Monthly Archives: March 2012

NO TIME FOR GOODBYE by Linwood Barclay

Cynthia wakes up one morning and finds her entire family have disappeared without a trace. 25 years later she is still trying to discover what happened but when she starts to get signs that suggest her parents and brother might still be alive she only has more and more unanswered questions, rather than she answers she so desperately needs. Full of suspense and twists this is a book to hurtle through until the mystery is solved. There’s also some incredibly touching elements, as well as enough multi dimensional characters and shades of moral grey to make this stand out from your average thriller. A great book if you need to lose yourself in something not too intellectually challenging but don’t want to guess the end by half way through. I don’t want to spoil the ending but suffice to say Cynthia gets the answers she craves, if not necessarily she ones she hopes for.

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THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This book is beautiful. A study in communication it had me gripped from page one. Victoria was abandoned at birth and spent her childhood in care and foster homes. Prickly, sullen and incredibly angry at the world she relates best to the thistle (meaning misanthropy). We meet her at 18 as she is forced to stand on her own two feet and turns to the one thing she knows and loves in order to do so – flowers. When Victoria crosses paths with a figure from the past she is forced to confront powerful feelings of guilt and self loathing that threaten to destroy any chance she might have of finding happiness. THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS is populated by wonderful women who have experienced hardship and suffering yet become wiser and stronger for it. There’s also, frankly, a perfect man at the heart of the story and plenty of flowers, sunshine, earth and farmers markets to give you a wonderfully warm glow – assuming those things feed your soul in the way they do mine. Without giving too much away, I never felt a happy ending was a foregone conclusion when reading this book and part of its beauty is that it avoids being sentimental. Definitely one of my favourites reads so far this year – and I will be consulting it whenever I give someone flowers.

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Filed under drama, love story

THE FILTER BUBBLE by Eli Pariser

Imagine a world where all the news you see is defined by your salary, where you live and who your friends are says the back cover of this account of how much the internet is hiding from us. The filter bubble of the title is what we inhabit once the information we access via the web has been personalised to best suit who it has decided we are. So Pariser tells us, in one of the most memorable chapters, two people searching eg for BP in the wake of the Deepwater oil spill get utterly different search results from Google. One gets the news because her previous browsing history, click behaviour and internet profile indicates she will be interested in what has happened. The other gets shares and investment information with no reference to the disaster. This personalisation is enabled in part by cookies, but also by the data we reveal via sites like Facebook. Taken to its logical conclusion, the filter bubble of the future may well feature adverts on the street that speak our names, and that use face scanning technology in order to connect the images of ourselves on the web with all the likes, preferences and interests we have revealed through our browsing behaviour – all to try to sell us the product we are most likely to buy and in the way that will most appeal to us as individuals.

If in principle you don’t mind being encouraged to consume stuff what’s the problem? Pariser argues that the filter bubble carries the risk of turning the internet into what he describes as a one way mirror, reflecting our interests and reinforcing our prejudices. He flags the fact that most internet companies are not upfront about they fact they are harvesting data or selling it on – and that they ought to be much more transparent and give people the chance to opt in or out. He also highlight the importance of serendipity, or coming across things by chance that help us make creative connections, develop new ideas and challenge ourselves. If personalisation is based on who the internet has decided we are – as opposed to who we might be or might aspire to be – then the opportunities for new learning and creativity are vastly reduced. At one point Pariser uses the analogy of unwrapping a present – we are all intrigued by what we might uncover, yet if someone hadn’t shown us the gift we would never have felt that curiosity or sought to slake it.

One of the things I like about this book is that the author acknowledges the internet’s potential to be a force for good rather than just a massive marketing tool. He reminds us how in the early days users were explorers, navigating unexplored waters and never sure what they might find. Nowadays we all assume that everything we might want to know is out there and can be retrieved at the click of a button. Pablo Picasso said computers are useless, they can only give you answers but Pariser argues this does not have to be the case.  He also recognises that while internet giants are unlikely to change their behaviour they could at least make us aware of what is going on, or offer checks and balances. So Google could include a sliding scale that allow us to choose more or less personalised search results. Or Facebook could allow users to rate not only their likes but also how important they think their chosen preferences are. So if we all like salacious, gossipy news – as seems to be pretty common – we could also opt to indicate that we know a celebrity’s latest shenanigans are not really that important, helping to ensure that the things we do think are important, but interest us less, are not totally filtered out of our view. Pariser ends THE FILTER BUBBLE with a call to arms: A small group of American companies may unilaterally dictate how billions of people work, play, communicate and understand the world. Protecting the early vision of radical connectedness and user control should be an urgent priority for all of us.

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A HUNDRED AND ONE DAYS by Asne Seirstad

I heard Asne Seirstad speak at Hay Book festival several years ago, as part of a session that also featured the collected blogs of Riverbend, and bought this book immediately. The death earlier this month of acclaimed foreign correspondent Marie Colvin made me revisit it. Like Colvin, Asne is also a journalist who specialises in covering conflicts and the book is a record of her time in Baghdad in the run up to, during and after the 2003 Iraq war.  Her emphasis on the very human side of war is a million miles away from the testosterone fuelled TV footage of missiles and craters, whilst behind the scenes we learn how she and her colleagues take care of one another, share food and equipment, how they acknowledge, but dare not name, their fears.  Some of the most powerful entries are when Asne writes about the horrendous injuries sustained by civilians during the bombing of Iraq, sending her editors photos even though she knows they will not be used:

I forward a picture of the beautiful young face. Aftenpost cannot publish it: actually I already knew that. I sent it so as not to be alone in having seen her….A dead child’s face is too strong an image for the international press. But that is what war is about – people dying.

And A HUNDRED AND ONE DAYS reveals some of what we now know about the soldiers that went into Iraq; how the mantra of 9/11 was used to justify further atrocities in response, how first time soldiers cried at night and dreamt of being elsewhere, and how hardened journalists had never seen civilians shot at so freely and without punishment. 

Asne forms strong relationships with her minders and translators, and it is these that enable her to so effectively convey the incredible complexity of the Iraqi people’s reactions to the invasion. Writing about the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue she observes:

The friends stood side by side when the statue fell. They both cried. One’s cheek was wet with sadness, the other’s shone with tears of gladness. Then followed the words. One insisted the country was invaded, the other that it was liberated.

I often turn to books to help make sense of global news, to help me better understand the sides of a story that are missing from mainstream media coverage – that in this instance churned out propaganda to rival that of Saddam Hussein. Asne’s journal is objective to the extent that she seeks to observe and report – not persuade or judge. Yet by being so honest she cannot help but communicate an anti-war message, which is all the more powerful because the horrors of war are balanced so squarely with the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime. One Iraqi she interviews talks of preparing for war as we in the West might prepare for winter – it’s a regular occurrence that, alongside the brutal oppression of freedom of speech, economic sanctions and one man’s ego virtually destroyed a nation. Only time will tell if British and American bombs succeeded in finishing off the job or if peace and freedom might one day find their way to Iraq.

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THE RAPTURE by Liz Jensen

Bethany Krall killed her mother, savagely. Gabrielle Fox blames herself for the death of her unborn baby and her lover in a car crash. She is a paraplegic as a result of the accident and art therapist to Bethany. They both inhabit a world teetering on the edge of cataclysmic climate change in which vast numbers of people have turned to evangelical religion to help save them. When Gabrielle realises that Bethany is accurately predicting earthquakes, tornadoes and other extreme events, she turns for advice to a scientist she meets by chance and sets in motion a chain of events that kept me turning page after page. 

THE RAPTURE is pretty bleak in its depiction of the effects of climate change, how society in breakdown might respond and in humankind’s inability to see further than the end of its nose. It also cleverly addresses big issues like choice vs predetermination. Liz Jensen’s use of language echoes the violence of the world she is writing about – trees are “arthritic fists”, for example and streets sweat tar. There are also clear parallels between the apocalyptic destruction of whole cities and the way that single events wreak havoc on individual lives.  Yet despite the many examples of hell on earth – environmental, psychological, physical or just other people – it is also a novel that is full of hope and renewal. When the world is about to end we still have love, still imagine a future and still have free will to do good. I guess I am hopeful that those things will stop us approaching the brink in the first place.

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