Books meme

Books I am currently reading:

‘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.

Mister Sherlock Holmes

We’ve been watching the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series from the start. We’ve just made it to ‘The Final Problem’, featuring Holmes’s apparent death and the final appearance of Watson #1, whom I think I marginally prefer to Watson #2 for his eagerness and fantastically deadpan bemusement. I’m not sure what more I can say about Brett’s merits as Holmes except that rewatching these episodes has reminded me just how very good he was in the role, particularly early on. Athletic, eccentric, rude, bursting with nervous energy, and the very image of what you want Holmes to be.

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.

Dear (ebook) reader

My wife asks me to put the following issue to the enlightened denizens of LiveJournal. Since I don’t know any, I’m asking you lot.

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…

Mmmm… stuff…

My birthday yielded The Absolute Sandman, Volume 3 (the kind of gorgeous object of desire that’s so heavy, nicely bound and on good quality paper that you’d want to own it even if you weren’t interested in the contents). Also Alice in Sunderland, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, unchillfiltered Laphroaig whisky (which I’m sampling as we speak), two Raymond Chandler novels, wine, Fererro Rocher and the finest of foodstuffs, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes. I’m led to believe a few other presents may be en route, and my wonderful wife even baked me a chocolate cake. With candles. Best Wife Ever.

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.

Mwah ha ha ha ha ha

Inspired by ajr and my need to impose order on our sprawling Heap o’ Books, as previously detailed here, we went out this week and bought the tallest bookshelves IKEA had to offer, then bought the extra bits that made them taller, then bought extra shelves for them.

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.


My Own Kind of Freedom

Steven Brust wrote an entire Firefly novel to tie in with the film Serenity. The bad news is that he wrote it on spec and they decided not to do any Firefly novels. The good news is that he’s released it online under a creative commons licence. You can download it here.

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.)

Read More Books, 2007

In January my resolutions were, as ever, to Read More Books, Dammit! and to Go to the cinema more. Not big on introspection but very big on realism. Even so I haven’t managed as well as I intended, especially on the book front.

Brief reviews below. No real spoilers here, but cut for length

The books I read in 2007:

1. Magic for Beginners

Surfeits, and having too many of them

Coalescent‘s new flat and associated shelving issues have reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post this.

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…

Film snippets

Old Indiana Jones! What’s nice about this photograph is that it looks like an older Indiana Jones and not just like an older Harrison Ford in a hat. I’m not certain quite why this is; probably just that Indy is such an iconic character. I’m cautiously optimistic about the film even though, if I’m honest, I think Raiders of the Lost Ark is ten times better than either of the sequels.

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.

Some Things

I was going to post about Tom McRae’s mixed bag of a new album, and my struggle to get back into doing some art for the first time in years. However I’ve accidentally switched my brain into standby mode so those topics will have to wait.

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.


Novelist David Mitchell somewhat disconcertingly does The Guardian‘s equivalent of one of those non-interviews you see in the sidebar of cheap TV guides or old editions of Smash Hits. In it he states: “I’m a big Doctor Who fan. I’ve bought the box set and worked my way through the entire oeuvre. David Tennant is my favourite Doctor; he is brilliant.”

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…

Magic for Beginners

Today I took my first actual full day off sick (as opposed to leaving early) in at least six or seven years. Normally I struggle through, so I feel pretty guilty, but Janet was sternly insistent. It turns out that I slept for most of the day, and feel a great deal better this evening. I think it was a good decision and Janet was (as ever) right1.

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


West Wing viewers may be interested to read a recent entry on World Wide Words concerning the origins of the acronym POTUS. Fascinating.

(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.)


My sister was supposed to be visiting this weekend but Ticketline managed to take the money for the rail tickets from her account and fail to actually deliver the tickets, or have any record of her order. This wasn’t helped by the fact that they ask you not to ring them unless your tickets still haven’t turned up the day before you travel, leaving no time to resolve the problem. So now my sister is visiting in a few weeks time instead! This may be for the best as a nice relaxing weekend seems like a good plan after a fairly stressful week at work, and it’ll give us the opportunity to see V for Vendetta into the bargain.

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…

Balderdash & Piffle

Just caught Balderdash and Piffle on BBC2. Having seen the adverts I wasn’t sure if it would be a panel show, a documentary, or something else. It proved to be one of the BBC’s beloved part-information, part celebrity waffle shows, with a mildly irritating woman presenting it.

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.

War of the Worlds

Good grief, that was entirely the last thing I was expecting: a Steven Spielberg film that’s unflinchingly tough and unsentimental from start to finish. It’s a story about the impact of extraordinary events on real, ordinary people, in a way I haven’t seen from Spielberg since Close Encounters (or, I suppose, Schindler’s List). It’s certainly a million miles away from pre-digested kid-friendly fare like Jurassic Park. So much psychological damage happens to so many people in War of the Worlds that I think I may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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.