Book review: The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures From The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Universe, by James Clarke. Published by: Aurum Press.

geek book

When did it become fashionable to become a geek? Geekiness is, after all, surely after all, by definition a shameful, untrendy preoccupation. Does this mean that anyone who claims to aspire to be a geek is necessarily a pretender to the nerd throne?

Well, no. Some people blame this trend on things like US sitcom Big Bang Theory and the excellent but now defunct British near equivalent The IT Crowd. But, in truth, this tendency which has resulted in websites like Den of Geek and books like this, has always been there. After all, you can’t get Spider-man without meeting Peter Parker first.

This book takes a chronological approach with a different geek anniversary highlighted for every day of the year. This, it must be said, is potentially of some use to someone who writes professionally on geek issues like me.

May 25, for example, is the anniversary of Star Wars’ US release in 1977. Lord of the Rings’ author JRR Tolkien was born on January 3rd while even the fictional birthday of Harry Potter (July 31st 1990) is noted.

gm

Some of the anniversaries are arguably not very major (the fourth season premiere of Babylon 5 on November 4 1995 is commemorated – as if any of us would forget this date anyway?) Some are arguably not very geeky (the outbreak of the First World War in 1914) but are interesting anyway. There is some discussion of each anniversary.

What elevates this book above the norm, however, is the innovative use of infographics used to illustrate a rich array of charts which demonstrate everything from the longevity of respective Doctor Who actors to the box office success of the Star Trek films.

An excellent addition to the coffee table of every socially maladjusted maladroit in the land.

star
Advertisements

13 books that would make the BBC’s Big Read list were it held in 2013

Image

Ten years have passed since the BBC launched its “Big Read” with the aim of finding the nation’s best loved novel.

The results, drawn from three quarter of million votes, are repeated below. Voters could initially vote for any novel they wanted although the top 21 were then voted for again, on condition that one book per author was permitted for the top 21.

THE ORIGINAL BIG READ TOP 100 (2003)

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  12. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  13. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  14. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  15. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  16. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  17. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  18. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
  20. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  21. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  22. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  23. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
  24. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  25. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  26. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  27. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  28. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  29. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  30. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  31. The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson
  32. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  33. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  34. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  36. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  37. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  38. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  39. Dune by Frank Herbert
  40. Emma by Jane Austen
  41. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  42. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  43. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  45. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  46. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  47. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  48. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
  50. The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
  51. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  52. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  53. The Stand by Stephen King
  54. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  55. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  56. The BFG by Roald Dahl
  57. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  58. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  59. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  60. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  61. Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
  62. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  63. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  64. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  65. Mort by Terry Pratchett
  66. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
  67. The Magus by John Fowles
  68. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  69. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
  70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  71. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
  72. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  73. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
  74. Matilda by Roald Dahl
  75. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  76. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  77. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  78. Ulysses by James Joyce
  79. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  80. Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson
  81. The Twits by Roald Dahl
  82. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  83. Holes by Louis Sachar
  84. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
  85. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  86. Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson
  87. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  88. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  89. Magician by Raymond E. Feist
  90. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  91. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  92. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  93. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  94. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  95. Katherine by Anya Seton
  96. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
  97. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  98. Girls in Love by Jacqueline Wilson
  99. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  100. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

It’s hardly for me to pass judgement on the biggest survey of public reading thus held (although I am about to, anyway!). However, I do feel the list holds up pretty well in the age of the e-reader. The top 21 seems pretty solid. Some might question the presence of so many children’s books but these are often the “best-loved” books after all. I would be more inclined to question the decision to include the Narnia and His Dark Materials books as one book apiece while each of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are included as separate entities.

Would the likes of The Thorn Birds and Goodnight Mr Tom have made the list today? It is not clear.

However, had the Big Read been conducted in 2013, I’m sure the following novels would have found a place somewhere:

1, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling.

2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (and possibly the sequel, Bringing Up The Bodies)

6. One Day by David Nicholls

7. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (and sequels?)

8. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (and sequels?)

9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and sequels?)

10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (and sequels?)

11. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

12. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

13. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Image

Book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling

Image

Question: How do you follow something like the Harry Potter Saga?

Answer:  You don’t. It’s impossible.

Arthur Conan Doyle scored a huge success with his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes but was continuously frustrated when his other achievements were largely ignored. Enid Blyton’s adult fiction never achieved the widespread success and popularity of her books for children. Douglas Adams was constantly dogged by the question “when are you going to write another Hitchhiker book?” Helen Fielding has yet to escape the shadow of Bridget Jones.

And J.K. Rowling will always be best known for Harry Potter. But with her first post-Potter novel, she certainly does an admirable job of making a name for herself in the field of adult non-fantasy fiction.

The Casual Vacancy centres on Pagford, a town awash with secrets which are all brought to the surface by a particularly ugly parish council election precipitated by the untimely death of thoroughly decent member, Barry Fairbrother. Although set up almost as a 21st century Barchester Towers, surprisingly little attention is focused on the election itself with Rowling devoting most of her attention to the town’s cast of sometimes unlovely characters.

Such issues as internet porn, class warfare, casual racism, rape, drug abuse, domestic violence and civic corruption are all handled deftly by Rowling. No one who has read the Harry Potter books will be surprised to see Rowling can juggle a labyrinthine story-line and a large range of characters. What is more surprising is that with both this and her more recent crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) she has entered the world of adult fiction with such confidence and success.

Image

The Gandalf Factor

Image

It isn’t just The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. No science fiction or fantasy saga is complete without a wise old bearded God-like figure often played by a theatrical knight who occasionally fights, usually dies but like E.T himself (or the MP John Stonehouse) comes back later.

Spoiler alert but you really should keep up you know. John Stonehouse came back ages ago (look it up)…

Name: Gandalf

First appeared: 1937 (in print in The Hobbit), 2001 (on screen).

Does he die? Yes. Gandalf the Grey falls down the crack thanks to the big fiery Balrog thing in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Does he come back? Yes. As Gandalf the White in The Two Towers.

Who played him? SIR Ian McKellen

Fun to play? McKellen seems to have enjoyed it and apart from the “insane laughter” scene in Frodo’s bedroom in the third film has done a great job of it.

Is he Jesus/God?: No. JRR Tolkien was keen to emphasise the books were not supposed to be allegorical.

Name: Obi Wan Kenobi/Old Ben Kenobi

First appeared: 1977 Star Wars, later rechristened Episode IV:  A New Hope

Does he die? Yes. Darth Vader turns him into a dressing gown towards the end of the first (or fourth) film.

Does he come back? Only as a badly animated and well paid ghost. Bet Marlon Brando wished he’d thought of that for the Superman sequels? Although he’d have been too fat anyway.

Who played him? SIR Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor as the younger sometimes unbearded Obi Wan in the inferior prequels.

Fun to play? Not at all. “…new rubbish dialogue reaches me every day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable,” Guinness complained. He also resented being nicknamed “Mother Superior” by a young Harrison Ford. Understandably. Sir Alec made a small fortune, however, having claimed a 2 ½ % share of the profits on the three films although thanks to the exorbitant tax rates in the 1970s, not as much as is commonly thought. MacGregor’s complaints about filming against blue screen, meanwhile, were amongst the first bits of negative publicity to break around The Phantom Menace in 1999.

Is he Jesus/God?: Perhaps. But then, a similar case could be made for Han Solo. And Harrison Ford was a carpenter. See? It all makes sense.

Name: Albus Dumbledore

First appeared: (in print) 1997 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and on screen in the 2001 film.

In the US this was called Harry Potter Can’t Believe Americans Don’t Know What A Philosopher Is and Apparently Think A Sorcerer is Basically the Same Thing.

Does he die? Yes. Snape (Alan Rickman) chucks him off Hogwarts at the end of the penultimate volume The Half Blood Prince. In the film, his death is reminiscent of Alan Rickman’s own character’s death in Die Hard. Except Bruce Willis wasn’t involved.

Does he come back? Only in a dream sequence.

Who played him? Richard Harris until his death after the second film. Succeeded by SIR Michael Gambon thereafter.

Fun to play? Ignoring the fact the Irish Harris didn’t actually have an Irish accent when playing Dumbledore (who isn’t, as far as we know, supposed to be Irish), the usually excellent Gambon for some reason initially put on a somewhat half arsed Irish accent when he took on the role. Happily, this soon went and he was great from then on.

Is he God/Jesus?: Probably not, although like Jesus he is gay. JOKE. No, in reality, Dumbledore was not really gay.

Nearly there but not quite:

Aslan in the Narnia books: He does die, come back, is wise, bigoted, bearded and is very clearly supposed to be God. He is not a man though. HE IS A LION.

Jaga (from Thundercats): Wise counsel to feline Skywalker-type Lion-o, Jaga dispenses important nuggets of wisdom such as encouraging him to enter his litter tray regularly but dies en route from the Thundercats’ home planet of Thundera to Third Earth. He does come back as a ghost though and fits the bill very well. However, he is rather transparently (literally) “heavily influenced” by the character of Obi Wan Kenobi. Unlike everyone else Jaga isn’t feline at all. This isn’t explained.

His Dark Materials: A big fantasy saga, yes but with NO bearded wise God-like grandfather figure. Perhaps reflecting the atheistic nature of the plot.

Optimus Prime: A robot, yes. But he was wise and dies (in 1986’s Transformers The Movie) and later comes back. He may die in the new films too. Who knows? I was asleep.