Quick post for Christmas hols

Via Amazon, here’s a meta-list of their "best of" books in various categories for 2007. As they say, "happy shopping".

++ Sepulchre
++ Best Fiction Reads 2007

++ The QI Annual 2008
++ Best Humour Books 2007

++ On The Edge
++ Best Biographies 2007

++ Top 100
++ Customer Favourites 2007

++ The Blair Years
++ Best Political Books 2007

++ His Dark Materials Boxed set
++ Best Children’s Reads 2007

++ Lewis Hamilton
++ Best Sports Books 2007

++ Best Books of 2007
++ Great Reads

Track Santa with Google

Via the official Google blog: Track Santa with Google.

"On Monday, December 24th, starting at 1 am PST, visit noradsanta.org to track Santa with NORAD on his annual trip. NORAD will use Google Maps to track several hundred of Santa’s stops in over 200 countries and territories, and will embed videos of Santa’s stops captured on their Santa Cams on the Google Map and post the videos on the NORAD Tracks Santa YouTube channel. Want to see more of Santa? NORAD will also provide a downloadable Santa Tracker file to track several thousand of Santa’s stops in Google Earth. Santa’s visits are only a few seconds long, and then — poof, he’s off to the next location. Click on the gift icons in Google Maps or Google Earth to learn more about the cities that Santa visits."

Sunday Salon: The Coffin Trail

Sunday_salon Such is the disorientation of having some time off work that I hadn’t realised it was Sunday until I opened up my rss reader and saw Clare’s peaceful 6.15 and more energetic 12.15 posts.

So, this morning I finished reading The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards. I enjoyed this book a lot, not least because it is set in my beloved Lake District, but also because it has a good plot and strong characters. Highly recommended if you like police procedurals — the main detective is a woman, Hannah Scarlett (lovely name, I wish I’d been called that) — with a "local mystery" theme. The Coffin Trail is the first of a series, so I shall definitely be reading more.

And what is a coffin trail (or corpse road) you may ask? From Wikipedia (emphasis mine): "In late medieval times a population increase and a concomitant expansion of church building took place in Great Britain inevitably encroaching on the territories of existing mother churches or minsters. Demands for autonomy from outlying settlements made minster officials feel that their authority was waning, as were their revenues, so they instituted corpse roads connecting outlying locations and their mother churches (at the heart of parishes) that alone held burial rights. For some parishioners, this decision meant that corpses had to be transported long distances, sometimes through difficult terrain and usually it had to be carried unless the departed was a wealthy individual. An example would be the funeral way that runs from Rydal to Ambleside in the Lake District where a coffin stone, on which the coffin was placed while the parishioners rested, still exists. Many of the ‘new’ churches were eventually granted burial rights and corpse roads ceased to be used as such."

Northern Lights diminished

Among the usual collection of Christmas holiday season movies is The Golden Compass, the film of Philip Pullman’s wonderful Northern Lights. I saw the film a few weeks ago with my stepdaughter and two daughters, between us ranging in age from 150 (me) to 24, 16 and 12. We all think we enjoyed it, but we aren’t too sure – something of a curate’s egg.

The younger generation all felt that you had to have read the book in order to understand the plot and hence enjoy the film. I wasn’t so sure — because for me the film was "good enough" (in the sense that the Harry Potter films are "good enough" renditions of the books though lacking a dimension or two), but it had two stand-out dreadful flaws. The first of these was a voice-over right at the start, which solemnly explains the entire plot in words of one syllable — what Lord Asriel is doing in the North, the existence and meaning of dust (including detail from book 2) and all you ever could want to know about daemons. Hence, dramatic tension was ruined.

The second horror was that the film ended three-quarters of the way through the book, destroying the terrible balance of Lyra’s two parental confrontations and hence the awful power of the story. One of the many reasons why Northern Lights is so thrilling is that Pullman is not afraid to go "all the way" with the evil parent motif — not just with one parent but both. The author backs down somewhat, but not very far, in subsequent books (one reason why they are weaker); the fierce independence and strength of Lyra, such a fresh character in all of fiction, is severely undermined by this bizarre plot decision.

I can forgive the omission of Lord Asriel’s dramatic slamming of the head on the table of the senior common room to the shock of the dons, and (apart from in a brief aside) the gliding over of Iorek Byrnison’s true status. These, and other, simplifications weaken impact but don’t detract from the power of the story. There were lots of very good things about the film, as described in two excellent reviews at Stephen Lang and at Material Witness. But I can’t forgive the awful, unnecessary dumbing-down of the initial voiceover, and I was left high and dry by the decision to truncate the story before its end. It is as if Far From the Madding Crowd ended before Bathsheba finally reciprocates Gabriel Oak’s devotion, or as if Othello ended at the death of Desdemona.

Book of the year: Den of Thieves

Cat_royaleAsk most people to name their favourite book of the year, and they will take some time to think about it. Not so Jenny (age 12) who instantly responds: the "Cat Royal" series by Julia Golding. Of the series, her favourite is "Den of Thieves", about the French Revolution. From the Amazon synopsis: "Den of Thieves" is the thrilling third volume in the "Cat Royal" series, following the huge success of "The Diamond of Drury Lane". Our hardy heroine, Cat Royal, finds herself homeless, travels to Paris, becomes an underground reporter, nearly gets hung for being a traitor to the revolution, and is baffled by attention from numerous suitors; all the while being disguised as a prissy ballerina! As the French Royal family flee, Cat discovers the power of the people. Vive La Revolution! Once again, Julia Golding will have you captivated from page one.

Since then, we have had (again via Amazon) …"Cat-O’ Nine Tails". In which, Cat becomes an unlikely recruit for the British Navy, takes passage to America and navigates her way through a fiendish plot to do away with Lord Francis, heir to a dukedom. From the grand Assembly Rooms of Bath to the wilds of a new frontier, Cat finds she is for once quite out of her depth. All aboard, Cat’s going abroad.

Jenny is desperate for February, which brings us the fifth installment, Black Heart of Jamaica.

Some new reviews at Euro Crime

A couple of my reviews have recently been published at Euro Crime:

Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves, an absorbing mystery set in a remote Scottish island community; and

Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty, a "post-Godfather Odyssey", boiled as hard as it goes.

Other books reviewed last week at Euro Crime are Peter James’s Not Dead Enough (reviewer Terry Halligan); Karen Meek (Euro Crime herself) on Michael Dibdin’s Back to Bologna; and Laura Root’s take on Armand Cabasson’s The Officer’s Prey.

One of the many delights of Euro Crime is comparing reviews of the same book. From this set, you can read Sunnie Gill’s opinion of Raven Black (I liked the book but not as much as Sunnie, who raves about it); and my view of Not Dead Enough (again, I liked the book but not as much as Terry, who found it "simply amazing").

While you are at Euro Crime, don’t forget that you have until 31 December to win a copy of Thirty-Three Teeth, Colin Cotterill’s second book about the chief coroner of Laos in the 1970s. I reviewed the book here, and can highly recommend it and its predecessor The Coroner’s Lunch (reviewed on Euro Crime here by me, and here by Karen C) as perfect holiday (or any other time) reading.


Book reviews that caught my eye

Some notable book reviews I’ve read over the past week or two:

Scott Pack on Deanna Raybourn’s Silent in the Grave. I am not usually a big fan of historical crime or of comic crime, but this one (Victorian era) sounds as if it might be an exception. It’s first of a series.

Brothers Judd on I am Legend by Richard Matheson. I re-read this book on holiday 18 months ago, and rather liked it again even though vampire novels aren’t my thing. It’s an economical little chiller, and so far as I recall, a then-startlingly original blend of genres. Brothers Judd liked it less than I did. Now it has been made into (another) film, this time with Will Smith in the Charlton Heston role. I don’t know if I’ll go and see it or not.

Scott Pack again, this time on Atomised by Michel Houllebecq. This is one of those iconic books that seems to indicate you are cool if you’ve read it, but I have never managed to bring myself to actually do that. Having read Scott’s views, I don’t think I’ve missed anything.

Karen of Euro Crime reviews The Christmas Bow Murder by Brian Battison, as part of her Its Christmas Crime series. Looks diverting. While at Euro Crime, this isn’t exactly a review, but Karen features the synopsis of the last and eagerly awaited (by me) Frost book, title Killing Frost, by the late R. D. Wingfield, out early next year. The first four books were excellent, dark police procedurals. I saw only a few of the TV series, in which the character of Frost is considerably softened. The books were much better.

Material Witness reviews Sephulcre by Kate Mosse, and likes it a lot. I am not so sure, I still have an unread copy of Labyrinth at home, so really ought to read that first. I feel put off by the hyperbole and the mixed reviews of the earlier book. It seems from the Material Witness review that Sephulcre might be better, but the "Da Vinci Code" genre of historical conspiracy/religious-supernatural isn’t my thing, I feel – In general I prefer the laws of the universe to be followed in the books I read (boring of me, no doubt).

Here’s another Material Witness review of a book that seems more up my street, Meltdown by Martin Baker. Hot stuff, in more ways than one.

David Montgomery of Crime Fiction Dossier reads his first "alphabet" mystery by Sue Grafton, T is for Trespass, and likes it. (The post is not a review, though.) I have enjoyed this PI series to date, having read all of the books. Although I look forward to T, I’m quite happy to wait for the paperback.

Is there anyone who doesn’t adore Ken Bruen? Crime Scraps here reviews Priest. I am seriously going to have to read this author, I don’t think I’ve come across a reader of crime fiction who doesn’t think he is fabulous, and he wins lots of prizes and awards, too. Crime Scraps on Priest: "a powerful brilliant dark book, full of insight in to the human condition, and with wonderful little vignettes about interesting characters."

And finally, for this post, Karen C of Aust Crime Fiction on I See You by Gregg Hurwitz. This book seems to be another for the "must read one day" list.

Philip Pullman: the podcast

You’ve read the books, you’ve seen the (first) movie, now at Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog – books: Guardian book club podcast: Philip Pullman, listen to the podcast (47 mins).  From the Guardian blog:

"In this month’s Christmas book club, John Mullan turns his attention to Philip Pullman’s expansive, magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy.

Listen to the podcast of last night’s book club event, in which Pullman talked about Milton, morality and heading for the Arctic, and answered some searching textual questions from younger audience members."

Lesson in climate-change science

There are two very good letters in today’s Times, in response to a rather poor one yesterday. Good on Chris Turney and Anthony Seaton, and no comment on Lord Leach (for reasons of length, Prof Seaton’s and Lord Leach’s letters are on the post continuation sheet).

Sir, Lord Leach of Fairford’s letter (“The false certainties of climate change theory”, Dec 20 and in the post continuation below) espouses a bizarre mixture of half-truths and misinformation. I find it entertaining that someone who in previous correspondence claims to be a non-scientist can so confidently list a series of “facts” that are wrong. The evidence for human-driven climate change is overwhelming: the world is warming up because of elevated greenhouse gases, the climate models can explain the cooling of the mid-20th century and if anything, projections for the future are conservative; reconstructions of the past imply the climate system is more sensitive to greenhouse gases than we might like to acknowledge.

No one is denying that scientists should be sceptical (that is our job), but to imply that those who deny climate change are somehow ahead of their time is wholly misleading. The greats who did so in the past put forward evidence that broke the consensus of the time and moved the science forward. Those who continue to deny climate change muddy the waters of action and delay the urgent measures we so desperately need. If Lord Leach still feels challenged by the science I suggest he reads some accessible blogs on climate change, such as www.celsias.com or www.realclimate.org. [Maxine adds: or Climate Feedback, the blog of Nature Reports Climate Change.] Once he has got up to speed on the science, Lord Leach might wake up to the considerable problems we face and make a more valuable contribution to the public debate: how to get ourselves out of the mess we’ve created.

Professor Chris Turney

University of Exeter

(Prof Seaton’s and Lord Leach’s letters are below.)

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On first becoming a published author

Via Macmillan New Writers’ blog, a post from one of their number, Michael Stephen Fuchs, on his blog Dispatch from the Razor’s Edge, about the lack of happiness, riches and sex arising from publishing your first novel. Or, as Michael writes in his post header: "The following piece was sorta kinda commissioned by someone at Salon.com, which subsequently decided they had much more important things to run in December. No other organ has rushed to publish it – no one wants to hear the truth, man! – so here it is (in the usual place). "

Here’s an excerpt:

"I have friends who think I must be rich after being published on a recognizable imprint. Bwahahaha! With the arrival of my first royalty check, I learned that ten years of writing had netted me the same amount as two weeks of doing computer shit for an investment bank. (And, yes, my book actually did pretty well – by the modest standards of first novels.) The fact of the matter is that the world is drowning in fiction (most of it awful, admittedly). And it is a very vain thing indeed to think the world needs your book – much less that they’ll pay you gazillions for it.

As far as I’m aware, I have not, up until this very moment, gone out on a date with one single woman as a result of being a published author. Not one."