Friday, 29 April 2011

Kindling the imagination

I liked The Invisible Man. It would be fair to say I also liked the price-tag. Thanks to owning a Kindle, I was able to get hold of the H.G. Wells classic in a 20-novel collection for 71p, which works out at under 4p per novel. Don't mind if I do.

I doubt that many people would turn their nose up at the chance to read the likes of The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, The Lost World, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days for that kind of price. And that's just one thing that makes owning a Kindle worth it. I've also been able to download the complete works of William Shakespeare for 70p. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is another book I've enjoyed that came for a minuscule price tag; or, as most people call it, free.

There are quite a few books out in the public domain these days. In theory, they're all available for free, with the copyright having expired. And in general it is possible to get hold of these works for free (generally, you're paying for the work people have put in compiling them all into one electronic volume, creating the links and the bookmarks and the contents pages and what have you). And, what's more, it's worth it.

Reading Frankenstein over the weekend was highly enjoyable. For all its faults - as a modern reader would see it - such as stilted, unrealistic dialogue and occasional overwritten passages, it was a good old-fashioned story, a ripping yarn as some of us more rustic folk would say. And all after one click of a button. The same goes for The Invisible Man, which I shot through in just under 24 hours.

So what else is out there? For the more romantically inclined (in other words, not me), there's Pride and Prejudice to get stuck into. (My own personal opinion is that it's grossly overrated, but those thoughts are for another blog). Horror fans who haven't yet read Dracula can do so without spending over the odds for a Penguin Classic edition complete with a redundant introduction from a contemporary writer. And racists among us can enjoy Heart of Darkness free of charge (again, that's an argument to be made for another blog).

So there's loads of free reading material out there to get stuck into, if you have a Kindle. So what if you're not thumbing through a book itself; chances are many of these classics generally wouldn't cross your path and here's a great chance to try something new (or old, as the case actually is).

Next up for me and my Kindle is The Island of Doctor Moreau. I'm looking forward to it. Expect more posts about my Kindle fairly soon...

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Away at Milton Keynes

Let's be honest: it's been a little while since I wrote anything here. This is partly down to my dissertation. It's also partly down to the fact I've had nothing to write about of any interest.

So going to Milton Keynes on Friday to watch Town play in a crunch match against promotion rivals counts as interesting enough. This is not least down to the fact that in many ways it was one of the weirdest away days I've had in 17 years of watching Huddersfield Town.

First, there's Milton Keynes itself. Just how many roundabouts can they fit in a square mile? I've never been anywhere like it for roundabouts. Go a couple of hundred yards, roundabout. First exit. Another few hundred yards, roundabout. Second exit. Another couple of hundred yards, roundabout. Was it a deliberate attempt to get in the Guinness Book of Records or was it merely incidental?

Further on MK, it has this strange feel of a futuristic utopia. It's too green for a built-up area. It seems to be this collection of enclaves of civilisation connected by the many hundreds of roundabouts. I may be conditioned with a certain idea of what an English town is like, but it just felt weird. 'Pleasantville' was a word that popped into my thoughts.

We got to the ground with an hour to spare and managed to get in to the car park just outside the away end. The first thing that was noticed was that the ground wasn't finished yet. And when I say 'not finished' I mean 'where's the outside walls?'
Open plan much? Once we were in, it does have to be said the ground was very impressive. Odd as this seems, the open concourse in particular was very impressive. And when you go in it becomes apparent that the playing surface and lower tier are sunk into the ground. However, you can't escape that the upper tier seems to be some sort of homage to the famed concrete cows.

Eh? I'm all for having room for expansion, but that's taking the mick. Considering that MK currently (officially) get about 10,000 at home and on a good day that might go up to 12,000, the existing room for expansion is already enough. And I don't think anything like 10,000 turn up unless there's a good away following. That picture above was taken with about 5 minutes to go to kick-off, and it didn't get any fuller. Even allowing for 3,000 fans in the away end, there can't have been more than 9,000 there, and not the 11,800 they claimed.

Town started the game poorly and spent most of the first 20-odd minutes on the back foot. Although Dougie Thompson gave Gary Naysmith an 8 in his post-match ratings, I personally thought the Scotland international was our worst player on the day and that the winger gave him a torrid time. His error led to an MK chance inside the first 30 seconds and Bennett had to be sharp to save.

Gradually, Town came into it and scored with the first real attack mustered. Naysmith took a quick throw-in, Roberts ran at the defence and then squared it to Scott Arfield, who struck an absolute beauty from 22 yards. Cue pandemonium in the away end.

The pandemonium was stymied 4 minutes later when MK Dons won a penalty. The lad turned on the edge of the box and fell over. So the ref gave a penalty. Only the ref himself knows why. The lad just fell over. But the referee was poor all game - a couple of minutes before Town's goal he'd given MK a corner when McCombe clearly ducked out of the way of a dropping ball on the call of Ian Bennett and allowed the ball to go out - and so it wasn't too much of a surprise to see him make such an appalling decision.

Not that it mattered. Peter Leven stepped up for the MK Dons, but Ian Bennett went the right way and made a brilliant save.

Still the MK Dons came at the Town defence. Bennett made a sensational save from a deflected drive from outside the box by Balanta. What made it so remarkable was that he couldn't have seen it until it was right on top of him. Bodies had crowded the box, and it took a deflection perhaps six yards in front of him, while travelling at some speed. Quite how he made the save is beyond me.

Town successfully weathered the storm, and went 2-0 up with 10 minutes to go to half-time. The referee managed to make another cock-up by awarding Town a corner when it was clearly a Dons goal-kick. While the MK defence stood around arguing with the ref, they lost their focus. Roberts' corner found the head of an unmarked Lee Peltier who powered home his first League goal for the club on his 79th appearance.

Peltier was replaced at half-time, suffering from a knock sustained late in the first half. Danny Cadamarteri came on as his replacement, with Jack Hunt slotting in at right-back. Town were far better in the second half than they were in the first. Cadamarteri in particular took the game to MK Dons, who were pushed back far more than they had been in the first half.

After a rare MK Dons foray forward broke down, lone Town front man Benik Afobe was able to run at the Dons defence. Defender McKenzie dived in clumsily just inside the box and brought Afobe down. Penalty. Arfield had the chance to make the points safe, but fluffed his lines, proving himself to be more able from 22 yards than 12 - keeper Martin had little trouble saving the effort.

Inside moments, Town should have had another penalty. A half-cleared ball clearly struck an outstretched MK arm as the Dons desperately tried to clear their lines. The referee waved appeals away. However, the ref made up for it a little later, awarding a free-kick wide on the right for Roberts to deliver into the area. Roberts' delivery was a beauty. It had whip and pace and just the right trajectory. From the stand it looked to only take a deflection off an MK head into the top corner, but other reports have credited Danny Cadamarteri with getting a flick on the ball before the deflection. 3-0, points safe.

There was still time for the referee to make an even bigger fool of himself when booking Cadamarteri for getting hauled to the ground by Lewington just inside the area and for MK Dons to stage a late rally in which Doumbe headed home a consolation. But all in all, it was a professional display from Town at a very tough place to go. Before the second goal, MK Dons showed themselves to be a capable side who on a different day could have beaten us, had the breaks gone their way.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Shakespeare: fantasy icon

I don't wish to alarm anyone, but I've been thinking. There's a lot of debate around at the moment about literary fiction against genre fiction. So we have the literary critics on one hand cherry picking genre works they like and effectively declassifying them from SF, horror, detective or fantasy story status because they want to. And then we have the proud genre defenders who denounce anything vaguely literary as pretentious.

Time to throw a spanner in the works of both arguments.

I'm not going to say that all SF is good literature. Neither am I going to say that some 'literary' work isn't pretentious. Some SF and other genre work is nothing short of escapist pulp (the production of which gives the biggest genre critics ammunition to shoot down and condemn the entirety of genre fiction as being meaningless rubbish. And it's also safe to say that some literary work is pretentious - especially when it deliberately tries to be obtuse.

It's also more than possible for literary and genre fiction to overlap. And this is true to a surprising degree. I'm not talking about the usual suspects that literary buffoons have 'declassified' from genre status and made acceptable, like 1984 and Brave New World. I'm talking about surprising things. Like the work of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a great fantasy writer. I can see the literary critics having massive heart-attacks at my statement already (should any ever lower themselves to the level of a mere human being after so many years of being the demi-gods of fine taste in art). But it's true. At the end of the day, he was a fantasy writer, at least to a small degree. I say that considering the context of the times in which he lived. A lot of the things he wrote about we know to be impossible (hey, King Macbeth, there's your old mate's ghost over there, you know, the one you killed...), but they were genuinely held superstitions back then. But then you look at A Midsummer Night's Dream and you realise that he wrote at least an element of fantasy.

It's about fairies, for heaven's sake! You're not telling me that Puck and Oberon, to name just two, aren't creatures of fantasy.

So there we have an argument for both sides just laying down arms and making peace in the issue. The greatest writer of all time wrote what would today be regarded as genre fiction. And frakking good genre fiction at that (argue that point all you want, but we're still discussing Hamlet senior's ghost over 400 years after the play was written - I'd say that alone makes it good genre fiction). At the same time as writing that genre fiction, he was writing literary work that would influence the English language's development like no other single man has ever managed.

I doubt that anyone else will actually spot this (one side's too busy deliberately ignoring any genre elements to their darlings and the other's too busy ignoring the existence of half of the darlings of their enemy). But on the off-chance that someone does, just think about what a pointless debate the whole thing ultimately is when there's such a massive overlap between the two.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Writing progress!

I feel slightly guilty. Today's been a slow day on the dissertation, with just over 400 words written, and yet here I am skiving off doing work to write about something completely unrelated. Perhaps it's a sign that the times they are a-changing, that I'm working like a lunatic. I was out last night for the first time in goodness knows how long, and yet rather than relaxing and enjoying a couple of acoustic sets in a chilled atmosphere, I was left thinking about referees and their duty of care in relation to a particular hypothetical situation.

Of course, I shouldn't feel guilty. I am allowed a break. I'm halfway through the dissertation now, and I'm through the toughest bit, pulling all the little minutiae of the law together to form a coherent picture. Next comes the fun bit of criticising it and then writing my conclusions. Besides, if I'm working all the time then I'll burn myself out at exactly the wrong time of year.

On this basis, I finally managed to get some writing done the other night. Admittedly, this was at one in the morning, but it was good to get all creative. Even if it was just the planning stage. It was even nicer that the plan I did manage to knock up for myself is of a good-sized project that should keep me busy a while with doing bits and bobs of research, then writing it (I reckon it'll be 20,000 words or so), then editing it. And the even better bit is that I have another project to work on in tandem.

Neither of these stories is small. The first one requires research and careful world-building. The second needs a steady hand. It'll be a case of subtly attacking current government social policy within the context of a fictional near-future setting, which makes it an awkward balance; while I want to get the story across (and it's a good story), I don't want the messages to be missed, and by the same token I don't want the criticism of the government to be overbearing.

But for now, it's back to the dissertation. Frustrating as it is, it has to be done. In order to make it a little more bearable, I have described it in videogaming terms to myself. And I'll do the same here. It's like I've been through the little minor bosses, and now here's the end of game boss. Can't fail at this stage.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Windup Girl

The future's grim, if Paolo Bacigalupi is to be believed. Sea levels will rise. Cities will be razed by floods. Plagues - both natural and man-made - will rid the once-green land of a great proportion of the human population. Nature's diversity will be greatly curtailed, with both animals and plants becoming extinct in the cleansing of the planet.

It's for these reasons that I'm please to live in 21st century Yorkshire rather than 23rd century Thailand. It's a grim place. The world is recovering from the effects of global warming. Carbon-based fuels are gone, replaced by manual wind-up springs which contain energy. Food production is no longer a natural process; such has been the extent of the dying-back of nature that fruits and other forms of sustenance have to be artificially produced. These so-called 'calorie companies' are regarded as an evil - albeit a necessary one.

This is the world of The Windup Girl, a richly-textured, brilliantly realised place, chock full of scams and schemes and intrigues. Corruption and coercion go hand in hand. Very few men have honour. It's in this world that the titular windup girl lives. She's one of the New People, a Japanese invention with enhanced genes making her immune to illnesses and enhancing her abilities. She's also been bred to serve, initially a Japanese master, but then, after he discarded her, a second, less honourable man in a land where she's a million miles from welcome.

When she meets Anderson Lake - a calorie man working for one of the calorie companies - her influence on the turbulent Thailand of the 23rd century could hardly be predicted.

Much as I'm loath to bring something so unrelated as Shrek to the fore in a review of such a fantastic novel as The Windup Girl, I'm afraid I have to. Remember the part about ogres having layers, like onions? The Windup Girl reminds me of that, but for different reasons. There's the careful, subtle layering of a dangerous world and also the intrigues, the plots within plots. It's all intricate and beautifully done.

And it's not just the world and the intrigues that have multiple layers. The characters carry the story superbly. It's rare to see a world so brilliantly realised with equally brilliant characters populating that same environment, but it happens here. Emiko - the windup girl - in particular makes an interesting character. Doomed to subservience by her genes, her battle with herself and her innate submissiveness is fascinating, even if some of the scenes involving her are disturbing.

It's perhaps a mark of The Windup Girl's quality when I'm not finding fault with the writing or the plot or the characters, but that instead my biggest complaint is the disturbing scenes of sexual abuse. It always makes for uncomfortable reading, no matter the context and the surrounding quality. In this case, its inclusion was justified, but with one scene in particular near the end it felt unnerving.

Overall, however, I enjoyed The Windup Girl like I've enjoyed only a handful of other novels over the past year or so. Not since Hyperion have I dished out lavish praise, but in this case I feel justified in doing so. Read this book. It really is contemporary SF at its very finest. And I can't say more than that.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Eye of the World

I like understated covers. A cover filled with busy fantasy clich├ęs doesn't interest me in the slightest. The old adage goes don't judge a book by its cover, but I like my bookshelf to look stylish. So The Wheel of Time covers fit in quite nicely, almost seeming bespoke alongside other covers.

Or, at least, that's how the second volume looks. The first volume of The Wheel of Time was my first purchase for the Kindle. So the only cover it has is a black and white electronic ink one I only turned to on completion, as, for whatever reason, the Kindle turns to the opening pages rather than the cover when you first open a book on there.

The Wheel of Time is the series that, over the last 20-odd years, has come to dominate epic fantasy. That's no mean feat. In that time, A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's epic, has been released. Robin Hobb has released a fair few books. Steven Erikson has risen to prominence. And yet it's The Wheel of Time that dominates.

I still write fantasy. Not much, granted, and very rarely is there any kind of quest to a mountain to defeat an evil overlord or whatever, but I do still write it. And as such, I felt the need to read at least the opening couple of volumes of The Wheel of Time, my need to read it further fuelled by glowing reviews from half a dozen friends.

The Eye of the World is the first volume in the series (which will number 14 books in its ranks before long). At over 800 pages, it isn't light reading. But neither is it difficult; the language used is seldom challenging beyond the fact there's a lot of it. I'd have been comfortable with the prose when I was 12, if not the volume of it. I'm not criticising the book because the prose is easy. Far from it. It's actually quite nice to come away from reading heavy stuff to read something that, linguistically, is crystal clear and easy to follow. Language doesn't need to be complex to be well-used. It's one of the reasons I like Isaac Asimov and his works.

However, there is a difference between Asimov and Robert Jordan - not least that Asimov didn't write epic fantasy. I'll also stick my neck out and say that most of Asimov's works weren't just simple escapist reading. And simple is the word. Compare The Eye of the World to A Game Of Thrones. One follows the basic Tolkein-fantasy plot of an incorporeal evil overlord and a group of Shirelings with a wizard and a couple of other hangers-on trying to defeat it. The other has political manoeuvrings, multiple plot threads, dastardly characters and nefarious deeds by the bucket and - unusually - an original(ish) premise (apart from the bits nicked from Dune). I know which I prefer.

As Tolkien knock-offs go, The Eye of the World isn't bad, and I'll be reading the second volume of The Wheel of Time at some point in the future. However, if I have to choose between a George R.R. Martin book or a Robert Jordan novel in future, I know which I'll be picking.

But the covers are nice. I'll give them that.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Another away day

Tranmere was a pleasant surprise.

It wasn't that I was expecting a total dump. I know what the surrounds of football ground are like: the old stadia tend to be in built up, inner-city areas. More often than not there's a cross-hatching of 1930s terraced houses packed in tight around the ground. At newer grounds, there may be a car park or, as there is at Stoke, a ridiculously long walk to the stadium which will be on an isolated, bleak hillside.

For Prenton Park, I expected the former, and to a point I wasn't disappointed. It's certainly built up, and the immediate vicinity of the ground seems to be a collection of Indian and Chinese takeaways and low-grade housing. But walk the way I did from the car to the ground, and you'll find a curiously pleasant suburban landscape. There are prim little front gardens with well-kept hedges and immaculate medallions for lawns in front of semi-detached houses. Alongside the pavement there's a grassy verge with trees planted to make the road into a faux-avenue. All in all, it's a quite pleasant little area, considering that there's a football stadium there.

Even the ground itself is more than passable. You can tell it's seen some sights over many years and that the away end's seats have been ill-used by visitors of ages past, but it's certainly not a bad little ground (Tranmere fans won't thank me for calling it small - it has a capacity of 19,000 or so, not significantly smaller than the Galpharm). Yes, the stands seem to be built of corrugated steel and concrete with flimsy seats tacked on, but there's ample legroom, a decent lift from row to row giving a decent view (unless you're directly behind the goalposts and struggle to see through the crossbar - but that's the laws of physics at fault and not the people who built the ground).

Of course your perception of a ground is always helped by a 2-0 victory on a pudding of a pitch. Which is precisely what Town did, despite not playing well. Tranmere came at us and put us under pressure for spells in the second half and we didn't keep the ball like we can, but we scored twice and they scored none. I'll settle for that at this time of the season.

If I do have to make a criticism of the day, it's the roadworks going into Liverpool city centre that held us up for the best part of 45 minutes. Not only were they not signposted, no one told us about them before we set off. Fortunately, we had enough time to get through the queues (not helped by Everton playing at home) to get to Prenton Park with 15-20 minutes or so to kick-off.

All in all, a satisfactory day in the life of a Huddersfield Town fan.