King Kong

Continuing the false peace of this holiday season, we go to see King Kong this afternoon. We will be on the lookout for Peter Jackson/LOTR trademarks (already aware of one, the 3.5 hour length). Had a coffee after lunch so I will stay awake (don’t usually have coffee after 11 am as would make me more than usually sleepless).

Finished "Solace" this morning. Utterly readable and compelling, but although a brilliant dissection of a situtation (breaking/broken marriage from the point of view of wronged wife and mother), nothing for me to learn in it. Maybe at 30 or 35 I could have taken courage from this book, but now I feel it is too late for self-chosen radical life-changes. The changes imposed by fate are enough to deal with. Now it all seems to be about hanging on.

I read on Cinematical’s blog today that Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google are financing an indie film, Broken Arrows. Curious to see it.

Time off

Continuing the holiday — Christmas day is over and I am not going into work until 3 January, so there is a strange period of spending time at home without the structure of domestic jobs usually applied to weekends in order to be ready for the next Monday. Started to read "Solace" by Nikki Gerard last night — as usual excellently written and readable. This is the second of her "stand alone" books, and if it is like the first will be the anatomy of a family coping with domestic adversity. The crime novels Gerard writes with her partner Sean French under the names of "Nikki French" are also great reads. The plotting is taut and tension-filled, but I have read that the TV versions do not work as well (never watch TV). This seems to be common with TV or movie versions of good (or bad) thrillers; what works on the page does not on screen. Novels can exist in their characters’ heads in a way that movies rarely do. The movie "The Sixth Sense" pulled this off most successfully in my experience — and that was an original screenplay, not a story adapted from a novel.

The Google Story

Just finished this book by David Vise. Readable, but an outsider view rather than telling you about how Google works. The first half is better, in telling the story of the early days of Google. The second half is more focused on the stock and business side. As a whole it reads like a set of press clippings melded together — in fact it probably is as Vise is a newspaper journalist — and in the second half, as the story acquires more dimensions, the approach breaks down as questions and situations are posed but not answered or taken to their conclusion. Moans aside, I did enjoy the book and learning more details about the Google philosophy. Brin and Page use(d) no ads or marketing, but developed the world’s most brilliant business by word of mouth.

I remember using a set of not-very-good search engines, including Metacrawler, back in the late nineties, and how my life was instantly changed when a colleague told me about Google. I have never used another search engine since. I love many of Google’s options, particularly gmail, news, scholar, earth and google alerts. I have also just begun using the personalised homepage. Nevertheless, Google is rubbish at some things, eg translations, mail lists (I signed up to one a year or so ago which seemed to be receiving mainly spam).

But mainly it is just such a fantastic business lesson: give consumers a product they like and make lots of money, which you use to give them more things they like (from the relatively minor to vast projects such as book digitisation). Google’s ad solution is great, in that their ads make them money while able to be totally ignored by users.

Lord of the Rings

Watched the three Lord of the Rings films (extended editions) over the past three evenings, helping to account for lack of postings. Usually there is no time for watching anything on TV but these are truly great movies — essential to view the EEs — and if there is not time to see them at Christmas (eve, day, boxing day), then when is there?

Seeing the films all together all0ws the themes to emerge more strongly than seeing them a year apart at the cinema or at initial DVD release. Peter Jackson is strongest on the set pieces: the entire Moria sequence, culminating in the Balrog scenes in films 1 and 2, are not only brilliant but a superb adornment to the book (in Tolkein, Gandalf v Balrog is handled laconically in one paragraph almost as an aside); the entire Helm’s Deep battle, from preparation to aftermath, is a breathtaking range of emotions; the Ents once they get to Isengard (not before!), Pellenor Fields, and the Black Gate (this last also a great improvement on the books, in which it is barely noted that it, and the eye, have disintegrated).

Sincerity infuses the film, and in conjunction with the wonderful score, leads to many moving moments: Gandalf with Pippin at Miras Tirith before what they believe to be their end; the Arwen/Aragon story (an Appendix in the books) woven into the main plot, including the gem of Arwen’s vision while en route to the Grey Havens; the fractured fellowship on the rocks outside Moria, numb and grief-stricken; the arming of the Rohirrim boys and old men before the battle; the dawn scene on "the fifth day"; the elven havens of Rivendell and Lothlorien, with their ethereal, beautiful sets.

There are self-indulgences (more than a few) — Sam and Frodo’s constant adulation of the Shire (a chocolate-box paradise), Merry/Pippin/Ent, the sudden focus on a character purely to provide the next plot development, and the multi-endings of the final film (each OK in itself but most of them far too drawn out). The movies were released at widely separate intervals so repetition was more necessary than usual in a film to establish events with audiences (so I told myself each time Sam and Frodo used up screen time in one of their seemingly endless indentical scenes, or Boromir fell in slow motion).

Some deviations from Tolkein are improvements on the books: Arwen’s initial appearance and horseback flight with Frodo, Islidur’s sword and Elrond’s role in its return to Aragorn, the omission of Tom Bombadil and the various Middle Earth peoples who gather at Minas Tirith for the final battle. Others are not: omission of Elrond’s sons, the elvish reinforcements at Helm’s Deep (the elves are presented in the films as in the books as a dying race), everyone’s viciousness to Gollum (except Frodo). For purists, the upgrading of Osgiliath to a tactically necessary outpost (it is a ruin in the books) does not make geographical sense. The omission of the Sarauman/Shire plot could have been necessary for length reasons, though I think that the Frodo/Sam sections and the over-indulgent endings could have been cut in favour of a flavour of reality to the Shire as opposed to presenting it as fairyland through and through. And was it dramatically necessary to introduce Gollum and ring-inspired distrust between Sam and Frodo? I think this served to drag out their scenes even more, rather than adding tension.

The movies as a trilogy are a magnificent achievement, an epic and emotional realisation of the few life-messages that actually matter. They are tightly woven together, with themes in one picked up in the next, scenes and characters glimpsed in one film developed in another (the scene of Gandalf in Minas Tirith in the first film, for example). There is a sense of history, and the characters in the film having their place in it. The pacing is perfect: establishment of the fellowship and task in the first movie, the Rohan dominance of the second, and the Gondor of the third, each film addressing the issues of power, politics and personal integrity from these differering perspectives. Within each movie, the cutting between the various characters’ stories not only enhances the drama but shows directly, again and again, how the outcome of one character’s decision directly affects events in another thread. Whatever the caveats, these films are fantastic.

Nearly Christmas

I’ve just about stopped work now in anticipation of the big day. Jenny is having a party this afternoon for 5 friends. We went to Waitrose at 8.30 am to buy ingredients for icing gingerbread men, sweet salad and so on. The shop was packed. Every time I have this type of experience I am grateful for the Internet — my regular shopping sites Ocado and Amazon, together with others such as Next (great for clothes for children, teenagers and adults, as well as an awesome delivery system) and Big Wednesday (cool surf shop in Cornwall selling brands like Animal, popular with teens). When Jenny created her xmas list a couple of months ago (!) I went into Kingston to find some of the things on it. Three hours later, I came home with a bottle of mouthwash. Next day, Sunday, I looked on the Internet and got everything I wanted within a couple of hours. Is this soul-less? Some may think so but I think not. Jenny will get what she wants for Christmas (assuming she hasn’t changed her mind by then), and I did my shopping without getting exhausted and cross (crowds), and had (in theory) some time left over for reading. The Internet is great if you know what you want before you start out looking. Today all the book-related blogs are providing or linking to their favourite books of the year. My Amazon basket is thus even fuller than it was last time I wrote. In the end I just clipped the blogs, so now I have a house full of piles of books, an impossibly long shopping list on Amazon, and a set of "great books" articles clipped on Bloglines. This reminds me of the comments made by Alan Bennett about Amazon and other Internet sites destroying local independent booksellers. Maybe. But I do know that I buy a lot more books via Amazon or Abe than I ever could by foot. I buy obscure books, eg books I remember loving as a child long-since out of print. But that is a topic for another day’s diary.


I have more than 100 items in my Amazon shopping basket. This is normal for me over the past few years. My house is full of books spilling out of bookshelves, in the attic, in cupboards and so on. I have piles of books that I want to read. So why do I have 100 items in my Amazon basket? I read about new books in the Bookseller or Publishers’ Weekly, or via the weekend newspapers or blogs (my favourite is Sarah Weinman’s, linked to from here. She writes a round up of the newspaper reviews. with links, each week, so saves a lot of time). Then I log onto Amazon and put the books I like the sound of best in the basket. If they are hardbacks, I will wait until the paperback comes out — but I need to bookmark the hardback as I will have forgotten about it by the time the paperback is published, having a poor short-term memory these years. I also index books I think my daughters will like, or Malcolm, and DVDs – and occasionally things like gift stationery, toys and calendars. Amazon itself, of course, has plenty of features encouraging you to buy items similar (or identical!) to ones you have recently bought, increasing basket size to groaning-point. I use their "new DVD" listings to add to my DVD rental list: one advantage of renting DVDs via Amazon is that you get a discount for any new ones you buy. (Amazon doesn’t seem to have a "new published books" function as it does for DVDs, I wonder why.) So it is not difficult to accumulate a lot of books this way. I also keep on joining book clubs for the special introductory offers. The prices of the books you have to buy to fulfil your commitment are not good (Amazon often has them cheaper), and the selection is limited, so I am trying to cure myself of that addiction. I’ve recently cancelled membership of two book clubs and will now be OK until they send me the usual amazing offer in 6 months’ time offering 5 newly published books at 1 p each if I re-join. I must try to resist. I purchase books at a steady rate from Amazon. If you spend more than 15 pounds then delivery is free. You can also get many US books via the UK site and hence qualify for free delivery, which is great for crime fiction readers as the US has a category of book called "mass market paperback" — falls apart after one read but costs only three pounds. Does all this qualify me for Amazonaholics anonymous? Will I ever have time to read all these books, or will I forever be locked into the family/work/commute/(try to) sleep routine that takes 24 hours of every day? What do I want for Christmas? Time. (Sorry, Santa Claus is right out of that.)

Shortest day

I finished the Laura Lippman book; it did not get any better. It was not a bad book, but very slow. The author did not tell the reader some essential information which some characters knew about — despite the book being almost entirely character based, the author did not report conversations on this particular topic. Hence when the denoument, such as it was, came, it was accompanied by a sense that some cheating had been going on.

Too tired to think much on getting home from work last night, so did a few killer su dokus.

Today it is the shortest day of the year. On the 0719 from Kingston yesterday, I saw the dawn just as the train pulled into Wimbledon station. On the same train today, it was completely dark at the same point on the journey. The next time I travel to the office it will be the new year and the time tide will have turned. I tell myself that my mood should lift too, with the prospect of Spring and lighter days. (I tell myself this every year.)

Laura Lippman

Monday night, the week before Christmas. Continued to read "Every Secret Thing" by Laura Lippman. The book got excellent reviews but it is very slow indeed. It reminds me of Dennis Lehane’s "Mystic River" but slower. It is the anatomy of a crime committed some time ago told from every possible person’s point of view, relying on character rather than plot to hold the reader’s interest. Well-written, certainly, but spun out for sure. Maybe the final third will take off and I will be eating these words tomorrow (or whenever I finish the book).

At work today we worked out the doi routine for the website I am working towards launching early (?) next year. Last week I created search keywords for every page of the site to raise its profile on Google (and other engine) search returns after go-live. A very interesting process, diametrically different to the casual ease of publshing this blog — which I can’t quite believe I managed to do. But I seem to have done. Domesticity calls again, must go.


Today I took Cathy, Jenny and her friend to see Narnia (Lion Witch and Wardrobe). Cinema full. The film began with an added second world war theme: being 21st century English schoolchildren my companions knew the Anderson shelter and evacuation drill better than I and no doubt the people being depicted. Once we got over that and the obligatory "lovingly recreated English 40s nostalgia" of the professor’s house, etc, the film got into its stride, sticking to the book pretty well all the way through, even to the hunting coda at the end, when the children are adult kings and queens. The film held back at depicting any act of violence to the extent that it often wasn’t clear what was actually supposed to have happened. Quite a change from the usual — just thinking of how many times we saw in flashback Boromir’s (admittedly gore-free) death in LOTR trilogy. Despite this "let’s cut away before anyone could be upset" mode (rather than relying on the hands over eyes tradition), the movie was absorbing, and poignantly nostalgic for those like me "of a certain age". I guess many of the adults in the audience, like me, remembered the book as one of their childhood favourites, and were relieved finally to enjoy a proper version. (Yes, I know the BBC don’t have much money but having Peter smaller (younger?) than Edmund was a really bad start to their disappointingly naff version.) As usual I have to stop here as I am being called to domestic matters.