Tag Archives: Equilateral

Paperbacks to look out for in October 2014

This is going to be a short post, not that there aren’t lots of paperbacks published in October but few of them take my fancy, I’m afraid, which is probably best for my credit card. I’ve already read and reviewed three at length here so I’ll start with those.

Cover imageThe first is John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which has a much more eye-catching jacket than the hardback. Humans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of this novel which I enjoyed very much.

My second choice is Equilateral by Ken Kalfus, a tale of madness, folly and Martians. Set at the end of the nineteenth century, Equilateral opens in the Egyptian desert where nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin labour to create a vast equilateral triangle which will be seen from Mars, so Sanford Thayer, celebrated astronomer and instigator of the project, has calculated. Inspired by Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps based on his observations of the Red Planet which depict canali on its surface together with his own theories derived from evolution, Thayer has come to the conclusion that Martians are a superior race, busy trying to conserve their dwindling water supplies, with whom earthlings should try to communicate. Sounds bonkers, I know, but Kalfus has a great deal of fun with the idea taking a few well-aimed kicks at colonial arrogance along the way.

My third already-reviewed choice is an entirely different kettle of fish. Hubert Mingarelli’s spare novella, A Meal in Winter, in which three hungry German soldiers striding through a frigid Polish forest flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. One soldier reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face Cover imagethe moral dilemma of what to do with their captive. A beautiful piece of writing.

My last choice for this month is James Scott’s The Kept, set in nineteenth century upstate New York where Elspeth Howell has returned to find that her family has been murdered – all apart from her twelve-year-old son. Together they set out to find the culprits. It sounds a bit like Gil Adamson’s The Outlander which I very much enjoyed and Ali’s review at Heavenali  has piqued my interest further.

That’s it for October paperbacks. If you want to see what I’ll be adding to my TBR in September, here are the paperbacks and here are the hardbacks.

Equilateral by Ken Kalfus: A tale of folly, madness and Martians

Cover imageSet at the end of the nineteenth century, Equilateral opens in the Egyptian desert where nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin labour to create a vast equilateral triangle which will be seen from Mars, so Sanford Thayer, celebrated astronomer and instigator of the project, has calculated. Inspired by Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps based on his observations of the Red Planet which depict canali on its surface together with his own theories derived from evolution, Thayer has come to the conclusion that Martians are a superior race, busy trying to conserve their dwindling water supplies, with whom earthlings should try to communicate. The triangular trench is to be filled with petrol and lit on June 17th 1894 acting as a flare to attract Martian attention in the hope that they will make contact the following October when Mars and Earth are at their closest. His scheme has not only been funded by public subscription but is fully supported by European governments and dignitaries, all keen to make the Martians’ acquaintance. Despite the disasters that strike the project it limps on fuelled by determination and delusion. So sure is Thayer of the Martians’ imminent arrival that a luxurious set of buildings has been erected to house them, its design based on that of Balmoral.

Sound bonkers? Well, indeed it is but Ken Kalfus manages to carry it off in this subtly comic novel which is so convincing that I found myself wondering if anyone had ever conceived of such a ridiculous scheme given that it’s set in the age of exploration and abundant European self confidence. He takes some well-aimed kicks at colonialist arrogance: Thayer calls his maid Bint ignorant of the fact that it’s the Arabic word for girl rather than her name; European doctors fail to diagnose Thayer’s fever while Bint (whose name is Alya) quietly and effectively treats it with a local medicine; the Europeans seem oblivious to the political and religious dissension riddling the base having neglected to learn Arabic which eventually leads to disaster. Meanwhile the long-suffering Miss Keaton whose brain is at least the equal of Thayer’s is given no official credit for her contributions, written off as a spinster and forced to look on as Thayer’s attraction for Alya grows. It’s an unusual and original novel – one that I think will stay with me for some time.