Our book group didn’t meet in August as nearly everyone was on hols, so last night we had two books to discuss. The way we pick our books is to chose a theme two months ahead, then research and next month present our suggestions, of which one gets picked eventually.
SF: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
This was a re-read for me, and I enjoyed it as much the second time around as the first – and it made me cry again. The novel was published in 1966, having been expanded from a previous short story, and jointly winning the Hugo Award for that year
Charlie is a young man of limited intelligence who works in a bakery as a skivvy; he narrates the story. The bakery owner had promised Charlie’s uncle he’d always look after him so he didn’t have to be put into an asylum. Charlie can read and write a little thanks to his loving teacher, as we see in the text, his spelling, punctuation and grammar is low level, but he does want to do better. He’s a happy soul and regards his co-workers as his friends. The reality is somewhat different and the other bakery employees take advantage of Charlie in many ways, but he doesn’t notice.
Then Charlie agrees to take part in a scientific research programme. After success in boosting a mouse called Algernon’s intelligence, they’re looking for a human subject and Charlie agrees to the treatment. It works, and we see Charlie’s brain changing as he’s able to spell better and understand more. But this increase in intelligence comes at a cost. Charlie is now able to understand how he’s been taken advantage of, his co-workers become resentful of him, even scared of his intelligence. He falls properly in love with his teacher too – his life changes completely. It’s hard to control the powerful emotions that the increased intelligence also unleashes, and Charlie rebels at being a human lab rat…. but I can’t tell you how it ends.
This novel was a hit with the group. Those who thought oh no, SF, being pleasantly surprised at this very human story. It touches upon many issues, moral and ethical alongside looking at the impact of emotional intelligence, and how we treat those with mental disability. Another key issue is that of happiness, for the enhanced Charlie is not a happy bunny. This book may have been written in the 1960s, but has aged really well. It’s a delight and I would urge anyone who is wary of science fiction to start with Flowers for Algernon, which is already in my Desert Island Library. (10/10 – still).
Source: Own copy. Gollancz paperback, 224 pages. BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link)
Naval: Ramage by Dudley Pope
When we hit upon the theme of a naval novel, we were spoiled for choice – we could have gone for CS Forester’s Hornblower, or Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, the first of his many Aubrey/Maturin novels, but opted for the first of Dudley Pope’s Ramage books on recommendation from on our our group’s other halves. Ramage has the brio of Hornblower and doesn’t have the depth of O’Brian’s mastery of naval terminology which you need a dictionary for, making it easier to read.
I think most of us were shocked at how enjoyable this book was. I’ve read one of the Hornblower novels ages ago, so knew roughly what to expect. Ramage read like Hornblower mixed with a bit of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe and was huge fun. Let me tell you a little about it.
As the novel starts in 1796, 3rd Lt Ramage is awakened from a concussion to find that he is the senior officer left on board his cutter Sibella which has been attacked by the French off the Italian coast. The ship is sinking, there are many wounded and many dead. Ramage comes up with the only possible solution to save their lives – he will lead the unwounded away from the ship in the boats, then the wounded can surrender to the French who will be forced to tend them under the rules of war, otherwise they’ll all die. However, taking this course of action will leave Ramage liable for a Court-Martial for abandoning his ship and crew. Before leaving the ship, Ramage discovers his late Captain’s secret orders to rescue a group of Italian Aristocrats who are in danger of being guillotined as the French advance into Italy. Ramage says he can still do that in the boats – and off they go. Little does he know that one of those awaiting rescue is a childhood playfriend from his days living in Tuscany – she is now all grown-up and a Marchessa!
To cut a long story short, Ramage does the rescue and then gets Court-Martialed – and the Marchessa comes to his rescue. He also comes to the attention of Commodore Nelson, not yet an Admiral and once his name is cleared, his career is set.
I was surprised to find this book was written in 1965, so it actually predates the first of Patrick O’Brian’s books by 5 years. Pope’s writing is full of brio and gives a good feel of being on board a sinking ship without overdoing the detail. Pope was a merchant seaman for a while, and Ramage, who is actually a Lord himself, is a very likeable young hero and in this first novel in Pope’s sequence is rather ignorant of the ways of love – for he and the Marchessa are surely destined to be together but there will be no heaving bosums in this installment! We all particularly enjoyed the politics of the court-martial scene – in which Ramage comes up against an old foe of his father’s. One of the other interesting characters is Ramage’s friend the coxwain from the Sibella who is American and very capable.
I find I’d happily read more Ramage books, there is something (misplaced probably) about the romance of the sea that appeals over the exploits of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books which have similar adventure during the same time period but are land-based. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy. House of Stratus paperback, 350 pages. BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link)