It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Bah Humbug

I’m terrible at Christmas shopping. I went into town yesterday to buy two presents: a book and a DVD. And ended up coming back with more purchases for myself than presents.

In Waterstone’s, I bought the paperback I’d picked out as a present… and then bought myself two books. While browsing, I spotted The Muqaddimah by ibn Khaldun – one of the great mediaeval Arabic books mentioned in The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature – and couldn’t resist buying it. I also picked up The Middle East by Bernard Lewis because I wanted to put the classical Arabic literature I’d read about in historical context.

In HMV, I bought the DVD I’d picked out as a present… but couldn’t resist Fortunes of War, the 1987 BBC adaptation of Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy (see below). I’ve now watched the first two episodes and… Kenneth Brannagh as Guy Pringle and Emma Thompson as Harriet Pringle are pretty much as I’d imagined them. But the other characters don’t really fit the mental images I’d built up when reading the book. This is not all that uncommon when watching a film or television adaptation of a book you’ve read – David Lynch’s Dune anyone? But it does take some getting used to. And then there are the chunks missing from the plot – Fortunes of War is based on both The Balkan Trilogy and its sequel, The Levant Trilogy. That’s a lot to get through in six hour-long episodes. Well, a book per episode, in fact. Anyway, four episodes to go – Um, just thought: I may have to read The Levant Trilogy before I can watch the last three episodes… Damn.


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The Year in Question

I used to do this several years ago when I was a member of an APA (a sort of paper-based snail-mail blogosphere with a membership of around 30). I thought it was time to resurrect the practice. Below are my choices for the best five books I read during 2006, the best five films I watched during the year, and the best five albums I purchased. Oh, and just to balance things out, there’s also the three worst books I read in 2006.

Top 5 Books
The Tourmaline, Paul Park (2006, Tor) – the second book in the fantasy trilogy which began with A Princess of Roumania. Miranda has been transported to an alternate world in which magic works, the Balance of Power remains much as it did in the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, and Roumania has an empire. She discovers that the real world (our world) existed only in a book, created by her aunt and in which she hid Miranda from Roumania’s enemies. Fine prose, excellent characterisation (the villainess, Baroness Ceaucescu, is particularly good), and an inventive setting.

The Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1960-1965, Penguin) – a young British couple are living in Bucharest as World War II breaks out, and are forced to flee to Greece. This trilogy is apparently quite autobiographical. Finely written, and an excellent evocation its time and setting. It was made into a television series. I plan to buy the DVD.

Europeana, Patrik Ouřednik (2001, Dalkey Archive) – a somewhat sideways look at the history of Europe during the Twentieth Century. How can you not love a book which has the opening line, “The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers.” Poetic, informative, and just a little bit strange.

The Dark Labyrinth, Lawrence Durrell (1947, Faber & Faber) – Durrell is one of my favourite writers (and The Alexandria Quartet is one of my all-time favourite novels). I treasure his books for the beautiful descriptive writing, rather than the somewhat random plotting: “A white sail boat lay like a breathing butterfly…”

Geodesica: Descent, Sean Williams & Shane Dix (2006, Ace) – um, the only sf novel in my top five. Williams & Dix write cutting-edge hard sf / space opera. The Geodesica diptych (begun with Geodesica: Ascent) is an excellent example of its type. Mind-bending concepts, lots of gosh-wow, and a satisfying conclusion. What more do you need?

Top 5 Films
Syriana, dir. Stephen Gaghan (2005) – having lived out in the Middle East, parts of this film rang horribly true. Perhaps the plot was a little confusing in places, but it was gripping entertainment nonetheless.

The Double Life of Veronique, dir. Krzystof Kieslowski (1991) – there’s not much you can say about this film. It’s generally reckoned to be Kieslowski’s best, and Kieslowski is generally to be the best European director of the late Twentieth Century.

Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon (2005) – so Serenity‘s universe is badly-designed and populated with used furniture and hoary clichés, but Whedon’s witty dialogue, and a likeable cast, make up for its shortcomings. Perhaps the television series would have been great if it had been allowed to continue. We’ll never know. This is all we’ve got.

>Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan (2005) – sigh. Another reinvention of Batman. Hang on, this one is actually good. Batman never really worked for me – he doesn’t live in a superhero world… which makes him something of an anachronism in his setting. But Nolan manages to make the whole thing eminently plausible, helped by a good performance from Christian Bale in the title role.

Crime and Punishment, dir. Aki Kaurismäki (1983) – Kaurismäki’s films can be a bit hit and miss (Juha, anyone?), but there’s something about the po-faced way his cast play their parts that adds a layer of appealing strangeness to his oeuvre. This one is a little more serious than most, which may be why I liked it so much.

Top 5 Albums
Pitch Black Progress, Scar Symmetry (2006) – Scar Symmetry play a mixture of power metal and death metal. And Christian Älvestam has a fine set of pipes. On first listen, I didn’t like this as much as their debut of last year, Symmetric in Design, but it definitely grew on me. I think I now prefer it.

Above the Weeping World, Insomnium (2006) – Insomnium can’t do wrong in my eyes. Er, ears. And they just get better with each new album. They’re bloody good live too.

Worlds Beyond the Veil, Mithras (2004) – I missed the hype when this album was released, and only came to the band this year. But the bizarre mix of ambient music and technical death metal works really well. I’m looking forward to the new album next year.

Red for Fire: An Icelandic Odyssey Part 1 (2005) and Black for Death: An Icelandic Odyssey Part 2 (2006), Solefald – Solefald are post-black metal. Which I like. Black metal, I don’t really like. Too much posturing, silly make-up, and clouds of synths. But there’s none of that in these two connected albums. An odd bricolage of musical styles and genres, featuring vocals in English and Old Norse, and telling the story of a legendary Icelandic bard.

The Intrigue of Perception, Hypnos 69 (2005) – this Belgian band apparently play “space rock”. Whatever that might be. It sounds like ambient Pink-Floyd-esque rock with easy listening thrown into the mix. It works… in a relaxing sort of way.

Worst Books
Hunters of Dune, Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson (2006, Tor) – after the dire Legends of Dune trilogy, my expectations for this continuation of Frank Herbert’s Dune series were low. But this still failed to meet them. Can someone please tell me what “Like a dragon empress…” means?

Majestic, Whitley Streiber (1989, Putnam) – I have no idea why I read this book.

The Plutonium Blonde, John Zakour & Lawrence Ganem (2001, DAW) – it’s very difficult to do humorous science fiction, as Zakour & Ganem amply demonstrate. The idea of spoofing pulp sf tropes has legs, but marrying that with feeble IT jokes and heavy-handed PI wisecracks is a bad move.


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Things That Make You Go… WTF?

I read science fiction, I listen to death metal. Which means a lot of people think I’m a little weird (quiet at the back). I, on the other hand, think this is weird: death metal songs about science fiction authors. And here‘s a science fiction anthology with an accompanying death metal CD (by the band from the earlier link, Blöödhag.).

I’ve ordered myself a copy.


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Kutub

More gems from The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature edited by Robert Irwin: an ancient Arabic proverb: He who kisses the bum receives wind as his reward.

From Kitab al-Hayawan by Abu Uthman ‘Amr ibn Bahr Al-Jahiz (776 – 868 AD):

“… A book is a receptacle filled with knowledge, a container crammed with good sense, a vessel full of jesting and earnestness. It can be if you wish more eloquent than Sahban Wa’il, or less talkative than Baqil; it will amuse you with anecdotes, inform you on all manner of astonishing marvels, entertain you with jokes or move you with homilies, just as you please … I know of no companion more prompt to hand, more rewarding, more helpful or less burdensome, and no tree that lives longer, bears more abundantly or yields more delicious fruit that is handier, easier to pick or more perfectly ripened at all times of the year, than a book… It is a bedside companion that does not interrupt when you are busy but welcomes you when you have a mind to it, and does not demand forced politeness or compel you to avoid its company.”

(excerpt in The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature quoted from Charles Pellat (ed.), The Life and Works of Jahiz (trans. DM Hawke), 1969.


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Stars on 45

I have a strange fondness for extreme metal cover versions of popular songs. Sometimes they work really well; sometimes, you wonder what the cover artist was thinking when they recorded the song.

Here’s one I like: it’s Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir‘ by a Czech band called Silent Stream of Godless Elegy. They play doom metal influenced by Moravian folk music and deserve a wider audience.

Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger‘ by Withering, on the other hand, is not so good. A rock anthem with growl vocals just sounds, well, silly. I should point out that Withering, a death/doom metal band from Finland, are actually pretty good. They’re not unlike Insomnium, a favourite band of mine. (I’ve seen Insomnium live twice, and they were excellent on both occasions.)

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