Ratatouille and Mario and Sonic

A brief roundup of things I have watched, read and played over the Christmas period:

Ratatouille

Ratatouille is in contention for my ‘most rewatchable movie’ award. This has previously been the sole province of Master and Commander, another movie that doesn’t adhere to normal traditions of pacing and plotting. I’ve watched Ratatouille about four times now (at the theatre, on the plane, on DVD) and I’m not in any danger of getting tired of it – or its wonderful song, Le Festin.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympics (Wii)

I lent my Wii to a friend using it for a church teen videogames night, and he asked me to recommend a new party game, under the assumption that Wii Sports probably wouldn’t provide the same draw as it did last year. Mario and Sonic at the Olympics was what he ended up getting, and he kindly gave me the game afterwards.

It’s not a bad four player game, I suppose, but I can’t say I enjoy it much. It’s a compilation of sports minigames, of course, which needn’t be a bad thing – I quite liked Wario Ware, for example, and Rayman Raving Rabbids was entertaining as well. The problem with Mario and Sonic is that the minigames are surprisingly difficult to play well. Each minigame has anywhere between four and twelve pages of instructions, at the end of which you’re left scratching your head wondering what buttons you’re supposed to press, and in which order to do them in. And when you finally get around to playing the minigames, you find that they are either trivially easy, or frustratingly obtuse.

Trivially easy: 100m dash, 100m swimming, 110 hurdles, shooting, fencing. These all involve either shaking the controllers very fast, or pointing at things.

Frustratingly obtuse: Javelin, triple-jump, long jump. None of these are supposed to be hard, but despite reading the instructions several times and pressing the buttons at the right times, we just couldn’t figure it out. Four Oxbridge graduates couldn’t work out how to throw the javelin, and it took me literally a dozen tries to realise what I was doing wrong.

Some games are entertaining; archery, trampolining, rowing… that’s about it. And you can unlock some interesting ‘Dream Events’ which are basically Mario or Sonic-related games (i.e. nothing to do with ‘real’ sports). After a couple of hours of play, I’ve managed to unlock one, and I don’t think I have the patience to get the other three. I suspect it will be on eBay before long.

Tomorrow: Puzzle Quest, and an entire new novel by a bestselling author for free – legally!

Municipal Darwinism

Unsentimental. That’s what the Mortal Engines Quartet is.

Children’s fiction – in particular, children’s fantasy – is so strong nowadays that it’s hardly necessary to say that a book is adventurous, imaginative or exhilarating. They’re all adventurous, they’re all imaginative, they’re all exhilarating. And they’re all plenty good enough for adults to read as well.

Amid this wealth of excellence, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet stands out for a reason that others may not want to emulate: it’s uniquely unsentimental. His four books, set a world in which mobile cities rumble across the land on, chasing and consuming each other in a cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, are the most willfully unsentimental novels I have ever read. Villains do not get their just desserts; heroes are regularly punished for their virtues; and pretty much everyone is flawed in some nasty way.

Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy seems like Disneyland in comparison. This isn’t because the Mortal Engines Quartet is more depressing or more vicious – it isn’t. Instead, whereas Pullman’s novels are dark and serious affair all around, Reeve switches between carefree humour to awful tragedy so fast (and so often) that you just have no time to prepare yourself from general unfairness of the universe.

Enough about the unsentimentality for now – what about the story?

Mortal Engines, the first book in the series, begins with what is widely acknowledged as one of the best first lines in fantasy, ever:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

Immediately, you know that this is no normal children’s fantasy, and what comes next is a dazzling explosion of imagination; after the Sixty Minute War devastated most of world, cities began to re-engineer themselves so that they could move across the barren land in order to prey on smaller, ‘static’ settlements. Soon enough, every town, village, suburb and city was on the move, gobbling each other up in a great cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. London is now composed of several tiers, with St. Paul’s Cathedral relocated to the very top, and other streets arranged under it. Continue reading “Municipal Darwinism”

How It Ends

If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, you’ll may remember the music. It was almost perfect for the movie – a wistful but sometimes happy mix of instrumental mariachi-esque and romantic music. It reminded me of a mix between Sufjan Stevens and Yann Tiersen, but in a good way (actually, Sufjan Stevens did have a couple of tracks in the movie). Alongside personal recommendations, movies and TV shows are where I hear new music from, so I sought out the soundtrack.

It turned out that practically all of the music was made by one band, DeVotchKa, who’ve been around for a few years now. They’ve been under the radar, but the success of Little Miss Sunshine has given them a much larger stage. Even so, when I went to a gig they put on at 93 Feet East in London, while it might have been pretty full, it certainly wasn’t completely full.

Now, I don’t go to a lot of concerts, so perhaps my bar is set a bit low, but then again I’ve seen a few acts who are supposed to be very good live, like Arcade Fire and the Kaiser Chiefs; I’ve been in front of the front row at Scissor Sisters; and I’ve been at smaller gigs with bands like Rilo Kiley. None of them even touched DeVotchKa.

I knew that it was going to be good from the moment they walked on stage. The reason is because this happened at the exact minute they were supposed to be playing. This might sound completely ridiculous, but I don’t think anyone likes having to wait around half an hour for things to get started. You might say that it’s the music that matters, not whether they turn up on time. I agree, but wouldn’t you like it if you could have both? Their performing on time showed that they were professional, and they had respect for their audience.

Professional doesn’t have to mean overplanned or deliberate. It doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous. What it means is that you are very, very good at what you do, and in this case, the band was very, very good at playing music; almost certainly classically trained. Tom Hagerman on the piano, accordion and violin looked nothing else than a city lawyer who’d inadvertently stumbled into Brick Lane, and yet he played with real verve and energy. Jeanie Schroder on the sousaphone and double bass, and Shawn King on the drums and trumpet were a little less visible but no less talented.

Besides being the band’s lead singer, Nick Urata plays the trumpet, piano, bouzouki and (this is the best bit) the theremin. Nick has a strange, haunting, romantic voice that he really belts out – I’m not really sure how he doesn’t lose his voice more often, really. He also has a wonderful stage presence, throwing himself into his singing, swaying around and regularly swigging from a bottle of wine.

The band played with genuine heart, and this led to an audience that frequently broke out into clapping and singing along. Granted, this is easier to do when your audience is only 150 rather than 1500, but it didn’t need any encouragement at all. More surprisingly, apparently this happens at every single concert they do. And in case you think I was simply starstruck, here’s a second opinion from someone who’s been to far more gigs than myself.

What am I trying to say here? It’s not just that I happen to like DeVotchKa a lot, and that they’re great at playing live. It’s that turning up an hour late, or storming off after three songs, or being completely disaffected and distanced – none of these things make you a better band. They don’t make you play better music. You might scoff at this, but it can’t be denied that crazy, self-destructive bands get all the press, and that this behaviour is in part tolerated because ‘it makes better music’.

Why not have both? Why not have great music, and a band that is professional and plays with heart? Or are we more interested in their foolish antics than what they’re supposed to do?

The Sony Reader: An Illustrated Primer

The device that set off such a furore on this blog about The Death of Publishers and also resulted in a feature in the Bookseller has finally arrived in my hands. While I’ve only been using it for a week, I think it would be useful to share some first impressions of the Sony Reader – after all, if it’s supposed to herald the downfall of an industry, there’s no time to lose!

The Sony Reader in perspective

The first thing you notice about the Sony Reader is that it’s unexpectedly small. I’d seen photos of it, and I was imagining something around the size of a hardback, what with the screen that dominates the device, but the Reader is actually shorter than a standard paperback, and a lot thinner. I suspect that one of Sony’s design priorities was making it smaller than a normal book.

Svelte

In fact, when you close the ‘cover’ of the Reader, it becomes even more svelte and diminutive, more like a Moleskine notebook than an actual novel. This is a device that won’t embarrass you if you read it on the tube, and it’ll fit into practically any bag. So far, so good.

Real Ink vs. E-Ink

Can the Reader measure up to real ink? No.

The contrast on the Reader’s E-Ink display is just not comparable to any book; it’s more like dark grey on light grey than black and white. It’s harder to read in low light, and if you have poor eyesight, it probably won’t be very comfortable. Despite this, it’s still perfectly acceptable for most people. I’ve shown the Reader to a few friends and they’ve all declared that it looks fine to them. The issue isn’t that text on the Reader is bad – it’s that real ink is basically perfect. Continue reading “The Sony Reader: An Illustrated Primer”

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

One of my favourite authors is Ted Chiang. I’m not entirely sure what Ted does with his time, since over the course of seventeen years, he’s written fewer than a dozen short stories, the sum of which would easily fit into a typical novel. Of course, this has nothing to do with the quality of his writing, which contains such beautifully-wrought ideas and language that they remind me of Borges and Murakami put together.

Some of the stories have more of a scientific spin than others, and it probably eases the cognitive dissonance of journalists to call him a sci-fi writer, but if that were the case, it would only be so much as Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy could be described as the same; in other words, they’ve all written sci-fi, but not as most people would know it.

Until this year, Ted had published only had one collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. This was a sad state of affairs for his fans, who were left hanging following his 2001 short story ‘Hell is the Absence of God’, which won pretty much every award available.

This year, a new collection finally emerged, called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Published by Subterranean Press, a specialist in limited-run books, the collection is Ted’s first ‘novel’. At sixty pages, I would disagree with that classification, but all the same, it was a new story. Knowing exactly what it had in its hands, Subterranean sold two versions of the novel; one was a cloth-bound hardback trade edition, which is now sold out, and the other was a limited edition edition of 200 copies, at $45.

I mulled over which edition to buy for a little while, but eventually my desire to own a piece of true Chiang memorabilia – and the weak dollar – conspired to make me order the limited edition. It arrived a few weeks ago, and I feel I made the right choice.

The book itself is a series of four intertwined stories set in medieval Baghdad, about the nature of fate and our acceptance of it. While it’s arguably a sci-fi novel, given that it concerns itself with time-travel, most agree that it’s more in the vein of Arabian Nights than anything else. I liken it to a perfectly crafted gourmet meal; small in size, yet containing a real variety of subtle flavours.

You might think that buying a sixty page book for $45 is slightly out of character for someone who believes in The Death of Publishers and the inexorable rise of free or cheap eBooks – but I don’t think this is contradictory. If my copy of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate was the same as a bog-standard paperback, I would have been disappointed. The reason why I spent $45 was to get something special – and that’s what I received.

http://www.flickr.com/slideShow/index.gne?user_id=adrianhon&set_id=72157601328210033

The book comes bound in red leather, with a beautifully drawn dust jacket. The paper is of a high quality and feels like parchment. My copy is signed and numbered 24 out of 200. There are several lavish full-page illustrations, and dotted throughout are a number of smaller drawings that reflect details in the stories. It feels as if the physical book was designed hand-in-hand with the author, and the resulting product is that of a work of art. I’m going to hold on to this book for a long time, and unlike my other books, I’m not about to trade or sell it online. So why wouldn’t I spend $45 on it?

Publishers are beginning to catch on to this trend. Authors that have a particularly loyal following, such as JRR Tolkein and Haruki Murakami, are having their novels republished in increasingly elaborate editions. While at Borders today, I saw a £100 gilt-edged, leather-bound edition of Lord of the Rings, and a £30 cloth-bound edition of After Dark, with a hard case. I see both editions as being a rip-off in the sense that the quality of the physical product is in no way commensurate with the price they’re being sold at – especially when The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate is a mere £23 – but ultimately it shows that people are not merely buying these books for the words inside, but for the physical objects themselves. Continue reading “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Bookmooch

Along with selling a whole bunch of games, I’ve started addressing the problem of my overflowing bookshelves. Granted, I only have two bookshelves, but I’m not really at a stage in life now where I have the space to keep hundreds of books. A couple of weeks ago, it was getting so bad that I had practically nowhere to put new books – and that would’ve been disastrous, since I define part of my existence as constantly buying new books. The only option was to get rid of some books; a drastic action, but a necessary one.

Two routes I briefly considered and abandoned were selling the books via eBay (too little return, would take too long) and giving them to a charity shop. I’ve given a bunch of clothes to charity, but I didn’t feel comfortable with giving away my books – it just didn’t seem like they would go to a good, book-loving home. Plus I have a pretty eclectic collection.

Next, there was Bookcrossing. Bookcrossing is a great idea, in theory – you register all the books you’re giving away on their website, which gives you an ID code to write in the front of the book. Then you simply leave the books somewhere – anywhere – and notify people on the website of the ‘drop point’. Sure enough, someone will have picked them up, registered them online (thus recording the journey of the book through different owners) and presumably read them and passed them on again.

I have a few problems with Bookcrossing. The first is that while it’s very easy to give away books, it’s quite difficult to pick them up. Even if you sign up to notifications of books being dropped in your area, they’re almost always gone by the time you get there – especially if you live in a place with a lot of Bookcrossing people (e.g. university, London). The second problem is that you’re unlikely to get any books that you actively want to read – it’s completely random. That’s not to say that the books are bad, but if there’s a particular book you want to read, you’re going to have to get it another way.

Also, personally speaking, as a giver of books, I would like to know something about the people who are receiving them. My books are pretty important to me, and I would like to know they’re going to a good home. I know it seems like a lot to ask, but I really wouldn’t be happy if I dropped a bunch of good quality books off somewhere to have them snarfed by someone else who won’t share, or worse, sells them.

My final problem is that I just have a visceral dislike of books that look old, feel old, smell old or used in any way. That’s why I don’t like libraries either. Who knows where the book’s been? Yes, I can look in the trail of ownership, but that’s likely to be incomplete and it won’t stop the book from being used.

Ultimately, I think Bookcrossing is better seen as a charity project or experiment rather than a way of actually giving and receiving books among people. As such, it’s a great idea. But I have to confess, my charity doesn’t extend that far – it extends in other directions, which I’ll mention in some future post.

Despite all of this, I did give away about eight books at a London Bookcrossing event at the Southbank Centre. Penguin had sponsored it and contributed 1000 new books, all of which had predictably disappeared by the time I got there 90 minutes later. There were still a couple of books contributed by other people that I sort-of wanted, but nothing stellar. The books I gave away were ones that I really wasn’t bothered by.

This was a good start, but I still had too many books. It was at this point that Naomi told me about Bookmooch. Bookmooch is a more straightforward book-swapping community. You list the books you want to give away, and you also create a wishlist of books you want. People ‘mooch’ books off you, for which you receive points, and you ‘mooch’ books off others, for which you spend points. It’s not a zero-sum system though, because points are injected at various points to encourage trading. No-one pays anything, since postage is fairly constant for all books. And the whole site is free.

The upshot is that there’s a pretty good flow of books both within countries and between them (although international swaps obviously costs more points). Three of my books have been mooched already, and you can see my current live list of books I’m giving away now:

http://widgets.bookmooch.com/widget/en/html/inv_recent_cover/adrianhon/10000/+/
I’ve also received one book that I actually want to read. It’s in good condition, and even better, I was informed of this fact not only by the book description, but through communication via the moochee and his reputation score. In that respect, it’s quite like eBay.

I like Bookmooch. I feel like that I’m making a connection with people I swap with, even if it’s small, and I can check out their profile or visit their website. While it does not have anywhere near all the books I want, it has a few and I’m sure that number will increase. Of course, it helps that I only live 2 minutes from a postbox and I can print out postage from home.

My only problem with it is that the site is pretty slow and has a mediocre design. Beyond that, though, I get free books, and I can clear up my bookshelves!

Yann Tiersen – a disappointment

A couple of months ago, I went to see Yann Tiersen play at The Scala in London. Mr Tiersen is, of course, the person behind the tinkling, cheery and immensely popular music to Amelie and Goodbye Lenin.

Shortly before the gig, I discovered that he probably wouldn’t be playing just Amelie-style music, but instead he’d be performing with his rock band. This was slightly worrying, but I had faith in him and I figured that he wouldn’t disappoint his fans by completely ignoring the music they wanted to hear… or would he?

In short, yes. Now, I can totally understand if Yann is fed up with playing Amelie-music all the time. No doubt he’s done those songs a thousand times now and thinks that he’s just being musically typecast. So I’m not at all surprised that he wants to try rock music. The only problem is that he’s not really very good at it. About 90% of what he played at The Scala was bizarre, non-melodic rock music that was heavy on the weird and annoying, like this:

Okay, so it’s not my style of music and maybe there are other people out there who love it. But not this audience. Most of the people were there to listen to Amelie-music, as evidenced by the guy I met from my college who said, “Yeah, I’m not a big fan, but I really liked that movie.”

Occasionally, Yann would taunt us by putting down his dreaded guitar and playing some nice music:

But of course, it would quickly degenerate into weird guitar thrashing. And this went on for two hours. I really wish he would’ve just played all the Amelie stuff at the start and then I could’ve skipped the rest. Still, hardly anyone left, perhaps hoping that he’d throw us a bone for the encore. But when Yann came back on stage at the end, he didn’t go to the accordion, or the xylophone, or the harmonica, or the piano – he went to his guitar.

“No more guitars, please!” moaned a French guy beside me. Sums up the entire gig, really.

Oasis Hong Kong – a review

There are a few reasons why I decided to go to Hong Kong for my holiday. Relatives, culture, shopping, food, gadgets, China, Macau and Disneyland were all factors. The biggest factor, however, was a new airline called Oasis Hong Kong that was selling return tickets for £275 (including everything).

£275 is significantly less than flights to most US cities. You could probably get cheaper flights to New York at certain times, but certainly not the west coast, which is approximately as far from London as Hong Kong is. Canada would be tricky. Europe is obviously much cheaper, but I felt like going somewhere further afield, and I didn’t like the idea of dealing with Easyjet or Ryanair, schlepping to some remote airport hours from where I wanted to be.

There’s a great deal of curiosity about Oasis flights. Whenever I tell people that I travelled on Oasis, they can be counted on to say one of three things:

  1. Don’t they only have one plane?
    Not true – they have at least two. It’s pretty much necessary if you’re going to do daily flights to and from Hong Kong and you don’t have a way to teleport aircraft. But it does mean there’s only one plane per direction.
  2. Did you hear about the delays?
    Oasis had a spectacularly bad launch day; they didn’t get permission to fly over Russia for their first flight, which delayed things for hours. Let’s say it didn’t paint a good picture of their competence. Having said that, their on-time record seems to be perfectly fine these days.
  3. Sounds awfully cheap…
    So it must be nasty, right? Not so.

Particularly in Hong Kong, a lot of people asked me how the flight was. This is a little odd since the airline’s been running for about nine months now, so you’d think there’d be plenty of reviews and stories, but I’ve only been able to find one substantial review and that was for business class on the inaugural flight – hardly representative, but it was positive. So, I feel like it would be useful to talk about my experience on Oasis. If you can’t be bothered reading the whole thing, then there’s a:

Summary: Very respectable, considering the price. Yes, you get free meals and entertainment. Now, onto the real review… Continue reading “Oasis Hong Kong – a review”

The Ruby in the Smoke

Lately I’ve been seeing many people cursing the name of AA Gill (a TV critic for the Times), declaring that if they see his name, they skip to the next page. Given that I don’t watch any British television, I haven’t had much cause to join in on the cursing until now.

I quite enjoyed the BBC production of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke. While the story was rather dense and very fast-paced, I didn’t have much trouble keeping up, and that’s without having read the book. Apart from that, it was a fun, mysterious and dramatic adventure of the types that we rarely see on TV or film these days.

Since this was both the first book in Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, and of course the first adaptation, I expect things to improve quickly, although I have few complaints,: the casting was excellent, and while Billie Piper didn’t have much to work with, I wasn’t let down by her performance; and as usual, the atmosphere and sets were wonderful. To me, the production demonstrates that the BBC is quite capable of making world-class drama, particularly when it’s set in the Regency/Victorian era, and it adapts stories and doesn’t try to do the writing in-house (I’m looking at you, Torchwood).

Back to AA Gill. He reviewed the show in today’s Sunday Times:

The Ruby in the Smoke (Wednesday, BBC1) was an Edwardian-style adventure in the manner of John Buchan. It was adapted from a book by Philip Pullman, whose work my daughter reads. The story had all the elements of a boys’ adventure — an orphan hero, buried treasure, deathbed conundrums, shady characters from the East, mysticism and a really evil villain. It all rollicked along at a terrific pace and was stuffed with more plot than a Victorian municipal cemetery. It was replete, robust, flatulent with red herrings, dead ends, MacGuffins, nods, winks, threats and enigmatic ciphers. And, all this considered, it was a pretty good pastiche, though I’m sure Pullman would have called it a homage. Only two things were modernised. The hero and the villain had both changed gender: Billie Piper, a girl, played the orphan adventurer; Julie Walters, the very, very wicked nemesis.

Though I’m usually a great fan of Piper, she was rather lost in the role. I don’t think it was entirely her fault. She was called on to be both laddishly up for a scrap and femininely vaporous and lovelorn, all in a frock that precluded much physical activity in either department. The usual trusty sidekick had to double as the romantic interest, which confused, diluted and held up the narrative. Walters, though, was a brilliant villain, properly menacing, avariciously psychopathic. But making the boys’ roles female ranked as an improvement only to the publishers and producers, with their smug sense of political correctness. The damn good tale of The Ruby in the Smoke was spoilt by casting Violet Elizabeth Bott as Just William.

On my first reading of the review, I was dumbfounded. Did AA Gill really think that the BBC changed the sex of both the hero and villain from male to female? Certainly, Philip Pullman’s novel had a female hero and villain. I then re-read it, and realised that that wasn’t what he was suggesting (although given his writing, confusion was inevitable) – instead, he was saying that the story would have been much better if it was like the stories in the old days, that is, with male lead characters.

The only reason he gives for this belief is that the trusty sidekick’s romantic interest in the heroine held things up. This is laughable – would it have been a better story if Sally Lockhart, the heroine, was changed to Simon Lockhart, with a female romantic interest? Does he somehow imagine that the novel originally written by Philip Pullman had male leads and the evil publishers made him switch their sexes? Given that pretty much all of Philip Pullman’s novels had female leads, I find this rather unbelievable.

So, it seems that AA Gill is a sexist fool who doesn’t have the guts to insult Philip Pullman – who wrote the story, after all – and instead goes for the weaker prey of publishers and producers. No wonder people curse his name.