Tag Archives: books

One of our Thursdays is Missing

By Jasper Fforde.

Thursday Next has gone missing and only one woman can find her – Thursday Next, er, the written Thursday Next.

With her faithful mechanical butler, Spockett, in tow (Jeeves to her Wooster), Thursday uncovers a plot to undermine the talks aimed at preventing a war in Book World because there’s a huge reserve of metaphor just waiting to be tapped.

This is not as bad as First Among Sequels, but it is a shadow of the original books in the series. It doesn’t seem to be as overlarded with Book World technobabble as the previous volume was, but it’s still there. The story tends to plod along, and even the occasional car chase or encounter with the Men in Plaid doesn’t really do anything much for it. It was when Thursday goes to Fforde’s fictional real world with Goliath, the Socialist Republic of Wales (not always raining), and Neanderthals that I was reminded how much more interesting that world was in comparison with Book World. It perhaps also helped that the real world wasn’t accompanied by more technobabble.

I don’t think I did myself any favours by reading this in a piecemeal fashion, but it says something about the book if I could put it down for a day or two or even longer, and not even feel remotely bothered about neglecting it.

Fforde should have stopped this series with Well of Lost Plots to which he might have added a brief appendix about what eventually happened to Thursday Next and have left it at that. If someone wants to buy me The Woman Who Died A Lot (Thursday Next Vol. 7, which came out last month, which was July 2012 at the time of writing), I won’t say no, but I don’t think I’ll be buying it myself.

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Wagner the Werewolf

By George W.M. Reynolds

Having served Faust for 18 months, the elderly Fernand Wagner is granted great wealth and handsomeness, but the price he must pay is to turn into a wolf for a night at the end of each month. His first flight through the countryside in wolf form leads him into trouble, not because he happens to kill some child, but because the resulting bloodstains connect him superficially to the murder of his granddaughter, Agnes to whom he had revealed himself earlier in the book. The murderer is actually Nisida of Riverola, the beautiful and imperious, but supposedly deaf and dumb sister of Francisco, the Count of Riverola, who has just inherited the title. She has fallen in love with Wagner, but believing Agnes to be a rival, kills her in clod blood. However, the events which lead to Wagner’s arrest were witnessed by Stephano Verrina, the captain of the local banditti who can’t help but fancy a woman who is both beautiful and homicidal.

Wagner is duly condemned and Nisida, who tries to use the banditti, falls foul of them, and the pair end up on a desert island in the Mediterranean, thus enabling Reynolds to spend a gratuitously long chapter about Nisida taking baths in the sea. There on the island, the Devil tempts Wagner several times, but is resisted on each occasion. Nisida is rescued by a character from the other half of this story and returned to Florence while Wagner receives divine aid and gets help from the Rosicrucians.

The other half of the story is about the Count of Riverola and his love for Nisida’s maid, Flora Francatelli. Nisida arranges for her to be confined to a dreaded Carmelite convent where she’s joined by Giulia, the unfaithful Countess of Arestino. However, Nisida’s plan goes awry because Manuel d’Orsini, Giulia’s lover, employs the banditti to raid the convent and the pair are rescued, but the destruction of the institution follows and no one is thought to have survived. Flora’s brother, Alessandro, is the secretary to the Florentine ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, but is recruited to the dark side, and having encountered a hot babe in the bazaar, rises to the post of Grand Vizier and marries the emperor’s sister, Aischa, who was the hottie he met at the market. But he neglects Aischa, who complains to her mother, who has the frighteners put on Alessandro (now called Ibrahim) by having his new mistress, Calanthe, murdered.

Because of an encounter with the Count of Riverola during the siege of Rhodes, Ibrahim learns that his sister and aunt are in danger, but having rescued Nisida during his passage to Florence, he allows her to learn of his purpose, and she also discovers what happened to Calanthe, who was the sister of Ibrahim’s trusted Greek servant, Demetrius, who learning the truth from Nisida, plots against his master although it ultimately thwarted.

Ibrahim turns up in force outside Florence and the Francatellis are reunited along with Manuel and Isachaar the Jew, who got caught up in the relationship between Manuel and Giulia. (She, on the other hand, was tortured to death by the Inquisition; but her husband, who was so vengeful, was struck down by Manuel.)

With Nisida’s machinations revealed, the Count marries Flora and they hasten to the closest to which his father instructed him to go the moment he got married. Early in the story, Nisida had already looked inside the chamber and read the manuscript which her father had left telling his own tragic tale. Inside the closet are two skeletons. One is the dead Count’s wife, Vitangela, and the other is her brother, Eugenio, who was thought to be her lover and Francisco’s father, whom the old Count had killed. When Wagner sees the two skeletons, his curse is broken and he turns back into an old man and dies. The dying Nisida also tells her story, that all her actions were done as a promise to her dying mother so that Francisco might be able to inherit his father’s title, and so that she might stop him from marrying beneath his station to prevent the tragedy of Vitangela and Eugenio from being repeated. Nisida duly dies and is laid to rest beside Wagner.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim continues to serve the Ottoman Empire and Manuel d’Orsini renounces Christianity, rising high in the Turkish government. But fifteen years later, Demetrius manages to poison the emperor against Ibrahim, who is assassinated.

The plot of Wagner the Werewolf is tighter and much better controlled than that of its rambling contemporary, Varney the Vampyre. It is, perhaps, the saving grace of the story because Reynolds does himself no favours with his penny-per-word style which frequently tries the reader’s patience and often tends to be at its worst where some significant information is being imparted. Reynolds is also repetitive at times, especially when he uses a new word, which he then repeats a few lines later. For about the first half of Wagner the Werewolf, he has his characters frequently ejaculating (Wagner, Nisida, evil elderly nuns) all over the place, but the word then almost entirely vanishes. Either Reynolds reined himself in or someone had a quiet word.

Ultimately, Wagner the Werewolf seems to be a story of redemption and romance. It has plenty of Gothic elements (banditti, convents, skeletons, dark secrets, a werewolf), but not much of a Gothic atmosphere. Wagner’s lycanthropy is almost entirely incidental after the first occasion and although in the guise of the wolf he is a bestial monster, the rest of the time he is a decent chap.

Reynolds’ relationship with religion is ambiguous. As the introduction observes, he seems to have been an atheist. Wagner’s Christian redemption contrasts with the cruelty of the Carmelite nuns and the Inquisition. (Wagner never enters a church and his particular brand of Christianity is never made explicit.) Alessandro (Ibrahim) becomes a Muslim to further his own ends, but here Reynolds hints that he remains a Christian at heart, which further characterises his contrary nature. (Alessandro is never really presented as a thoroughly bad person for neglecting Aischa or his plan to have his way with Nisida, but he is an opportunist.) Manuel d’Orsini also converts to Islam, but this is a reaction to the cruelty of the Inquisition. Isachaar the Jew is treated sympathetically by Reynolds. Unlike other authors who would have killed or converted the Jew, he does not have him renounce his faith, and again, in contrast with the Inquisition, Isachaar is welcomed by Ibrahim and treated with decency. It is possible that Reynolds had a general antipathy to Christianity, and a more particular one to Catholicism, and was playing to his audience with the redemption of Wagner.

Wagner’s relationship with Nisida is the great love story in the book, but there’s ambiguity there as well because ultimately he is God’s agent against her. She ends up being one of the temptations which the Devil places in front of Wagner (although not before he has had a lot of sex with her), and he resists her blandishments as well. Wagner dies as a consequence of being redeemed and Nisida redeems herself while dying and, as the reader might expect, they are buried together.

On the other hand, Flora Francatelli, who gets little page time beyond her confinement in the nunnery, is a more conventional Victorian heroine with her Cinderella story. There is a wider parallel here, too, because Francisco and Flora, who are inherently good and who live happily ever after, contrast with Wagner and Nisida, who have something dark about them and die.

Overall, Wagner the Werewolf is a vexing story because the plot is cleverly constructed, but the style is, for a 21st century audience, tedious and windy. Mind you, if anyone has managed to get through the (current) entirety of the directionless Song of Fire and Ice series by George Martin, 191,000 words in a single volume by Reynolds won’t be that great an obstacle.

Term, gentlemen, please

Everybody out, again.

I didn’t rush into school yesterday, but spent the morning buying more music. This time I added to my tiny collection of 18th century English composers who are not called Handel. My sole representative of the period had been Boyce’s Eight Symphonies (Op. 2) to which I’ve now added the complete trio sonatas. In addition to that, I bought Arne’s Trio Sonatas played by Collegium Musicum 90 (he’s Mr Rule Britannia, I believe), and Opp. 1 and 5 to 8 by Charles Avison played, but not ironically, by the Avison Ensemble. Boyce seems to be the most Baroque of the three whereas Arne and Avison have hints of the galant style even although the three were of the same generation. Bits of the latter pair’s music will suddenly sound like the Bach Boys (who wrote California Girls [What a fine example of the academic quality of this blog. –ed.]) Haydn or Mozart in short bursts. That’s another reason for buying this music. The style is slightly different.

I also bought an album of sonatas for violoncello and basso continuo by Geminiani, who was in London at the same time as Handel. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything by him before.

I went and bought lunch and then went to school where I watched people playing musical desks, a game which I played early, but almost no one joined in. I can understand why we should be grouped by department, but I liked things mixed because it gave the office variety.

And then it was time to go and babysit PAL 2. Well, that didn’t happen. I got up to the classroom to be told by their form teacher that she’d told them to go and play outside. I’ve been trying to get them to do that for the past two or three months, but at the end of each class about 95% sit there inertly. We ought to have them move from one room to another between periods although that’d just be an invitation for the dim bulbs to forget to bring anything each time.

The temperature and humidity have soared over the past two days. We’ve actually had some blue sky and sunshine, which is a relief after weeks of predominantly grey weather. But even as I write the haze and cloud is building up and we may yet have the thunderstorm which qq originally forecast.

The orange bike scheme which has appeared around Wuxi does seem to have been being put to use although I’ve yet to see anyone riding one. There are bikes outside Walmart, but the scheme hasn’t got as far as Baoli. I noticed that outside Houcaller, someone had parked their electric scooter beside one of the orange bollards to which the bikes are locked. I’m expecting other people to follow suit until the orange bikes have been displaced by scooters.

I’ve never really surveyed the park outside Baoli, but I note that the vast majority of vehicle parked there are electric bikes and scooters. As for bicycles, I’d say they’d count for less than 5% of everything in the parking area. What will happen when clowns on their electric scooters graduate to cars?

I’ve also heard, but cannot confirm, some story that the Metro may never see the light of day because of instability in the vicinity of the 360 building. Why Wuxi even needs a Metro is beyond me. If it went out to Tesco, Auchan and Metro (the German supermarket) in the New District or out to the airport, it might be useful. But as far as I can tell, it’s merely going to circle the centre of the city.

In the end I bought Faarlund’s Syntax of Old Norse and Volume 1 of Ringe’s A Linguistic History of English. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic for my Kindle. I decided that two reference works were better value for money than a bunch of novels which I’d probably never read again.

I note that I’ve ended up being disappointed with quite a number of authors over the past ten years. Stephen Clarke’s Merde series wore a little thin when he seemed to depart from the semi-autobiographical stuff into the world of pure fiction. Stephen Hunt should never have been published. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series stopped being any good two books ago (and, sad to say, I see another volume will be out soon). George Martin also lost the plot and his compass. Brandon Sanderson dragged on so much that it made Martin look like a model of succinctness. Alexander McCall Smith, I can take or leave, but would generally leave. Arturo Pérez-Reverte has never ultimately sustained my interest in the Captain Alatriste series.

I do need to see the inside of a real bookshop to have a decent look at what’s available. Trying to browse Amazon is a painfully slow experience and a lot of the time I’ve scanned the titles before any of the cover images have even appeared. I suspect that the usual Forces of Darkness are to blame for the tardiness of the site because opening channel D does seem to speed things up.

The recent news about the puerile fuss about the girl in the see-through dress on the Shanghai Metro puzzled me. As I’ve noted before, a large proportion of the female population is now in short skirts, shorter shorts and prostitute shoes. This doesn’t seem to excite any comments from the pundits, but some twentysomething in visible granny knickers does. Linda noticed a lot of staring when she was here, and, by coincidence, I’ve seen quite a bit of that over the past few days.

I’ve been reading about the reddening of the South China Morning Post over the past week or so. I like the SCMP – or did –, but there’s something distinctly unsavoury about the paper’s apparent shift towards Beijing and the way in which a respected, award-winning journalist was treated. I didn’t know the SCMP’s owner was Malaysian, either. The recent news from Hong Kong seems fairly gloomy, but is that because of the imperial government’s interference or because of economic problems or some combination of both? Several years ago I concluded that the fifty-year period of grace after Hong Kong was returned to the Empire was not because the latter would become more like the former, but rather the other way round. One morning the people of Hong Kong will wake up and find that much of the Internet is unavailable because it upsets the feelings of the Chief Executive; that the maternity wards are full of mothers from the Mainland; that the posh shops won’t admit locals; and that all the signs are in simplified characters.

On being decisive

If only I could make my mind up.

Last Friday the A2s had their graduation, which meant I found out who’s going to which university. We got two into Cambridge this year, and one is going to Melbourne, but most ended up at US and Canadian Universities. We didn’t have to wear gowns this year although the students did.

I was stunned to see one of the mob of nitwits had got into Rutgers, which is frankly a travesty, and surprised that the fat and skinny nitwits had both got into US universities. I also noticed that the fat nitwit was escorted from the lecture theatre just as we were running out of students to congratulate. He then returned with his robe in his fat hot hand as he walked across the theatre in front of the stage. The skinny nitwit was nowhere to be seen. The third member of that triumvirate of idiocy, who had been shipped off to the States last year, appeared at the main gate while the group photograph was being arranged.

My long weekend was interrupted by interviews of prospective students on Sunday. The aim was to assess their level of English. There were some very good ones, but also some immature basketball boys. Whether anything I say will’ve made any difference to their prospects, I don’t know. Most of the students were from a school in Zhangyi. My list also included a Chinese American girl who’s native speaker of English. He problem is going to be her Chinese because she’s probably a semi-speaker at best. The other problem is that we have nothing to offer people like her since we do first language Chinese on the IB programme and English B; she’d want Chinese B (or some foreign language) and English A. There was also meant to be an Australian girl, but like the Chinese student I saw, there was little point in interviewing her.

It’s easy to make decisions when we know what we want to do. I knew that I wanted to use some of the money which I acquired when age took its toll again to buy Balbastre’s Pièces de Clavecin Book I, Biber’s Mensa Sonora, Buxtehude’s Opp. 1 and 2, and Telemann’s Sonates Corellisantes and Canonic Duos. Those decisions were easy.

I’m not faring so well with my Kindle because I’m not sure what to buy. I’m not going to buy A Dance with Dragons. I’ve done with Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series because One of our Thursdays is Missing should’ve stayed missing along with First among Sequels, and I dread to think what the next Thursday Next book might be like. I also think Stephen Clarke has done his dash in the merde. I’m vacillating on the subject of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste series which has felt long on promise, but been short on delivery.

On the other hand I stumbled across a recent book on the syntax of Old Norse, which interests me because when I did Old Norse as part of my MA, I felt that knowing Old English was little or no help. Old Norse was determined to be vexatiously quirky with its baffling array of þar, eigi/ekki, at, er, etc. Thus I’m curious to know what the language was getting up to because it couldn’t be said that EV Gordon’s Intro. to Old Norse was exactly helpful in matters of syntax. But is it worth me spending the money on it? I haven’t done any Old Norse in a very long time. In fact so long that children have been born, grown up, and graduated from university, and the last of these to them is now just a fond memory. It may be fifteen years since I last taught in a university, but I just can’t quite shake off the spirit of academic enquiry.

Perhaps I should be looking at books on music since that is my current principal interest. Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuriesin the Oxford History of Western Music series might be of interest although the review is not complimentary. Oh well, perhaps not.

I also read just recently that the introduction to Old Norse by Valfells and Cathey, of which I have a copy, is not longer in print. (On Amazon UK, a paperback copy is currently being offered for £188.94. Seriously?!) I never got round to having a good look at the book, but it appears to be highly regarded. I brought Michael Barnes’ A New Introduction to Old Norse Part I Grammar back with me to the inGlorious Motherland. The book is quite detailed in its 258 pages and has all manner of handy hints and tips which would’ve been useful for me nearly 25 years ago.

Finally, the weather is being absolutely appalling this morning: dull, grey and very wet, and showing no sign that it’s about to stop. I will almost certainly have to wear full dress uniform when I go out; and by the time I get back, I will be nicely stewed. The other day I happened to be on my way to Carrefour when the city was struck by a mini monsoon, half of which went up my nose and the other half into my eyes. I needed windscreen wipers.

Autumn Holidays

Grey, damp, cool.

It was another National Day yesterday when the new emperor stepped up to the microphone and apologised to the crowd for the delay, but he was going to have to move his Audi A6, which was blocking the entrance to Zhongshan Park. (The next day it was reported as ‘Grateful nation gives Emperor Audi A6’.)

When I did venture out, the day, which seemed to have been dry, turned damp, and when I did a similar journey at lunchtime today, the same thing happened, and we’re now enjoying steady light rain.

I finished reading A Brief History of the Future, which I reviewed on my LJ blog (link). Overall, I was disappointed because once again, Clarke has shown that when he strays away from France, his skill as an entertaining writer desert him. This had the feel of a book which got initially got no further than a first draft, got revised once, and then published. I don’t know who thought this was a good idea, but I assume the publishers were hoping for people like me, who had enjoyed Clarke’s Merde series to buy this book without considering that it might be, well, a bit naff.

The problem for me is that I’m generally unaware of what has appeared in print until I go to Swindon Books or Page One in Hong Kong, or I might be in some civilised country where books in English are more than just 19th century prose fiction. In Hong Kong, I don’t have the luxury of noting titles and then toddling off to the Internet to peruse the reviews, which will be one of the reasons why I’m intending to buy one of those notebook things next year to take with me on my travels. Unlike real bookshops, Amazon isn’t so easy to browse because only a few of the titles have that Look Inside option. Besides, I want that 3D thing in my hands.

Turn on, tune in

Book out.

To my surprise, (most of) the missing books and discs turned up this morning. The teacher’s manual for the NorthStar TOEFL book turns out to be just about useless because there were no transcripts and no answers, which I then found were in the textbook. It does get a little worse because we have somehow ended up with the manual for the intermediate level NorthStar TOEFL book (I’m sure I didn’t order it) even although we’re not using the corresponding textbook.

Turns out that because Suzhou got a few too many books, I’ll probably get a copy of Listen to Learn Book 1 after all. However, I did borrow a copy off a student only to find that the book probably isn’t suitable for the PAL students because it’s pitched at too high a level. I didn’t order it on a whim, but our previous AQM had it down for PAL, and because they need extra listening, which is where Lucantoni falls short, it seemed like a good idea to get it.

We also have a second copy of the big fat TOEFL book.

Since the discs for Listen to Learn were my main concern, I forgot to check whether there were any teacher’s manuals to go with it, but as I’m not using LTL immediately, it doesn’t really matter too much. I was also more concerned with getting things sorted for Monday. I now have a stack of books to put to use.

I’ve been enjoying riding my new bike, which is nice and light compared with my old machine. Not sure what to do with all the gears. 21 does seem rather a lot.

And now I’m wet

I also have a stack of books.

Today is a complete contrast from yesterday with grey skies and some quite heavy rain dominating the day so far. There’s been quite a bit of surface flooding where the drains have got clogged by detritus coming down from trees, but since about 2pm, the rain has diminished and we might even get some sunshine as the weather forecast predicted. It seems a little lighter than it has been and earlier I thought I saw a thin slice of blue sky to the south. I think I might’ve been mistaken about that, though.

I went to the University Bookshop this morning to have a look round. In spite of knowing that I have more than enough books already, I ended up with three more – Unseen Academicals, the latest Artemis Fowl book (but I now suspect that I actually have that I bought it in Hong Kong, and the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I’ve already read it), and the sequel to the Bartimaeus Trilogy. I wasn’t planning to buy them, but happened to find myself in the right place at the right time.

When I got back here, I did a test pack of my suitcase. I can get everything in and I’m fairly certain that I’m within the weight limit in spite of having 21 books altogether. The real problem is fitting everything comfortably into the suitcase.

I also got my credit card this morning and can finally pretend to be an adult. I learnt, though, that they’ll dish credit cards out to 14-year-olds, which seems to be about as sensible as asking a known arsonist to look after a box of matches and a can of petrol. Anyway, now that I have one, what am I going to buy? I’ve got so used to not having one that I’ll probably never use the thing.

Right, time to continue reading The Girl who Played with Fire.

The Irony Awards

“And the award for Most Ironic Book Purchase goes to…”

With the sports days starting this afternoon, I thought I’d use the free time to go DVD shopping. Actually, I was only shopping for one DVD, but because I only had ¥100 notes on me,[1] I bought several besides.

I also went to the Foreign Languages Bookshop at the north end of 科华北路 [in Chengdu] because I was trying to find an English dictionary of the normal variety. I know I can use English dictionaries online. Firefox comes with a link to Chambers, but I’m not always online or necessarily in a pos­i­t­ion to go there. Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic for the days when my copy of the Concise Oxford was handy on the bookshelf for those occasions when I’d forgotten how to spell a word. Yes, such occasions exist in my world.

But I didn’t find a suitable dictionary. Those which are of the common or garden variety are usually learner’s dictionaries of a sort – beginner; inter­mediate; advanced. There are, after that, few choices for native speakers, and having surveyed the dictionaries, I went and had a look through the IELTS section where I spotted Mark Morgan’s Writing Skills for the IELTS Test.

When I first started teaching IELTS about four years ago, I had his IELTS reading book, which was definitely the best book of its kind I had. But his writing book was out of print, and in spite of periodic searches, I’ve never seen it in all this time – until today. I bought it because I may have a use for it in the future, but I probably won’t during the course of this academic year; hence, the purchase was ironic if, as it seems, I’m not going to be working for the programme beyond June next year. Also ironic was the absence of Morgan’s IELTS reading book from the shelves. I bet it’s out of print.

I also went to the other Foreign Languages Bookshop, but their selection of dictionaries was even more limited than the first place. I did buy The Collected Short Stories of Saki by H.H. Munro as some light relief from all the horror I’ve read recently, and I continue to note the inflated prices of some of the Wordsworth Classics volumes. ¥60 (£5.45) for a volume as thin as Thomas More’s Utopia is utterly ridiculous at a time when the exchange rate is just below ¥11 to £1.

Notes

1. That hasn’t happened to me in a while, but it’s annoying when it does. You either have ¥100 notes or mere 角 and nothing in between for minor purchases.

The Blackwell History of the Latin Language

Now I’m an advertising agency.

A chance discovery a few moments ago was The Blackwell History of the Latin Language by James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks which came out at the end of October last year. Hardback, £50. Not a book I’m likely to see any time soon; not a book I’m likely to buy before a few more years are up and it appears in paperback.

I see Clackson has also written an introductory book on Indo-European linguistics. It was also published last year. If I was still living in Cambridge, these lacunae in my awareness wouldn’t occur. I’d blunder into Heffer’s or the CUP bookshop or Borders (if it’s still Borders, of course) or Dillons/Waterstone’s and there they’d all be. I’d be on the look-out for them in Galloway and Porter when they have one of their sales.

Of course I might get lucky because you can get CUP publications in China, although most of those are not in branches of linguistics that are my concern. It’s not impossible that Clackson’s book might be on the shelf in one of the foreign languages bookshops, although I note that most of the books published in China under the CUP’s aegis tend to be older volumes.

All right, basically I’m a frustrated book slut.

Mr Bamboo’s Bookclub

Those volumes in full.

As I threatened, I went shopping for books this morning and came back with a small haul, viz.

  1. The Book with No Name by Anonymous.
  2. Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 15.
  3. BBC Italian Grammar (New edition.) by Alwena Lamping.
  4. The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke.
  5. Captain Alatriste and The Sun over Breda by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
  6. Better Reading Italian by Daniela Gobetti.

While that lot will keep me amused, I think I should make a start on Lesson 6 of the online Piedmontese course.

My biggest purchase today was the upgrade to Adobe Acrobat 8. Not really something I was thinking about before I came to Hong Kong, but it popped into my head as I wandered around the computer centre in Wan Chai.