'Confessions of a Conjuror' - Derren Brown. I'm not very far through it, but so far it's part autobiography, part free association -- an intriguingly stream of consciousness collection of thoughts and observations on magic, life, art and Brown's own past. The observations are framed by a well-written, painstakingly detailed account of an evening spent roving a restaurant as the house magician.
I've been reading a lot of non-fiction recently. The last fiction book I read was probably 'The Naming of the Beasts' by Mike Carey, the fourth in the enjoyable and intelligently pulpy Felix Castor series.
Book I am currently writing:
None unless you count my twitter account. (I did once write a fantasy novel in my teens, but the least said about that the better.)
Books I love most:
Tough call this. There are books I read and re-read obsessively in my youth, books that have moved me to tears, and books that have dazzled me. But the one that made the biggest impact on me in the last decade was undoubtedly 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark' by Carl Sagan. It's a book about open-minded skepticism, the spirit of scientific enquiry and the debunking of pseudoscientific thinking. It chimed with my views on the Universe so precisely, and helped to crystalise them. I've read other similar books since, but none that bettered it.
The last book I received as a gift:
'Why Evolution is True' - Jerry A. Coyne, probably the best pop science book I've read on evolution. Some of Dawkin's evolution books (such as Climbing Mount Improbable) are more rewardingly in-depth and feature more mind-blowingly complex examples. However as a comprehensive introduction to, and collation of the evidence for, evolution by natural selection this is far superior to Dawkins' 'The Greatest Show on Earth'. It's just a shame it's unlikely to ever be read by anyone who isn't already convinced.
The last book I gave as a gift:
'Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency' by Cressida Cowell. A gift for my daughter whose seemingly inexhaustible thirst for 'stories' is highly pleasing (even if she's more than slightly obsessed with Miffy at the moment). We saw David Tennant read this book on CBeebies Bedtime Hour over Christmas, which he did brilliantly, subsequently dipped our toe in the water with the other books in the series, and followed up this one. A droll and witty book full of surreal imagination and a firm 'self-rescuing' type of heroine.
The nearest book on my desk:
'Servant of the Underworld' by Aliette de Bodard. It belongs to my wife whose seemingly inexhaustible thirst for books of all genres out-strips even our daughter's. According to the cover quote it's about an Aztec priest of the dead who tries to solve a murder mystery so I'm guessing it's the pre-Columbian equivalent of Cadfael.
Last book I bought for myself:
'The Final Solution' - Michael Chabon. A spare, elegant tale of Sherlock Holmes in extreme old age, and the spectre of the Holocaust.
There's also a realism that this Granada series derives from having been shot on location that puts it streets ahead of any amount of over-dressed ye olde england sets, plush smoking jackets and fake pea-souper fogs. When you've seen Matt Frewer as Holmes (and generally speaking I have nothing against Matt Frewer) you realise just how badly wrong Holmes can go when treated like a Disneyland attraction. Brett's Holmes and the world he inhabits are perfectly real -- despite being inhabited by a parade of Victorian grotesques.
Despite all this I remain inexplicably positive about the ludicrous Guy Ritchie romp starring Robert Downey Jr. I put this down to an ability to compartmentalise.
On a related note I'm not sure how I missed this news that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are making a modern day version of Holmes starring the improbably named Benedict Cumberbatch. If it weren't for the writers I'd dismiss this out of hand. With these writers, well, I'll give it a chance.
Plus they've just found the Giant Rat of (Somewhere Near) Sumatra.
( 19. The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell )
( 20. The Little Sister – Raymond Chandler )
( 21. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman )
( My books of 2009 )
So that's 21 books this year vs. 9 last year. I set the bar low but I'm still pleased to have notched up more than twice as many as last year. I had a bit of a blip after The Little Sister in which I started two1 books2 which still languish unfinished on a shelf, which slowed my pace considerably.
My wife meanwhile notched up 38 books, vastly outstripping me as always and beating her tally of 35 last year.
( My wife's books of 2009 )
1 Apocalypse How by Daily Show writer Rob Kutner, initially a very funny take on surviving the post-apocaypse, but one where the law of diminishing returns sets in very quickly.
2 Who Wrote the New Testament by Burton L Mack., a scholarly, secular attempt to reconstruct the actual beginnings of early Christian belief through literary and historical analysis, but one that for me feels nearly as much of a conjectural house of cards as the religion itself.
( 15. Bad Science – Ben Goldacre )
( 16. The Carhullan Army – Sarah Hall )
( 17. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown )
( 18. The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins )
Hard to believe, but this brings me to twice the number of books I read in the whole of last year. Next: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
( 10. The Lady in the Lake – Raymond Chandler )
( 11. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins )
( 12. Climbing Mount Improbable – Richard Dawkins )
( 13. Dead Men’s Boots – Mike Carey )
( 14. Sunshine – Robin McKinley )
So there you go. 14 books to date during 2008, precisely half the number my wife has read in the same period. I'd like to say I'll catch up, but it's a bit like Zeno's Paradox.
For some time now (and specifically after seeing them on The Gadget Show) Janet has been considering getting an ebook reader.
You must understand that my wife reads a lot of books. She owns a lot of books. She owns a lot of books she hasn't even read. She and books share an understanding. She even makes books. It's not that she wants to replace books.
However she does think that it would be cool to download books: it would save on shelf space, and it would be handy when going on holiday. Now that ebook readers use 'e-paper' that doesn't flicker or tire the eyes but looks just like printed text on a page, she's getting really tempted. It's this Sony model which has caught her eye.
On the plus side it looks decent, is small and light, gets good reviews and supports a variety of formats including the new standard "epub" file, audio and image files. Waterstones are promoting it and if she orders it by 3rd September you get 500 bonus points. They'll have more than 25,000 ebooks to buy from September. She could download new books instantly, and cart them around. Plus she'd be living in Teh Futur.
On the down side it's still pretty costly (circa £200), and the technology is still in its infancy so it could quickly become out of date (e.g. although it can display images the screen is currently only black and white). Also the files seem to generally come with DRM restricting how you can use them -- i.e. a max of six devices -- which seems like it goes against the spirit of a book. Most worrying of all, there are proprietary formats it can't play (including Amazon Kindle) so you can't necessarily just download ebooks from the US where they are plentiful. This last one is really what's made her stop and think.
Personally I suspect that I'd love to own one of these but I'd never actually use it. I'm also incredibly materialistic and like having shelves full of *things*. I still buy CDs, even though I immediately convert them to mp3. I'm also not keen on the inverted "negative" image you get for a moment whenever the page changes, which can be seen on this video.
Opinions and anecdotes gratefully received. She'll probably ignore you and do what she was going to do anyway, but you never know...
( 5. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman )
( 6. Fairyland – Paul J McAuley )
( 7. Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler )
( 8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon )
( 9. The High Window – Raymond Chandler )
Between the two Chandlers and the Chabon I feel like I've been on a bit of a crime kick recently. Since I'm currently reading the fourth Marlowe novel it doesn't look like it'll end any time soon.
(Films 9 to 19 are here.)
In order to spread my feelings of goodwill far and wide, have a few links on me.
ittybittykitt really does feature some of the most brain-meltingly cute kittens ever captured by CCD. Every time I see one of their photos I think that kittens couldn't get any cuter, but somehow they do. I want to adopt them all.
One for veggiesu: I notice that ITV3 are doing a six-week season of crime thrillers leading up the allegedly "glittering" ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards. What's interesting is that each week they're showing a specially commissioned documentary profiling "the six best crime writers working today" aka Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, PD James, Lynda La Plante, Val McDermid and Ruth Rendell. (I leave it up to the reader to decide whether these are in fact the six best crime writers working today whose TV adaptations ITV3 happen to own the rights to.) Could be interesting.
One for swisstone: Head of Roman empress unearthed near the previously unearthed statue of Hadrian in Turkey. Our local news is also banging on about visitors to Hadrian's Wall being up on last year, which they're -- not implausibly -- linking to the British Museum's Hadrian exhibit and associated publicity. I shudder to think that it could have anything to do with Bonekickers instead.
I've put this on Facebook already but look: Chewbacca mouse! Awwww.
This weekend we de-stacked all the books, dismantled the old bookcases, assembled the new ones and (a first for me) attached them to the wall so they can't fall over and crush us.
( Before )
Behold the power of our fully operational bookcase:
( After )
And we still have books left over. I've deliberately left some gaps to accommodate my wife's book habit, but the other Heap o' Books in the bedroom already needs thinning out so I don't think this pristine tidiness will last long before the horizontal stacking returns to haunt us.
Oh, and don't worry, although we have indeed walled-in half the cupboard, we can still just about get to the light switch...
I had no intention of reading it right now and I'm a bit ambivalent about reading novels on a computer screen, but having got sucked into the prologue I think he's captured the feel and voices of the series extremely well. I'm intrigued.
(I've never read any of Brust's novels but Janet's read quite a few and is a big fan of To Reign in Hell in particular.)
(Okay these turned out less brief than planned so I'll spare you by putting them behind the cuts.)
( 1. The Devil You Know – Mike Carey, 2. Vicious Circle – Mike Carey )
( 3. The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler )
( 4. Air – Geoff Ryman )
(Films 1 to 4 are here).
Brief reviews below. No real spoilers here, but cut for length
The books I read in 2007:
( 1. Magic for Beginners )
( 2. Coalescent )
( 3. Exultant )
( 4. Circle of the Moon )
( 5. Transcendent )
( 6. Never Have Your Dog Stuffed )
( 7. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets )
( 8. The Character of Cats )
( 9. The Ladies of Grace Adieu )
So, only nine books. I enjoyed them all, but I do feel like something of a failure in the Read more books, dammit! stakes. Maybe next year.
EDIT for obligatory statistics: Hey, I only read 9 books but 33.3% were by female authors. Go me! Then again another 33.3% were by Stephen Baxter so it's possible the small sample size is skewing the data. ;-)
( Janet's books )
It included this fine piece of 100% pure nostalgia, biro scribbles and all:
( And there's more... )
I don't even remember owning a book called The Adventures of K9 and Other Mechanical Creatures by Terrance Dicks. I'm impressed that Radio Times felt the need to produce a Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special. But most of all I'm awed by the absolute cack that passed for content in old Doctor Who annuals: exciting find-the-centre-of-the-maze puzzles; quizzes about the solar system; inane prose stories with dodgy illustrations done by someone who'd once had Jon Pertwee's face described to him; comics by someone who had missed the aforementioned description. It's all here.
Unless you had exactly the same childhood as me this will all mean nothing to you (oh Vienna) but for me this is pure gold.
People talk about having a "To read" pile of books. My wife has a "To read" shelf. It's smaller now than at any time in the last two years but still the idea of her ever getting through them all seems faint at best, not least because new books arrive in the post almost daily.
Here's a picture:
( Cut for bigness... )
The "To read" pile has its own shelf because the main shelf is full to bursting:
( More bigness... )
And this is only one of our many bookshelves, albeit the biggest. I always feel faintly concerned when the only way to fit the books on is to stack them horizontally.
The I Am Legend movie had been below my radar until recently. Now we have advertising which seems to confuse the concept of a tag line and a poster, and a Quicktime trailer which makes it look like someone took Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and forcibly inserted Will Smith into it, then added some 'splosions. On the positive front the trailer doesn't look terrible, and the same approach failed to ruin I, Robot (despite leaving it a much lesser film than it could have been).
Lastly The Dark Knight. I'm sure the film will hew closely to the gritty style of Batman Begins and the Joker image was very promising in this respect. Unfortunately the latest images of the Bat Bike and Bat Suit are sheer geek gadgetry. They may look okay and retain some militaristic flavour but I'd prefer promo images that treated this like a real drama and not a tool for selling action figures.
In the meantime, here are some links. Use them wisely. Use them in peace.
There's an Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, apparently.
Russia launches cyber-attack against Estonia. Allegedly. It's less exciting than it sounds, but you get the feeling that if the real world just picked up the pace a little it might catch a glimpse of science fiction on the horizon.
The finalists in the Best visual illusions of the year competition. I quite like the extremely simple leaning tower illusion.
His next novel is apparently set in the 18th century. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, but not enough to read anything more by Mitchell in the near future, I think. I feel like a bit of a novel-reading fraud at the moment. I've only read three books this year, four if you count December: River of Gods by Ian McDonald, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, and Coalescent and Exultant by Steven Baxter. I'm currently on Barbara Hambly's Circle of the Moon, before heading back to Baxter's Transcendent.
My wife, meanwhile, has ploughed her way through: Timothy Zhan's The Green and the Grey, Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God, Mary Gentle's Ilario, Nick Sagan's Edenborn, Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things, Eleanor Arnason's Ring of Swords and A Woman of the Iron People, C.J.Cherryh's Deliverer and Port Eternity and Hal Duncan's Vellum. She's currently on World War Z. Ten books since the start of January. Mind you, she said Vellum almost did for her.
I'm well aware that there are those on my Friends List (*cough*coalescent*cough*) who've probably read another couple of novels in the time it took me to compose this entry. To which I have to wonder: how? Is there some ancient art of time dilation that everyone is hiding from me? You can tell me if there is. I promise to use it only for Good and not get involved in any time paradoxes, valuable life lessons or exciting adventures with dinosaurs.
Thought: maybe if I spent less time posting rubbish like this and more time reading...
In between my slumbers I've been reading Magic for Beginners, the short story collection by Kelly Link. Possibly it's the illness but so far the stories are some of the more profoundly disorienting experiences of my life. ( Weirdness )
1 She told me to say this, but it's true.
(The site is run by Michael Quinion, whose book Port Out, Starboard Home I've mentioned before and would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone with an interest in the origin of words and phrases; not least because it devotes a lot of time to satisfyingly debunking the urban myths that grow up around words and phrases. This makes it feel a great deal more authoritative than other similar books which still trot out these myths as if they were fact.)
It also gives me the chance to mention the many things I've heard, read and seen over the last few months without bothering to write about them.
( Books, Music and Films, oh my... )
The programme barely scratched the surface of the material, and the presenter appeared strangely bemused by the OED's insistence on actual printed evidence for when words were first used in a given context. (The OED people didn't do a very good job of explaining, to be fair). But it's still a subject which has an inherent appeal because language is something we use every day without stopping to wonder how recent - or ancient - is much that we take for granted. It's really hard to go wrong with the subject matter.
I must confess I'm increasingly fascinated by language and etymology. It's a topic I haven't really studied (my English degree barely even covered semantics, let alone etymology), but I'm increasingly reading up on the subject at a 'popular science' level and finding it highly absorbing.
Last year I read (aka nicked off my wife) a book called Port Out, Starboard Home which explains the origins of phrases and, equally importantly, debunks the invented and erroneous explanations that have arisen over the years. For example, "Posh" is not an acronym for "Port Out, Starboard Home". And "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey" is apparently not derived from the brass plates used to stack up cannonballs; it is in fact literally referring to a brass monkey's most treasured possessions, with early variants being "talk the tail off a brass monkey" and "hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey". Sometimes phrases go right back to Latin, while other phrases can be traced to a specific modern date or person; or shown to have been used in print before the event which allegedly inspired it. I highly recommend the book (released in America as Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds), which is both accessible and convincingly authoritative on the subject and even goes so far as to debunk explanations trotted out by other similar books. If you're interested there's a related website, World Wide Words.
I'm also reading a fascinating book on the alphabet called Letter Perfect (formerly Language Visible; what is it with language books changing their names?) which among various bombshells made me realise that, in English, 'J' and 'V' weren't officially recognised as letters in their own right until Webster's American Dictionary in 1828. And prior to the late 19th Century the name of the letter 'J' was pronounced "Jye", not "Jay". (Why yes, I'm up to the chapter on 'J', why do you ask?) What's especially fascinating is that the shapes, sounds and even sequence of many of our letters can be traced right back to the very first Semitic alphabet around 2000 BC. Whole civilisations have consciously appropriated the same system of letters, which has trickled its way down to us through the centuries. This may be elementary stuff to anyone who's studied the subject, but it's the kind of thing I just enjoy learning.
It has to be said, having waffled off the topic, that the BBC TV programme really did a very poor job of conveying these things - especially the ways language changes and the dizzying historical perspective - but at the same time programmes on the subject are few and far between and I'll certainly be tuning in next week.
This, by the way is a recommendation. :-)
More later, when I have a bit more time. One other aside - I'd heard that the movie was only loosely inspired by the book, but that's not quite true. The characters, relationships and dialogue are 100% new, but the actual story is surprisingly faithful to the major beats of the novel. It conflates characters and events, but doesn't stray far from the source material.
EDIT: Before the movie there was a rather cool C4 trailer for Lost. Nice.
( Spoilers for Cloud Atlas… )
( Read more... )
(Now if this hangover would just stop, I'd be a happy man. Why do I even agree to these office nights out, anyway...? Ouch. Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch. Ouch.)
( I should probably cut here, so I don't take up too much room... )