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Friday again

In which FP’s cynicism is exposed for the cynical, hollow sham it is


Well, good morning. It’s the end of the week, and I’m glad. One more day to get through, though.

Things I haven’t managed to write this week: more on Natascha Kampusch and her telly appearance; more Books I Haven’t Read; a Book I’ve Finally Finished Reading; any Photos Of The Week. I was even tempted, at one point, to do the first Symbolic Forest Restaurant Review,*but, er, didn’t.

Also-ran news stories of the week: another stupid driver, whose excuse for speeding was that there was little risk of hitting a goat at the time. Unluckily, his bleatings** were ignored by the police. Not quite as stupid, though, as the man from Thorne who decided to destroy a speed camera with Thermite, but drove his van right past the camera as he did so. Oops.

A few days ago, I was chatting to Taloollah on the phone, and she said she’d read my review of the little local gig we went to last week. Apparently, it read as if I didn’t enjoy myself, feeling much older than the rest of the crowd, and not really liking the music. Which is a bit unfair of me to put across, because I did have a good night out. I’m probably much grumpier in style, writing here, than I am in real life; it’s just that I find writing cynically to be easier, and often more fun too. In real life I can be annoyingly enthusiastic and bouncy about some things – puppyish, even – but I rarely express that here, because I find that sort of mood a lot harder to describe effectively. I take the easy option, and write like a curmudgeon instead.

Oh, well, I’m going to try to be cheerful today anyway. Time to get myself to the office and get some work done, and then time to switch off, forget about the office, and relax. See you next week.

* of a rather nice Indian on Haxby Road

** The Plain People Of The Internet: Groan!

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Books I Haven’t Read (part six)

In which FP fails to read “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson


As I said last time this series popped up, it was originally supposed to be a bit more regular than this. This entry, too, feels slightly like I’m repeating what I’ve said before. Not only is it a science fiction book like the last one, it’s by an author who has cropped up previously. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

I’m not sure what it is about Stephenson books that makes them hard to get through on the first attempt. I certainly didn’t have any problem with the first one I read, Cryptonomicon, but for some reason the others have gone past much more slowly.

It’s not that it isn’t a good book; it’s just that it demands to be read slowly. The terminology, the language, the realised world, all demand effort on the reader’s part. I’m a lazy reader, especially if I’m reading last thing at night; the book was too difficult to make me care about it.

Now, I’m reading it again, as a lunchbreak book instead of an evening book. And, I’m appreciating the start of it much more on second reading. There are awkward passages; but not enough to distract a SF almost-novice. It’s a fast-moving book; which conflicts with its density. It’s still not an easy read, but this time I think I’m going to finish it.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part five)

In which we fail to complete Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross


Books I Haven’t Read was supposed to be a regular sequence of articles, but has been on pause since – ooh, last November, by the look of things. It fell by the wayside because of a post I never wrote, about a book I couldn’t finish because I came across a passage in it which seemed to have been blatantly lifted from an obscure Victorian memoir. I’ll manage to write about it, one day. In the meantime, here’s another book I haven’t read. Iron Sunrise by Charlie Charles Stross.

I’m not someone who reads much SF, but I do read some selected things. Iain M Banks, for example, because I liked his Iain Banks books* and wanted to expand. Neal Stephenson, because I liked his historical novels and, well, ditto. And Charlie Stross, because – although I don’t know him – we used to drink in the same pubs.

So, last July, I was heading down to London for work, for a week. Planning it all in advance, I bought an unread Stross book – Iron Sunrise – to read on the train. I was catching the train down to Kings Cross on Sunday, July 10th.

I got onboard my train at Doncaster and opened the book, hoping that it would distract me from worry. Unfortunately, it opens with a mass terrorism attack, one which destroys an entire planet. I struggled to read it until Peterborough, and gave up. I haven’t looked at it since then.

At the time, I didn’t even make the connection as to why I couldn’t read it. The planet-destroying opening was distressing for me to read, with characters in the midst of planning their lives, suddenly realising that their world is being completely destroyed. I didn’t draw the parallel, though, between the characters in the book, and the friend I was worried about.*** The thought would have been too raw at the time. Looking back, though, the connection is obvious.

I’m planning to go down to London again in a few weeks, and I’ve bought a different Stross book to read this time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to. Hopefully, too, I’ll be able to finish Iron Sunrise one day. I’m not sure I’m ready to try reading it again, though.

* in case you’ve never heard of him: he writes his SF books with his middle initial,** and his “literary” ones without.

** although you might think it would be easier to write them with a word-processor.

*** The characters in the book – at least, the ones who were worth writing about – realised exactly what was happening to them. I still hope, whenever I think about her, that the friend I’m talking about here didn’t know what was happening to her. Back on that train, it seemed certain that she must be still alive and in hospital unidentified somewhere.

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Literature

In which we remember Christian Literature


You might be wondering, having read yesterday’s post, how I know quite so much about the founders of the Salvation Army. The answer: my mother.

My mother would frequently buy me lots and lots of books, usually from the local library’s “for sale” stack.* Every so often, though, she would pop down to our local Christian booksellers, housed in an old ice factory near the docks, and buy me something Moral and Improving.

Sometimes these would be factual books about the lives of great Christians, such as, for example, William Booth and Catherine Mumford. More often, though, it would be a children’s novel with a religious theme. They started off just like any other novel, but when it came to the crunch point, the characters would find that only God could save them.

One series I particularly remember was a series of science-fiction stories, set in a far-future solar system where Christianity had been long-banned, but was preserved by a group of secret space-age knights who had been heavily influenced by** the Star Wars movies. Their worlds were dark and gritty; but if the characters’ faith didn’t save them, a deus ex machina surely would. Indeed, the whole point of these books is that God definitely is still about the place, and can pop into the story for the occasional bit of divine intervention when needed. The reader can see that God is real, even if only the “good” characters can.

* “Withdrawn from stock, 25p each”

** or, less charitable people might say, “ripped off from”.

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Unrelated things

In which there is both good and bad


Two small things today, because I’m too sleepy to write more.

Firstly, some lovely photos of the dying Glasgow Subway in the 1970s.*

Secondly, reading the paper at lunchtime, I turned to the obituaries to find that one of my favourite writers, Jan Mark, died recently. Although she was known as a children’s writer, her “adult novel” Zeno Was Here is a lovely novel, and one of my favourite books. I’ll write more about it soon.

* Link via qwghlm.co.uk

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Crystal balls

In which Mario Reading tries to predict the future, and fails


Today, author Mario Reading is in the news. Lucky for Mario Reading, because it gives him a chance to plug advertise his new book, a new translation and interpretation of Nostradamus. It’s the book, in fact, that’s newsworthy. It claims that in a couple of years’ time, someone will try to assassinate George Bush, and if they are successful he will be succeeded by his brother, who will take revenge with terrible results. Reading’s American distributors are rather upset about the prophecy – you’d think he would have seen the fuss coming.*

Reading himself seems very concerned that people should realise that you can’t blame him for what Nostradamus wrote. Interviewed on More4 News about the death of George Bush, he said:

This is Nostradamus predicting this, not me, I hasten to add.

See, I can spot a possible flaw here right away. I haven’t read his book,** but there’s a long, proud history of reinterpreting Nostradamus. Most could be summarised as:

This is me predicting this, based on a wild reinterpretation of a rather vague stanza of verse.

Given that many people have gone before him and failed, I’m rather doubtful as to what Reading’s prediction hit rate will be. However, given the timescale here, we don’t have to wait too long. In three years’ time, hopefully I’ll remember writing this. And if nobody’s tried to kill George Bush by then, I’ll try to remember to post an update. A rather sardonic one.

* Sorry, that joke is compulsary in any piece of writing that mentions Nostradamus. If I hadn’t made it, I would have been tied down and spanked.

** Well, obviously: it hasn’t been published yet

Update, three years later: hah, when I wrote this, I almost certainly didn’t realise that the next presidential inauguration ceremony would be three years later to the day.

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The long arm of coincidence

In which something obscure keeps popping up


Have you ever noticed that sometimes one little thing seems to be popping up all over the place?

Earlier today, browsing the interweb, I read a short Freaky Trigger item about Uncle, a series of children’s books from the 1960s that I’d never ever heard of before. Which is a shame, because – according to this Economist article about them* – they sounded to be exactly the sort of children’s books that I’d have loved if I had known about them when they were still in print.

So then, later on, I’m browsing an internet dating site,** and reading the profile of an attractive-looking person. And, what do they list among the 100 things they couldn’t live without? The Uncle books, of course.

I’m on the lookout now. The slightest mention of J P Martin’s Uncle books anywhere, and I’m going to jump up and shout: “Aha! A third coincidence!” before running off to my nearest second-hand bookstore*** to search frantically for copies. Because they must be significant somehow. Right?

* I have to say, the Economist isn’t my usual reading.

** Don’t laugh. And, no, I’m not telling you which one, because I don’t want you lot finding my ad.

*** As the nearest one I can think of quickly is about 40 miles away, this might take a while. I might not run all the way there.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part four)

In which we have trouble reading a catalogue


This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading is something I don’t actually have a copy of myself. I bought it for my dad, a few years back, as a birthday present. He didn’t manage to finish it. I tried myself, and didn’t manage either. This week’s book is Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties by Ian MacDonald.

My dad turned 18 in 1970; being of that generation, he’s always liked the Beatles. He’s not really much of a music fan, but he does like listening to a lot of bands from his teenage days, so I thought, naturally, that he’d enjoy this book. What stumped both of us, though, was its structure. Rather than being a normal biography, it lists every song the band ever recorded, in chronological order, with a few paragraphs about each one. There’s a great wealth of information, and I’m glad he’s now got a copy on the shelf as a reference book, but it’s not something that’s an easy or a light read. I might be a bit of a music geek sometimes, but, when you come right down to it it’s really just a list of songs. And even I’m not that geeky.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part three)

In which we contemplate “The System Of The World” by Neal Stephenson


This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading is both a book, and a series of books, and also something that follows on neatly from the previous Book I Haven’t Read. It’s The System Of The World by Neal Stephenson, the final part of his Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Now, the trilogy is in itself a sequel to the earlier, 20th-century book Cryptonomicon, which I read and loved. The Baroque Cycle is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, filled with real-world characters such as Isaac Newton and Sam Pepys, and is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 pages long. The length isn’t a problem, though;* I seem to have a problem with the way the style of the books changes through the series, even though that change isn’t itself something I can put into words.

The first book, Quicksilver, I read and, again, loved. The second book, The Confusion, took two goes to get to the end. It’s not any longer, its intertwined-but-unrelated plotlines aren’t any denser or more complex, but for some reason it was a lot harder to finish. The System Of The World I’ve tried to read three times, and each time I haven’t got very far at all.

If there is anything I can put my finger on, it’s that somehow The System Of The World feels slightly cartoonish compared to the other books. The main characters swoop into the Tower Of London in a Spiderman style, or are suddenly faced with a ticking timebomb that needs to be defused. The complex political intrigues of the earlier books are still there; and in the earlier books they were mixed with action too. However, the action sequences in the third book are somehow much less plausible. Because of this, the disparate plotlines don’t feel as connected; and the whole thing is much more difficult to finish.

* Cryptonomicon is a similar length to each of the later books, and felt too short in parts, as if large amounts of exposition had been excised by the editor. Or maybe I’m just slow at spotting plot points.

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Books I *have* managed to read

In which FP finishes something for once


This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Read was going to be about a Neal Stephenson novel, The System Of The World. However, that’s been postponed, just because I wanted to brag about finishing another Book I Haven’t Managed To Read.

The book was one many, many people have read with no trouble at all. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. However, the first time I read it, in a hurry, I’d just tried to read two other Harry Potter books very quickly too. I got as far as Chapter Three of Goblet Of Fire, stopped, and didn’t pick any J K Rowling books up for a few years.

Anyway, last week, Colleague M said: “what? You’ve only read three Harry Potter books?” So, I picked up Goblet of Fire again, and read it. I didn’t get stuck. I didn’t forget where I was. I read it and I finished it. Hurrah!

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