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I have read a lot of science fiction and fantasy books in my time, and this trilogy is top-of-the-range in either category.

It is unique in many ways, but most of them I can't tell you about without seriously spoiling the plot.

I can say that it's the only work I have read in which the “science” part is geology, and that the style of story-telling includes passages addressed to “you”, putting you in the story as one of the characters - but which one, and who is telling you the story, is something you don't find out until the end.

The whole trilogy, in fact, is a gripping and apparently endless series of reveals.

The excellent review (click the image above to read) contains spoilers, so please don't read too far if you read it at all.

I will risk one extract from the review:

What also makes this work unique is the author herself, the first black winner of SF and Fantasy's prestigious Hugo Award (which was given to each of the novels in this trilogy as it appeared).

If you click the image below, which comes from a different excellent review in The Guardian, you will learn more about the author and also about the trilogy (relatively spoiler-free).
N.K. Jemisin

If you like this...

[More SF and fantasy books from my Books Page]

Elizabeth Moon

If you don't recognize this person, then you might guess that she is someone's favourite granny or aunt (I can find no information on this, although anyone would be very lucky to have her as either).

You might also guess that she is a historian, and you'd be right. You'd probably be surprised to learn that she became a 1st Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps while on active duty and is an experienced paramedic.

She is actually Elizabeth Moon, an author of Fantasy and SF fiction who has given me more reading pleasure, in quantity and quality combined, than almost any other.

Her masterworks, for me, are the main “Paksworld” novels, set in a fictional medieval world, which begin with The Deed of Paksennarion (or Sheepfarmer's Daughter) and end with Crown of Renewal. They form a single very long adventure-filled story in two parts, spread over many volumes.

For these novels Elizabeth Moon has created an extraordinarily realistic world, showing a deep appreciation of diverse cultures, politics, economics, historical development, real military campaigning and trading and legal systems.

The novels also demonstrate, as no others that I have read, what honourable and competent leadership really means, something particularly relevant in today's political culture.

If you are interested, you can read my full review of them here, which includes a list of all the volumes in order.

Most of her other works are set in the far future. My favourites are Vatta's War followed by the (misleadingly titled!) Vatta's Peace, and The Serrano Legacy, both of which (like the Paksworld novels) are very long adventure-filled stories in multiple volumes. These have been described as “military action SF” (and by me as “great holiday reading”, especially if you are e.g. a Tom Clancy fan) but they are far richer and more complex than those phrases would suggest.

Leadership and personal development again feature in these books, as do many of the Paksworld novels' other strengths, including some great world-building. In addition, the author has created extraordinarily real spacecraft, whether commercial vessels or fighting ships, in which much (but by no means all) of the action is set. This sense of reality extends not only to the environmental, engineering, weapons and command sections of each ship, but to the detailed functions of the crews who man them. I am oddly reminded of C.S. Forester's WWII book The Ship, which tells the story of a single critical engagement in the war in the Mediterranean, from the viewpoints of individual men of all stations serving on a destroyer.

The Serrano Legacy has a particularly rich background, and storylines that go well outside the military. One of its central concerns is a fascinating exploration of what might happen to societies and hierarchical organizations when the human lifespan can be significantly extended.

Vatta's War revolves around another complex issue, namely what happens when an essential monopoly-controlled galaxy-wide communication system (based on the “ansibles” that Ursula LeGuin invented for other SF writers) comes under attack.

If you enjoy Elizabeth Moon's books, don't miss her “stand-alone” novel The Speed of Dark, set in the near future, which draws on experiences with her autistic son. It was highly acclaimed by the critics, and you can find many links about it here.

If you like this...

[The Fantasy section of my Books page, including my full review of the Paksworld novels]
[The SF section of my Books page]
[A useful publication list for Elizabeth Moon's books, with Amazon purchase links]

[...and try clicking the entertainment tag at the top of this post... just a suggestion!]

The New Crusades

Wars fuelled by religion are no new thing. But there are at least two crusades taking place today against (some forms of) religion itself - campaigns fought with words and ideas rather than with swords, bombs or bullets.

And some of them are very entertaining.

The Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in Philip Pullman's long-awaited prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The original trilogy, and now its prequel, are gripping stories for younger and older readers alike. But they are also Pullman's crusade against forms of religion that I would describe as "a waste of life" - denying pleasure in this one life that we have in the expectation of a glorious (or eternally damned) life to come.

The two images and quotes below come from this really excellent Guardian review.

“Philip Pullman … a tension between deep attraction to magic and fierce atheistic pragmatism resolves itself into a commitment to art. Photograph: Michael Leckie”

“Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in The Golden Compass, the 2007 film adaptation of Northern Lights. Photograph: Allstar/New Line Cinema”

From the Guardian review (click any of the images to read it):

Bible Belt America didn't know much about the original trilogy until the movie came out, and was then horrified. The books were withdrawn from libraries and schools because "they are teaching atheism to our kids", and no movies of the remaining books in the trilogy were made.

Such censorship is the opposite of education, closing minds instead of opening them - something that I find wholly destructive and evil.

Which brings us to the second crusade, this one being waged against science-denying forms of religion, particularly prevalent in the USA:
America still living in the Dark Ages - rejection of science by religion

In today's Dark Ages, many Conservative Evangelical Christians support a morally-degenerate President and a morally-degenerate political culture that are as far from real Christian values as you can get. It seems that they only had to be told that Hillary Clinton is a satanic figure who will deny your religious freedoms (an Internet-multiplied lie), and be fed and feed each other with distorted and falsified versions of her views on abortion, for them to bring about and support something that is truly evil.

The really frightening thing about the situation in the USA (and increasingly on the other side of Atlantic) is that truth in politics matters less and less - a situation for which science-denying religion is, of course, only partly responsible. To some extent politics has always been "a dirty business", but this is different. Donald Trump rose to power by telling literally thousands of flat-out, easily-disproved lies, spread by supporters on the Internet, and has gone on doing so since becoming President (at an average rate of 5.5 lies per day, see the CNN analysis here).

It is no accident that Trump constantly vilifies the free Press (violating the 1st Amendment) and is actively damaging (among other things) the country's Environmental Protection Agency, Intelligence Services and Science (follow these links for a current damage report). What all of these have in common is that they deal in reality, something to which Trump and his supporters are seriously allergic.

It is also no accident that the crusade against science-denying religions has become a wider crusade against the “post-truth culture” of today, which thrives on easy labels, fake news and the power of the Internet to spread misinformation, and which enemies of democracy (and I unhesitatingly include Trump, Steve Bannon and Putin among them) have clearly been exploiting.

It includes the world-wide protests that had a hashtag #StandUpForScience.

It includes (in their gentle and subtle support for reason and humanism) the highly entertaining books of Terry Pratchett.

It includes, in a small way, what you are reading now, and published letters like this one:

(Climate change denial has other causes, including corporate interests in fossil fuels. Also, the letter was actually written in response to a similar article in the same issue called THE TRUTH ON LIES.)

So... is there a bright side in all this? Are these crusades having any effect?

It seems true (whether you view it as good news or not) that religion is slowly declining in the USA. Part (but by no means all) of this is due to a backlash against what many Americans see as moral corruption in organized religion, examples being the political support for Trump and the pastor who refused to open his megachurch to victims of Hurricane Harvey. The effect of this last single incident in shifting the American religious landscape is probably very easy to underestimate.

In response the crusade against the “post-truth culture” of today, Google, Twitter and Facebook are finally taking action against fake news (the very latest links on that subject, relative to when you read this, will be found here).

Finally, as I asked in my previous article on a similar subject, how do we get out of this dark place?

Not easily, that's for sure - but FWIW here's my 2¢:

Moving forward, some suggestions for improving life after Trump

From this blog:

[PLEASE wake up, America. You are being “gaslighted”.]
[GPS: The Miracle in Your Smartphone]
[Science, Religion and Quantum Mechanics]
[“The Trump Diaries” (the Trump thread in this blog)]

From my web site:

[Thoughts on Science and Religion - and why this stuff matters]

From others:

[White Evangelicals Are Sticking With Their “Prince of Lies” (Newsweek)]
[Moving forward: the Obama Foundation ]

The World of Paksennarion

If you like fantasy books such as those by J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey or Christopher Paolini, and have never heard of Elizabeth Moon, then a real treat is in store for you.

These are the main “Paksworld novels”, which essentially form a single epic story in two very long parts, the second part split into 5 volumes.

(The first book by itself is nearly as long as The Lord of the Rings, containing far more than its title would suggest, and was also split into 3 volumes for paper publication.)

The unique flavour of these books naturally has to do with the author herself. Among other things, she became a 1st Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps while on active duty, is an experienced paramedic, has degrees in history and biology, and obviously knows everything there is to be known about horses (and mules).

These books, set in a complex medieval world, often read like a well-researched historical novel. However, no historical novels or epic fantasies that I have read contain the kind of action and adventures taking place here, nor the qualities shown by several of its main characters in the leadership and personal development of people.

Click the image or go here if you would like to read more about them in the Fantasy section of my Books page. You won't be sorry.

I greatly enjoyed Minions... and hearing words apparently from a number of languages, including Japanese and Spanish, that form the strangely comprehensible gibberish of “Minionese”.

I didn't realise, though, quite how many languages that French director Pierre Coffin actually plundered (and voiced) for his “Minionese”. Click the image above if you would like to know more!

Constructing realistic languages for books and films, on the other hand, seems to me to be an awesome task. The supreme example of this must surely be J.R.R. Tolkien's Elvish languages (among others) that underpin The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings - a massive work of scholarship, love and time.

(Click the image to the right for an in-depth article.)

Tolkien, it is said, wanted to write The Lord of the Rings entirely in Elvish, but (fortunately for us) was persuaded that the result would not be saleable...

I was very grateful to Peter Jackson's team for letting us hear these beautiful languages (both Quenya and Sindarin) in the screen version of The Lord of the Rings.

The next most impressive example of such a language (corrections gratefully received!) must be Klingon, originally created as a basic sound and a few words by James “Scotty” Doohan for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but developed considerably thereafter - much further than I had imagined.

Like Star Trek itself, Klingon has found its way into all kinds of other popular culture (e.g. it appears several times in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). However, I had no idea how far it had spread - if you're interested, take a look here.

Along with many people, I enjoyed the remark from High Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, who said, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

Also like many other people (I suspect), I hadn't realised that you can read him in the original Klingon - it's a real book called The Klingon Hamlet. It is written with tongue firmly in cheek, of course, but it represents a considerable tribute to the development of the language. There's also Much Ado About Nothing: The Restored Klingon Version. Check them out!

Constructed languages, it seems, can take on a life of their own...

At a much earlier stage of development than Klingon, but obviously gaining momentum, is Na'vi, the constructed language of the sapient inhabitants of the planet Pandora in the film Avatar.

Unlike Klingon, Na'vi is intended to be only a spoken language, passed down orally from one generation to the next. Nevertheless there is a growing community interested in learning it - a strange phenomenon, but perhaps a tribute to the work that went into its construction (and is still ongoing), and to the film itself.

In following these links I came across an amazing resource:

for both real and constructed languages. You can delve there into the various varieties of Chinese, for example, and also into Klingon.

Which shows that you never know where a trip to the cinema is going to lead you...

Poldark (the BBC TV productions and the books by Winston Graham)

Two reasons why the 2015 BBC remake of its 1975 original was so popular are not hard to find...

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark. Aidan was previously best known for playing Kili, an improbably handsome dwarf, in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit.

Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza. Eleanor's best role (prior to Poldark) was probably Georgiana Darcy in the excellent BBC adaptation of P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley.

The name “Demelza” is apparently Old Cornish for “Fort of Maeldaf” or “Fort on the Hill”, but Winston Graham is said to have derived it to mean “Thy Sweetness”, with “Melza” being originally derived from an old French word for honey.

Whatever, Demelza will always be associated for me with a feisty red-haired Cornish waif, who develops through hardships and class barriers in a way that still resonates today.

It was Angharad Rees's memorable portrayal of her in the 1975 TV series (right) that made her perhaps Britain's best-loved redhead (Demelza is a dark-haired lass in Winston Graham's novels). When I started watching the new series I felt that Angharad as Demelza would be a tough act to follow... but Eleanor has done the series proud.

I didn't start reading the 12 Poldark novels until I had watched the recent TV series, which brings me to another reason why the latest BBC remake has been so successful: the stories on which it is based (the first two novels, and a bit of the third novel).

Winston Graham's writing combines an almost cinematic quality of description with powerful character relationships that drive the suspenseful story, a fascinating historical background, and (in Ross Poldark) a humane view of the injustices and hardships of the times and a positive struggle to do something about them.

The latest TV adaptation has taken full advantage, doing a great job of conveying the first few novels to the screen. This isn't Downton Abbey, BTW - it's a much grittier and deeper story altogether.

(BTW, if you have watched the 2015 remake on PBS in the USA, you may know that PBS cut several small, important scenes from your version to suit its schedule - an act of artistic vandalism IMO. Buy the uncut DVDs!)

The above image was taken from a truly excellent blog post by Michael J. Bayly - a link well worth following.

I also strongly recommend Winston Graham’s Demelza: developing an 18th century Cornish world, a very thoughtful and deep analysis of the second novel, which will also tell you a great deal about the others.

The title of the third novel, BTW, is a little misleading (at least to me). It gave me the impression that the novels were a saga spanning generations, whereas in fact Jeremy Poldark is an unborn infant for most of that novel. I am currently reading The Black Moon (written after a gap of 20 years, although there is no sign of this in the writing), but so far as I can tell, the principal characters remain throughout the whole series.

So far, I am experiencing that rare thing: a set of novels and a screen adaptation that are equally satisfying. I look forward to Season 2!


And if you like this, don't miss the other list from Time: The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time.

You might argue with which list some books fall into, but you'll probably find some of your favourites in one or both lists - and maybe discover a few new ones, as I did.

(BTW: you'll need to click the right-arrow on each page to see all 100 from each list, if that isn't obvious.)

Sir Terry Pratchett OBE
April 28th, 1948 - March 12th, 2015

The world has suffered the loss of an almost universally loved fantasy writer, humanist and campaigner for the right to die with dignity and for Alzheimer's research.

He was an enormously prolific author, filling the bookshelves of people all over the world with many treasured possessions. As years went by his output became seriously funny, in every sense, and was often deeply humane.

Not all of his work was fantasy - for example “Dodger”, one of his finest works, is a gripping story set in historical London. As with many of his books for younger readers, “Dodger” can be (and is) enjoyed equally by adults.

He was knighted by the Queen in 2009 for services to literature.

He will live on in so many ways (a good number of which are described here). One of these ways is through his daughter Rhianna, already an author, who (with his blessing) will take over writing the Discworld series.

Click the image of Sir Terry for a superb tributes page (thanks, Karenak), and click the quotation for many of his best quotes.

This book is a nail-biting masterpiece of ingenuity, perserverance and human spirit - not to mention considerable humour in the face of major adversity.

Short version of the plot: an authentic survival adventure in the spirit of Apollo 13, the main action taking place on a very real Mars.

Longer version: click the image to the right!


(1) This book has been described as “hard sci-fi” but is really “hard engineering”. For me, it captures perfectly the co-operative human qualities and engineering skills that make space exploration very unlike (say) politics in Washington (some thoughts on that here). However, if technical details of what it takes to stay alive in a hostile environment are not your thing, the book may not be for you - but you might want to take a risk with it anyway!

(2) If you have to go to work next morning, don't start reading it the night before...

(Found for me by Karenak, whose help pages anyone new to Categorian should visit - but there is much more to her pages than help!)

PS: I see that Ridley Scott is making a film of this book starring Matt Damon, due for release 25 November 2015.

If you like science fiction...

[The SF section of my books page]

...or the real thing...

[Curiosity Rover lands on Mars, screenshots from NASA TV with my commentary from watching it live]
[Mars Curiosity Rover on Facebook]
[NASA JPL on Facebook]

Indian Scops Owls brood of young © by the Dutch photographer Peter Otten

Thanks to my younger daughter, who knows that I have some sort of relationship with owls... (see the owls tag...)

BTW, if you ever read “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell, it was a baby Scops owl that he found as a young boy and smuggled home. One of my all-time favourite books!

27 Kids reading “Little Humans” by Brandon Stanton (warning: it may crack you up)

Thanks again to my friend overthetrail (Sandy) for this one! (She hasn't posted here much for a while, but click her overthetrail tag to see some really nice stuff that she has sent my way over the years.)

I've just been there...

What is Suzanne Collins doing with in Central Park with a rat, you ask?

I'll get there in a minute.

Suzanne is probably best known for her “young adult” blockbuster trilogy The Hunger Games. I nearly didn't read the books, or see the movies, because a short description of the plot (children fight to the death in an arena) somehow didn't seem like my thing.

In fact, as several authors who have climbed on her bandwagon have found out, The Hunger Games is a very tough act to follow. The story is basically about an uprising against oppression and injustice in a dystopian future. Beginning with a struggling community in the Appalachians, the author makes you really care about the characters and what happens to them. It is a truly gripping adventure, very well told, and there is no upper age limit on who might enjoy it.

Looking around for something else by the same author, I discovered Gregor the Overlander, a single story in 4 parts (the last part spread over 2 books) notionally aimed at a younger readership than The Hunger Games.

As with The Hunger Games, a short description of the plot (boy living in New York descends to an underworld populated by giant rats, bats, cockroaches and a whole range of other talking beasties) wouldn't make me want to read it. And as with The Hunger Games, it's hard to convey easily how very good the story is, and why there is also no upper age limit on who might enjoy it.

The themes in the story are actually very adult (and very relevant to today's world), and many traditional conventions of children's books are well and truly broken. There are many heartwarming moments as unlikely bonds are formed with apparently loathsome and/or fearsome creatures, but there are also scenes of horror, agonizing loss and dire peril - and yet it is still a story that children can read (see here, for instance).

The climax of the gripping story includes a siege that reminded me strongly of the battle for Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings, and a moving love story between two very young people that is not a fairy tale.

If you like reading, and whatever age you are, I recommend this one.

(Like The Hunger Games, it's also available as good-value (and properly produced) eBooks.)

If you like this...

[Brian's Place - The Book Corner]

What can I tell you about this cracking first novel by Sally Green, without giving away the plot?

Half Bad a young adult fantasy novel (a genre that contains many of my favourite books), set in a modern-day world of male and female witches. It's some distance away from the world of Harry Potter (muggles are fains in Half Bad, but any close resemblance pretty much ends there).

As the story develops, it reminds me oddly of the first “Jason Bourne” movie, as the hero becomes a boy with a mission, pursued by various evils, while his own nature and identity (as well as those around him) are an unfolding mystery.

The style of writing (for me) has a dash of Suzanne Collins, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman and even at times Quentin Tarantino, with a hefty slug of originality.

You will find plenty more about the book here (or click the image). It's also available as a good-value (and properly produced) eBook.

A word of warning: this is only the first book of the “Half Life” trilogy, and the next part, “Half Wild”, isn't due out until March 24th, 2015.

If you like this...

[Brian's Place - The Book Corner]

So true...

...unless, of course, the book is The Da Vinci Code, in which case the iceberg would probably turn turtle!

...or the book is Elizabeth von Arnim's delightful tale The Enchanted April, which might have been written as as a script for the wonderful movie adaptation, one of my family's all-time favourites...

...but this is exactly how I feel about the film adaptations (so far) of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels.

If you liked reading The Little World of Don Camillo and its sequels, then you will love this blog by “An American Fan”. It's more or less complete now, but it stands as a wonderful work in its own right - a true work of love. You will also discover that there was much more to Giovanni Guareschi than Don Camillo.

If you haven't read the books (so much better than the entertaining screen adaptations), then may I strongly recommend them!

From the blog intro:

Science, Religion and Quantum Mechanics

The image above is mine - feel free to share...

It turns out that all the technology that is based on transistors - computers, mobile phones, the Internet, you name it - depends on the strange reality of quantum physics, as does almost everything that we see (and don't see) around us.

I recently read, or rather am having the great pleasure of working through in several passes, most of The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen Does Happen, a book written by Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. (I say “most of” because the the chapters in the book lead you up to a real worked example in the Appendix, a seriously high mountain which I have yet to attempt!)

In 1927 J.B.S. Haldane famously wrote: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The Universe is truly a queer and wonderful place, and this book clearly explains some of its most queer and wonderful mechanisms. The method of explanation, using familiar clock faces and waves, doesn't eliminate the occasionally frightening mathematics, but conveys brilliantly what is really going on.

(Anyone thinking "I can't do maths", by the way, has never had teachers like these (or Salman Khan, see bottom of this post). I wish they had taught me when I first attempted to learn this stuff!)

Equally fascinating is the authors' explanation of how science reached its current understanding of the theory that predicts so accurately how the Universe behaves, from the chemistry of life (and table salt) to why (since atoms are mostly empty space) we don't fall through the floor, to the life-cycle of stars.

Unusually in a science book, the authors are not afraid to explain the limitations of science, either: scientific knowledge isn't perfect and fixed, but always growing, and here is a great description of how science helps knowledge to grow.

You can read a really good review of the book here. Click the images for more about the authors.

I find it sad that in today's world some religions still cannot accept science, but must imagine an alternative reality (with a bogus science that doesn't constantly test itself critically against evidence, as real science does) that doesn't conflict with their beliefs.

It is also ironic, as well as sad, that people following these religions promote their messages (and do much else) using technology that depends on the science that they don't believe in.

Creationists (or whatever they call themselves) have a perfect right to believe in whatever they want. However I find it horrifying to read about persistent attempts to have Creationism taught in classrooms, and teachers being intimidated for teaching real science.

Disrespect for science is no new thing, and not confined to reality-denying religions. The “mad scientist”, for example, has always been a popular feature of movies and TV shows (even in The Muppets, one of my all-time favourites!). Scientists have not always performed well, and have not always found it easy to communicate clearly with the non-scientific public (a hard but essential job when issues like climate change and health are at stake).

A while back, the UK woke up to the fact that its future prosperity depended on reversing this trend, and many popular science programmes (among other things) have resulted - from the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory to some extraordinarily illuminating programmes featuring Brian Cox.

J.B.S. Haldane, should he be observing from somewhere what is happening in physics today, might not change his suspicion (the inner workings of gravity, for instance, still have much to reveal to science) - but I am sure that he would be “watching developments with great interest”.

If you like this...

[More thoughts on Science and Religion]
[Is our weather getting worse? (major Channel 4 documentary)]
[Some wonders from NASA]
[Some thoughts on Science and Politics]
[One of the greatest FREE learning and teaching resources on the Internet: The Khan Academy]

I have just finished reading The Night Circus, a very ambitious first novel of love and magic by Erin Morgenstern.

For me it is almost a really great book - there was so much that I liked about it, but sometimes (especially early on) what I call the "narrative drive" kept faltering, while various wonders continued to unfold. Eventually, however, I was gripped, and it would be worth reading if only to enjoy the author's wonderful imagination and descriptive powers. I shall certainly read it again.

An excellent review of it (which I fully agree with) can be found here.

The book is obviously a very attractive proposition for movie makers, and it seems that Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment are approaching some kind of deal on its production. Eager fans aren't waiting - the movie poster to the left, and the trailer below, are totally unofficial (click either image for more).

There is also a feeling by fans of the book, which I share, that the scope for making a real mess of bringing the story to the big screen is considerable. On the other hand, if done well, the movie could be a cracker. I await the outcome with eager nervousness...

From the page:

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine being a women in the mid 1800s. Your family has decided to try their luck in the west, looking for free land. These journeys across the frontier were far from glamorous - it was a life of arduous toil. Women packed their lives into a wagon and traveled for hundreds of miles across the frontier in search of a better life.

Much of the work in establishing a home, feeding the family, working in the fields and all other manner of domesticity fell into the hands of women. For many of these women - who came from the more established Eastern states, it was an extremely difficult time as they were often left on their own - in the middle of nowhere - with their children and neighbors few and far between. Many of the books that have been written on this subject offer hundreds of first hand accounts...


A fragment of a rather wonderful embroidered bookmark created by Sonya Walker

Click the image to see the whole thing, which includes a quote from Dr. Seuss' book "I Can Read With My Eyes Shut"

This is a small fragment of a very large "Speculative World Map". It's a work of art produced by serMountainGoat, a dedicated fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's epic (and still incomplete) medieval fantasy that begins with A Game of Thrones. I found it here.

(Click the map fragment to see the full map - and you'll need to click again to view it full size. I borrowed an A3 printer and made myself a (slightly reduced) tiled printout of the map on six A3 sheets, which when assembled covers most of our dining table!)

I have just finished reading all of the available books in this astonishing, engrossing and occasionally exasperating epic fantasy, which is still incomplete (only 5 of the planned 7 books have been written). If you haven't read it, you will find an excellent description of it in this Wikipedia article.

One of the few works it can be compared to (although it is very different in many ways) is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Both stories live in a richly detailed invented world with a deep history, worlds which are in some ways alternative versions of our own. Both authors have "R.R." as their middle initials (Ronald Reuel and Raymond Richard respectively). Apart from that, there are many more differences than similarities!

Tolkien's story occupied 1,215 pages in the original 3-volume hardback edition, comprising a prologue, 62 chapters and the extensive appendices.

The first 5 books in Martin's story occupy 4,408 pages in the original hardback editions (many more pages in paperback), comprising 344 chapters and in each volume a prologue, epilogue and an appendix of characters. There are over 1,000 named characters in this vast work, with the story (so far) told mainly through the viewpoints of about 12 of them.

Tolkien's story is told principally from the viewpoint of the four Hobbits, with Frodo as the main character. The Fellowship of the Ring is a continuous narrative with one main viewpoint (Frodo and the hobbits as a group). In The Two Towers the narrative splits into several streams, each containing continuous narratives of several chapters at a time. In the first half of The Two Towers Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas track down the two captured hobbits, the two captured hobbits escape and encounter Treebeard, and the threads eventually come together at Isengard after the battle of Helm's Deep. In the second half of The Two Towers Frodo and Sam trek to Mordor, ending with the cliffhanger as Frodo is captured after encountering Shelob. The Return of the King follows the war through three narrative streams (Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in one, Merry and Pippin separately in two others), before returning to Frodo and Sam's final achievement and reunion with the others, followed by the long unwinding of the Fellowship.

Martin's story (so far) is told from the viewpoints of some 12 main characters (good and evil, intelligent and stupid, in various shades and combinations), plus some extra relatively minor ones. Each such character is featured in a single chapter, before the narrative switches to another viewpoint and another chapter. This is surprisingly effective, but means that the reader often has to wait a very long time to return to an engrossing narrative thread. Also, the sheer size of the work means that he has had to split the story intended for Book 4 into two geographical sections, the second of which was postponed to Book 5, and he has postponed natural climaxes from Book 5 to Book 6 - which might take 3 years for him to complete.

In spite of all this, I can really recommend the books so far (and the above map, which is essential). They are all available together as a single eBook, with a free sample that contains a good-sized chunk of Book 1. (We now have two Kindles in the family, since it was my wife who originally wanted to read Martin's epic. We discovered that you can share an eBook amongst up to 6 Kindles bought by the same person, so we were both reading the same eBook on our recent holiday in the Cathar region of France - see below - which seemed very appropriate to the story.)

Ripping Things to Do is a simply wonderful book (another recommendation from my younger daughter - her previous suggestion is here). It is several things at once: an anthology of classic children's books (English, American and Swedish), a treasure trove of ideas and resources for children's activities based on those books, a nostalgia trip for parents who can remember the days before computer games, and more.

I can also highly recommend this review of the book. It comes from a very nice blogger (as does the above image), and can't possibly add anything to it - except to say that the book is aimed at parents of both boys and girls.

This is one of those two-reviews-for-the-price-of-one deals!

My younger daughter recently gave me two great recommendations, which are linked. The first is this book, an effective antidote to depression, apathy and the fast materialistic world that offers us so much, yet somehow prevents us from enjoying life.

It contains a wide range of suggestions, with activities ranging from "Go out and look at the stars" and "Sit still until you see wildlife emerge" to "Be a BookCrosser" - which was my daughter's second recommendation.

Here is Alex Quick's description from the book, complete and unabridged:

BookCrossing is the world's biggest free book club, with three-quarters of a million members in around 130 countries. There are no membership subscriptions, nothing is ever sent in the post, and there is no obligation ever to buy anything. The idea instead is to share your books with people by leaving them in public places on park benches, in tea-houses, on the bus, on church pews or in changing rooms.

Each book is first registered online so that it can be individually tagged as a BookCrossing book. Members write the BookCrossing ID number of the book inside it and release it into the wild. The person who picks it up can (if they wish) log on to the BookCrossing site to say they've found it, before themselves re-releasing it (after reading it, obviously). In this way a BookCrossing book can travel around the world, its former owners following its journey like anxious parents keeping tabs on a gap-year child.

Book-crossing is worthwhile for several reasons: it clears your bookshelves of books that you've enjoyed but would like to pass on; it brings you into contact with an online community of readers where books are discussed, reviewed, rated and tracked; and it's possible to hunt for books that have recently been released in your area. To date, nearly six million books have been registered, and it's quite likely that there are dozens floating around near you. In effect it makes the world one big free library.

If you are interested, click the image above to visit the BookCrossing site.

"Bookstalls in Paris"

"Marchande des Primeurs (first fruit and vegetables of the season)"

Two of my favourite paintings by the Czech artist Tavik František Šimon (T.F. Šimon)

BBC4 seems to have created (or discovered) an audience for excellent foreign crime fiction (strangely undeterred by subtitles) in its Saturday night slot. In 2009 it dabbled with the superb Swedish Wallander starring Krister Henriksson, before showing the entire first series, followed later by the equally superb second series. Then came two series of The Killing, an equally impressive offering from Denmark, and just recently Borgen, a cracking political thriller from the same company.

Some time ago BBC4 also dabbled with Inspector Montalbano, a very different kind of crime series from Italy. True to form it first showed two random episodes (Excursion to Tindari, from which my screenshots above come, and Montalbano's Croquettes) some months apart. Now, thankfully, it has decided (after much dithering) to show us all 10 of the RAI TV episodes, starting with The Snack Thief.

I am already a huge fan of the TV series, which is about as far from Nordic gloom as a crime series can get (OK - except for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), and all of Camilleri's novels are now on my reading list!

An excellent description of everything you might want to know about Inspector Montalbano will be found here.

From Wikipedia (my links):

Inspector Montalbano lives and works in the fictional town of "Vigàta", in the equally fictional district of "Montelusa". Camilleri based Vigata on his home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast, while Montelusa, the district headquarters, is based on Agrigento. However the dramatizations of the Montalbano stories were mainly filmed at Ragusa, while the seaside and harbour locations were at Punta Secca and Licata.

If you would like to see a lot more good stuff that has been on the BBC...

[ the BBC tag at the top of this post!]

"After organizing our bookshelf almost a year ago, my wife and I (Sean Ohlenkamp) decided to take it to the next level. We spent many sleepless nights moving, stacking, and animating books at Type bookstore in Toronto (883 Queen Street West, (416) 366-8973)."

Great fun - thanks, Purplegem!

This is my Kindle (the new cheaper, lightweight version), which I got for Christmas. It was the best kind of Christmas present, one that goes on giving pleasure almost indefinitely.

The photograph shows one of the randomly-selected graphic screensavers, and was taken when illuminated by our super-bright Klarstein sunlight therapy lamp (there you go, two recommendations for the price of one!).

The pages displayed on the new Kindle really are as clear as print on a paper page (even clearer, IMO). As with a real book, the brighter the light, the easier it is to read.

Like many people I wanted it for travelling and holidays, but I use it much more than I expected.

There is much more to this great device than meets the eye, including the 36,000+ free ebooks available from Project Gutenberg.

I have written some notes about it on my Books page, including a few hints and tips if you are thinking of buying one. If you are interested, click the image above or go here.

This is a truly wonderful and enchanting movie. Based on the medal-winning semi-graphic book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, it tells the story of an orphan boy living in the hidden crevices and passageways of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, winding the railway station's clocks and stealing food to survive.

Part of the enjoyment of this movie is wondering where the plot is taking you as various surprises unfold, so describing it too much would be a spoiler. It is an enthralling adventure, a mystery, a celebration of the early development of the cinema, and much more besides.

For the movie's creator, Martin Scorsese, this was obviously a work of love. The creation of the old railway station and its Parisian surroundings is a work of art, with some of the best CGI work you are likely to see, and (unusually) really justifies and brilliantly exploits the use of 3D. If you can still catch it in the 3D format then please don't miss it!

Asa Butterfield is brilliant in the role of Hugo - you may remember him from The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas. I see that he has been chosen to play Ender in the forthcoming movie of Ender's Game, which is the first part of (IMO) one of the finest science fiction epics ever written (reasons given here). I can't imagine a better choice, although I am always nervous about how well great writing will transcribe to the screen.

The wonderfully complex automaton that appears in the movie is NOT a CGI creation - it is quite real, the work of an English creative design and manufacturing team. If you have seen the movie then the automaton is a story that is worth following in its own right (click the bottom right of the above image if you are interested, or go here).


The pioneering cinematic work of Georges Méliès that features as part of the story in Hugo also features in The Story of Film: An Odyssey by Mark Cousins, a superb TV series in 15 one-hour parts based on his book. It was one of the best things on TV this year.

If you like this...

[My movies page]

Dusk at the Bristol Central Library which celebrates its centenary in 2008. Photography by *Firefox

Library Parabola is the reading room of the British Library and is said to be the birthplace of the Communist Manifesto. Photography by Sifter

University of Delft, The Netherlands, designed by the Mecanoo architects, Delft. Photography by Rutger Spoelstra

Library of the Dutch Parliament, The Hague, conserving all of the words spoken and written there.
Photography by Menno Manheim

Many more on the page...

I had never heard of this 1997 film until it was shown recently on UK television. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it stars Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, supported by some other fine actors (and Clint's daughter Alison as the love interest). I was expecting a steamy Southern soap opera, but I was pleasantly surprised - one word to describe it might be "dignified", not a common attribute nowadays. (I'll certainly read the book, which sounds considerably more complex.)

The film opens and closes with an a capella version of "Skylark", sung by k.d. lang. The linked video is only about a minute long, but you can listen to a surprisingly good cover version (including a film clip) here.

The a capella style suits the film, but I still really like "Skylark" by Cleo Laine and James Galway, from their magical album Sometimes When We Touch (one of my treasured possessions from the days of vinyl).

© by Lelik Francuz

The best way of curing insomnia that I know!

Thanks to (of course) johnshaven (Alison) for this one.

When my young niece introduced me to Eva Ibbotson's books a few years back, I was struck by how much they reminded me of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic books for children. Anyone, young or old, whose has enjoyed reading The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, or has seen the excellent film adaptations of those books by Agnieszka Holland and Alfonso Cuarón respectively, will greatly enjoy Eva Ibbotson's books. (Alfonso Cuarón, by the way, directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azhkaban.)

The books of Eva Ibbotson's that I have read (so far) are Journey to the River Sea (another name for the Amazon), The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool. Another book of hers, The Secret of Platform 13, is said to have inspired J.K. Rowling's famous platform at King's Cross (and Eva Ibbotson is said not to have minded this in the least).

Eva Ibbotson, who was born just a few months after Frances Hodgson Burnett's death, died peacefully at home in October 2010, aged 85. An excellent obituary appeared here, and a good summary of her work will be found here.

For bookworms...

[The Guardian Book Club]
[Alison's book posts]
[Brian's Place - The Book Corner]

A charming musical version of A.A. Milne's poem from Now We Are Six by singer-songwriter Melanie Safka,
sent to me by my friend Gatorindo (David)

If you like this...

[The Hoose at Pooh's Neuk]

A fun image by the German artist Jeremiah Morelli, whose other work is well worth checking out

Dunja, who hails from Serbia, has a really interesting, intelligent and fun blog, with a life-loving spirit about it that is all too rare. A visit to her fine pages is highly recommended, especially if you like books, music and fantasy art - but there is much else there to discover.

I am pleased to say that Dunja is now here on Categorian!

(Original post: April 11th, 2011)

"Treasure Hunt" a beautiful image by Aimee Stewart (a.k.a. Foxfires)

Those people who like my web site may be interested to know that I have just a completed a major revamp and update to my Books page, and also to my Movies page. You're most welcome to visit!

Update October 11th, 2011:

Now that I am off SU, I was looking for an icon for "Categorian" to replace the SU symbol in various pages on my web site (which now points to places here instead of there in many places). I'm quite taken with this one! Click the cat for an example of a page that uses it.

I came across this wonderful book in a BBC programme called "Nordic Noir", which has become a general term to describe the English-speaking world's new-found appreciation for the superb crime writing and television productions coming to us from Scandinavia.

This particular book's plot is well described here. What is harder to convey is the brilliant quality of the writing, even in translation. I am reminded in a way of those wonderful movies like Doctor Zhivago, shot in 70mm and shown on a very large screen, with every scene full of many tiny crisp details. Nowadays we would describe those movies as being shot in "high definition", and Peter Hoeg's book is the literary equivalent - "high definition writing", if you like. He makes you feel and see every detail around you, and they are fascinating details woven into a highly gripping and unusual plot.

Highly recommended.


My favourite online book store isn't Amazon, it's ( in the UK). This is the Advanced Book Exchange, a Canadian-based site that links you up with just about every second-hand bookshop on the planet. If you have never tried it, follow the links to see what you have been missing!

If you like this...

[Brian's Place - The Book corner]

(Original post: March 5th, 2011)

The Open Library is a great site for book lovers.

From the page:

One web page for every book ever published. It's a lofty but achievable goal.

To build Open Library, we need hundreds of millions of book records, a wiki interface, and lots of people who are willing to contribute their time and effort to building the site.

To date, we have gathered over 20 million records from a variety of large catalogs as well as single contributions, with more on the way.

Open Library is an open project: the software is open, the data are open, the documentation is open, and we welcome your contribution. Whether you fix a typo, add a book, or write a widget--it's all welcome. We have a small team of fantastic programmers who have accomplished a lot, but we can't do it alone!

I came across it when my daughter was given a beautiful copy of "A Child's Garden of Verses" by Robert Louis Stevenson (the facsimile edition), for our granddaughter (who is not able to read it for herself just yet).

The book is generally regarded as one of the greatest recollections of childhood in verse.

If you have read it, you may remember closing it on this last poem:

This cartoon (not from the book club) was snaffled gratefully from Johnshaven (Alison), whose pages are another great place to go if you like reading

For bookworms...

[The Guardian Book Club]
[Alison's book posts]
[Brian's Place - The Book Corner]

"Wake" is a highly enjoyable novel, the first of a trilogy about the World Wide Web, by the Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, probably best known for Flashforward.

It is the story of a maths- and internet-savvy 15-year-old girl, Caitlin Decter (online moniker "Calculass"), who has been blind from birth. When she is given an experimental computer-linked implant to restore sight in one eye, it is discovered that her brain has co-opted the visual cortex in order to help her navigate the web. The result is that instead of seeing the real world around her (at least at first), she "sees" the complex and fascinating structure of the World Wide Web itself.

It is also the story of the World Wide Web, and the idea that its huge connectivity, combined with one aspect of its communication mechanisms behaving as cellular automata, could give rise to a machine consciousness.

What happens when these two consciousnesses meet - one human, one "other" - is truly fascinating, both as a story and as scientific speculation, and is seen from both their points of view.

The trilogy continues in "Watch" and "Wonder" (which I have also read). Highly recommended.


Because of the coincidence of names, I am reminded of another science fiction writer, Robert L. Forward, who is sadly no longer with us. A physicist who really knew what he was talking about, his stories could make hard science a fascinating subject for anyone. His death in 2002 was a great loss, but his books live on.

If you're interested...

[A fascinating introduction to Cellular Automata: Conway's Game of Life]
[My books page (science fiction section)]

The German language, I have read, has a rich facility for creating compound words, and for attaching many layers of meaning to some of these words.

I came across the word "Spannungsbogen" a long time ago when I read Frank Herbert's superb science fiction epic Dune, from which the above quotation comes (click the quotation for many more quotations from the same sequence of novels).

Like many people, I was curious to find out whether Frank had added his own layer of meaning to an existing word. If you're interested in what is to be found, go here!

The downside of our interconnected online world (it seems to me) is that it promotes a desire for instant gratification, and a loss of willingness to spend significant time and effort in creating or reading anything worthwhile.

Another definition of "Spannungsbogen", for instance, might be "The opposite of Stumbling" (but some really good Stumblers, many of whom have moved to Categorian, are featured here).


The novel "Dune" had many sequels, none of which I liked as much as the original, and I once watched a movie made from the book which I found very disappointing. However the original novel is still acknowledged to be one of SF's greatest masterworks, and I would highly recommend it to anyone even if they aren't an SF fan.

For more information on the stones in the image, see here.

The Hoose at Pooh's Neuk
(Original post: November 18th, 2010)

It wasn't long ago that my younger daughter asked me what I would like as a Christmas present.

Thanks to a trail of friends, this hilarious translation of a well-loved children's classic (click the image for a sample) by James Robertson is the perfect answer!

If you like Pooh...

[The uninvited bouncing had gone on long enough...]

and from my web site:

[My books page]

Sir Terry Pratchett, OBE
(Original post: September 4th, 2010)

O frabjous day! Another book by Terry Pratchett!

This is the fourth in possibly my favourite of all Terry Pratchett's sequences of stories, the sequence following Tiffany Aching, trainee witch (now full witch in this book) and the Wee Free Men (a.k.a. the Nac Mac Feegles), a hilarious bunch of tiny Caledonian hooligans.

(The previous 3 in this series were The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith.)

The stories are very funny, very serious and very wise, and best of all they have the witches. I suspect that (as with Samuel Vimes of the Night Watch in some of his other Discworld novels) his principal witches carry much of his own personal philosophy.

Some time in the next few years, a form of Alzheimer's will rob the world of one of its greatest living authors (Sir Terry was knighted for services to literature), but he will leave behind a truly wonderful legacy. In the meantime, as this book shows, the creative part of his brain is still in absolutely top form.

And that's not all...

This new DVD is possibly the best so far. If you liked the Sky productions of Hogfather and The Colour of Magic, then you will love this one.

Terry Pratchett specialises in sardonic, unsentimental heroines. Claire Foy does a great job of playing Adora Belle Dearheart in this one, just as Michelle Dockery did as Susan (Death's granddaughter) in Hogfather.

The rest of the cast is also top-of-the-range, and the movie is prefaced by a short introduction from Sir Terry himself. This is a joy not to be missed.

If you like Terry Pratchett...

[My review of 'The Bromeliad']

From my web site...

[My books page]
[My movies page]

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

(Original post: August 17th, 2010)

I have rarely enjoyed a thriller so much as the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, of which The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first part. Although it's a trilogy in books, in many ways it is a story in two parts, the second part being told in The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.

I like the books because they are complex, multi-layered and multi-threaded, weaving together an initial murder mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a biting commentary on aspects of Swedish society (and other societies), a range of fascinating personal relationships and a nail-biting suspense thriller around the emerging story of Lisbeth Salander - the girl with the dragon tattoo. I have read them several times - knowing the end doesn't spoil the books for me. The books contain strong sex and violence (sparsely distributed), but never gratuitously nor in any kind of titillating way.

I was hesitant about watching the Swedish movie of the first book, given the considerable challenges of bringing such a story to the screen, but I bought the DVD recently and was surprised at how very good it was. It offers both a Swedish soundtrack with English subtitles and an English soundtrack, and in only two and a half hours really conveys the essence of the book.

If you enjoyed the Swedish version of Wallander then you will really enjoy this DVD. The photography and atmosphere are very similar (and it's the same film studio doing both), but the plot of Stieg Larsson's books is much richer.

[Update April 2011] Unfortunately, the second and third Swedish movies were a disappointment to me. People who have not read the books may see nothing wrong with them, but the rich and satisfying nature of the original books has been almost entirely lost, especially in the final movie. Having seen the superb 20-hour Danish TV production of The Killing, I would really like the same treatment (whether Swedish or Danish - but not Hollywood) to be given to the Larsson novels. Michael Nyqvist I can take or leave alone, but improving on Noomi Rapace as the actress for Lisbeth will take some doing.

Noomi Rapace doing a fantastic job playing Lisbeth Salander

Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist who plays the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist

If you like this...

[My movies page]
[My books page]

It's a long time since I read a book as enjoyable as this one. Its style reminds me of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, being told as a series of spirited letters and involving a love of books. Its scope is wider, though, with a much larger cast and a much bigger main story, namely the occupation of the island of Guernsey by the Germans in WWII.

Like most of its readers (who in some way become honorary members of the Society), I fell in love with the characters and didn't want the book to end.

Thanks so much to Alison for this recommendation... and if you like reading, check out all of Alison's book-related posts which you will find here (I like people who use tags!).

If you like this...

[My books page]

"Imagination" by syncaidia, a great image of childhood and the joys of reading

Thanks to my friend Alison for tracking down the artist for me!

If you like this...

[My books page]

(Original post: May 1st, 2010)

From the page:

"One of the most important collections of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts - for centuries kept at Corpus Christi College - has been entirely digitised, making it the first research library to have every page of its collection captured.

"The Parker Library was entrusted to the College in 1574 by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth from 1559 until his death in 1575, and one of the primary architects of the English Reformation.

"The Library's treasures are now available online to anyone with access to the Internet at"
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
(Original post: January 1st, 2009)

Having just read "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" again for the fourth time, I realised how much detail I still hadn't taken in from the previous readings (owing to my bad habit of reading too fast when gripped by a plot).

Exasperated by my lack of attention, on the last reading I put together a list of questions whose answers I still didn't know from previous readings. Then I thought that these would make a fun set of questions for a "Mastermind" style quiz, so here they are. If you have read the book, see how you do!

(I have tried to avoid spoilers and questions easily answered from on-line digests.)

  1. Whose blue eyes does Harry keep seeing in the fragment of mirror, and where did this fragment come from?

  2. Why is Ron barefoot when he is standing by the grave at Shell Cottage?

  3. What leads Harry to the Horcrux in a particular high-security vault?

  4. How did Dumbledore come into possession of the elder wand and the invisibility cloak?

  5. Rita Skeeter publishes a malicious version of the deaths of Kendra (Dumbledore's mother) and Ariana (his sister). How did each of these people actually die?

  6. How does Harry realise firstly where the general location of the Ravenclaw Horcrux must be, and secondly where it actually is?

  7. As the final battle of Hogwarts approaches, a new method of getting between Hogwarts and Hogsmeade is used both for getting into Hogwarts, and for evacuating many of the students. Who accidentally caused this new method to come into existence, and what was this person doing at the time?

  8. Towards the end of the story, Voldemort kills the bravest man that Harry Potter ever knew for a mistaken reason. What (exactly) was Voldemort's mistake?

The answers... are all in the book!

[The Bartimaeus Trilogy, and other good books for treating Harry Potter Withdrawal]
[More of my posts related to children's books]

(Original post: September 11th, 2009 - updated again July 28th 2014)

One of the best things I have seen on TV for a long time is the original Swedish version of Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander, starring Krister Henriksson and Johanna Sallstrom (Johanna later died tragically), which has been running on BBC4. The BBC (for reasons best known to themselves) have suspended the series after 10 episodes, deciding to show the remaining 3 episodes of this series over the Christmas period (actually as of October 2009 they are starting again with the entire 13 episodes).

The cinematography, atmosphere, acting and stories have all been really first class. A good English language version of 3 episodes starring Kenneth Branagh introduced Wallander to many English viewers who (like me) had never heard of him, but the original Swedish version is even better.

Wallander has some of the melancholy of Inspector Morse (Kenneth Branagh was dubbed "Inspector Norse"), but he is not the "prima donna" of John Thaw's classic interpretation of Morse. Krister Henriksson plays Wallander as a serious cop, well able to work with colleagues (including his screen daughter Linda) who are real people with real problems. The sometimes tedious conventions of English and American TV detective shows are refreshingly missing in Wallander. The events in the stories are often quite brutal, but are counterbalanced by the natural beauty of the area, the realistic and absorbing personal relationships, and the quietness of the professional police operations.

The Inspector Wallander web site, intended for English-speaking fans, is an excellent source of information on the series. Among other things you can find out about the second Swedish series, and get advice on a logical reading order for the translated books.

I am actually not a great fan of the books, especially the early ones. Kenneth Branagh's version of Wallander is drawn from these books, whereas the Krister Hendriksson version is based on specially-written stories for the series, when Wallander is much older and more experienced.

The second series of Wallander starring Krister Henriksson is, unusually for a sequel, every bit as good as the first. Wallander's daughter is no longer with him (for reasons not dwelt on), but a new recruit, played excellently by Nina Zanjani, provides a new non-sexual relationship with Wallander which is part of the enormous appeal of this series.

The third (and definitely final) series is not quite as enjoyable as the second, due to Wallander's character succumbing slowly to Alzheimer's as his career draws to its inevitable end, but is of unmissable quality. His daughter Linda returns, this time married and played most capably by Charlotta Jonsson. Krister Hendriksson's acting, however, is in a class of its own.

In 2014, Britain is totally hooked on the superb standard of Nordic Noir and Borgen. Krister Hendriksson's Wallander was where it all began.

If you like this...

[My Movies/TV page]

From Laura Miller's web site:

"The Magician's Book is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. As a child, Laura Miller read and re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its sequels countless times, and wanted nothing more than to find her own way to Narnia. In her skeptical teens, a casual reference to the Chronicles's Christian themes left her feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust. Years later, convinced that "the first book we fall in love with shapes us every bit as much as the first person we fall in love with," Miller returns to Lewis' classic fantasies to see what mysteries Narnia still holds for adult eyes--and is captured in an entirely new way...

"...In 2006, I traveled to England and Ireland in search of the places that inspired Narnia. I began in Oxford, where C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles, and went on to Northern Ireland, where he grew up. Lewis always maintained that the Counties Down and Antrim were the models for Narnia, especially the area around the Mourne Mountains near the Lough of Carlingford. Others (such as his illustrator, Pauline Baynes), seem to see it as more English. Here are some of the photographs I took during my trip."

(Original post: February 13th, 2009)

Norman Thelwell, who died in February 2004, was one of Britain's finest cartoonists. If you were a girl who loved ponies, or the parent (like me) or relative of such a girl, then you would have known every one of his books of pony cartoons intimately!

Thelwell's cartoons and landscape paintings went far beyond ponies though. He was known as the "unofficial artist of the British countryside", and with good reason. His cartoons and his paintings revealed a deep knowledge of, and affection for, the things that he loved best.

A long time ago I walked into a small second-hand bookshop in deepest Sussex, looking for one of Thelwell's cartoon books which (unbelievably) were all out of print. The owner (and complete staff) of the bookshop regretted that he didn't have one, but explained that he, and many such bookshops all over the world, did a lot of trade through a Canadian-based online organization called the Advanced Book Exchange.

When I got home I investigated this amazing site and found well over a thousand of Thelwell's books in shops all over the world. I felt like I had wandered into Terry Pratchett's L-Space, in which all libraries are connected!

Among these books I discovered a wonderful autobiography by Thelwell, "A Plank Bridge By A Pool".

A description of this book reads: "A portrait in words and pictures of a garden in rural England that has become a wild life sanctuary. It is also the story of how one man realized a boyhood dream. Norman Thelwell, whose riding cartoons are published worldwide, describes in words and pictures how he landscaped his cottage garden and attracted wildlife of all kinds."

I don't know if this painting belongs to the places described in the book, but it well might.

I can really recommend this cracking 3-part thriller by Jonathan Stroud. Some of the best fiction nowadays seems to be written for young people but is intended to be enjoyed by people of all ages, and that certainly includes me in this case.

The flavour of these books is a mixture of Philip Pulman's superb Victorian thrillers featuring Sally Lockhart (starting with The Ruby In The Smoke), combined with the sardonic humour and intelligence of Terry Pratchett, together with a dash of J.K. Rowling. Jonathan Stroud is no imitator, however - this is unique stuff.

The three books form an almost continuous, multi-layered story, set in an alternative London, with a back-story stretching back to ancient Egypt. One of the things that I really like is the multiple viewpoints from which the story is told. The ancient djinni Bartimaeus has a wonderfully sardonic and (perhaps justifiably) conceited outlook on life, and tells his part in the proceedings in both first and third persons, with many entertaining footnotes. Nathaniel is a young magician who summons Bartimaeus. Initially oppressed himself, he becomes part of the oppressive Establishment and is then gradually reformed through much painful experience. The third main character, the feisty Resistance leader Kitty, doesn't really take the stage until later, her importance and quality only gradually dawning on the reader.

Adults familiar with the recent British government will pick up a whiff of sharp political satire (although it doesn't intrude on the story), and people familiar with history will get an extra kick from Bartimaeus's unique outlook on events.

The movies, when they come out, will have a hard job living up to these excellent books. The books deserve the best quality movie-making - I hope that they get it.

[More links on the Bartimaeus Trilogy]
[10 best books for treating Harry Potter withdrawal]
[Some of my additional suggestions]
[My books page]

Since I really like J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Frank Herbert (for the original "Dune" and "The Dragon In The Sea"), Douglas Adams and John Wyndham - very different authors from each other - I shall certainly check out the rest of these suggestions.

Mille grazie to qthews for finding this for me!

One of the finest fantasy authors not on the list (IMO) is Ursula K LeGuin, best known for the Earthsea books, but whose other work includes some very good adult science fiction. She writes seriously good literature, and her own web site is well worth a visit.

For people who like entertaining fantasy literature for young people (or anyone young at heart) I would also recommend Rick Riordan's series Percy Jackson and the Olympians which starts with "The Lightning Thief". This isn't seriously good literature, but it's great fun and a real page-turner.

And then there is the Inheritance Cycle (now to be a quartet) by Christopher Paolini. The make-a-quick-buck movie of Eragon was a real disappointment for many fans of the book, including myself. I enjoyed Eragon and its two sequels (one more yet to come) which get progressively better as the young author matures. Paolini has gratefully borrowed much stuff from other great authors (particularly Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin), but he has spun a really engrossing, original tale of his own. I'll stick my neck out and say that although Tolkien's linguistic skills and scholarly background (and age when writing) greatly outweigh Paolini's, Paolini has added a social and political dimension to his elves and dwarves that is quite new. Paolini also has a real talent for making you see, hear and smell what he is writing about.

Back to J.K. Rowling... I am always curious about the negative criticisms and comments that she sometimes receives. Some are doubtless due to envy of success, some come from religious myopia, and some are just the kick-back reaction "Everyone keeps telling me that these are great books and that I should read them - why should I?".

It doesn't bother me that not everyone likes Harry Potter - why should they? What I don't understand are criticisms of her writing ability, maybe because I value the ability to tell a good story well (even in non-fiction) as one of the main requirements of good writing. J.K. Rowling has crafted a gripping, tightly plotted story that is more than 3,000 pages long. Well over a hundred million children and adults have read it (some sharing copies) in 64 different languages (so far). How many of these were introduced to reading by her books? We will never know, but it's a big number for sure, and it may be her greatest achievement. And rarely, if ever, has one person spent more than 5 years of his or her life giving so much pleasure to so many people.

[The J.K. Rowling Phenomenon]
[My books page]

(Original post: September 28th, 2008)

[Lake District visit continued from above]

If you were lucky enough, as I was, to have read the Swallows and Amazons series of books by Arthur Ransome when you were a child, then they have probably stayed with you all your life. Written between 1930 and 1947, their realistic and vivid descriptions of children's adventures in wonderful parts of the world still enthral children and adults alike.

Five of the books: Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, and The Picts and the Martyrs, were set in the Lake District (and I was interested in tracking down some of the real locations that he used).

Four of the books: Coot Club, We Didn't Mean to go to Sea, Secret Water and The Big Six, were based in the Norfolk Broads and on the East Coast of England. We Didn't Mean to go to Sea is (IMO) one of the finest adventure stories about children ever written, for children and adults alike.

Two of the books: Peter Duck and Missee Lee, set in more exotic locations, were written as romances that the children make up for themselves about themselves - a story within a story, as it were. Arthur Ransome's knowledge of boats, the sea and the wide world make these books every bit as realistic as the others. Peter Duck ranks alongside or surpasses "Treasure Island", and is still one of my personal favourites.

The last book: Great Northern? is set in the Hebrides, where a holiday in a borrowed Norwegian pilot cutter turns into a campaign to preserve a rare bird from an unscrupulous egg-collector.

Having taken several of the books with me on holiday, I worked out that the lake loved by the children is actually a composite of two lakes, Windermere and Coniston Water. The east bank of the children's lake, the islands shown on the maps, and the north end of the lake, all seemed to correspond to Windermere (the children obviously know Bowness as a real place, but call it "Rio" amongst themselves). The west bank of the children's lake, and the fells behind it, seemed to belong to Coniston Water.

When I got home I found out that I was mostly right - if you click the picture to the left you will find more information on the real locations - and check here as well.


The previous two pictures show both sides of the real island on Windermere that is positioned where "Wild Cat Island" is positioned on the children's fictional lake, and looks very similar - but the source for Wild Cat Island was apparently Peel Island on Coniston water (maybe he combined the two?).

This is Coniston Water and a spur of Coniston Old Man (known to the children by its real name, but referred to by them as Kanchenjunga) that could well be Ling Scar in the book Pigeon Post.

In the book they explore the old mine workings around and beneath the spur, discovering in the process that disused workings can be a dangerous place.

This is the beautifully restored Victorian Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston Water, a great way to view the lake and its surroundings.

The steam engine (now running eco-friendly on reconstituted wood logs) is incredibly quiet and vibration-free - in most parts of the Gondola you can hardly hear it at all when the craft is moving. It's so much nicer than the noisy excursion boats on Windermere - and it makes me wonder why more craft aren't powered this way. Why not?

I didn't realise when riding on it that it gave Arthur Ransome the idea for Captain Flint's houseboat in "Swallows and Amazons" - more information here.

Behind the Gondola in the picture is the east bank of Coniston Water, replaced by Arthur Ransome for the children's lake by the east bank of Windermere.

[Lake District visit continues below]

Yes, we are in one of the worlds of Terry Pratchett. It is our own world in this case, as described in his trilogy for children entitled "The Bromeliad" (which you may have seen as individual volumes entitled "Truckers", "Diggers" and "Wings").

As always, Terry Pratchett makes us see all our absurdities in a wise and funny way, his use of the English language crackles with wit and invention, and his story grips the reader from start to finish.

Some of his best work is written for younger readers but is enjoyed by all ages, and this is well up to his standard. The Bromeliad is a single story in three more or less consecutive parts, concerning the lives and adventures of the race of tiny, fast-living nomes, who are not natives of Earth but whose racial memory has long forgotten this fact. One small group of nomes lives rough in the fields near a motorway, and life becomes so hard that they steal a ride on a lorry (a major undertaking) in the hope that it will take them anywhere that might prove better. This turns out to be a large department store inhabited by a larger group of nomes, living beneath the floorboards of different departments, apparently in the lap of luxury. Alas, the store is due to be demolished. The nomes in residence have become very set in their ways and in their beliefs, and the incoming band of nomes has to seriously shake things up (including themselves) if they are to survive. Their final mass escape from the store is only one step of an enthralling saga, involving hardship, computer assistance (when it feels like it), agonizing personal reappraisals, much hot-wiring and some increasingly awesome forms of transportation.

If you enjoyed his book "The Wee Free Men" then you will love "The Bromeliad". If you like reading and have never heard of either, and are curious to find out why Terry Pratchett was awarded the OBE for "services to literature" in 1998, do try either book - whatever age you are. You may be hooked.

[My review of Shel Silverstein's Official Site For Kids]
[My books page]

Shel's official site for kids is an absolute joy, beautifully designed and full of brilliant animation and humour. I suspect that many adults (especially parents and teachers) will enjoy it as much as I did - and children will absolutely love it.

I haven't read Shel Silverstein for a very long time; when I went hunting for his work on the web I was reminded of what great stuff I had been missing.

I found this poem on the wonderful pages of my friend succes (Rita/Renée), now tragically passed away. Her pages are all that many Stumblers and ex-Stumblers have left of her; if you are reading this before October 24th 2011 (when SU destroys all blogs with images, colours and links) then you may want to save at least some of her pages as a keepsake (see here).

[More Shel Silverstein links]
[My books page]

(Originally posted: April 13th 2008)

I like good children's movies, but I was not expecting to like this one as much as I did. The production values, art direction and acting were all first rate. The only slight problem with it is that the build-up before the "fantastical creatures" appear is so good that their actual appearance (good as it is) can't quite live up to the imagination - which is probably just as well, or it would be too scary for young children.

I first saw Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland, where he played one of the sons of the family that J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) befriends. Freddie plays two brothers in "Spiderwick" and his performance is very impressive. The rest of the excellent cast includes Mary-Louise Parker (from Fried Green Tomatoes, The Client and many other good movies) and a very welcome appearance by Dame Joan Plowright, who was married to Laurence Olivier. She starred in one of our family's all-time favourite movies, Enchanted April.

If you liked any of the movies mentioned above and are still young at heart then you'll probably really like this one.

If you like this...

[My movies page]
[My books page]

Anika Noni Rose as Mma Makutsi, Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe and Lucian Msamati as Mr J.L.B. Matekoni
in the wonderful BBC dramatization of the book.

It isn't often that a perfect film is made of a perfect book, but Anthony Minghella's last film is as close as you can get. The casting, the script writing, the Botswana locations, the luminous cinematography - everything, in fact - are a perfect joy from start to finish.

I love the delightful books (eight of them, as of April 2007), which tell the story of Precious Ramotswe, a "traditionally built" Botswana woman, and her mission to solve the problems of her local community.

The author clearly loves the country and the people that he writes about. Running throughout these sunny stories is a (very lightly delivered) message about what is really important (and not important) in life.

So often we hear about Africa's problems, and what we need to do about them. From these books, and from this film, we get a view of Africa that is almost exactly the other way around. And a beautiful, uplifting view it is, too.

Click the image above for links about the movie; click the image to the left for links about the books (both will open in a separate window).


If you like this...

[My movies page]
[My books page]