Frankenstein: The First 200 Years by Christopher Frayling

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“If you could have been around on a single say in the historical past – which day would it have been?” This question, posed by a BBC reporter, and answered in truth by author Christopher Frayling, is the perfect frame within which to set this book. Given a choice, it is incredibly difficult to select a single moment in time. Scientists, artists, philosophers and critics will each have very different choices. History has so many possibilities, but for Frayling, the choice was simple.

The obvious answer, says Frayling, is not a day, but a night. A night filled with boredom and anguish, which ultimately lead to the creation of one of the greatest ghost stories ever told. It was a dreary evening in June 1816 when a young Mary Shelley (then Godwin) first sought to horrify her companions with a tale of science and technology gone insane, a tale that would go on to become one of the best known tales of horror ever written.

Just 18 months later on New Year’s Day 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, complete with a preface by her husband Percy Shelley, was released into the world. The coming days, months, years, and now, centuries, would see this limited-edition fiction become one of the defining pillars of British culture. Frankenstein: The First 200 Years, a new and stunning hardbound production from Reel Art Press, celebrates the 200th birthday of literature’s greatest monster, by tracing its journey from fireside fiend to cultural celebrity.

The last two hundred years have seen Frankenstein’s creation break away from the paper-bound confines of the novel to stalk the stage and screens small and large, creeping into cartoons, comics and even cereal packets. The creature first snuck onto the big screen back in 1910, in a 16-and-a-half-minute ditty for the Thomas Edison Film Company, as a hideous beast with a misshapen body, twisted face and wild matted hair. Since this time, the costume changes have been many and various, occasionally adopting a somewhat ‘cuddly’ caricature afforded by the face of Herman Munster and modern-day Frankenweenie.

Within the pages of this stunning edition, the reader is taken on a journey through literary history, which includes new research on the novel’s origins, reprints of the earliest known manuscript of the creation scene, and a 90-page visual celebration of Frankenstein’s presence within popular culture.

Outside of obvious realms of literature and popular culture, Frankenstein’s exploits continue to roam – in a much less flattering light. If Mary Shelley’s novel held a message, it was surely a warning that manipulating that which you do not understand can only lead to devastation. Today, among newspaper pages constantly splashed with stories of the latest and greatest exploits in genetic engineering, nano-technology and artificial intelligence, Frankenstein’s monster often bares his ugly head.

The yellow-eyed, sallow-skinned being from Shelley’s novel, is indeed a far-cry away from any of the images we all recognise today – the bolt-necked beast made famous by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 onscreen adaptation being the most obvious. It is somewhat telling, perhaps, that the creature itself cannot be controlled. Just as Victor Frankenstein failed to coerce his creation, Mary Shelley’s tale has proved itself to have a life of its own.

If given the chance to travel back in time, there’s no telling where you might go, but for those intrigued by what occurred on that fabled night back in 1816, the very least you should do is read this book. Frayling has created as close to a time machine as you might hope to get, revealing, not just the humble origins of history’s greatest monster, but a thoroughly fascinating breakdown of all his exploits since.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

Dr Seuss: How The Grinch Stole Christmas | 60th birthday

It’s that time of year again, and this one is a special one, because one of the world’s best-loved children’s Christmas stories is turning 60, and it’s had a special makeover to celebrate.

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This beautiful new edition of Dr Seuss’s Christmas masterpiece ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is the perfect addition to any Christmas list. The illustrations and charming storyline remain the same, but are joined by a welcoming introduction by Charles D Cohen which explores the origins of the story, and the true meaning of Christmas – this is all contained within a beautiful clothbound cover and presentation box.

I absolutely love the Grinch, I include the 1960s animated short and even the Jim Carey feature in this, but of course nothing is a patch on the original. It is one of Dr Seuss’s best known stories, and with good reason. It took just a month to write, and two months to illustrate, but no other book so perfectly explores and presents the true meaning of Christmas.

You all know the story, and I’m sure I don’t need to bore you all with an explanation of the excellent storyline, writing style, or even illustrations – that said, Dr Seuss’s illustrations never cease to amaze me, in with this book in particular I love the use of red and black, making the pages seem at one dark and festive.

The story itself remains the same, a true Christmas classic, but the really nice thing about this new edition is the introduction.

It is said, and I cannot help but agree, that most people think of Dr Seuss as the Cat in the Hat – but remember that even the happiest people have their bad days. Dr Seuss, whose real name, for those of you who didn’t know, was Theodor Geisel, actually based the grisly, green-eyed character that stalks the page of this Christmas caper on none other than himself.

As his stepdaughter Lark Dimond-Cates once said: “I always thought that the Cat… was Ted on his good days, and the Grinch was Ted on his bad days.”

Seuss created the Grinch as a character at the tender aged of 53, on the day after Christmas day 1956, as an expression of his own concerns about the festive season. It’s an alarming thought, that someone who wrote such wonderful, magical children’s book could struggle with the spirit of Christmas, but Seuss did, and he used the Grinch to help work out exactly how he felt about the holiday.

So the intro says, Seuss was looking into the mirror, brushing his teeth on that Boxing Day morning, when he saw the Grinch peeking back at him.

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“Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realised, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”

This is, in fact, alluded to a little in the text “For fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I must stop this Christmas from coming! … But HOW?”

The introduction goes on to explain a little more about the books notoriety. It was first published back in 1957, an interesting year for Christmas which saw the launch of three separate which encouraged readers to rethink the true meaning of Christmas. These included: The Year without Santa Claus, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It became a year when people were forced to think about what Christmas really meant to them – and people loved it! All the books received prominent praise, and went on to become films in their own right, but none was quite as special as the Grinch, who became a Christmas staple, paling only in comparison to Santa Claus, and Rudolph.

However, unpleasant the Grinch character may seem at first, the book reminds us of an important fact – Christmas is about more than just presents. There is a deeper meaning to the book, though, expressed through the image of the Grinch, and the Whos coming together, that no one should be alone on Christmas, and that anyone can be part of a community.

The poor Grinch has never had a friend, or a family, and certainly never been part of a community, and cannot understand the Whos. In particular, he hates the Who-Christmas-Sing, a time when the Whos “would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing.”

Through the magic of Christmas, and seeing the Whos resilience even in the absence of presents, the Grinch learns to enjoy the true meaning of Christmas and to spend time and share a meal with the Whos, and as such to become a part of their community.

It is not a religious story, Seuss made sure of this. Like many of his books, Seuss wanted to ensure that the Grinch would teach children that people who look different, and come from different places can still come together as friends. A message we could all do with remembering at such troubling times.

As the intro concludes, most readers can notice a little something of the Grinch in themselves, I know I definitely can. I love Christmas, but I have had my troubles with it in the past, fed up with the endless money, presents and complete and utter faff that comes with it. At some point, though, I realised how I was only depriving myself by feeling this way, and by doing away with my own faff, I learned to enjoy Christmas for what it is, a time to be thankful, to spend time with friends and family and celebrate life, a time for quiet, reflection – and now I love it again.

The Grinch is an important holiday figure, and the Grinch, as a story, is one I can never get through the Christmas season without reading. I didn’t realise, until I saw this new edition, that the Grinch was approaching its 60th year in publication. I had already decided to start a little ‘tradition’ with my youngest nephew, of buying him a Dr Seuss book for his birthday and Christmas each year, this year’s Christmas present was to be the Grinch, and I am delighted that there is a special, beautiful new edition that I can share with him.

 

‘To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History’ by Lawrence Levy

 

The feature films churned out by Hollywood studios today are a far cry from the pioneering motion pictures of the late 19th century. Technology is often highlighted as a key driver for innovation and in no sector is this more evident than in entertainment. Whether you want to look at improvements in video-capture devices, or changing film-editing processes and software capabilities, developments across film and entertainment are largely driven by developments in technology.

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The story related in ‘To Pixar and Beyond’ is a perfect example of the relationship between technology and innovation. While the majority of people will have heard of Pixar, and know of the company’s wide success in the film industry, few may be aware of its surprisingly humble origins. Written by Lawrence Levy, the former chief financial officer of Pixar, this book tells the tale of how a tiny, struggling start-up went on to revolutionise the animated film industry.

The story begins with Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Silicon Valley executive, receiving an unexpected phone call from Apple founder Steve Jobs attempting to persuade him to join his latest venture, which at that point was on the verge of failure. This small, little-known software-development firm had begun creating computer-animated short films to advertise its work, and was now working towards creating the first ever computer animated feature film – a family-friendly adventure featuring toys that come to life. Levy recalls being struck by an odd mix of excitement and scepticism at hearing Pixar’s story, feelings that were all the more confused by a visit to the company’s dingy headquarters next to an oil refinery in Richmond Point, San Francisco.

Levy compares Pixar to the native Ohlone tribe, who roamed the land where Silicon Valley resides long before business took ownership of the area. Traditions capable of sustaining a tribe for thousands of years had been swept away by a wave of innovation. In the modern day, Levy says, those who can’t keep up with progress go the same way, becoming artefacts left behind. Outwardly Pixar had the appearance of a company that could be easily outstripped by its competitors, but among the rickety armchairs and stained ceiling tiles was a company that harboured a wealth of creative talent.

Of course, we know how the story pans out. There will be few people who have not heard of the first film to emerge from Pixar’s humble offices. In fact, ‘Toy Story’, as it came to be called, was not just successful, it went on to be the biggest film of 1995 – a feat virtually unheard of in the animated film world – and, at the time, became the third biggest grossing animated film of all time. A generation of millennials have now grown up alongside Toy Story’s beloved characters Buzz and Woody and will no doubt have shed a tear when the final film in the franchise was released in 2010.

Regardless of what you know about Pixar’s journey and subsequent success, though, Levy manages to make the story legitimately exciting. Joining the Pixar team was a huge decision, but this was really just the beginning. Once on board Levy and Jobs had a mountain to climb, in committing to transform Pixar into a company focused solely on animated feature films, and leaving behind the software sales and other piecemeal activites, which just barely kept the corporation afloat.

This book, like Pixar’s story, is truly remarkable. At times it reads like a novel, but informs like a documentary, advises like a self-help guide and inspires like any unexpected success story. Above all, the story is inspirational and should serve as encouragement for people wanting to innovate. Pixar’s story is rare, but not impossible. Innovation is out there, waiting to be discovered. As Levy says, creativity is a “dance on the precipice of failure”. There are no shortcuts, no formulas and no well-worn paths to victory, but the results speak for themselves.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Destroy this Book in the Name of Science’ by Mike Barfield

 

Science is exciting and at no point is this more apparent than when viewed through the eyes of a child, as this fun-filled new publication from Mike Barfield goes to show.

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As an impressionable ten-year-old, mere mention of the word ‘science’ had me thinking about dissolving just about anything in huge beakers of acid. With real-world scientific knowledge limited to the realms of mixing salt in water and weird Brainiac-related science abuse involving walking on custard and testing out slippery socks, I just couldn’t wait to get to secondary school and discover what wonders awaited me in the teenage science lab. Who could possibly resist the temptation of flammable alkaline metals, fizzing rainbow-coloured liquids and sooty beakers tarnished by improperly adjusted Bunsen burners?

When I first visited my secondary school, the chemistry teacher set up an experiment to show that the colour of fire could be changed using different types of salt. I’ll never forget adding borax to the soft glow of a Bunsen burner and seeing the flame change to a vivid apple green. The teacher managed to feign delight at what was no doubt the same experiment he’d seen dozens of times already that evening, musing ‘I’d rather like a pair of trousers that colour’ as I happily trotted off for my next lab tour.

What’s the point of this weird childhood anecdote, you may ask? To show that children are impressionable and liable to be amazed by even the simplest feats of science. It’s a good thing, too, because we all know how important it is to get children interested in STEM from an early age. As a parent, older sibling, aunt, uncle or concerned observer, it’s never too soon to get the young Isaac Newtons in your life excited about the wonderful world of science – and what better place to start than in the home.

The good news is that hands-on, kid-friendly science doesn’t have to be limited to the chemicals, crystals and compounds in the average chemistry set. A solution comes in the form of Destroy this Book in the Name of Science, an entertaining new publication from author Mike Barfield, which proves the perfect literary addition to the lab/bedroom of curious children.

Complete with its very own cut-out Einstein mask, this book is filled with projects and tasks to push out and pull apart, with pages reserved for colouring, doodling, cutting, tearing and flat-out destroying – all in the name of science. With the help of a little glue and some determination, even the most fledgling of boffins can discover the physics behinds some exceptional magic tricks, build a working cardboard hoop glider to out-fly any paper aeroplane and race paper sea turtles with the help of just a little washing up liquid.

The comically illustrated book is a simple affordable method of awakening the latent scientist nestled within each young brain. I would recommend this book for adults wanting to engage children in a little scientific fun or, equally, tired editorial staff in need of a Friday afternoon pick-me-up.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists: An Anthology of Short Stories’ edited by Michael Brotherton

Science and science fiction may seem like two sides of the same coin, but much of the genre gracing bookshelves and cinemas today is actually missing an integral piece of the puzzle – the ‘science’.

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Without science, says Michael Brotherton, sci-fi is little more than a western set in space, or a fantasy set in the future. As a lover of all things scientific and a trained astrophysicist, Brotherton characterises science fiction as providing a glimpse into amazing futures not outside the realms of possibility, or terrible and grotesque scenarios that we should try to avoid.

It may not surprise you to learn that many renowned sci-fi authors were trained in science – Isaac Asimov had a PhD in biochemistry, and Arthur C Clarke was known for his essays on space travel. Perhaps it is the accuracy, or indeed the believability of their fiction, the notion that these situations are not outside the realms of possibility, that makes their work so profound.

As editor of ‘Science Fiction by Scientists’, Brotherton introduces the latest generation of science-trained sci-fi writers, among them current researchers pursuing a love of fiction on the side, retired experts, or those who have set aside prosperous careers to write full time.

In ‘Down and Out’ by Ken Wharton, the reader meets Ogby, a strange, spiderlike creature living within the nutrient-rich oceans of a mysterious, ice-​encrusted land, with odd perceptions of gravity, sinking to the bottom of her habitat by filling one of her many gaseous bladders with air.

In ‘Supernova Rhythm’, Andrew Fraknoi writes of an optimistic young research scientist who discovers a strange pattern of exploding stars in galaxy NGC 6946, and so finds that there may be life forms billions of years ahead of us developmentally, whose actions we cannot possibly understand.

Alongside tales of obscure lands, terrifying futures and pending zombie apocalypses, the authors have taken time to explain a little of the science behind the sci-fi, unveiling origins of the tales and shedding some light on their motivation. In this way, we learn that Obgy is an alien lifeform from Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter, who scuttles upside-down upon the layers of ice enclosing the moon’s subterranean ocean; that a new musical piece created by a group of astronomers uses notes supplied by supernovae in far-off galaxies and that future scientists could theoretically sequence the DNA of hundreds of species of animals to be contained, and later deployed, within a single piece of fruit.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists’ is an interesting and intriguing anthology of short stories, which is sure to set the reader’s mind in motion a little better than the average collection of sci-fi shorts. Leisure is combined with learning to leave not just a sense of wonder and amusement, but also the desire to find out a little more about each author’s particular field.

For those interested in exploring further, a more challenging read comes in the form of ‘Murder on the Einstein Express and Other Stories’, also from Springer. This short anthology by assistant professor in mathematics and physics Harun Šiljak, touches on the realms of the theoretical, physical and computational to create obscure tales, including an Alice in Wonderland-type adventure set within the realms of mathematical analysis.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

Asteronymes – Claire Trévien

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Asteronyme is the word for a sequence of asterisks used to hide a name or password. I wonder what this book of poetry is hiding.

Poetry is a like a window into a person’s soul, but not all windows are clear. Words can paint the desires and emotions often left hidden in the depths of the unconscious mind but it is not always apparent what emotions the words are hiding, just as you can never been sure of the meaning behind the asterisk in any given password.

In some ways I find that poetry is the most personal form of literary expression. There is always passion in writing – even the most terrible novel, or simplest anecdote can tell you something about a person – but delve into the world of the poetical and you have something more. Sometimes the simplest method of expression is in poetical thought, but to express doesn’t mean to be understood.

The poems nestled within this obscure blue cover relay extremely personal experiences, and linguistic experimentation. Trévien takes the reader with her on a journey through the Scottish Island of Arran, a remote place wrought with contradiction, where ancient rocks and history meet the cruel harsh reality of digital life.

Alongside caves adorned with the mythical carvings of old, where snow-peaked mountains meet coastal palm trees and the post-industrial rush of life, past, present and prelife experiences come together to explore the remote Scottish countryside. Trévien’s voice emerges in an explosion of lyrical, poetic exploration which speaks of the destruction of timeless places by the passing of time itself.

Ruin, neglect and progression come together in an expression that is all at once playful, creative, and explorative, and challenges the boundaries of traditional poetical construction. Trévien’s words are at times humorous and crass, and other mournful and waning, serving as an elegy to destruction and neglect throughout time.

I don’t often take the time to read modern poetry, preferring instead to stay loyal to my grandfather’s dusty edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and a crumbling copy of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but I’m very pleased I decided to pick up this humble little collection up. It really is a breath of fresh air, and I found myself wanting to experiment with some of the new techniques and styles uncovered within the text. To be sure my attempts are nowhere near as eloquent as Trévien’s, but it was lovely to have the desire reawakened within me.

If you are looking for a new collection to revive your senses and inspire your creative spirit you really need look no further than Asteronymes. Trévien is definitely a very exciting new voice to the world of poetry.

Not forgotten – Lesley Ann Anderson

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You have probably wondered what happens to us after we die – is there a heaven or hell? Can we expect to be reincarnated into something very distinct from our human selves? Do we become absorbed into an inky black nothingness, remaining only as memories after the lights turn out? Or maybe there is something different waiting for us after death. In Not Forgotten, author Lesley Ann Anderson explores this final idea. Delving into the complex nature of life after death – not just in the form of what happens to people that die, but of the lives of those left behind. .

The storyline centres on the rather complicated lives of seventeen year old Anna Munro and her dad, Mick. Mick is a bit of an oddball, having been thrown full force into fatherhood by the untimely death of his wife when his daughter was just a toddler. He spends his days indulged in a constant attempt to escape from reality and the hardships of fatherhood and life as a widower, absorbed in walks, books and music. For Anna life is not so simple and escape doesn’t come in the form of nature or the arts. Every night when Anna goes to sleep she feels herself being lifted from her earthly body, or has her semi conscious hours plagued by ghostly figures and incessant whispering.

The teenage years are a difficult time for any young girl, but particularly so for Anna, with new and strange things happening to her body and mind she turns to her father for help only to find out something very new and strange about herself. Assistance comes in the form of Anna’s maternal grandfather, Henryk – a beautiful, old country soul who escaped Poland for the green hills of Scotland during the Second World War. To help Anna understand her new found powers Henryk takes her to Poland, to the ancestral home of her great grandmother Rosalia.

Not Forgotten is a complex and intriguing book, exploring the many avenues of life and death. There is no central character but rather a range of people with conflicting desires and emotions, who have all been scarred by the tragic nature of human mortality. Anderson delves into relationship between love, loss and life, painting a striking picture of life after death, as those left behind struggle with conflicting emotions and grieve for those who have moved on.

Death is not final, and does not only come to us at the end of our lives, rather it is always with us, moulding and shifting our desires, our hopes, and our dreams, and preparing us for the inevitable, from the moment we are born to the day we die.