a hard-core communist – large Mao and Lenin posters stare down from his walls with steely resolution (it occurs to me that just five years ago he and my military room-mate might have been trying to kill each other). Naturally, this unusual combination has interested him in a later political career, but at the moment his main project is selecting a suitable wife. Having identified three key parameters (beauty, intelligence and cultural standing) for the several dozen applicants he is seeking my advice for their relative weightings.

But the last month hasn’t been all singing and smiling, reading stories and waging thumb wars – it’s a hard darned life. The kids are full of energy and I have to be in an almost permanent state of extroversion – actually wanting to be alone occasionally is an alien concept to these social beings and there’s nowhere to hide in the communal compound. Of course, the place is populated by the usual bragging, competitive boys and needy, insecure girls, but these guys have really made me feel at home and I’ll certainly miss them all when I leave. I’m not even sure I’m making any real difference here though. They are, after all, among about the poorest people on the planet, but there are a few kids here whose English skills will get them a little bit further in life, and some seem destined for a bright future. At least they now understand the true age of the universe and the cheapest way to build space elevators. Plus they’re slowly acquiring slight Australian accents, so mission accomplished!