Enough with the patronisng, ageist, books…

Yes, I know there’s a typo in the title, but to change it once the post is published will cause problems with Google.

Aaaaargh! I’ve just stumbled across a book which seems designed just to piss me off – “Teach Yourself Digital Photography for the Over 50s”. It also boasts that it’s “Written in a manner that is especially suited to and of interest to older readers…”.

Patronising bastards! We – the over fifties, very over in my case – do not need our own special books, thank you ever so much.

Assuming that there is nothing wrong with their brain – something, sadly, that can’t always be guaranteed – there is absolutely Continue reading

World Book Day is coming…

It’s World Book Day on Thursday – O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

From which you might gather that I spent an intriguing few hours downloading books yesterday, including several by Lewis Carroll (well, you might not, but you do now!).  I also downloaded much of the output of L. Frank Baum.

The Oz books strongly influenced Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, though he got ruby slippers from the film – silver shoes in the Wizard of Oz book. Personally, I find them a little Continue reading

The end of the book shop?

In a comment to this Times article about the failure of bookstores in general, and Waterstone’s in particular, one person said:-

It is the failure of literacy and the death of imagination that underlies the problem.

And, you know, I couldn’t agree more – I worked as an adult literacy tutor in the mid 80s, and  the situation was appalling; it’s certainly not got any better since then.

Indeed, as a reasonably successful blogger I’m horrified at the inability of so many of my fellow-bloggers to Continue reading

Machine-created books – art or industry?

The Oddest Book Title of the Year prize has been won by Prof. Philip M Parker, for his book “The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais”.

Parker has “written” over 200,000 books, and yes, there is a reason why I’ve put written in quotes. Parker has, apparently, invented a machine which, as the Guardian says, writes books, creating them from Internet and database searches in order to eliminate or substantially reduce “the costs associated with human labour, such as authors, editors, graphic artists, data analysts, translators, distributors and marketing personnel”. Not to mention the complete elimination of Continue reading

Age discrimination?

When I got my first computer (Windows 3.1, 4MB RAM and a 40MB hard drive), I bought a copy of Windows 3.1 For Dummies and never looked back. Over the years I’ve bought others, for software, and I’m convinced they’re the best how-to books available for computer users. I was baffled the other day, then, to see a new title – Computers for Seniors For Dummies…

For seniors? What’s that about then? Do computers somehow function differently for old codgers than they do for youngsters or, perhaps, does the advice – like this concept – have to be more patronising? This is the opening paragraph for the old fart’s book:-

“If you’ve never owned a computer and now face purchasing one for the first time, deciding what to get can be a somewhat daunting experience. There are lots of technical terms to figure out, and various pieces of hardware (the physical pieces of the computer like the monitor and keyboard) and software (the brains of the computer that help you create documents and play games, for example), that you need to understand.”

We’ll disregard the fact that the brains of a PC is the CPU, not the sodding software, and look at the same para from the standard book, PCs For Dummies:-

“Just because you can buy a complete computer straight off the shelf, right down the aisle form the diapers, canned peas and frozen burritos, doesn’t imply that using a computer will be any easier today than it was 20 years ago. Don’t believe the hype.”

See the difference? Why is it, then, that because one is getting older (I’m 63, so no accusations of ageism, please!), one is considered, apparently, too dim to understand the more casual style of the second example? Though, actually, computers are much easier to use than they were 20 years ago!

As far as I am concerned, if someone has the intelligence to operate a computer, then they don’t need to be patronised by some numpty leading them by the hand and patting them on the head – this book is entirely unnecessary. If you’re getting on a bit, and thinking of buying your first computer, my advice would be to do so, and buy yourself a copy of PCs for Dummies, 11th Edition (for Windows Vista), or 10th Edition (for Windows XP). You won’t be patronised, but you will be very well informed and, quite possibly, entertained along the way, For me, Andy Rathbone is (or was – I don’t know if he’s still around), one of For Dummies best writers, though Dan Gookin, who wrote PCs For Dummies, is pretty good too. And the For Dummies books start by assuming complete ignorance on the part of the reader – always a good thing. I would, though, like to offer you one piece of advice – if you don’t know what a button, or an icon, does, DON’T press or click it just to see what happens! Computers aren’t wildly difficult to master, but random button-pressing or mouse-clicking has probably caused more grief, for more people, than anything else.

If you find some of the terminology baffling, there are plenty of glossaries online – check out Webopedia for starters.

And finally, when I first saw the words Computers for Seniors, I thought to myself, That’s not a bad swap…

MInd you, my local hairdresser has a sign saying “Pensioners half-price on Thursdays” but they won’t sell me one.

TV – do I really need one?

A decade ago, when there were a mere 5 terrestrial channels, I’d watch TV for about 6 hours a night, or more (basically, from the BBC1 6 o’clock news until I went to bed) – never during the day, though, I value my brain cells too much – and could usually manage to remain reasonably entertained and/or informed.

Ten years on and if I watch 10 hours a week it’s an exception. There’s CSI – though it and its various clones are rapidly losing the plot, and sinking into absurdity; NCIS, which has the wit CSI thinks it has (and the babes, too – have you noticed how old the CSI women have got; even those who aren’t chronologically old have aged dramatically – why?), and never takes itself too seriously; House, a format which shouldn’t work but does, repeatedly and brilliantly; Top Gear; plus F1 in season, quali and race. Except for a nightly excursion to BBC’s News 24, to play catch-up before going to bed, that’s it.

Every afternoon I sit in front of my laptop and wade through acres of dross in the online Radio Times, searching mostly in vain for something worth watching (I have Outlook reminders set for my regulars). Some months ago I was offered the beta of BBC’s iPlayer, for which I’d registered an interest some time earlier, but I thought, no point – there’s pretty much nothing on BBC I want to watch once, never mind twice!

Where, now, are programmes of the calibre of Frazier, The West Wing, Seinfeld, Friends, the ER of five years ago, ditto NYPD Blue, The Sopranos (except towards the end, when they seriously lost their grip on it), early Six Feet Under (went on long past its sell-by date, sadly)?

Factual programming has gone down the pan, too – I’ll just give you the horrible example of Panorama. Since the egregious Jeremy Vine took over presenting it, it’s been little but sensationalism, misrepresentation and plain, old-fashioned lies (just as his Radio 2 show has been dragged remorselessly downmarket in the same way, and moved a hell of a long way from honesty and truth). I am, frankly, at a loss to know who, at the BBC, takes responsibility for these two crapulous shows, and I’ve been unable to find out.

I had thought, with digital TV, things would improve. I have Freeview (can’t afford Sky, there seems no way NOT to have football as part of the package if I could, and anyway, I’d not willingly give a penny to Murdoch), but that sucks as it only works in dry weather, except for one or two channels I’ve no desire to watch (and what the hell happens after the digital roll-out – are they going to fix the Freeview problem or are us poor folks going to be left with a severely second-rate service?). Anyway, what I end up with, even when the weather is fine is, in the words of The Boss, 57 channels and nuthin’ on!

And what the hell is wrong with 5US, where they show repeats of the “best” stuff from Five, all bloody jumbled up – there are so many incarnations of CSI running, all at the same time, it’s quite impossible to keep track of. For pity’s sake, in the listings, tell us which episodes of which bloody series they are – would that be so hard? Oh yes, and when Channel 4 moved the West Wing to E4, they did the 5US trick, so you couldn’t sort the new stuff from the old, repeated stuff. Fair enough, even repeated, the West Wing was better than almost anything else, but NOT when it stops you finding the new episodes! Mind you, the screening of the series Ice Road Truckers on Five is an absolute shambles – god knows what 5US will do to it if it makes it there.

So there you have it, I’m pissed off with television, and very often I have to ask myself, do I really need a TV? To be honest, probably not, and once the stuff I am watching fizzles out, or my TV expires, I’m through. I probably won’t replace my TV (affordable TVs are going to be very hard to find before long, as CRT sets are falling from favour, and flat-screen sets are out of my reach, as they will be for a large percentage of the country). The answer, since I watch to little, may be a plug-in USB-TV gizmo for my laptop. We’ll see, but unless television programming improves dramatically it may not be worth the effort, and I can see my book bill going through the roof. Still, at least then I’ll get exactly what I want, know exactly where to find it, and repeat (readings) won’t piss me off!

Update:  I have lost all interest in Formula 1. The problem, for me, has always been the FIA’s bias in favour of Ferrari, never more obvious than last year. Bear in mind, though, the affair of the mass damper. Renault devised this device, and made it work very well indeed. Ferrari, for all their technical expertise, couldn’t make it work well at all. What did they do? They went to the FIA, bitching and whining about it, and the FIA – mid season – banned the mass damper, and came close to trashing Renault’s title bid which was, of course, their sole aim. That’s just the most recent pro-Ferrari episode – the history of F1 is riddled with them, not least in the last decade.

Then there was the McLaren farce (there has always been a level of spying in F1, and had it NOT been McLaren, I seriously doubt Ferrari would have bothered). They did bother, though, and ruined McLaren’s season big time. And now they have their private police force still hassling McLaren (the Italian people  actually think it’s their police force – they’re wrong).

Do you remember the change in the tyre rules when, barring punctures or rain, one set had to last the entire race? Ferrari couldn’t make that work, either. So, despite that it made for  better racing – more races won on the track, not in the pit lane – the FIA, for which read Max Moseley – binned the system and reverted to one with which Ferrari could cope. And then there was the introduction of traction control (now gone again), because one team was “suspected” (for which read “every other team, and the FIA knew”), of illegally hiding traction control in its engine management software. Can you guess who?

Add to that Max Mosely’s persistent and rabid bad-mouthing of McLaren (not to mention his constant buggering about with the rules), and fuck it, I’ve had a belly full of F1, until the day comes when it stops being run for the sole benefit of Ferrari. Oh, and of Bernie Ecclestone, who simply has way too much power. Between them, Ecclestone and Moseley effectively run F1 as their own private fiefdom.

The day Moseley stands down, or dies (either will cheer me up), and the avaricious Bernie Ecclestone retires, or pops his clogs (ditto), will be a very good day for the future of F1.

Though I may be tempted back – possibly briefly – when TV coverage returns to BBC next year, because for ITV it’s never been even slightly important. They’d happily rearrange their schedules – including the sacred Coronation Street – for bloody football, but not for F1. Unlike the BBC, who always gave it the coverage it deserved, and no doubt will again.

Books #3…

The Burning City, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

The Burning City is a novel of epic proportions. Set 14,000 years ago, in the region that would later become the California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Niven and Pournelle take the sketchy legends of the Mayan and Aztec peoples, flesh them out and insert them into the tale of Whandall Placehold, Lordkin warrior in an age when magic and gods were still very real, who would become possessed by the fire-god Yangin-Atep, thus becoming a legend in his own lifetime.

The Lordkin are a race, not quite of giants, but of tall, heavily-muscled, inherently violent people who are also longer-lived than normal, while the Kinless whose town they usurp are, apparently, normal humans. The two can, though, interbreed.

Whandall was born, and lived, in Placehold, his clan fortress in Tep’s Town, and would rise to prominence in one of the town’s many Lordkin gangs, Serpent’s Walk. Inter-gang warfare is a major feature of life in Tep’s Town, as in it’s modern-day counterpart, Los Angeles. 200 years previously, Lordkin, under the command of their Lords, conquered Tep’s Town, taking it from the people who lived there, whom they dubbed Kinless. Promised the spoils of war by the Lords, the Lordkin extended this idea seemingly into perpetuity, and lived by “gathering” the goods and chattels of the Kinless – sometimes their women, too. (Note: I’ve not been able to figure out if the Lordkin are related to the Lords, or whether the name is a diminutive.)

The Lords sensibly went off and established Lord’s Town, where the Lord’s own Kinless dwelled, safe from Lordkin thievery, and their own fortified enclave of Lord’s Hills, well away from the incendiary events of Tep’s Town, where, periodically, Yangin-Atep would possess one of the Lordkin, who would then fire the town. Magic, a potent force in the outside world, didn’t work in Tep’s Town, owing to the influence of Yangin-Atep, who took the magic into himself.

Whandall, having risen in the ranks of Serpent’s Walk, where the gang members all had serpent tattoos, pesters a wizard, a survivor of sunken Atlantis, for a tattoo of his own. The wizard, Morth, eventually relents and gives Whandall a huge, gloriously-coloured, sorcerous tattoo of a winged, feathered serpent, that ran from his left hand to cover his shoulder and the left side of his face, to the ultimately disastrous (for them), envy of his peers.

Eventually, Whandall is, himself, possessed by Yangin-Atep but, instead of burning down his own town (though others, latching on to the early manifestations of his power, do it anyway), suppresses the power and uses it to burn his way out of the semi-sentient and hostile redwood forest surrounding Tep’s Town, in the company of Willow, a tight-rope walker whom he eventually marries, and her cousins, who are also ropewalkers, but of the rope-making kind, in a wagon drawn by a Kinless pony.

Emerging from the forest, they enter a whole new world, where bison-drawn wagon trains trudge up and down the coast between towns, villages and cities, trading and carrying news and stories (stories are a valuable trade item in an age before literature). Unicorns exist, too (though to tell you how would give away too much), and have a use in verifying the virginity of prospective brides. (For those who don’t know the legend, only virgins can control unicorns – probably explains why there aren’t any now!)

Whandall Placehold, who would soon become Whandall Feathersnake, joins the Bison Tribe wagon train, sires the daughter of the god Coyote, marries Willow, and goes on to found first his own wagon train and, ultimately, a powerful trading dynasty, under the Feathersnake banner, that eventually stretched from Great Hawk Bay, which will, 14,000 years down the line, become San Francisco, down into Central America, bearing into history the symbol of the feathered, winged serpent…

I hope, then, that I’ve managed to give you a flavour of the life and times of Whandall Feathersnake, though the narrative is so detailed and complex, it’s difficult to avoid giving away major plot elements (OK, I’ve mentioned that Whandall sires the daughter of Coyote – the how you will have to find out for yourself), and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It kept me up reading until the early hours, and that doesn’t often happen.

I haven’t given away any secrets by disclosing that Tep’s Town will eventually become LA, or Great Hawk Bay San Francisco, as it’s perfectly obvious from the outset. There’s a neat twist in the afterword, too,regarding the future of Yangin-Atep, but I can’t reveal that without spoiling it, and I’d suggest not going to the back of the book and reading it first!

There is a sequel – called either Burning Tower, after the eponymous central character, the daughter of Whandall Feathersnake, or The Burning Tower, depending on which version of the book you get hold of. This latter title is quite wrong. I was going to say that it slightly lacks the grab-you-by-the-throat immediacy of the first book, but on reflection, perhaps it’s merely familiarity with what was, initially, an alien landscape and people. On the other hand, it does make you care about the characters, and is no less engrossing than The Burning City. It features the Terror Birds first encountered with the Bison Tribe wagon train in The Burning City, and proto-Aztecs, busily refining their heart-removal habits. Read both books – you certainly won’t regret it.

At the time The Burning City and Burning Tower were written, Terror Birds and humans had been thought to occupy the same time frame, as recently as 10,000 years ago; more recent opinion suggests not. In the future opinion may swing back – who knows? – so having them feature strongly in Burning Tower is quite legitimate. The website linked to, above, contains this statement, regarding Terror Birds:- “This also shows the last known occurrence of Titanis in the fossil record and reflects its extinction.” This is about as wrong as it’s possible for a scientist to be – the last known fossil reflects NOTHING but the fact that it’s the last known fossil. What is still unknown may be entirely different.

I’ve a feeling that Niven and Pournelle aren’t yet done with the story of this age, and it’s people – I do hope not, as there’s scope for at least two more books.

Note: Niven and Pournelle have a habit of listing the characters in their novels at the front of the book. In some cases this can be worrying, as the list in Footfall runs to over 400 dramatis personae. To date, this has put me off reading it, but I really must make the effort, and just hope too many of the 400 don’t turn up at once!

Books #2

John Sandford (a.k.a. John Camp), is a thriller writer, and probably my favourite writer, at least for now (for the record, my all-time favourite is Clifford D. Simak). In 1989 he published Rules of Prey, set in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, which introduced his central character, Lucas Davenport, and a bunch of Minneapolis homicide cops that one gets to know well, as Sandford doesn’t deal in cardboard cutouts, all involved in the hunt for a crazed serial killer, the Maddog.

There are 17 books featuring Davenport and his colleagues, of which I have all but the most recent, Invisible Prey – I’m waiting for the paperback. When first encountered, Davenport is a Lieutenant on suspension, but throughout most of series he’s a Deputy Chief of Police, a political appointee.

Almost all of Sandford’s characters are drawn in considerable detail, even the most minor and transient; he’s a little Dickensian in that respect, which is no bad thing. He writes very clearly and crisply – never using a single word more than necessary (a lesson Stephen King could usefully learn, as I’ve observed elsewhere!), and he writes short sentences and paragraphs – easy to read on days when your brain has turned to mush. It’s also a style that moves the narrative along briskly.

He manages to put the reader inside the heads of Davenport, and the killers he hunts, with equal facility. Neither, though, are very nice places to be, especially Davenport’s, as his is a troubled and driven personality, but somewhere inside is a nice guy trying to get out. He succeeds occasionally.

Davenport’s private life is complicated and not a little fraught. On the one hand, he loves a surgeon, Weather Karkinnen (one book in the series, typeset, presumably, by a fan of James Herbert’s Dune, calls her Harkinnen!), who first appears in Winter Prey, in which she cuts his throat (you’ll have to read it to find out why), and as this relationship is such a central theme, that’s all I’m telling you. He does, though, have a habit of fucking, or wanting to fuck, or has a history of fucking, pretty much any woman with a pulse in the Cities. That’s not entirely unfair – one character has said that he’s running out of available women, and he’ll soon have to start dating out of town.

Davenport is an extremely complex character, part ladies man, part thug, part clothes-horse; an extremely literate man who loves poetry as much as the hunt, and is deeply into writing computer gaming, on the back of which he built quite a fortune producing police training programs (cooler than it sounds!). He also indulges a passion for war games with a psychologist nun, a childhood friend and another complicated relationship.

The books are written serially, but also stand alone very successfully – you don’t have to have read the previous books in the series – you can pick it up anywhere, and there’s just enough back-story to cover the gaps. He never refers to people and events in previous books without you knowing what and why, and it always enhances the current narrative, rather than getting in the way of it. The back-story in his first, Rules of Prey, works so successfully that, for a while, I was looking for a previous book that I thought I’d missed. Inevitably, some books in the series are a little better than others – but none will disappoint and all will keep you engrossed to the end, and there’s such a wealth of detail that they all bear repeat reading.

Davenport’s sex life is complicated, and that’s the only point where reading out of sequence lets the reader down just a little. It’s a minor point, though, and soon forgotten, and the lives of the other central characters aren’t neglected, either.

The Prey books made Sandford’s name, but he has written other stuff, both before, during and since, which, for some strange reason, haven’t attracted quite the same attention. I can, I suppose, understand why – the exploits of Davenport and company do rather reach out and grab you, whereas his Kidd books (4 of them), are rather more cerebral. Actually, make that a lot more. This is what I’m currently reading, and I’ve just started the third book in the series.

Kidd is a watercolour artist in St. Paul (Sandford lives in the Cities), a computer hacker and criminal, in no particular order. He has an aging ginger tomcat, and an on-off relationship with his partner in crime, LuEllen, an extremely succesful burglar who only steals cash and cash substitutes – coin and stamp collections, precious stones and the like – easily portable, easily converted into cash. Kidd loves LuEllen, a fact which terrifies her!

Unlike Davenport, I don’t have an image in my head of Kidd – maybe this is intentional, making him enigmatic, nor can I visualise LuEllen. It’s as if the art, the computers, the crime, the cat and the Tarot are more important than the people. Odd, but I suspect it is intentional – Sandford is too good a writer to do this accidentally. Or maybe it’s just me… Interestingly, in the first Kidd book, The Fool’s Run, you can see the seeds of some events in the subsequent Prey books.

I don’t, personally, think that Kidd works quite as well as Davenport (he is, if you will, the other side of the Davenport coin, to a degree), but nevertheless, the books provide a welcome, slightly slower-paced and thoughtful diversion. That’s not to say they’re all talk and no action, not by a long way, thought there’s less blood and brutality than in the Prey books, and Kidd has more regard for his own skin than Davenport, but the Kidd books are certainly as thoroughly absorbing as the Prey series.

The first book in the Kidd series, The Fool’s Run, was Sandford’s first published book (initially under his own name, John Camp). Kidd is – although he denies it vehemently – addicted to the Tarot (the Fool being, according to some sources, the main card in the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck), and the Tarot features so strongly, at times, that it’s rather got me interested.

As many of you will know, I’m not remotely religious, nor am I superstitious, but there’s something about the Tarot, as depicted by Sandford, that has struck a chord. So much so that, once Christmas is over, I’m getting myself some Tarot cards – the Rider Waite deck. If you’re interested, there’s a review here. Rider Waite, by the way, is often rendered as Ryder-Waite, and this is the form preferred by Sandford, though he corrects it in the final book in the series. All the decks I’ve seen pics of online are marked Rider Waite, so I assume Ryder is an American cock-up. All four Kidd books are named for cards in the Major Arcana – Fool, Empress, Devil and Hanged Man.

I’ve no idea why the Tarot has snared my imagination, but there’s no denying that it has, and more about it may well appear somewhere here in the future.

There are some half-dozen books outside the Prey and Kidd series, that I haven’t yet read, but when I have they’ll appear in these pages.

One thing I can’t understand – there’s been almost zero Hollywood or TV interest in Sandford – quite possibly because snowy Minnesota doesn’t appeal – boots and parkas just aren’t sexy (though as film makers happily change almost everything except the name, moving the location to California shouldn’t bother them). The Coen brothers made it work, though, with Fargo. Mind you, on book sales alone, Sandford isn’t exactly hurting, so maybe he’s not bothered. OK, he’s not in King’s or Rowling’s league, but few are – and he’s a far better writer than either…

As far as I know, all Sandford’s books are currently in print, though in my experience shopping online will get you a better selection than your local Waterstone’s or Smith’s.