Archive for May, 2006

I read this last year and wrote this review for the reading group I was in in St Helens because I was moving to London and couldn't attend the meeting. Just got round to retrieving it and posting it here.

There are only a couple of good things you can say about The Da Vinci Code: it’s fast-moving and the subject matter is undeniably fascinating. Other than that it’s complete rubbish (which is putting it politely). The characters are paper thin, which wouldn’t be so bad if the quality of the writing was up to much, which, in turn, would be OK if the plot was any good. Which it isn’t. It’s this last fault that is the most damning – thrillers can work if they have two-dimensional characters and unsophisticated text, but they still need a good story.

Unfortunately, The Da Vinci Code is nothing more than speculation about history. The plot is incredibly clunky – first one character is stumped and the other provides the answer, then they reverse roles, and then swap again. They go to one place and someone tips the police off, they go to another place and someone turns them in, and then it happens again. And the clues the characters have to puzzle out are embarrassingly simple – I was way ahead of them at least three times. The author’s technique of withholding information from the reader is pretty laughable, too; once you find out that Legaludec knows the Teacher personally it’s so obvious that Teabing is the bad guy that there’s no point hiding this.

Overall, this book reads like it was written by a fifteen-year-old who’d just devoured a conspiracy theory about the Holy Grail. On the subject of which, I don’t have a problem with whatever liberties Brown has taken with the facts (or, more correctly, the evidence) – this is, after all, a work of fiction. On the other hand, I suppose I can understand why the Church is so agitated about it – people who are stupid enough to believe what they read in a book like The Da Vinci Code, are exactly the kind of people who would believe what they read in (choosing another book entirely at random) The Bible.

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Longer Lingua

You probably know that German words can be very long, but here's an illustration. I've got four boxes of key fobs on my desk for all the keys to the new lockers in Page Street. On the side of each box it has a description in seven languages. The English says, 'Sliding keyfobs. Large'. Very concise. The Spanish is even conciser: 'Llaveros. Grande'. The German reads, 'Schlüsselannhänger mit herausziehbarem Beschritungsschild. Groß'.

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Just – within the last minute or so – had a phone call from Greenwich Council saying that I didn't get the job I was interviewed for on Monday. I wasn't really expecting to – they were apparently interviewing all day Monday and Tuesday, so they evidently had a number of candidates, and I already knew that I didn't do brilliantly in the interview. The woman told me that, while there was nothing disastrously wrong with my answers, they were looking for more information from me in my replies.

So I'm rejected but not necessarily dejected. Not about that, anyway.

It touches on an interesting and difficult issue for me – I just don't have that much to say. In pretty much any situation.

Last night was my Iron Kingdoms game and it was a bit depressing. Partly this was due to the stress hangover from my interview and running my D&D game on Monday. Partly it was due to the fact that very little happened in the game – it was a planning session, but the plan, really, is blindingly obvious and already set out for us: we go where we're supposed to go and do what we're supposed to do.

So I spent the evening not saying much. There's also an element of finding myself confronted with a conversation in progress and instinctively not wanting to intrude and not feeling I have anything worth intruding with. At one point one of the other players asked me, 'You don't say much, do you?' (and how many fucking times have I heard that?). But it was – at least partly – an in-character question, and my character has a charisma bonus of -1. So I did the obvious: I shrugged. As a response, it was a joke on the surface, but underneath it was a cop-out. How can I talk about not being able to talk?

Ha. I might not have been depressed about the phone call, but, thinking about all this, I am now. A bit, anyway.

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Just checked my blog stats. 23 views yesterday – a record!

OK, small things please small minds, I suppose…

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I had less than two days to read this (because it was the current book of a reading group I was going to for the first time) and I think that fact might have increased by enjoyment of the book. This is partly due to the intensity of reading to a deadline, but also I think I might have found the novel annoying read at a more leisurely pace.

Purple Hibiscus narrated by a 15-year-old Nigerian girl, Kambili, and the story concerns her relationships to her family and is set against a background of upheaval in Nigeria. Kambili's father, Eugene, is an authoritarian and strict Catholic – so much so that, for instance he refuses to allow his children to see his father for more than 15 minutes because the latter is a 'pagan'. But at the same time, Eugene is a quiet, thoughtful, modest man who loves his children, gives to charity and owns the only newspaper that speaks out against the regime.

The book is very understated, mainly because the narrator is such a quiet person. Although in her mid-teens, Kambili is as naïve as a girl half her age, and when she spends some time with her aunt and cousins she has to adjust to a household full of chat and laughter and argument. She is very reminiscent of the protagonists of The Icarus Girl and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I have to say (I don't have to say, but I'm going to) that I empathised with her a lot – often, silence is my only reaction to a confusing social world.

The high religion quotient and the naïveté of the narrative ought to have left me cold, but somehow it worked. The book probably isn't as moving as it ought to be – as someone in the reading group said, it should have been heartbreaking but it was just 'weirdly soporific'. But it's a convincing portrait of a person, a family and a country that have been screwed up by religion, colonialisation and power.

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Having enjoyed everything else I've read by Grr Martin I was looking forward to this, but it was a bit of a disappointment – which isn't to say it was a bad book (bad book! Dirty book! In your bed!), just not that good.

Novelist Sandy Blair is hired by his old magazine to write a piece about the Nazgûl. The Nazgûl were a legendary rock band from the sixties whose lead singer was shot dead on stage. Recently, on the anniversary of his death, the band's manager has been ritualistically killed in his home. So Sandy tries to find out who killed him and why.

The book doesn't really fit well into any particular category – it's part crime novel, part road trip, part horror story and a very large part nostalgia. The book's main flaws are its liberal spattering of pointless sections of text, like its endless reminiscing about how great the sixties were and its equally endless dream sequences. Sandy travels around the country hooking up with his old hippie chums and being harrassed by nightmares, and these parts of the novel just seemed very self-indulgent and didn't help further the plot. Even more annoying, I found, were the purple descriptions of the music: guitars scream and wail, drums and bass thunder apocalyptically, lyrics conclude with multiple exclamation marks.

On the other hand, Martin's characterisation was as good as anything else he's written – although it felt a little strange reading something set in the contemporary (nearly) real world. On the whole the writing's OK (apart from the aforementioned music descriptions), but he has a tendency in this book of stating the obvious – not just telling instead of showing, but sometimes telling what he's just shown. But it's readable. Just not brilliant.

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Weekends and beginnings

It was quite a busy weekend.

Earlier this year I attended a reading group for a few weeks. The group seems to have fizzled out, though – at the last meeting there were just three of us, and not enough people were replying to the guy who organised it. So I've been thinking about joining a new one and on Thursday I sent e-mails to four reading groups whose details were on a website called Not Just Another Book Group. It costs £5 to get access to the contact details for six months.

On Friday I got an e-mail inviting me to a group at the Wheasheaf in central London on Sunday. The book they were about review was Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was also invited to another at the Garden Gate in Hampstead in a couple of weeks – they were reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. So I ordered a copy of the latter from Green Metropolis and bought the former from Waterstones and spent a bit of Friday and all day Saturday reading it (review to follow).

On Sunday I went to the Camden Liberal Democrats thankyou party. The invitation e-mail said arrive from midday, so I ws there at about 12:05. There were a few people there, mostly still setting things up so I foolishly offered to help. I was made barbecue assistant. That's barbecue assistant in the wind and the rain. And on a roof. Well, we (the main barbecuer and I) had a tenty thing to stand under so it wasn't too bad. Eventually I went in to get some food and didn't go back out (in assistant barbecue facilitator capacity, anyway). I chatted a bit to a few people, but had to leave before speeches were made because I had the reading group at three o'clock.

Which was OK. It's a somewhat larger and louder group than my previous reading circle; this and the fact that it's in an upstairs room of a pub made it less personal. Unfortunately, there were no really fit female members. And ironically, the organiser of the earlier group sent an e-mail later on Sunday indicating – although not actually saying – that his group hasn't died after all. If it does get off the ground again I may well ditch whichever group I'm attending and go back to that one, if for no other reason than it'll mean free drinks (I won't mention the nice women in that group).

That night I climbed into bed in my clothes just intending to have a nap and eventually got up after dawn on Monday morning.

On that selfsame Monday morning I had an interview for the post of Library Assistant; the interview was at Charlton House in, strangely enough, Charlton, Greenwich. I don't think I did that well. What with my hectic weekend I didn't have any time to prepare and this became evident in the interview (although beforehand I was thinking Ah, who needs preparation – they ask you questions and you answer 'em, how difficult can it be?). Even just refreshing my memory with what Plumstead Library deals with would have helped. I was asked questions like 'What kind of services does a library provide?' A deceptively simple question. I listed books, CDs, DVDs, internet access and such like, but had to be prompted into suggesting braile (which, thinking about, I have no idea whether a library would have braile books unless it had a special stock of them) and audiobooks. Supposedly, I should have a phonecall later this week, but I won't hold my breath given that a) the details of the test and interview came way after I was expecting them, b) I didn't get a call to give me a time for my interview (I called them) and c) even my 10:30 interview was three quarters of an hour late.

And on Monday evening it was the latest installment of my Dungeons and Dragons game, Empire of Destiny. To a certain degree, I'd put the players in a bit of a rut. Which is to say, I've made them all members of an organisation that is rebelling against the Empire: so they have to follow orders – but part of the fun of a roleplaying game is deciding your party's course. Last night I set in motion the plot events that will see them heading out on their own (more or less) and moving closer to overthrowing the Empire.

The session itself was OK. I'd done a bit of work on it last week and was feeling quite good about what would happen. Then, as I was trying to finish it off on Monday, I realised I hadn't put nearly enough work into it. I ended up just saving and printing at about 5:15, hoping I could either wing it or we wouldn't actually get through everything I'd planned. In the event, it was the latter. The game was a little bit chaotic, which is inevitable, I suppose, with five players all wanting to do stuff and me trying to tell them what happens at the same time. One of my players also fell asleep. He explained later he was very tired (as they say in America – figures).

So once again, we didn't finish the planned events and once again I'm going to disregard what was supposed to have happened in favour of something better (or, at least, easier to write). Planning discrete encounters is fairly easy – once you in combat, say, it's just a case of each person, or thing, attacking, or possibly running away (although, even that's not that simple). The really hard thing is to come up with cast of characters and let them interact with the player characters in a way that also reveals/advances the plot.

Well, that was a long post. And I still have two outstanding book reviews and some actual, paid work to do.

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I haven’t posted anything here for five days, so when I logged in a moment ago to look at my blog statistics I was expecting the number of visits to have flatlined. After all, if I can’t be bothered checking in here, why should you lot? Actually, it’s been quite busy. Judging by the breakdown of referrals for today and yesterday (which is all you’re given) they’re mostly from search engines. I suppose the more you write on your blog, the more likely it is that you’ll have a text string there that somebody might search for.

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Demon player

As of July my roleplay group that's doing Iron Kingdoms will start on an Al Qadim campaign. My original idea (well, my second or third original idea) was to play a 'half-demon'. This would have been a class rather than a race, the main feature of which being that for a certain time every day the character would have to turn into a demon. This could be done to his advantage – during combat – or disadvantage – around people who might be slightly unnerved by it. In addition, the character would get some spell-like abilities (cause fear etc) and poisonous bodily fluids. The poison and the demonic form act as a kind of evil version of a cross between a rogue's sneak attack and a barbarian's rage.

Naturally, the GM for the game declined my proposal, but suggested I play a normal character who is cursed. The curse would then grant some of the benefits and flaws of the half-demon class without being so full-on.

My new proposal is that I play a gnome saher (for which read sorcerer) who is cursed with all the nice things he does contributing to his increasing demonic-ness. We're supposed to be having a character-creation session tomorrow before we start IK, so we'll see what comes of that. Apparently the GM of the upcoming AQ game is spending June living in a monastery near New York. Not entirely sure why.

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Hard work, hard luck

There are changes at work today. My line manager’s line manager and my colleague at my grade are both moving to different sites (the former to Nobel House, the latter to Whitehall). In exhange, we’re getting other colleagues to move in here. One of them moved here on Monday, in fact, because there’s a spare desk in the office. According to the Corporate Directory on the intranet he’s responsible for ‘TEAM energy and water database – update and retrieval of information. Energy utilities procurement.’ Nobody’s bothered to introduce us or explain what his role is. From tomorrow, presumably, we’ll be joined by a couple of part-timers on the telecoms team.

One of whom is a very nice, very pretty young Asian woman. Not that she’s likely to have any interest in me, of course. The thing is, on that front, that there are, or will be, two spare desks in our office – actually, our two offices, joined by a permanently open door – one in my bit of the office, one in the other. So, from tomorrow onwards, I could be all by myself – which has its benefits.

The other notable thing to, er, note is that in the four months I’ve worked here I’ve done about two or three weeks’ worth of work. And, as the key to learning is repetition, I don’t really know that much about the facilities processes. So my colleague who does all the actual work is moving off and I’m going to have to cope by myself. Ironically, I’ve been on to Adecco, my agency, to ask them for another placement at various times since working here and the main reason I quote is that I have nothing to do.

Part of the reason I haven’t been doing my fair share is pure laziness, part of it is apathy, part of it is lack of confidence, part of it is deference to my colleague who knows more about all this stuff anyway so he’s the best person to deal with it, part of it is the fact that he sits closer to the door than me. In principle, I ought to be looking forward to the coming period because the job will properly be my own, but I’ve spent so long feeling down about the situation that I’ve stopped caring. On the plus side, I don’t much like this colleague – and I’m sure the feeling’s mutual.

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