Christopher Priest wrote the novel The Prestige, about obsessed rival magicians, upon which Christopher Nolan's film is based. This (expensive) littleChristopher Priest wrote the novel The Prestige, about obsessed rival magicians, upon which Christopher Nolan's film is based. This (expensive) little book is Priest's account of the process by which the tale moved from page to screen.
Such at least was what I expected: discussions over what should stay, what should change, what should be added; how the casting proceeded; the design decisions; and so forth. We are used to the idea that writers quickly lose control of their work when the film industry moves in, but that must not have been the case here or Priest would have nothing to write about, right?
Wrong. There is none of the above. Priest explains how the book was written, the slow process of selling the rights, and the years of silence that followed, during which Nolan went on to make Batman Begins. Priest himself is so far out of the loop that he is forced to scrape around for crumbs on the internet, his main source of information being Google Alerts! In due course the film is made, without authorial input, and the remainder of the book is mostly Priest's broadly positive reaction to it.
All of this is not without interest, but more as a salutary tale for writers slavering to sell their work than as an insight into the film-making process. There are substantial differences between the book and the film, though both are impressive works, and hearing the author's take is worthwhile. I think he worries too much that the audience won't 'get it', but I agree with him that it's a stylish, original and intelligent movie. However, students of film and fans of the book will learn little that they couldn't see for themselves. So whilst I enjoyed The Magic, it's not a book the world really needed; more one that the author wanted to get off his chest, I suspect.
(Includes a few pages of endnotes and an index.)...more
As a young man Darwin travelled with the survey ship HMS Beagle for five years (not unlike the mission of the USS Enterprise). His popular memoir relaAs a young man Darwin travelled with the survey ship HMS Beagle for five years (not unlike the mission of the USS Enterprise). His popular memoir relates his land-bound peregrinations (surprisingly little on life at sea), exploring the plants and animals, landforms and people of many countries and islands. Broadly chronological, the text is a miscellany, telling of things in the order Darwin encountered them. It is never exciting, quite long, yet always interesting: I've never added so many bookmarks (nor so often cursed the Kindle's clunky interface for revisiting them).
Darwin is a serious-minded writer of mild-mannered prose, even gently rebuking other authors:
It is excusable to grow enthusiastic over the infinite numbers of organic beings with which the sea of the tropics, so prodigal of life, teems; yet I must confess I think those naturalists who have described, in well-known words, the submarine grottoes decked with a thousand beauties, have indulged in rather exuberant language.
So it is all the more endearing when he allows himself a chuckle:
These lizards, when cooked, yield a white meat, which is liked by those whose stomachs soar above all prejudices.
More than once I was fascinated to see how tantalisingly close to formulating the idea of natural selection Darwin already was, 20 years before Origin of Species:
How wonderfully are the different Orders, at the present time so well separated, blended together in different points of the structure of the Toxodon!
Nor is biology his only concern: his record of people and cultures is invaluable history, human nature on display:
At Mercedes I asked two men why they did not work. One gravely said the days were too long; the other that he was too poor.
Furthermore, there is practical travel advice:
If a person suffer much from sea-sickness, let him weigh it heavily in the balance. I speak from experience: it is no trifling evil, cured in a week.
Origin of Species is of course his masterwork; but if you aren't that interested in evolution, then this one is the Darwin book to read. It is aptly described by Darwin's own words about the Tropics:
The form of the orange-tree, the cocoa-nut, the palm, the mango, the tree-fern, the banana, will remain clear and separate; but the thousand beauties which unite these into one perfect scene must fade away: yet they will leave, like a tale heard in childhood, a picture full of indistinct, but most beautiful figures.
Volume 3 of the Last Chronicles brings Thomas Covenant into play, albeit with a head full of fragmented memories. After a great deal of anguished convVolume 3 of the Last Chronicles brings Thomas Covenant into play, albeit with a head full of fragmented memories. After a great deal of anguished conversation, fresh bargains struck and the arrival of an entertaining new Insequent, the Ardent, the merry band set off to rescue Linden's son. A thrilling set piece ensues, following which there is a lot of regrouping and milling around in the third quarter of the book. Fortunately Donaldson is able, as usual, to bind all this accumulated material into a compelling tsunami of a climax.
In short: business as usual in terms of fretting characters and nail-biting confrontations, but with ever-heightened stakes (the title is no hyperbole) and the extra fun of Covenant's gambles. Despite plenty of action and many surprising developments, I felt this one had a bit too much middle, hence the 4 stars. But Donaldson continues to push the envelope of what fantasy can do: this is great stuff.
Nation is one of Pratchett's best. It concerns a youth on an island in the South Pacific (though in this parallel nineteenth-century world it's calledNation is one of Pratchett's best. It concerns a youth on an island in the South Pacific (though in this parallel nineteenth-century world it's called the Great Pelagic) whose entire tribe is killed by a tidal wave. The same storm improbably grounds a ship whose only survivor is an aristocratic English girl. The two of them are the first members of a new society of stragglers who have to confront a future in which their gods have failed them.
Cunning plotting and wit abound, but the story is more than a straightforward adventure: it's a fable about rationality. Our protagonists find their way through the difficulties of their new existence by relying on their wits: on reasoning and careful observation of the world, and a questioning approach to conventions such as class and religion. By the end it's an overt hymn to science as an endeavour.
Unusually for Terry, this one connects with none of his other work, but is nonetheless a great entry point and is pitched to be accessible to teenagers. And it contains gems like this:
It was... the fastest coronation since Bubric the Saxon crowned himself with a very pointy crown on a hill during a thunderstorm, and reigned for one and a half seconds.
There was even a moment in there when he almost had me believing in the tree-climbing octopus......more
The schtick behind this short graphic novel is an alternate history in which it was Britain that scooped up all Germany's Peenemunde rocket scientistsThe schtick behind this short graphic novel is an alternate history in which it was Britain that scooped up all Germany's Peenemunde rocket scientists at the end of WWII. With funds from an obscure source, the Ministry Of Space rushed ahead, creating a 50s-flavoured, British RAF-looking space programme that builds space stations, goes to the Moon, and eventually sends a fleet to Mars. At the centre of all this 'progress' is a ruthless air officer full of secrets.
The triumphal adventures in space and the application of the technology on Earth keep Britain at the top of the world's superpowers for 50 years, and the social change we experienced in reality is here perceived as born of a necessity that doesn't apply in this wealthy and bold alternate Britain. Consequently the English idyll endures and grows stagnant, even as the Empire expands to new worlds.
It's a cunning piece of social commentary, told with admirable concision and imagination. But on top of that, the artwork is absolutely splendid - both in line and colour. (The colourist is the least mentioned contributor in the intro and afterword, but every frame is so vivid and alive that it leaps off the page.) The thing took much longer to read than the story required, because the images were magnetic. Great stuff....more
First, some background. Gombrich wrote this history book for children as a young man in Germany in 1935, working to a six-week deadline! Although it wFirst, some background. Gombrich wrote this history book for children as a young man in Germany in 1935, working to a six-week deadline! Although it was constantly in print and much translated, it was only towards the end of his life in the '90s that Gombrich set about producing an English version; he had been concerned that history as perceived in Britain was traditionally too concerned with the country's OWN history, and that a less Anglo-centric book would not be appropriate. He did not complete the English version, but approved his assistant's doing so after his death. So, but for a quick review chapter at the end, the book runs only up to the First World War and arrives several decades late - though it's not the less welcome for that.
Next, some reservations. Though I'm no historian, I suspect there may be flaws in this account. After all, Gombrich wrote originally a long time before the present state of the field, and he wrote quickly, after brief research. (The universe is not "trillions" of years old. And do we really know the dates of the Babylonian Exile? I was under the impression it wasn't certain that there had even been one!) I thought I caught a whiff of reluctance to criticise christianity (though the first plaudit on the back cover comes from Philip Pullman!). And I didn't always agree with his pronouncements. This one, for instance, seemed needlessly defeatist:
And of course you must also realise that reason cannot, and never will, give us the key to all mysteries, although it has often put us on the right track.
Also, the tone of the book concerned me at first. It's written for children, with sometimes a little condescension: "Imagine that!" I wasn't sure I was going to get on with the authorial voice; but it soon settles down into good chewy history. Still, whether children will actually read such a long piece of non-fiction (284 pages), or whether they would even enjoy having it read to them, I'm not sure: it seems more like one of those books that adults WANT children to like. And finally, the book is a Euro-centric kings-and-queens kind of history - still refreshingly non-parochial to a British reader, but you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing happened on all the other continents till we turned up, or that most of history is driven by leaders only.
Still, putting aside all that, the book is strangely addictive. Its narrative flows smoothly, it unfolds complex episodes carefully, it makes its points well and it's appealingly humane. A lot of what I read I had not known before and it succeeds in telling us, as one reviewer puts it, "how we have come to be where we are". It's civilised, illuminating and oddly pleasing....more