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At the end of 2010, I was living in South West London and working in an advertising sales and publishing position in the City. At the end of 2011, I find myself in the same job and in a slightly different part of South West London. But it's been a hell of a year.
2011 kicked off with a photoshoot for the first of my three stage appearances this year. Our amateur production of Terence Rattigan's Flare Path beat by several months all the professional revivals of the playwright's work in the centenary of his birth. I had a supporting role in the show, as Air Gunner Dave 'Dusty' Miller, but managed to sneak into the background of the publicity photos in an awesome RAF greatcoat.
I also had a spate of meeting heroes in January, going to a Ben Aaronovitch signing for Rivers of London, and bumping into the Verve's Richard Ashcroft (in the same pub as the Flare Path shoot, as it happens).
I had a busy February. Myself, my girlfriend, and some friends went to the SFX Weekender convention at Camber Sands. Having given up a whole lunchtime in January to meet Ben Aaronovitch, it was a little odd to bump into him in the bar, but we also got to meet Craig Charles, Steven Moffat, George Takei, Robert Rankin and Tony Lee, and saw panels from the cast of Being Human, Paul Cornell, Peter F Hamilton, China Mieville and many others. My girlfriend and I dressed up as the 9th Doctor and Rose, while my friends dressed up as two of the characters from Farscape. It was enormous boozy fun, and we're going again in 2012.
Then of course there was the small matter of Flare Path's performance. The play, about a British bomber crew going on a raid in 1941, and the friends and family they leave behind, was drawn from Rattigan's own wartime experiences and was revived just a month later by Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. We didn't have Sienna Miller, James Purefoy or Sheridan Smith in our cast, but we did have a sell-out show every night of our five day run, and reports of real RAF veterans in tears over certain scenes in the play. Alistair McGowan was in the audience one night, and was sitting right in front of me as I spent the second half of Act Two clutching the fireplace, and we later picked up a bunch of regional amateur dramatics awards for the show.
No sooner had I finished Flare Path, but we started rehearsing Alan Ayckbourn's comedy Sisterly Feelings. I only had a small part in that show, so I was able to spend a lot more time focusing on my writing. I was commissioned to write a series of travel articles by a popular website specialising in trip advice (if that isn't a massive giveaway), and I was also a winner in a flash fiction competition organised by a Brighton writers' group. I gather my entry, Cyberstalking, may have been broadcast on hospital radio, but I don't know anyone in hospital in Brighton who can tell me.
I felt under the cosh a bit in April, what with best man's duties for my brother's wedding and writing 40 travel articles. I spent a certain wedding-related bank holiday watching a Life on Mars boxset - not out of republican pride, but because I was too shattered to do anything else.
By the time May rolled round Sisterly Feelings rehearsals were becoming really rather stressful, and work was providing a bit of a welcome release. My employer's annual conference was held in Liverpool in May, which was the cue for three days around the Albert Docks. Brilliant city, although as the taxi driver pointed out on our last day, we only really saw the nice bits.
In June I nearly had a nervous breakdown, performed Sisterly Feelings and had a well earned week's holiday in the South of France. In that order. The show went quite well, but I had to ask myself some pretty blunt questions about whether I can really juggle acting, even amateur dramatics, with a full-time job. As a result, I opted out of the November production (Guys & Dolls), and agreed to do a very small scale pantomime instead at the London Wetland Centre.
France was great. My girlfriend and I stayed with my penfriend (we've been writing to each other for about 15 years now) and her family in the Dordogne. It was a great week of exploration, wine consumption and relaxation.
By the time the summer rolled around, things got a bit more stressful again. I'd been living in the Southfields area for about five years, but when the lease on the latest flat came up for renewal, we took a hard decision to move on. So the whole house-hunting, preliminary packing and general hassle associated with such a move kicked in. Luckily, we managed to find an amazing studio flat in the part of London where I do all my amateur dramatics, and made suitable preparations.
In August I left Southfields and moved to the borough of Richmond on Thames. My rent skyrocketed, but my commute instantly became a lot more comfortable (and slightly cheaper), and I was suddenly living at the heart of the community where I'd been spending increasing amounts of time over the last couple of years.
September saw the start of rehearsals for the Wetland Centre's panto, the second year I'd been involved in the show. The last embers of my past in teaching were not entirely happy with the script. Pantomime isn't as easy as it might look, and things like audience participation need to be structured carefully so that the children in the audience know what they're supposed to be shouting. Anyway, September was also spent acquiring new tech for the new flat, including a massively upgraded laptop and a 32 inch HD TV. Working in sales has its advantages.
October saw me continuing in panto rehearsals, but the worst part of the month was undoubtedly when my cat went missing for three days. People tell me that cats go missing all the time, but it was out of character for Buscemi and I got quite distraught, particularly as we'd only been in the new flat for two months or so. Obviously she turned up in the end - we think she'd been trapped in a garage somewhere as she clearly hadn't been eating.
The literary highlight of the month was a trip to a book launch for 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs. James Bolam, Katy Manning Susan Jameson, and a huge bunch of friends and fans turned up to support Paul, which was a lovely evening in a great bookshop just off Charing Cross Road. As far as my own writing was concerned, I wrote a short story which I entered into a Foyles competition coinciding with the launch of Haruki Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84.
By November I was getting pretty jaded from a very long and busy year. I'd been commissioned to write a series of automobile articles which was a whole new area for me and took a lot of my time. In addition, the pantomime rehearsals were becoming very frustrating. Still, I soldiered on. The month's highlights included the Annual Dinner with my job, a huge black tie affair on Park Lane. I also went to see the amateur production of Guys and Dolls, and was immediately terribly disappointed that I hadn't taken part, it was brilliant. Michael Sheen's Hamlet was also incredibly powerful at the Young Vic.
The end of another year rolled round, and I had a day trip to Paris for work, which managed to be incredibly stressful (a high level meeting with an advertising agency and a bank's marketing team, all in French, with no one to help me on the specialist financial jargon), and incredibly relaxing at the same time. I also acted in the Wetland Centre pantomime, which was huge fun in spite of a troubled rehearsal period. Changes in my job mean I won't be able to do it next year, but it was nice to bow out on a high note.
2011 was a good year for me. I was always very aware that while I was continuing (and doing pretty well) in a nicely paid job, a lot of friends and family were having a pretty rough time. Away from the workplace, I was constantly busy, writing articles and short stories, and appearing in plays, and while that lead to the occasional crisis of time management, I'd rather have too much to do than be idle.
In 2012, I'll be taking on new responsibilities at work, and hopefully reaping the financial benefits of that. I'll definitely be appearing in one play, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, and have committed verbally to do Tale of Two Cities in the Summer (probably in a fairly small part). I'm going to the recording of a legendary sitcom, and have theatre tickets booked for Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd in the West End. I'm going to be fiendishly busy, but it stops me getting into any trouble!
Paynes Poppets are a legend in British confectionery. Chocolate-coated raisins sold in both bags and the famous little cardboard boxes with a small hole at the top so you could shake the raisins out into your hand. They have been going since before the Second World War, and they have earned a place in chocolate history through sheer tenacity.
They are not gaudy showy pieces of candy, they will never hope to compete with the lurid fluorescence of M&Ms or the like, but these chocolate-coated lumps of dried fruit have been the sober and calming treat of choice for generations of middle-class British children.
The cardboard boxes hold a good-sized handful of Poppets, and according to the manufacturer's website owe their iconic packaging to the fact they were originally designed to fit vending machines in cinemas.
A Poppet's milk chocolate coating is soft and thin, providing an excellent contrast with the juicy raisin within. Visually, the sweets don't look too appealing, but the irregular shapes of the raisins prevent them from looking too much like rabbit droppings. Unless you have a very ill rabbit. They are quite a rich experience, and eating a whole packet of Paynes Poppets in a single sitting will leave you feeling ever so slightly nauseous unless you have a stomach stronger than steel. Having said that, they are also quite addictive, and a single packet will never last long.
The chocolate boxes are ideal for families to share during cinema and theatre trips as there is no paper to rustle, the Poppets are stored loose within the packaging. The only negative aspect to this is that in a warm cinema the chocolate coatings can get a bit melty if you're not careful, so try and keep the box in a bag when not eating, rather than in a warm pair of hands.
Paynes Poppets are a low-key treat, but as they are more than 50% raisin, they are not as unhealthy or sugary (well not as much added sugar, in any case) as many other chocolate-based snacks on the market. The packet sizes are sensible (amusingly the manufacturer's website (www.poppets.com) refers to this as 'portion control'), and the Poppets themselves are delicious.
If raisins aren't your thing, of course, they also produce toffee, mint and orange flavours. The raisins are the best known of these and, in the view of many people, the superior Poppet.
Paynes Poppets, quintessentially English, delightfully old-fashioned but very tasty indeed.
Wyrd Sisters is one of the better known of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, as it has been adapted into a stage play, graphic novel, radio dramatisation, and even an animated mini-series. Marking the debut of several of the range's key characters, and playing with familiar material in the form of Shakespearean tragedy, it is also a perfect jumping-on point for the Discworld virgin.
The Discworld is a flat world, balanced on the back of four elephants who perch on the shell of Great A'Tuin the Star Turtle. Magic is real, although generally regarded to be more trouble than its worth, and the Gods are not only real, but prone to throwing bricks through atheists' windows.
Most Discworld novels begin their action in the great city of Ankh-Morpork, but Wyrd Sisters spends the vast majority of its action in the remote mountain kingdom of Lancre, first seen briefly in the third novel, Equal Rites.
Granny Weatherwax is a respected witch across the Ramtop Mountains, and is dragged into the murky affair of Lancre's royal succession after the death of King Verence. Duke Felmet has murdered the old king but, contrary to the grand tradition of regicide in that country, seems a bit touchy on the subject. With the help of the earthy Nanny Ogg and the innocent new age witch Magrat Garlick, Granny dabbles in royal politics to restore the true heir to the throne...
The novel's action unrolls over nearly twenty years, although that is a slightly misleading statement as you will discover if you pick up the book. Pratchett is on his top convention-defying form, narrating sections from the point of view of storms, trees, Death, and anything else he can use to spin a few paragraphs of narrative and a good joke. Shakespeare is repeatedly referenced, most particularly Macbeth and Hamlet, and the metatheatrical antics of the Prince of Denmark pale next to the postmodernism of Hwel the Dwarf playwright.
A word to the highbrow. A lot of people love to lampoon Shakespeare, generally with appallingly unfunny results. Pratchett has a lot more respect for his target, however, and Wyrd Sisters tells a gripping story in its own right without just relying on lots of jokes about hunchback kings or whatever. The "When shall we three meet again?" "Well I can do next Tuesday," sort of sequence is thankfully pretty sparse - it happens right at the start of the book and although it is fairly crass, it gives the reader the information that this book is playing with classic plays.
In this sixth Discworld novel, Pratchett was starting to hit his stride. The earnest wackiness and gag a paragraph strike rate of early efforts The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic have mellowed into more character driven stories where humour arises through character interactions and conflicts. The relationship between the three witches is delineated perfectly, and would remain largely unchanged for sequels Witches Abroad and Lords and Ladies.
Granny Weatherwax is one of Pratchett's most enduring characters, however, the powerful witch drawn to the dark side who nevertheless fights for what's right in spite of herself. And still manages to be incredibly funny, in spite of the terrifying power she clearly wields. Whether she is getting embarrassingly confused during an amateur production of what is probably supposed to be Richard III, or facing down kings and demons, she is always the same rigid character. A great creation.
In terms of the Discworld mythos, this book also marks the debut of the "Hedgehog Song" (full title, "The hedgehog can never be b*gg*r*d at all"), and of course it wouldn't be the Discworld without cameos from the Librarian and Death.
If you have never read any Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters is a good place to start. Strong female characters, good jokes and a layered tale of revenge and theatre make it one of the strongest entries in the Discworld canon.
Terry Pratchett's Discworld series should need no introduction. A flat world that stands on the backs of four elephants who in turn ride through space on the back of a colossal turtle. In this world, magic exists, but only in a terribly rational form. And not only are the Gods real, but they tend to be the sort of people who throw bricks through atheist's windows.
Pratchett has built a small empire around his novels over the past twenty years or so. It might not be as utterly all-consuming as Harry Potter, but it is much more tasteful. The man himself keeps an iron grip on the merchandisers, and everything from the computer games to the cookbooks has had both his approval and often his extensive input.
And it's in this tradition of high-quality spin-offs that The Last Hero finds its niche.
This book reminded me of the high-quality illustrated children's books that used to be common, with lavish and intricate illustrations, which hide little details to be discovered on subsequent readings. It was, simply, a joy to read.
The story is fairly typical of Pratchett, in that it consists of applying a little lateral thinking to an age-old myth. The first hero stole fire from the Gods. What would happen if another hero was to return it?
Ancient Cohen the Barbarian, veteran of two previous Discworld novels, goes on a final quest with his Silver Horde. He's angry with the way in which Gods allow men to grow old, and so he sets out to destroy them.
Doing this would apparently destroy the whole world (which seems like a flashback to Pratchett's earliest books, where doing almost anything puts the whole world in peril), so the Wizards of Unseen University get together to send an expedition to stop him. And yes, both Rincewind and the Librarian are on the crew.
So far, this book is most commonly available as a large-format hardback. I'd urge you to buy it now, however, as I gather it's possible that future editions will not be illustrated. And the illustrations are fantastic, whether they're the facsimiles of absent-minded genius Leonard Da Quirm's designs and sketches, or lovingly painted character portraits (and even the least important characters get a portrait, I found to my delight). In fact, the illustrations are the only real reason to buy the book, to be honest.
Although Pratchett's prose style is as unique and entertaining as ever, little is added to the characters, the majority of whom we've met before, and the resolution is relatively predictable. The lack of inspiration in the text is not unheard of. In earlier works like The Science of Discworld (a popular science attempt, in collaboration with two popular science writers. The slightly dull adventures of Pratchett's characters as they investigate a miniature universe are interspersed with lengthy but more interesting scientific dialogue) and Eric (another illustrated storybook, in collaboration with Pratchett's late cover artist, Josh Kirby), Pratchett has revealed an apparent reluctance to put serious effort into anything that's not a novel.
As this is a book whose aim is visual pleasure rather than literary enjoyment, I think it's pointless to write a massively long review of it. I will say again that the illustrations are marvellous, providing detailed depictions of long-running characters whose faces have, until now, been visible only in a semi-cartoon style on the jackets of novels. The story is constantly entertaining, even though it never really manages to say anything new until the very end.
Die-hard Pratchett fans have all probably got a copy of this book already. Otherwise, I would recommend the book to those few who've never read a Terry Pratchett novel. It serves as a great introduction to most of the recurring characters in the series. For those with only a marginal interest in the books of the world's Greatest Living Fantasy Writer (tm), the price tag is a bit of a deterrent to actually purchasing the book, but if you can find it in a library or something, grab it quick.
In more detail plot-wise, I have to say that I did enjoy the final twists. The introduction to the man who originally stole fire from the Gods is masterful, and entirely in keeping with Pratchett's deconstructionist approach to myth.
And the cover is fantastic. It might not look like much in thumbnail, but the full-size image of Cohen glowering out at the reader is extremely striking. But what it makes it fantastic, is the back cover, which shows Leonard Da Quirm with his back to the reader, gazing out at the Discworld from space.
It's difficult to be pretentious about what is in essence a child's storybook (I'm a big child, OK?), but Pratchett's master-stroke throughout the book is that he never really labours the contrast between Cohen and Leonard. Both old men fight the Gods, but while Cohen does it with a barrel of gunpowder and a gang of warriors, implicitly recognising their authority - Leonard combats them through absent-mindedly championing the cause of rationality and science. And it's very telling at the end of the story that Leonard is the one of whom the Gods disapprove more. Pratchett's ambivalence to organised religion has been explored explicitly in several of his Discworld novels (Small Gods and Pyramids leaping to mind most obviously), but this approach is possibly the most subtle yet.
The story might not be top-notch, but ultimately I have to say this book is worth owning, just for the sheer quality of the illustrations. And even Pratchett on a lazy day is better than almost anything else you're likely to pick up in the illustrated section. Children will love it, and you will love it. You might only actually read it once, but the lavish paintings will keep you flicking through it for months.
Among the many Netbooks and tablets which have flooded the portable computing market over the last couple of years, the Samsung N130 is a modest but effective entry.
The N130 is a light netbook which generally packs 1GB or RAM and a 160GB hard disk drive. Aside from a slot for SD memory cards, there are no external media drives, to further reduce the size and weight of the device, but three USB ports, as well as for a monitor cable or network connection.
With a 10" backlit screen, the N130 has an adequate display for word processing, internet browsing and email, but complex spreadsheets can become difficult to read at this size without much scrolling and confusion. Similarly the 17.7mm key pitch makes the keyboard just large enough for writing articles or emails, but a dedicated copy typist would probably find it a bit awkward sooner or later.
Samsung's N130 netbook essentially has the basic specs of a five year old laptop, offset by its low weight and long battery life (Samsung's claimed 8 hour battery life is wildly optimistic, but 6 hours is achieveable relatively easily). There is more to the story, however. First, the netbook tends to be very competitively priced (you should not expect to pay more than £200 for this model), but also it is often very sensibly shipped with Windows XP installed as the operating system.
A whole generation of otherwise totally adequate laptops were too low-spec to run Windows Vista, but such is Microsoft's power in the PC market that they were installed with Vista anyway. It is becoming harder to find the N130 with an XP installation, but it is well worth the effort - the machine boots up and runs like lightning, and compares very favourably with much higher spec machines running Vista or Windows 7, in terms of basic performance and responsiveness.
The netbook is also packed full of nifty features. It has a built-in webcam (or 'Digital Livecam' as it insists on calling the device) built into the lid which can capture still images as well as video. It has various facilities for back up and data recovery. It comes complete with the usual array of Windows software, including pre-installed versions of Microsoft Office, McAfee and various casual games. Experienced computer users will probably remove most of the pre-installed software in favour of freeware or open source equivalents, but the commercial packages which come with the device are high quality and will save novices a lot of time and effort.
Stylishly finished in a rounded white plastic casing (other colours are available), with a responsive trackpad, good range of software, impressive speed and good connectivity. Its built-in wireless adapter is good at picking up even a faint Wi-fi signal, and its good value price makes it an ideal back-up computer for when you are on the move and want to keep up with your work.
It should go without saying that netbooks are not really gaming machines, but the N130 can play video smoothly and is totally adequate to playing most PC casual games. These features do drain the battery very quickly, however, so try and make sure you are connected to a power source if you want to start playing games or browsing YouTube...
I've now been using this machine for almost a year and it still runs as fast as the day I bought it. I've used it to write hundreds of articles, update my CV, browse the Internet, watch my TV debut streamed over Vimeo and to give an impromptu Powerpoint presentation in a Starbucks for the day job. It's so compact and easy to use that even my dear old Mum wants to get one!
J G Ballard passed away in 2009, leaving a huge body of science-fiction and literary fiction behind him, as well as more autobiographical writing such as Empire of the Sun. Although Empire of the Sun will always be the book for which he is remembered due to the Hollywood adaptation, Ballard also courted controversy with novels such as Crash, famously filmed by David Cronenbourg, and end of the world books such as The Drowned World, and The Crystal World.
In The Crystal World, Dr Sanders travels to Mont Royal in Africa, only to find that the forests are crystallising. Literally. Sanders, a specialist in leprosy, journeys into the forests to find them covered in mysterious crystals. The phenomenon is spreading out from the heart of the forest, and Sanders embarks on a series of adventures which mostly involve running away from the accelerating progress of crystallisation.
There is allegorical imagery aplenty in the book, which seems to herald the end of time itself. Those overcome by crystals are transmuted into crystalline form and frozen in time, leading to some nasty body horror passages when crystals are mistakenly removed from people. Although the book is unquestionably more literary than it is science-fictional, Ballard sets up some rules for the forest's transformation. The crystals of frozen time and light can be melted in water, and the process can also be held back by pressing traditional gems: rubies, diamonds, etc, against the crystals. This all seems a bit arbitrary, really, and in spite of some lovely passages about the relationship between light and time it really highlights the absurdity of the premise and robs a lovely novel of some of its poetic strength.
As events progress, and Sanders becomes caught up in a bizarre love triangle and a cult of lepers, the forest slowly shifts from being a strange and dangeous place to a bizarrely attractive cathedral, almost spiritual in its stillness. The novel's conclusion is ambiguous regarding the fate of many of the main characters, which is a bit frustrating after the bias towards full-blooded action during much of the book's middle section.
Ballard's crystal world is a fantasy backdrop where a small group of hyper-real characters interact at what appears to be the end of the world. It's an intricate book full of vivid and poetic description, and if the language sometimes seems a little archaic (and probably offensive in its description of native Africans at various points), then you have to remember that the novel is very much of its time. It's not a book for everybody, but Crystal World certainly rewards careful reading.
Tom Sharpe, best known for the Wilt novels, has been described as Britain's funniest living novelist, but unforgivably I had never read any of his books apart from an extract from Wilt in an English A level class in 1996. So when I came across a copy of The Throwback among the second hand bookstall at Barnes Village Fair, I pounced on it.
Lockhart Flawse is a bastard. Literally. The identity of his father is a vexing question to his grandfather, who takes Lockhart under his wing and raises him at Flawse Hall to be completely innocent in all matters of sexuality.
As the novel progresses, Lockhart marries an equally innocent girl called Jessica, and makes desultory efforts to track down his father in order to satisfy stipulations in his grandfather's will and inherit Flawse Hall. His task is complicated by the fact that Jessica's mother has married old Mr Flawse, and has her own hopes of inheriting the Flawse estate.
The book weighs in light at just shy of two hundred pages, but between its covers murder, mayhem, and horrific events are packed tightly. While Sharpe never lets the reader forget the question of the Flawse succession, the centrepiece of the novel is certainly his efforts to drive the inhabitants of Sandicott Crescent out of the houses that are Jessica's own birthright.
Like some sort of demonic Reggie Perrin, Lockhart observes the middle-class foibles and flaws of his suburbanite neighbours before taking them out one by one, in scenes of escalating carnage which are as hilarious as they are extreme.
Sharpe carefully ramps up the violence so that the reader can still identify with Lockhart, who starts by merely exposing marital infidelities to encourage his neighbours to move away. When you reach sections in which contraceptives are filled with oven cleaner, and half a dozen golfers are mown down in a shootout between members of the police force, you suddenly realise that things have got very macabre indeed.
There is a frankness to Sharpe's prose which enables him to describe the most horrific things happening to people's genitals but still keep you reading.
The Sandicott Crescent thread, however, is merely an appetiser of the hilarious horror that is to come in the book's closing chapters. By the end of the book, I was moderately convinced that I had never read anything so utterly depraved and debauched, and firmly convinced that it was one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year.
Anyone who believes society's grip on taboos has loosened over the past 30 years should read The Throwback and be corrected instantly. Incest (or the abiding suspicion thereof), murder, bondage, dildos, sex, body horror, all of these are present and correct and unflinchingly described. If Tom Sharpe had written it today, he would have had to resort to self-publishing to get The Throwback into print. This is not a book for the easily offended. Seriously.
Of course, the modern reader gets to have extra fun with a book written thirty years ago. We smile at the earnest description of detached townhouses in Surrey's "Pursley" selling for a whopping £50,000, among other such passages rendered hilarious by thirty years of inflation.
The characters are consistent and well-described, much more than mere comic ciphers or gag machines, and even the Robert Burns inspired poetry is surprisingly good.
The Throwback is apparently a lesser-known Sharpe novel, and you may have trouble finding a new copy. I purchased mine for 50p at a village fair. The cover price was 95p, but I suspect it has increased a little since 1980...
Foundation was first published in the early 1950s and for a long time was regarded as an essential science-fiction novel. In truth it still is, but following the death of author Isaac Asimov, its stock has declined, as the former giant of science-fiction has become known mostly as the guy who wrote the book for that Will Smith movie by the general public. Asimov's fortunes have dwindled as formerly under-rated authors such as drug experimenting insane genius Philip K Dick have been re-evaluated and started to take over more of the bookshelf.
Today, most science-fiction afficionados know Asimov mostly for his three laws of robotics. The Foundation series is a bit more space opera, however, an audacious tale of the fall of a galactic Empire, and the attempts to keep the light of civilisation burning.
Foundation tosses away more good ideas than some science-fiction writers get in a lifetime. The premise is set up by Hari Seldon, an unlikely combination of mathematician and psychologist, who starts his own science. Psychohistory boils down socio-economic trends in order to enable a psychologist to predict the future, up to a point. Seldon predicts the fall of the Empire, and sets up the Foundation - a hundred thousand scientists who will compile an enormous Encyclopedia on a distant world to keep science and technology alive during the resulting dark ages.
Isaac Asimov's ambition with Foundation exceeds even this audacious premise, however. Seldon is dead long before the end of the first of the book's five sections, and the novel encompasses about two centuries of the Foundation's work. The Encyclopedia is revealed to be a sham, and Seldon returns from beyond the grave to tell the scientists that their true work is not just to record information - but to spread technology back to the galaxy and form the eventual nucleus of a second Empire.
Foundation is decades ahead of its time. Although much of the science now looks quite quaint (atomic energy is the holy grail of science), the Foundation scientists, and the priests and traders who succeed them as the novel progresses, are crafty and cunning. The Foundation, based on remote planet Terminus, are beset on all sides by powerful and militaristic enemies, with limited resources and ignored by the remnants of the Empire. They have to get by with only occasional prophecies from the galaxy's greatest psychohistorian and their own intelligence.
This first novel in the Foundation series sees the project face a number of crises, all of which seem certain to plunge the Foundation scientists into war. Taking their cue from the pioneering mayor Salvor Hardin's maxim ("violence is the last refuge of the incompetent"), the suspense of this novel lies in how Foundation try to AVOID each conflict that arises. Each potential war that erupts threatens to destroy the project, and the various successive leaders try and find impossible solutions for peace. Asimov is a master storyteller, and the rabbits he pulls out of the hat for each crisis are magnificent plot twists, misdirecting readers completely.
Foundation's storyline and engaging characters are timeless, as is the conflict between religion and commerce that forms the backbone of much of the book. Is this a perfect novel then? Of course not. Although you can overlook the advancing tide of science rendering obsolete some of the atomic marvels in the book, the fact is that society has moved on as well as science. One female character appears in the entire book, and she's a shrewish wife who is silenced by a pretty piece of (atomic, naturally) jewellery. The only time women are even mentioned is when a trader suggests that a rival government will collapse when the wives complain their washing machines have broken down...
So, Foundation is not entirely politically correct. But it scores massive numbers of points for the masterful twists in the storyline, and for the sheer breadth of its canvas. The only other real disappointment is that it ends a little abruptly, at the conclusion of a crisis which is not quite as acute as those which preceded it. But even then, Foundation is paving the way for the novels which would follow it...
Fifteen years after the events of R.J. Anderson's debut novel Knife, the Queen of the Oakenwyld is dying of old age. She charges Knife's daughter, Linden, with the task of finding other faeries out in the world. Knife is now living in the human world with her husband Paul, and her mission to protect the Oak is put in jeopardy by the arrival of Paul's teenage cousin, Timothy.
The discovery of a wider faery community away from the Oak is not quite the happy event that Linden dreams of, and soon she and Timothy are plunged into a desperate race to seek aid for the Oakenwyld against an implacable tyrant.
Although Rebel shares many characters and themes with Knife, they are very different books. Where the vast majority of Knife centred on the Oak and Paul's house in Kent, Rebel quickly expands the setting to take in London and Wales, and is much more of a quest narrative. The Oakenwyld's exclusively female society, with its economy based on bargains, is reinforced in broad strokes for the benefit of new readers before it is left behind for much of the novel's action. This keeps the material fresh and it is only in the brief returns to the Oak that Rebel feels as though it is going over old ground.
At the same time, the switch to action and adventure robs this sequel of some of the first book's charm. The faeries' day to day struggle for survival is glossed over here in favour of lashings of magical battles which, although very well-written, have been seen before.
This is a minor criticism, however. Linden is a more believable heroine in some ways than Knife, not nearly so self-assured and confident. She is an innocent, leading to the odd humorous misunderstanding, but this also serves to highlight the unpleasant nature of her enemies. Timothy, a missionary's son who is questioning his faith, is a believable character with whom the reader can identify - aside from a faintly intrusive didactic interlude discussing the relationship between faith and science. The enigmatic Rob (a clear nod to Robin Goodfellow or Puck) is also a masterful creation, his uncertain loyalties reinforced by the dark secret behind his musical talent. Even minor characters like Martin, an apparently evil faery who is clearly destined to play a larger part in the next book, are well-drawn and engaging.
As well as Robin Goodfellow, there is also a sneaky reference to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which made me think that there were probably other references that I hadn't spotted. These playful asides never intrude but add enjoyment for anyone quick enough to spot them.
The action is constantly exciting, and the narrative races along at a terrific rate, but somehow the story never feels rushed, and the action never takes place at the expense of characterisation. The villains all have plausible motives (to say more would be giving away a great deal of the plot), and the heroes are all flawed to a greater or lesser extent. Some plot twists can perhaps be guessed in advance by more experienced readers, but younger fans should be surprised by events in the thrilling climax.
A third book, Arrow, is now out in bookshops, and it is foreshadowed by events at the conclusion of Rebel, but this second volume always feels like a novel in its own right, rather than simply setting up a finale. You may find this in the children's sections of bookshops, but it's a rewarding novel for readers of all ages.
This is an amended version of a review which first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk
Sabriel, from Garth Nix's Abhorsen series of books, is a great example of a fantasy novel which refuses to conform to the Tolkien knock-off vibe which dominates so much of the genre. The Old Kingdom is a place where magic rules through the Great Charter, separated from the more rational Ancelstierre by the Wall. The Old Kingdom has many of the standard trappings of a fantasy novel - society is more or less feudal, with a pseudo-medieval vibe spiced up by bits of magic here and there. Interestingly, however, the 'real world' Ancelstierre is fully aware of the Old Kingdom's magical nature, and many of its inhabitants near the border also practice Charter Magic. Ancelstierre is also described as having technology up to around the level of the First World War, rather than the straightforward modernity/fantasy split that tends to be common.
The Old Kingdom is under attack from the Dead, who are rising and terrorising its inhabitants. The people of the Old Kingdom are protected by the Abhorsen, a necromancer whose duty is to lay the Dead to rest and protect the living. When the current Abhorsen goes missing, his daughter Sabriel is summoned from her boarding school in Ancelstierre to carry on his work and protect the Old Kingdom from the risen Kerrigor.
Sabriel travels through the Old Kingdom with a magic cat and a young man who may or may not be descended from the Old Kingdom's royal bloodline, searching for her father who she firmly believes she can still save from Death. So far, so standard, but what really sets Sabriel apart from much fantasy is the constant sense of danger which pervades the novel. The magic talking cat is, far from being a stock comic sidekick, revealed early on to be a bound creature of immense power that turns into a sadistic killer whenever freed. Touchstone, whose links to the royal family signal that he has a significant part to play in the narrative, has huge and suspicious gaps in his memory. There is never a sense of a cosy adventuring band in the book.
The Dead are also in constant pursuit, most notably the terrifying Mordicant which chases Sabriel relentlessly through the first half of the novel. With Dead Hands, Gore Crows and human slaves, as well as fairly simple zombies, death is everywhere in the book, which is unusual in a work which is clearly aimed at younger readers.
Sabriel herself is a great character - out of place in Ancelstierre, but out of depth as the Abhorsen in the Old Kingdom. She picks up information about the world she is exploring at the same time as the reader, even though she is already a skilled necromancer, with seven bells used to control the Dead.
Garth Nix has written a page-turning adventure story with a solid underlying world - the decayed Old Kingdom is littered with signs of its past glory, and the details of the Abhorsen, necromancy and the Great Charter are all consistent and plausible. The River of Death through which Sabriel wades on occasion to banish or resurrect the Dead is a constantly evocative image. Although the book was marketed to the teenage market, older fantasy readers will get a lot from it, right up to the novel's gripping climax.
There are currently two sequels to Sabriel, with a further sequel and a prequel due for 2011. The books are highly recommended and available for aorund £5.99 new or for as little as 20p in charity shops!
I've been carrying around a bag for about four years, and have noticed that people have stopped calling them manbags now. I wonder when that happened? So, what's in my bag?
A lot of stuff, that's for sure. I wear a lot of hats - my day job is in publishing, but I also freelance as a language tutor, writer and amateur actor, and my bag almost always has at least one bit of stuff relating to each of those occupations. The bag itself is a nice brown leather Ben Sherman satchel, a present from a job I left about three years ago, and still going strong.
In the bag's two small front pockets, there are the sort of things you'd expect to find. My season ticket for the Tube in a yellow Oyster Card wallet, and my mobile. It's one of those Nokia ones which probably doesn't quite qualify as a smartphone. Or maybe it does and I just don't use it properly - I'm not very interested in phones beyond calling and texting people. My keys are also in there, complete with bottle opener keyring. There are a couple of gel pens and a propelling pencil in there, as well as a few business cards from the day job.
In the bag's main compartment, you can usually find my wallet. There is also always at least one writing notebook - there's a new one in there at the moment and the only thing it contains is Richard Ashcroft's autograph. I bumped into the Verve frontman in the pub last week and it was the only thing I had handy for him to sign. Nice bloke.
As well as writing notebook, I generally keep a large pencil case in this part of my bag. I'm... not sure what's actually in the pencil case. It's definitely full, but I can never find anything I actually need when I open it. Sometimes I have my netbook here as well, but I left that at home today. There's always an A4 Media Pack for the magazines I work on as well.
There are also various books. The immortal French textbook Encore Tricolore is a fixture, as most of my tuition students are beginners (or so rusty that they might as well be beginners), but it's about 20 years old and starting to look a bit tatty. When I'm rehearsing a show, the script will also be a fixture in my bag throughout the rehearsal period - at the moment it's Terence Rattigan's Flare Path (I'm playing Sargeant Dave "Dusty" Miller in Barnes in February 2011). There will also be at least one book which I'm reading for pleasure or for reviewing purposes. I've just finished Sabriel by Garth Nix... it wasn't great, but it only cost me 20p from a charity sale so I can't gripe.
My digital camera is also often in this part of my bag, although I always forget it's there and don't get around to taking many photos.
Finally, there's a zipped compartment behind the main pocket, in which I usually keep blank A4 paper (for tuition), and any important documents which need to stay flat (for business meetings).
Unusually for me, I wrote a full rundown of my year at the end of 2009. To recap, I began 2009 working in advertising at a contract publisher, quit, spent six months trying to become a freelancer, went on holiday to Italy and then gave up and got an almost identical advertising job at the end of the year. 2010 had a bit more narrative drive to it, however.
After three years in the same flat in South West London, I finally decided it was time to move, in spite of the fact 2009's freelance experiment had eroded my savings. I moved into a nicer house in the same area, but it was still a housesharing arrangement, and never one about which I felt very permanent. My job selling advertising across several legal magazines got going in earnest, and I quickly realised that I hated it. January was marked by the move, hating my newish job, rehearsing my lead role in Come On, Jeeves! and an awesome birthday where my girlfriend treated me to a meal at one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants.
Let's not labour the point about the job, but I really was struggling to get through the day by this point. February was a month for theatrical rather than professional success: I took part in my first ever photoshoot, to promote Come On, Jeeves! We performed at the end of the month in the Old Sorting Office theatre in Barnes to sell-out audiences, received a huge amount of publicity in the local press, and garnered wonderful reviews from the Wodehouse Society, among others. I was playing Bill, the Earl of Towcester, a stand-in for Bertie Wooster with strangled vowels and a gambling problem. It was enormous fun, and the strongest production with which I'd ever been involved.
No sooner had the applause died down for the Wodehouse in the last week of February than I started the audition and rehearsal process for Great Expectations with the same amateur dramatic company. I'd auditioned for the part of Pip, but unfortunately there was someone much better-looking, slimmer and better at acting in the company, so I played Pip's low-key friend Startop, a large chunk of the chorus and bad amateur actor Mr Wopsle (draw your own conclusions). I was a bit disappointed not to be playing the lead, but it was an incredibly wordy play and it was probably for the best given subsequent events. As we got on towards Easter, it became clear that changes were afoot with my job. As I hated it anyway, I wasn't going to stand for it getting any worse, and started looking for an alternative.
Rehearsals continued for Great Expectations. Various actors dropped out for various reasons, and with each departure my chorus duties got a little larger. The three magazines I worked on were consolidated into a single monthly title and gained a terrifying director who I was informed was the 'company axewoman'. I wasn't sure whether the magazine was being rejigged in a frantic attempt to remain profitable, or whether they were hoping to sell it off and trying to make it more attractive to investors. Either way, my job was being threatened in no uncertain terms, and I tried a little harder to find something else. Success! A job lead suggested to me by an ex-girlfriend (and which I'd initially discounted as it looked dull) turned into an Advertising Manager post with an important professional association in the financial sector...
May was the month everything changed. I left my previous job, with absolutely no regrets. Still, they'd paid for my jury service the year before, and that was the only reason I'd joined them in the first place. Ha! I had about ten days off between the two jobs, and filled the time with a romantic long weekend in Paris (it rained, but we saw the Mona Lisa and had champagne and snails in Montmartre), and then appeared on stage with Honeysuckle Weeks and Denis Lill in their touring production of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution. Richmond Theatre needed a few bodies to play jury members in the show and as I was available I jumped at the chance. I did three shows, getting a promotion (of sorts) to the court's public gallery for the last night, and ended up getting squiffy with the lady from Foyle's War and Gus from Drop the Dead Donkey. Wonderful stuff. Then I started my new job, but after a month of swanning around Paris and treading the boards, that was a bit of an anti-climax, really. In case you were wondering where the writing's got to this year, May was also the month I had my translation of Giacomo Casanova's Histoire de ma Fuite commissioned. It was supposed to be out in time for Christmas, but following several serious concerns about my publisher, I quietly neglected to supply them with the manuscript. The fact that they never made any attempt to contact me over this confirmed my misgivings. Never mind.
Great Expectations finally hit the stage, after a rehearsal period which even the director would acknowledge as 'difficult'. I don't want to apportion blame, but I would observe that every single young (or youngish) lady who had auditioned for but not won the part of Estella had dropped out by the time we opened. Incredibly, the show seemed to be a bit of a hit, and I was glad to be part of it Word of mouth spread, and we were playing to full houses by the final show. Wopsle wasn't a big part, but I had two great moments, especially in the second half where I played an unconvincing Hamlet, complete with an outrageous Boris Johnson wig. I also started making comical amounts of money on a certain other writing site beginning with the letter H.
July was a relatively quiet month, as the amateur dramatics took its traditional summer break. I ducked the odd call, as people wanted me to audition for the Christmas show Alice in Wonderland. I decided to give it a miss, needing an extended break after heavy involvement in four successive shows. Looking back, I sort of regret that, it was a bit of a precious attitude, but I really was exhausted. I agreed to do a much smaller show with my brother at the London Wetland Centre instead. I devoted July to trying to make even crazier amounts of money from the certain writing site beginning with the letter H, and was a bit freaked out when I succeeded. The new job continued to go very nicely indeed, thank you very much.
I caught up with Honeysuckle Weeks again briefly as I saw her take the lead in Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Pygmalion. Frustratingly, I have to be careful what I say about August's main event in my life. I did my first TV work, appearing as an extra in a pilot for a writer/producer/director whose work I'd admired for a couple of decades. It was a small cast and crew, and a really great way to spend a Monday. And I believe that's all I can say until the show gets picked up for broadcast. Frustrating, I know. In other news, I made it through the whole three month probation thing at the newish job, and continued to thoroughly enjoy it. On the home front, however, I'd begun experiencing the negatives of sharing a house with white South Africans (it's pretty much all negative, unless you really like barbecued food and slagging off black people). Preparations were made for another move...
September kicked off with a move to yet another slightly nicer flat in the same area of South West London, this time moving in with my brother and his fiancee. The flat was and is palatial compared to everywhere else I've lived in London, and it's worth every penny of the extortionate rent just to avoid hearing how South Africa's 'gone too far' since the end of Apartheid from over-privileged southern hemisphere Nazis.
Anyway, rehearsals began for the London Wetland Centre show, in which I played Rabbit 2, which is a bigger part than it might appear. I also got to do a second day's filming on the secretive TV project. This time it was a much bigger affair, however, a full day's shoot at Shepperton, right next door to whatever period crap Scorcese's planning on inflicting on the world in 2012. Filming rules, and anyone who tells you it's boring is just insecure and wants to stop you getting any action.
October was a terrifying month financially. What with the swapping jobs, moving house twice and swanning off to Paris, you may already have guessed that 2010 has been an expensive year for me. It was, seriously, if anything goes wrong with my life at this point, I am screwed, the savings tanks are empty. I thought that deathblow had come when, in early October, my girlfriend found a hole in my loveable cat. An inch-long vertical gash in her right side, right through the skin and exposing the muscle and bone beneath. So straight, and in such an odd place, that we still think it was inflicted by a knife. One piece of advice to all you animal lovers now. Buy pet insurance. £440 is not a vet bill you want to see one Saturday morning six weeks after you've moved house and you've just booked a holiday in France. Buscemi made a full and rapid recovery, thankfully, but I was truly shaken by the whole experience.
Also in October, I returned to France for another long weekend. This time I was visiting my penfriend for a surprise birthday party. Now, you may have seen something in the news about a spot of bother in France in October. I rocked into Bordeaux's Place de la Victoire early on a Saturday morning to see the world's most stereotypical Frenchman waving a sign saying 'Mort aux Riches' (Death to the Rich) with about ten thousand of his mates behind him. There were no trains, of course, everyone was on strike. Except the taxi drivers. I had no option but to take a £200 taxi across the South of France to complete my journey... whichever way you look at it, it's going to take a lot of reviews of Tesco Value products to make back that money.
Other than that, the trip was a massive success! My appearance at the party was a complete surprise to my penfriend, and I got to spend some time in the Dordogne and Bordeaux, two areas of deep personal importance to me. I also managed to get a train back to the airport, rather than risking a repeat of the taxi incident...
As we approached the end of the year, I got even busier. Work took off in a very positive way - I had the Annual Dinner, at which I met Alastair Campbell (nice bloke), and I went on a day trip to Paris for our French counterparts' Annual Conference. Also a lot of fun, and I did some Christmas shopping on the way back (mostly things which went slosh). Rehearsals for the Wetland Centre show continued, and I was also commissioned to write a huge slab of travel articles for a certain website which has recently been in trouble for publishing falsified travel reviews. What can I say, they paid well.
My year ended, as did most people's, in a confused flurry of snow, ice, burst pipes and then one last glass of champagne. At the start of December my penfriend came to visit me for the first time in our fifteen year history and we had a great time. I got a part in another am dram show for 2011, Terence Rattigan's Flare Path, and this time it's directed by a former Doctor Who director, so I'm in geek heaven. The Wetland Centre show was another sell-out, in spite of a ton of snow falling on our opening performances, and even my blog started getting a nice number of visits (drunkwriter.blogspot.com if you'd like to take a look).
2010 was a great year for me. I was kind of on the ropes when it started, in a job I despised and tasting the defeat of my freelance experiment. But with a wonderful girlfriend, an awesome cat, and a lot of hard work, I feel like I've regained the initiative this year. I might not be paid for it, but I have an acting career of which some of my struggling actor friends are now jealous. I might not be proud of it, but I have a career in advertising of which many of my advertising friends are now jealous. And getting paid for my writing is just incredible. For 2011 I hope that I'll be appearing in another three or four shows (Flare Path, Sisterly Feelings, Wind in the Willows and possibly another Wetland Show), and that I'll continue to travel (three international trips is pretty good, but it's a bit gutting that they were all to France and all lasted less than three days). I might not have become a full time freelancer, but I've kept up all my freelance work, and in spite of the dark days ahead for this country, I think I'm doing quite nicely now, thank you.
Hold on to your indifference, because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is now available in cinemas. Or half of it is. Warner Brothers took the decision to split the film in half, which they maintain is an artistic choice based on the amount of material, and nothing to do with squeezing every last drop of juice from the final installment of the Rowling cash cow.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part One), we finally have the darker tale that the publicists have claimed every single film in the series would relate. Harry is not going to Hogwarts this year, not when he has been charged by his dead teacher to find and destroy the artifacts (Horcruxes to the initiated) which sustain the evil wizard Voldemort. Inevitably, his buddies Ron and Hermione tag along as well, but with all three characters now in their late teens (and the actors considerably older), there is less perky comedy and more misery on the menu.
Freed from the wacky magic trappings which characterise the first six installments, the film makers have gone all out with the action. The wands go off like hand cannons, wrecking forests, houses, streets and restaurants, as Harry and his friends are chased around by Voldemort's death eaters as they search for the remaining Horcruxes. But is it really any good?
The performances are certainly top notch. Regardless of your opinion of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, they've had six films to get up to speed for the finale, and all three are a lot better than they used to be. But although they're older and more experienced, there's still a clear distinction between the junior cast and the seasoned adults who bring a touch of class to proceedings. Bill Nighy camps things up with an outrageous Welsh accent for an extended cameo, along with Guy Henry (a Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart who really should get more film work) as his successor at the Ministry for Magic. Then there are great turns from regular stars Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Julie Walters, Jason Isaac and Helena Bonham Carter. Having spent the first decade of her career playing demure English roses, and then switching to playing crazy-haired Tim Burton sirens with only Fight Club to bridge the gap, it's hard to think of anyone but Bonham Carter who could have even attempted to play the aristocratic but bonkers Bellatrix.
Alongside the acting, the special effects are incredible. The CGI clouds that depict the travelling Death Eaters are brilliant, and the magical elements are all a lot more physical and realistic, if that's the right word. Magic in this film is physical and powerful and destructive, where it has previously been portrayed as sparkly and whimsical and really rather nice.
The music has also shed its twinkle section, presenting a much more bleak soundscape through which our heroes travel. And the combination of the music and the jaw-dropping locations visited in the film give an almost post-apocalyptic feel to the story.
Where the Deathly Hallows hits big is in its depiction of a world on the brink of madness due to the magical war. People are scared, people are desperate and this formerly jolly world of magical animals and animated sweets with daft names has transformed into a very dangerous place. Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron find they can not trust anyone as they slip into the wilderness. The film doesn't cut corners, either, showing the dreadful choices people are sometimes forced to make when living under enemy occupation. The Ministry of Magic under Death Eater control is pursuing a genocidal campaign against wizards who have non-magical Muggles in their ancestry, and only very young children will fail to spot the parallels with the Holocaust. When Hermione even gets the word 'Mudblood' cut into her arm, it all becomes very allegorical. Harry, Ron and Hermione have been depicted as part of the Resistance before, but with wizards turning into informers to saved loved ones who have been locked up, it all gains an extra element.
Such a shame then, with all of this going for it, that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is such a flabby pile of festering pants. Many have already criticised the sections of the film in the wilderness for being too long and a bit dull, but at least they contribute to the essential narrative. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to two characters who were in the books but not the films up until this point, and then we're supposed to care when the wedding of one of these characters, marrying a girl who was in the fourth film for five minutes, is disrupted. Fans of the books are probably beside themselves with glee, but it's lazy film-making - at some point you have to decide whether you're making cinema or just translating the book verbatim. On a similar note, Mundungus Fletcher is the most pointless character in the entire series already - he could have been left out entirely and no one would have missed him.
Most adaptations of books are criticised for leaving stuff out. Deathly Hallows, like all its predecessors, is better criticised for what it leaves in. Only an idiot would pretend that this couldn't have been compressed into a single film.
Then there's the issue of death. J K Rowling herself always said she would never bring Harry's parents back to life, as that was an important message for her young readers - that death is, sadly, forever. This bold decision (albeit somewhat undermined by constant flashbacks and conversations from beyond the grave), bleeds through into the films. Characters die in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - some you've known for years, others you've forgotten. But it's often a bit too casual. One hero dies very early on, off-screen, and people pretty much shrug it off. With the first big action sequence already feeling like a computer game, it could have been handled a bit better.
Towards the end of this sprawling mess, Harry, Ron and Hermione finally get to find out what the Deathly Hallows actually are, in a beautiful but far too long animated sequence. It feels like a story is just getting going (the search for the horcruxes is so lo-fi it's incredible), when suddenly its time for a big explosion and the end credits. It's as though the producers ran the entire five hour film and cut it precisely at the mid-way point - possibly the weakest cliffhanger that there has ever been.
There is much that is brilliant in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (a personal favourite was Hermione erasing all memory of herself from her parents' lives), but it needed to be pruned down ruthlessly and compressed into a single action-packed film. This is an indulgent and rambling end to a wildly popular franchise which deserved better.
Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels deserve their reputation and millions of sales, and this is no less true of Equal Rites. The third Discworld novel to be published, and the first to feature a lead character other than the inept and cowardly wizard Rincewind, Equal Rites was the first book in the series to hint at the potential for variety in Pratchett's series.
On the Discworld, the seventh son of a seventh son is a wizard. Almost without question or exception. And a wizard may pass his staff, symbol of his power, on to another wizard. But out in the Ramtop Mountains, in the unfortunately named village Bad Ass, one particularly short-sighted wizard has passed his staff on to a seventh son who happens to be a seventh daughter.
Respected (or at least feared) witch Granny Weatherwax does her best to train the young Eskarina as a witch, but perhaps the only sensible option is to take her to Ankh Morpork and the great wizarding school of Unseen University.
Granny Weatherwax is a softer figure here than the formidable witch she is later presented as. Perhaps this is down to the character being not fully developed, or perhaps it is because she spends the bulk of the novel dealing with the young Esk. Luckily Death and the Librarian are as consistent as ever.
In any case, there is no question that Equal Rites marks a drastic change in tone from the madcap adventures of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. Although the gentle adventures in the Ramtops do eventually give way to a quest narrative as the witch and the young girl enjoy various adventures on the way to Ankh-Morpork, and even though there is an almost inevitable confrontation with the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions who are always chittering in the minds of wizards wherever magic is used, waiting to break through to our Universe, things have just calmed down a notch.
Perhaps it is just that Equal Rites is About something, rather than being a simple parody of bad fantasy novels. As the somewhat dreadful punning title suggests, Equal Rites brings notions of feminism to the Discworld, where hitherto only men could be wizards and only women could be witches.
And considering it was written in the 1980s, it handles the subject well. Granny understands the limitations on women in Discworld society, and works around them to achieve her goals. When Esk is rejected by the wizards of Unseen University, she gets a job cleaning and picks up her education unnoticed. Despite the Discworld being traditionally a series for teenage boys, witchcraft is given a much easier ride by the humorist than the more macho whiz-bang wizardry approach to magic.
From the outset, Granny Weatherwax tends to eschew overtly magical acts, relying instead on her Headology, her empathic ability to surf the minds of wildlife and her inflexible moral sense.
Equal Rites must have been a very odd book to fans of the Discworld series when it was first published, with its thoughtful passages on the nature of men and women and their varying approach to life and magic, but it points the way to the more mature works of the later Discworld novels. It is very very highly recommended.
As my writing career has taken off, I've inevitably had to start making much heavier use of printers than I was a few years ago when I was virtually paperless. Manuscripts for agents and publishers, contracts to print, sign and fax back to people, covering letters, etc, about six months ago it got well past the point where I could run the odd sheet off on the office printer with a clear conscience.
At the same time, my girlfriend is currently preparing to go into higher education in the Autumn and we were keen to make photo albums to record our time living together in South London, in order to help ease the initial shock of separation. Although I've owned a digital camera of some sort since 1998, I've always steered away from printing digital photos at home. I'd always assumed the paper would be really expensive and the colours would look washed out, and why not just go to Snappy Snaps and get them to do it for me?
The photo album idea changed that. For one thing, we have hundreds of photos of our last few months together, in London, Paris and other areas. And for another, some of them are, well, not exactly saucy, but I'm not sure I fancy some spotty teenager working out the back of Snappy Snaps to get his hands on them.
Then a certain other website was kind enough to offer me a trial of the HP Photosmart Printer C309, which came with a complete set of five (count them) Photosmart 364 ink cartridges. That's cyan, magenta, yellow, black and 'photo black' (red, blue, yellow and black as we call them when not talking about printing!). Although it sounds like a confusing and expensive number of products, it was actually the five cartridges that sold the printer to me. A criticism of early colour printers was the way in which they used to eat ink cartridges, especially their habit of making black by mixing together the three coloured inks - to have a dedicated cartridge for black text documents was a bit of a godsend for me.
The cartridges cost anything from £6 to £11 each, depending on where you shop, and come in robust packaging. Although excessive packaging is the new binge drinking, I think you can forgive manufacturers when the product is basically a large bottle of ink. So the plastic cartridge is sealed with a plastic widget, wrapped in plastic and then packaged in sturdy cardboard.
Installation was easy enough, the cartridges were all colour-coded even once they had been unwrapped, and it was just a case of twisting off the plastic widget, removing the protective tape, and slotting them into the relevant socket inside the printer. Each individual cartridge came with its own miniature set of instructions, and while again that might look wasteful, there is a strong chance that you are only going to be replacing one cartridge at a time as individual inks run dry. If you are the sort of person who prints infrequently, as I used to be, a fresh set of instructions each time is therefore going to come in useful.
Once the printer was set up, and the inevitable test page was lining our bin, we selected our first favourite photo (the two of us looking faintly silly in sunglasses in Paris), and away we went. Within a minute, our photo was printed and drying. The ink dried in... well, less than five minutes. I left it a few minutes because I was in a cautious mood, but it dried pretty quickly. And it looked completely like a proper photo, the colours were pin-sharp and vibrant. It might be worth mentioning at this point that alongside the writing and acting, my day job is in publishing, so I know a few things about what to look for in a print job and I was a very happy person indeed.
Next up was a full A4 photo of, well, me. In what looks like a Boris Johnson wig and Elizabethan costume (a long story). We printed it on normal A4 paper, but the colours were still leaping off the page even if the paper itself was not quite so glossy. We quickly decided to use only the proper photo paper for our pictures, but if we were making collages or something similar, standard A4 printer paper is totally adequate. We printed off four of our Paris pictures on Photo paper, and then again on A4, and the ink performs well in both circumstances, we decided it was mostly the paper finish that let the standard paper down.
On the document side, we were going to my girlfriend's leaving drinks at her job last Friday, and the cocktail bar in question had a 2 for 1 voucher up on their website. So obviously we printed ten vouchers, because why on Earth wouldn't you? As the copies chuntered out of the paper tray they were completely identical and the ink dried more or less instantly for the lower quality job. The barmaid quickly caught on to our attempted cocktail fraud as the night went on, but she let us have the BOGOF anyway, so it was a bit of a result all round!
At this point we'd printed out a huge number of photos and cocktail vouchers, and the ink cartridges were starting to empty slightly. They were doing so very consistently, however (magenta maybe slightly in the lead), and we started talking about what we should do about buying a new set of ink cartridges.
I hate refilled ink cartridges. I hate them with every bone in my publishing body. I can see why people who just want to print off their kids' homework cheaply might resent paying £50 for a set of new cartridges, but a lot of refill places are really slapdash, and in my limited experience of using them, I've paid for cartridges which just don't work at all, cartridges which leak, and cartridges which end up soaking the paper through with substandard ink. On the one occasion, five years ago, when I had a refilled cartridge that actually worked, the ink lasted a fraction of the time that a proper cartridge would have done.
So while the cost of a full set of printer cartridges might be daunting for some people, it's a no-brainer to me. If you've got a modern, high-tech printer, capable of printing high-resolution digital photos, you need to get the proper ink cartridges. Any technician will tell you that a system is only ever as good as its weakest component, and the fact is that refilled cartridges are unreliable, low quality and don't tend to last very long. You're skimping on quality, and while it can be hard to believe you save money in the long run by sticking with the genuine HP product, any saving you would manage to make by using refilled or generic cartridges is likely to be minimal and not worth the quality sacrifice. There's probably a case for printer manufacturers to answer about the price of their products, but that's a completely separate issue.
The other main task that the Photosmart printer and indeed ink cartridges, have performed, aside from scanning exam certificates to email to my girlfriend's new university, is helping me prepare for the launch of my first professionally published book. This is to be a somewhat more polished affair than Killing Me Softly. I printed out the entire first section of the book, about 20 pages, to send to my old lecturer who has kindly agreed to write a foreword for me. Not a smudge, not a blemish, in 20 pages of text. I usually find that most problems with text printing come about because of dust on the paper or in the printer rather than a fault with the ink, but nevertheless, it is worth mentioning. The text was dark and bold and perfectly aligned, with no bleeding or other irritations. I was proud to post to it my old tutor, and am now looking forward to the foreword.
Finally, I received the long-awaited proof of the first version of the book's cover. I was happily looking at this mixture of text, photos and reproduction of a classic oil painting on the screen, when my girlfriend pointed out it might be more sensible to print it off at actual size, to give a real idea of what it would look like wrapped around a book.
We printed it off on standard A4 paper, and I was a bit worried. The text was fine, but the photos, and the oil painting in particular, were looking a bit drab. Reprinting on the photo paper, far closer to the glossy stock I'm assured the finished book will use, was a different story, though, and the colours really came to life. I'm very excited, can you tell?
Nothing in life is perfect, but it is very hard to find anything much to criticise about the HP Photosmart 364 cartridges. They have lasted a lot longer than I thought they would, and have shown themselves to be well-suited to both photos and text documents across a variety of paper stocks. I know they could be construed as being expensive items at a time when a lot of people are looking to cut financial corners, but then I look on home printing as a bit of a luxury anyway. Perhaps the only real disadvantage is the packaging - I can see why there is so much, but there is no indication that recycled cardboard is used, a bit naughty!
After three weeks of pretty intense printing, we are still on our first set of printer cartridges. As a final little test before writing this review, I printed out the first four photos again, on both standard and photo paper, to see whether the colours were fading, now that we were getting towards the bottom of the barrel. Not only were the colours on the new prints just as vibrant as the first batch I had printed, a couple of weeks previously, but the older copies had not faded or lost any sharpness whatsoever.
Basically, the cartridges were easy to install, produced great results and have provided excellent value. I'm certainly never going to even consider using a cloned or refilled product for this printer, and I have a couple of wonderful photo albums celebrating my last six months with my girlfriend. I'm looking forward to producing many more photo albums as the years roll on!