Monday, 31 January 2011

Some good things I've read this month

I thought I'd blog about some of my favourite reads of this month.

1. A Heart So White, by Javier Marías
A very good book, very well crafted, intelligent and humane. It starts with a woman just back from honeymoon who leaves the lunch table, goes into the bathroom, and carefully shoots herself in the heart. It's told from the point of view of the son of the widower from his next marriage, who finds out about these events not long after getting married himself. I've had this on my Amazon wishlist for ages, but was put off a bit because of the immense length of his sentences, which goes to show that Amazon's Look Inside feature is not always helpful. But I quickly got used to the style, and I think now I will read everything else he has ever written.

2. Hint Fiction: an Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, ed. Robert Swartwood
Some of these ultra-short stories are very good indeed. They should be the captions to paintings. Here's "Shipwrecked" by Bob Thurber:
After we buried the captain, we salvaged the Victrola. It worked, though the mahogany was ruined. Half of us put on dresses. And we danced.

3. Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo, by David Garnett
Two novellas. In the first a man's wife suddenly turns into a fox. He's quite upset about it. Apparently David Garnett was with his wife, Ray, in a woodland one day trying to see some fox cubs, and he said that it was no use, that the only way they would see any foxes was if she turned into a fox suddenly, and that this wouldn't surprise him. So she said he should write it. She was an illustrator, and made excellent woodcuts to go with it. Nonetheless he dedicated it to his lover Duncan Grant -- oh those Bloomsburyites. The second story is about a man who moves into a zoo after an argument with his fiancee. It's very good stuff.

4. Moo, by Jane Smiley
A brilliant book set in a mid-western university. It has a huge university-wide cast and short chapters, and is shrewd and funny. A lot of it has to do with grant applications and research funding, but it is far more interesting than that sounds. It's one of those rare books which I enjoyed so much I found myself stopping reading just to feel good that I had so much of it left. (I felt the same about Wolf Hall and The Children's Book.) I love Jane Smiley.

5. The File on H, by Ismail Kadare
I should probably read more Eastern European stuff. This is a novel based on the trip that Alfred B. Lord and his friend Parry made to Yugoslavia in the 1930s to record oral transmission in the wild in the hope that it would shed light on Homer. We looked at this when I was undergraduate because oral vs written transmission is a big deal in Old English literature. This novel moves the events across the mountains to the author's native Albania, where the visitors are suspected of being spies. It's very funny and clever.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Two tabs closed

Russian cossack dancing was a sort of fight dancing.  Here it is with some Run DMC to make the point. 

(Off of Boing Boing).

And someone has been making paper dolls of the Arrested Development people, including Tobias Fünke, the world's first analyst-therapist.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Uffculme revisits its moment of notoriety

Uffculme, the nearest place to us with shops and a Post Office and a bus service that runs more than once a week, was featured on Charlie Brooker's How TV Ruined Your Life, which is quite exciting.  It's right at the beginning, the thing about the explosion in the fireworks factory.  Uffculme is a bit of a nightmare because, of the three roads into it, two are only wide enough for one vehicle at a time.  Consequently you only need two cars to make a traffic jam, but from where we live you have to drive through it to get to the station or the motorway.  It's quite a poor place, and isolated, and I used to laugh at the signs on the lamp-posts saying "Don't do crack!", but actually drug use among the young is a big problem in rural areas where they have nothing to do and no prospects of employment.  There's a big rubbish dump which smells foul when the wind is in the east, and an estate where people throw things through each other's windows in outbursts of neighbour-from-hellishness.  Brooker talks about quaintness, wrongly.

It's a bit depressing because I was all ready to buy into Brooker's thesis that the world isn't as bad as the news makes it sound but actually that was one of Uffculme's more interesting moments.  Amazingly no one was killed and no one was badly hurt, though a lot of houses lost windows and the church roof was damaged.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Rap fail again

Talking to some friends about my difficulty finding a way to start listening to more rap, we briefly discussed what makes music rap.  Today I was looking at the Southampton Psalter in St John's, a wonderful Irish Psalter from the early eleventh century.  It has prayers at the end of each quinquagene.  (A quinquagene is a set of 50 Psalms, each a third of the full Psalter.  I would bet money that few blogs use the word quinquagene as often as this one does.)  Here is the prayer after Psalm 50:
Deus altissime rex angelorum
deus laus omnium elimentorum
deus gloria et exultatio sanctorum
custodi animas seruorum tuorum
qui regnas in secula seculorum, Amen.
Here the one after Psalm 100:
Deus quem exercitus canet angelorum
quemque ecclesiae laudat sanctorum
quem spiritus ymminizat uniuersorum
Misserere obsecro omnium nostrorum tuorum
qui regnas in secula seculorum, Amen.
And after Psalm 150:
Te dominum de caelis laudamus
teque omnium regem regum rogamus
Tibi uni et trino in quem speramus
cum excelsis angelis imnum cantamus
per dominum nostrum, et rl [= et reliqua, i.e. 'and the rest']
In the Middle Ages they liked rhyming Latin, and it's a good language to do it in.  Hurray for Hiberno-Latin!

This also isn't rap, it's a Freemasons remix of a song by Alexis Jordan.  When she says "you'd better have some cake" what does she mean?  Presumably not actually cake?  Only there should be more cake in pop.  I tried googling "cake slang" and according to this page it probably means either money or nice buttocks.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Also a sheep looked at me funny while we were waiting for them to go past

Happy music

Together with Daft Punk's Harder Better Faster Stronger, Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit must be one of the most mashed-up songs.  I love this version here by Go Home Productions which puts it over the top of the Jackson 5's Rockin' Robin and makes it into a chirpy sing-along:

Hello, hello, hello, hello!  It's mindlessly cheering like the Beyonce over Andy Griffiths mash-up by Party Ben:

This was honestly where I ended up when I tried to find internet advice on what rap to listen to.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

I'm not wrong...

Some record companies have started making material available to buy as soon as it's available to hear, resolving a problem I blogged about, in my foresighted way, in June 2008. The sagacity I am tooting is rather undercut by the fact that one of the things I was thinking of at the time, when I talked about hearing singles and being frustrated that I couldn't buy them at once, was Lady Gaga's Just Dance, which I had blogged about a few days earlier. I heard it on popjustice, wanted to buy it but couldn't, and worried that I'd never hear anything about her again.  The song wasn't released in the UK until the following January, but somehow something jogged my memory about her existence.

Leaving that detail aside, this new music industry policy basically proves that I must be right about ebooks and DRM.  I stripped the kindle DRM off one of my books the other night just to see if I could.  The method works for other sorts of ebook DRM too.  I can't be bothered to do them all because I'm certainly not going to pass them on and I've got them all backed up, but it's laughably easy.  I did it while watching the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, and the latter was the geekier of the two occupations.  Hear me, publishers, alienating your core fan base with daftly high prices is a really bad idea from the consequences of which DRM is not going to protect you.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Book records

I'm going to try out Library Thing and see if that's a better way to keep track of what I've been reading. I chose it over Goodreads because it's designed for librarians and only has social networking added as an afterthought. I think I need to decide whether it's to record things I've read or things I own. In the meantime here's a review I had already written of something I read in 2010.

1. Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau
This is the sort of thing which was written to be read by creative writing students and academics who work on literature.  It's the short story of a man who accuses another of jostling him on the bus and is then seen again later talking to a friend about his coat, but rewritten ninety-nine times in different styles.  It's also perhaps an exploration of what it is to be clever, and what it is to be bored.  Lots of people rave about it. It's by one of those writers who lived a writerly life to a greater extent than he actually wrote, and it's just not my sort of thing, as you may be gathering.  On the plus side it wouldn't take you long to read it, and then you'll have read it.  I do quite like being in a state of having read it, so it wasn't a complete waste of time.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Books, DRM, and annoyance

A friend sent me some interesting links on the DRM and ebooks issue.

This article discusses DRM ("It has no impact whatsoever on piracy") and how publishers can use piracy data to good effect. Plus the fact that every pirated download does not equal a lost sale. (In fact, sometimes a pirated download equals an extra sale.) And how publishers frustrating demand leads to piracy. Listen up, Penguin!

Here Paulo Coelho talks about how he mines the data on piracy of his books, and it shows him where the demand is, so that he can get new editions out in particular regions or arrange for translations to be made. Sensible Coelho! (Terrible books though.)

We all pay money all the time for other people's bad behaviour, like the costs of security in supermarkets. But knowing that the DRM that's causing me hassle is nothing at all to people who don't care about such things is plain irritating. It's like if the security people at supermarkets just looked you in the eye as you left and said "have you stolen anything, hmmm?", after a while you'd probably start stealing things just out of annoyance. I pay for DVDs: and then I waste a not insignificant portion of my life sitting through patronising warnings on the DVDs about what would happen if I didn't pay for them. I'm quite fed up with it.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

2011 Books Read pt 2

1. Symposium, Muriel Spark
Another excellent Muriel Spark novel.  It's about a dinner party, but thankfully most of it consists of the back stories of the participants rather than the actual dinner party itself.  It's pretty funny, and very well done.  Spark's books aren't heavy, but they have a lot going on beneath the surface.  I think it's a shame that the first I read of hers was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I found annoying.

2. Yellow, Janni Visman
I can't remember where I read this raved about -- my mother gave me Amazon vouchers for Christmas and I went on a book-blog-recommendations splurge.  It's well written and I'm quite glad I've read it, though it's not quite my sort of thing.  A lot of books from the point of view of someone with mental illness (in this case agoraphobia) are somewhat heavy handed, but this one has an impressive lightness of touch and doesn't bore you with "difficult childhood yada yada yada" back story.  Even Humbert Humbert had to have his flashback where he told you how he got stuck on fancying youths after an intense non-consummated teenage crush.  (Surely everyone had intense unconsummated teenage crushes?)  So well done for that, Janni Visman.  I will consider reading other books you write.

3.  Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld
I think it's fine for books just to be story, and measured by that criterion this is very very good.  It's about an alternative early twentieth century where Darwin didn't just work out evolution but also got the whole DNA and genetic splicing thing down, which was just too much for some people.  Europe is split between countries which have made huge advances in growing custom animals for particular uses, and countries which eschew that as revolting and instead make sophisticated mechanical devices, taking their inspiration from animals.  When an Archduke is killed in Sarajevo it triggers a continent-wide war between the Darwinists and the Clankers.  The story switches between a British girl who is hoping to become a midshipman on an airship made of a bizarrely-genetically modified flying whale, and the Archduke's son from a morganatic marriage who tries to escape his enemies in a huge two-legged fighting robot.  This is story pure and simple, well-crafted but unlikely to make you think.  I read it when I couldn't get to sleep.

4. The Time of the Ghost, Diana Wynne Jones
Another entertaining non-challenging book for insomniacs.  A girl suddenly finds herself drifting down the road as a ghost.  She can't remember who she is or how she got there but she knows there's something she needs to do.  I think once my god-daughter is old enough quite a few of her presents will be by Diana Wynne Jones.

5.  Moo, Jane Smiley
A brilliant book set in a mid-western university.  It has a huge university-wide cast and short chapters, and is shrewd and funny.  A lot of it has to do with grant applications and research funding, but it is far more interesting than that sounds.  It's one of those rare books which I enjoyed so much I found myself stopping reading just to feel good that I had so much of it left.  (I felt the same about Wolf Hall and The Children's Book.)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Rap: I'm a bit lost

My resolution to find out more about rap is not going well because I don't really know where to start, but here is Sean Diddy Puff Daddy Coombs' next track which I quite like, though the way he says "hi-igh" in the first few lines does epitomise the thing I like least about rap because it swoops vaguely like the tuneless singing in my grandparents' URC church.

One of the Bootie best mash-ups of 2010 is LL Cool J over Come On Eileen, but I guess this isn't really one for the rap purists.  These are great mash-ups (mashes-up?) and they make me smile.  You can listen to a continuous mix of them all via soundcloud, which I've tried to embed below, or download them individually from the proper Bootie site here.
Best Of Bootie 2010 by bootie

Saturday, 8 January 2011

I've changed my mind

The more I look into it the more I'm inclined to think that the Kindle pricing issue affecting publishers like Penguin, a.k.a. "agency pricing", is the publishers' fault and just plain stupidity on their part.  The idea is that amazon is just an agent in selling the books, not the actual bookseller, and does not therefore get to set the price.  This is Penguin and the others deciding that they know more about selling books than amazon does.  I can see the agency argument, but they need to set a fixed price for amazon and then let amazon get on with doing what it does best, getting people to give them money.  Especially given that if you sell 100 units for a tenner, but sales go up to 200 when you charge eight quid, in ebook terms you're getting six hundred quid extra for doing nothing at all, whereas for physical books you'd have to take off the costs of producing the extra hundred copies.

(There's VAT, which is another thing that needs sorting, but it's proportional not absolute so it doesn't affect my argument.)

So, although it pains me because I don't have the space, from now on anything that costs more in kindle than in paperback I will buy secondhand.  Get a grip, publishers, why can't you see that ebooks are a good thing for you?

I first heard about Diarmid MacCulloch's History of Christianity because I sat next to its editor or copy editor, I forget which, on the train down to Devon and we got talking.  She told me that Penguin won't take on that sort of book any more unless it has a TV series attached.

I feel such an urge to get hold of a copy, scan it, OCR it, and turn it into a .mobi for my own use.  It wouldn't take me longer than a long afternoon, and I wouldn't even need to chop it up if I dug out the improvised rig I had for digitising copies of my out-of-print academic books.  I probably won't because I like to think of myself as essentially law-abiding, but if mild-mannered me is so provoked by this there must be others who are more enraged.  Don't annoy your fans, Penguin, you need us.  It's like Bieber threatening to cut his hair.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

2010 reading continued

1. My Heart Laid Bare, Joyce Carol Oates
This is a very good book, telling the story of a family of conmen, whose younger members live in an isolated place near a swamp and don't know what the others are up to.  But it was a bit disappointing after the glorious insanity of Bellefleur and the other ones of her Gothic novels that I've read.  It fits pretty straightforwardly into the literary fiction mould.

2. How to Read Like a Writer, Francine Prose
This is quite good but it also annoyed me a lot, because most of it seems like the sort of stuff we did in English at school.  GCSE exams papers give you a piece of writing and ask you to pick out adjectives used to describe a character to make him sound negative, and it's offering 5 marks so you pick out 5 different examples, and so on.  Learning how to read closely is a mixed blessing, really.  It's like watching a film and being unable to forget that the actor isn't really the character.  Nicholas Cage, for example, won't eat animals which have undignified sex, and now it's impossible to watch anything he's in without wondering how he tells, and whether he has a list.  A lot of turkeys are produced by AI these days -- is that more or less dignified?  Anyway, Francine Prose interests me because she has a very good reputation, which I'm happy to believe in, but the only book of hers I've read before is Blue Angel, which is a rather tedious leave-your-door-open-while-supervising book about a relationship between a lecturer and a crazy undergraduate.  Maybe I just didn't get it. I haven't seen the Marlene Dietrich film it draws on, but that sounds quite annoying too.

3. Devonshire Folk Tales, Michael Dacre
Interesting folk stories, but not really my style.  I prefer my ghosts deadpan. Haldon Hill on the A38 is haunted apparently, which seems fitting because it is a spooky place to drive especially in snow. I'm sure there was a brilliant story in here about people dancing in trees, but I can't find it now.  Spooky.

4. The Golden Child, Penelope Fitzgerald
This is a very good book indeed, and funny.  It's about an exhibition at a British museum of some very rare artefacts from an oil-rich North African country.  The public queue for hours on end to see the gold-covered mummy of a child and its grave goods, but one of the museum staff starts to worry it's a fake.  He is sent to Russia to talk to one of the world's two experts on the material -- the other is an official at the British museum but elegantly declines to get involved.  Very good stuff, I enjoyed it immensely.

5. Hell's Belles, Paul Magrs

I've searched this blog and it seems that I haven't mentioned Paul Magr's Brenda series before, which is odd. The previous ones are Never the Bride, Something Borrowed and Conjugal Rites. They're set in Whitby among elderly ladies who investigate the wierd things that go on there, inbetween fish suppers and really strong tea. The main character, Brenda, is a B+B owner with a mysterious past. These are very good friendly reading, funny and quite clever. If like me you enjoyed the general funny tone of Jasper Fforde's books but found their clever-clever-ness a bit much on occasion, then these might be more to your taste. I love Jessie the womanzee in the second one.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

2011 books

1. The Abbess of Crewe, Muriel Spark
Apparently a satire on Watergate, this novella reminded me more of collegiate life.  It's about a scandal in a nunnery and is very funny. The Abbess, who likes to say the services in Latin despite Vatican II, and sometimes substitutes words of English poetry, has set up a wholescale electronic bugging of almost every part of the nunnery. Sister Felicity has fled with a Jesuit lover and is feeding damaging stories to the papers.

2. The Literary Conference, Cesar Aira
A novella by one of those current South-American authors whom one ought to have read already. It's wierd and very good, and perfect for a novella because it might have tipped over into insufferable at novel length. The protagonist, a writer and translator called Cesar (it's very trendy for people to write versions of themselves into their books, but I'm running out of patience with it a bit) is a mad scientist in his spare time, and has decided to achieve world domination by making endless clones of the novelist Carlos Fuentes. (Another one I haven't read, but probably will now, if only to get a sense of why clones of him would make an invincible army, though I suspect it's really because he's a chum of Aira's.) There are more musings on literary theory than you would expect from this synopsis. It's a good book and I'll probably read more Aira, but only after carefully checking the blurbs.

3. Tamsin, Peter Beagle
I read this entirely out of nostalgia, though I've never read it before. It's one of my favourite plots from my young days: sulky girl, uprooted from her normal life by some family event, goes to live in an old house, and gradually learns more about the fate of a previous young female inhabitant. I am totally going to write one of those myself, one day. This one is amiable and good, and involves ghosts, including boggarts and pookas. Also Judge Jefferys plays a part in it. They still just about remember to hate Judge Jefferys in the south west. He was an utter bastard. My mother's mother's family in Bath were Jefferyses, and they would say "no relation!" until my great great aunt started digging around in the family tree and then stopped abruptly refusing to tell anyone what she had found. So then they worried that maybe they were related to Judge Jefferys. But after her death they found her papers and actually she'd stopped on getting to a lot of people with Jewish names. So that's the 1930s for you. If they really were Jewish I'd love to find out more about them some time. Even in the non-conformist south-west it must have been complex to be that non-conformist.

4. Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
A collection of short stories mostly about New York women's relationships with men and other women.  They're quite well-written but very New York-y, full of hookers and masochists, and somehow terribly late 1980s.  There's a story called Secretary which is presumably the inspiration for the film Secretary.  I'm not sure that I can be bothered to find other stuff she's written though I expect she wrote other things well too.

5. Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, Javier Marías
Another novella -- I read lots of blogs recommending novellas in December, and the Amazon secondhand orders are now coming in after the snow. I like Marías from the few short things of his which I've read, but I've not yet plucked up the courage to read his novels. I was recommended them some time ago so they've been on my wishlist for ages. This one involves a trip to Mexico with Elvis Presley, which gets complicated when the protagonist has to translate insults in a rough bar.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Apex Magazine

On the theme of small publishers and remembering to buy elsewhere than Amazon, Apex Magazine is great. Each issue has several short stories in (plus some poems which I never read), and they are consistently both good and interesting. It's also dirt cheap at $12 for twelve issues, a year's subscription.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Buy Weightless

When I first got my kindle, at the very end of September I think, books were cheap, usually a bit cheaper than the corresponding paperback. Even though Waterstones has hugely reduced its ebook prices since then, it's still much cheaper to get kindle books from Amazon.

Also, I think that Amazon subsidises the kindle a bit.

Then there was a revolt by publishers, and now quite a lot of kindle books are more expensive than their paperback versions. For example Diarmad MacCulloch's History of Christianity, for the monstrous 1216-page paperback of which I would have to pay just £8.24 (R.R.P. £14.99), now has its kindle price set by the publisher at £11.99. It's probably worth the extra £3.75 not to sprain my wrists, but I object to paying it. Otherwise I would own that book by now, because I really enjoyed his Reformation and it would have been a good meaty Christmas read.

The question is what the publishers are trying to achieve, and that worries me. I'm not one of those people who thinks that publishers don't do much -- they do absolutely tons. I've been involved in basic publishing enterprises and I was lucky to see a lot of the processes that produced my Margaret book, so I know that even the most basic book-production involves huge amounts of work. But clearly the physical production of books, their printing, binding, and trimming, as well as storage and transportation, cost lots of money which is not spent on a digital copy. Furthermore I cannot sell on an ebook. ( has just set up a feature whereby you can lend an ebook for a fortnight, but I don't think has this yet.) I can't give an ebook to Oxfam or to my nephew. I don't think I'm being unreasonable, therefore, in expecting to pay a bit less for an ebook than a paperback.

So what has gone wrong in that MacCulloch example? Is the problem really with the price of £8.24 for the paperback? I'd love to know how much money Amazon gives the publisher out of that £8.24 and that £11.99. It may be that the publisher wants people to choose the paperback instead of the ebook so that they can then justify their existing business models by saying that people prefer tree books. Also, the Penguin website will sell you the same ebook in an Adobe Digital Editions format for £11.99. (I hate Adobe Digital Editions.) So is it to do with their agreements with Adobe or Sony? Are they just trying to get back to the Net Book Agreement days via the back door? I can't entirely blame the publishers if their fear, in forcing higher prices for kindle books, is not that customers will swap to ebooks but that customers will swap and Amazon will end up with a monopoly. The big difference between a dead tree book and a kindle book is that the kindle book can only be sold through Amazon. It's a fair concern.

This really annoys me for two reasons. Reason 1: Someone out there needs to sort themselves out and rival Amazon. Reason 2: what we, the innocent book-consuming customer, motivated only by our delight in the written word and appreciation of literary culture, are paying extra for is DRM. Without DRM you can read an .epub on a kindle. An .azw kindle file is a .mobi file with Amazon DRM. The complications have entirely to do with the possibility of people ripping things off. Publishers are worried about what's happened to record labels. (Though it's not like there's no music any more, is it? I'm old enough to remember when home taping was killing music. Plus haven't publishers noticed that even itunes has DRM-free stuff now? Hasn't Amazon spotted that it's own MP3s don't have DRM?)

Part of me wants to revolt against the enforced publisher prices on kindle books by buying second-hand instead. But that would probably still be via Amazon, I'm afraid, so it doesn't really work, because I doubt it's just the publishers being stupid here. But there is another option! This is to buy direct from publishers who eschew DRM. This involves lots of different sorts of win: you can buy something which isn't on tables in every bookshop in England; you can support small interesting publishers; and you can buy from anywhere in the world instantly. Yay! Here is the website of Weightless Books. I think they're partly run by the same people as Small Beer Press, which publishes excellent and unusual stuff on the spec-fic/slipstream side of things, as well as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, an excellent short fiction zine. You can subscribe to it at Weightless Books, as well as to Lightspeed magazine. You can buy excellent stories by Kelly Link, one of my favourite writers around today, and the truly brilliant Carmen Dog and The Mount by Carol Emshwiller are both available too.  Plus at the moment there is a 25% off sale on.  You could buy The Mount for $7.50, less than a fiver.  And you can pay by paypal, which I find very convenient for overseas transactions.  Hurray!

They don't have DRM and theoretically I could copy them for people but I'm not going to and I expect that you wouldn't either, gentle reader. Or if you did you would deserve to go on the International Bell-End Register suggested by popjustice as a possible deterrent for illegal music file-sharers.

(If you're using a kindle you need to pick the .mobi or .prc format, or use .pdf.  Transferring your purchase onto a kindle is very easy. You could a) plug the kindle in and drag the file into the folder labelled Documents or b) e-mail it to yourself at your kindle e-mail address, which you'll find on the Manage Your Kindle page at Amazon -- free for things which are delivered via wi-fi or a small charge if it's delivered via 3G. Pdfs can either be converted or read as pdfs on the kindle.)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

More 2010 reading

1. One Billion Days of Earth, Doris Piserchia
Classic Sci-Fi, set long in the future, when humans have become something distant and over-evolved, and earth is split between humanoid descendants of rats and some strange conscious animal hybrids. A thing called Sheen comes out of a crater and goes around loving people and then subsuming them.

2. The Comforters, Muriel Spark
An oddly self-confident girl takes a job at a society for producing autobiographies, and starts enhancing the manuscripts she's given to type up. In the meantime she's writing a novel of her own. Very good. Funny and somehow not conciliatory.

3. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, Nicholas Drayson
Gentle humour set among middle-aged bird watchers in Nairobi. I lent it to my grandma and she liked it. It's quite Alexander McCall Smith-like but in a good way.

4. Dictionary of the Khazars: a lexicon novel, Milorad Pavic
Odd.  Comes in male and female versions, which have one paragraph different between them.  I bought this at the Waterstone's in Exeter near the Cathedral, which has a great selection of translated and unusual things on a table quite near the front.  I talked to someone there about it, and he said it's harder and harder to keep these things out with good display space, but that actually they sell really well.  Go Exeter!  Anyway, the premise of this book is that it is a dictionary of all that is known about the Khazars, a medieval people who lived somewhere in the region of Transylvania, who decided they needed a religion and invited representatives of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions to a debate so they could decide which one to pick.  The book is split into three sections, each containing all that is known about the people from within each of the three faiths, all of whom claim that they were the ones who persuaded the Khazars.  Also included are dictionary entries on how the information got transmitted.  I really liked this.

5. The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps and The Courage Consort, Michel Faber
Very very good.  Michel Faber can really write.  I hadn't read the Courage Consort before because it sounded too technically musicy, but it's not, and it's very good.  They are both novellas, the first quite a spooky one about an archaeological dig at Whitby Abbey, and the second about a group of singers rehearsing in an isolated house.

Things I read last year

1. Patriotism, Yukio Mishima
This is a Japanese novella. It starts:
On the twenty-eighth of February, 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 Incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion -- profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest friends had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops -- took his officer's sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private residence in the sixth block of Aobo-cho, in Yotsuya Ward.  His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death.
It's about the lead-up to their deaths, especially the last few hours.  Very good.

2. Cox's Fragmenta
This is a small miscellany of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspaper articles taken from scrapbooks made by a man called Cox. The font is a bit annoying -- I don't mind s+t and c+t ligatures, but s+p ligatures are taking it too far. I thought it was interesting that in the eighteenth century people in Birmingham gave up rum and sugar to try to decrease the economic reasons for slavery. Also on the 14th July 1817 the Morning Chronicle had an advert for the exhibition of a Sapient Pig at Charring-cross. It includes a poem that starts "Hail, Toby! truly sapient Pig!".

3. Memento Mori, Muriel Spark
I have suddenly discovered that I love Muriel Spark. This book is about a group of friends in the 70s or 80s. Someone keeps phoning them and saying "Remember you must die". It's a dark comedy. Muriel Spark is an odd one.

4. Rice's Architectural Primer
My brother got me this for Christmas. Hurray for amazon wishlists! It has a lot of pen-and-watercolour diagrams of buildings with features labelled. I now know what crocketing is, and that is good.

5. Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy
More Kage Baker. A novella and a short story about Lady Beatrice, a prostitute in an eighteenth-century brothel which is a cover for a spying operation.