The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin

The Earthsea Quartet is four semi-stand alone novels set in Le Guin’s fantasy archipelago Earthsea. It follows the thread of Ged’s life as he rises from goatherd of Gont, but for three of the novels we see him from the perspective of a different central character as they come of age and work out who they are in the world.

The world is well-developed, with institutions and power structures that can shift. I also like the limitation on magic – that you have to know the name of that specific thing to control it, as well as have the power to use that name. Everything then grows from that.

Of course the age of the novel is the era when power is shifting, and we are given a central position to see it happen and watch as it is adjusted to suit Ged.

I first read this in the school library aged 12, and at the time it put me off Le Guin’s work. This time around I’ve borrowed it from the children’s – not even teenage – library because I wondered why everyone else loved it. As an adult reread, I have greatly enjoyed it. There’s good character development, a common thread, worldbuilding and development. But each book stands alone to a great extent, the characters are mostly quite distant, there are plenty of references of adult relationships and quite sophisticated language is used. Then the final novel is not a coming of age but a retirement and moving on theme. Really I’d not leave it in the library intended for under 12s!

Have you revisited a childhood read recently?

I Love You Because – Chorley Little Theatre

I’ve kept meaning to go to a performance at Chorley Little Theatre for a while, so this week picked up a ticket for I love you because.

I didn’t know anything about this musical before I walked into the auditorium, the cost of tickets being such that I was happy to buy one whatever the show was. It was a wonderfully lighthearted love story, with the traditional star-crossed lovers working out who they are and what love means. I came out humming the very catchy theme, and bought the soundtrack that evening.

As for Chorley Little Theatre, again it is very impressive. The actors and acting were great, the set was tidy and the musicians were fabulous! Plus I had a hot chocolate for £1 in the interval (getting up for work early the next morning). I’m now considering buying a season ticket for 2016/17 and will be back.

Honourable Friends? Caroline Lucas

Lucas has used her rare perspective as both a member of parliament, and being outside the main political parties, to offer an insight into where there are weaknesses in our system, and who is exploiting this. Of course she does have a vested interest, she would like to see the Green party do better, and can’t do so under the current system, but her views are valuable. Crucially she sees both the strengths as well as the weaknesses, where she was made to feel welcome, and the system worked for her.

Of course this book is also a platform for her views, which are further on the green spectrum than my own, but in about the same place in classic socialism/liberalism. So to me this was an unchallenging read, and certainly did the Green cause no harm.

This is a valuable look at the Con-Lib coalition and why certain decisions were made from someone with a small amount of sway and a very close view of how they happened.

Avenue Q – 2016 tour – Manchester

The sun is shining its a lovely day
The perfect morning for a kid to play
But you have lots of bills to pay
What can you do?

Finding ourselves entirely free on a Saturday evening, we browsed the local theatre listings, and realised that it was the last night of the Avenue Q run in Manchester. That was enough to have us at the box office, picking up a couple of the last tickets available.

We’d previously seen the first run of Avenue Q in London in around 2008, from West End “cheap” seats. But on tour, we were comfortably in the middle of the stalls, with leg room and a great view. I don’t know how much this contributed to it being much better than either of us remembered, making us both laugh at the puppets mocking their own fates. The characters are surprising convincing and empathetic, and I have several of the songs still in my head.

For a silly light-hearted musical, it is surprisingly deep in places. The more “adult” content did have me cringing in places though!

The Other Side of Silence – Natasha Mostert

The power of noise over the human mind, in terms of how music can affect us, or noise pollution blight lives, is a known fact in modern life. In The Other Side of Silence, Mostert focuses on this, and on where that power could be played with.

Mostert has picked up the concept of a Pythagorean comma, and the stated aim of the book is to derive a musical scale in which this does not exist. But despite three of the main characters being mathematicians, there is little information on the problem that they are trying to solve or how they are solving it (which makes little sense to me: a perfect musical scale should be easy, making it acoustically pleasing is of course very complex and could arguably benefit from the approach taken, but this is never mentioned.

This may be due to the central character being a woman who does not understand mathematics, and definitely doesn’t understand computers. Whilst the reader does require someone to whom things need explaining at a lay level, Tia’s level of ignorance goes beyond that.

Despite the flaws of such an unaware main character as the only serious female, this is a good exploration of human nature, and the world around us.

The Sermon on the Fall of Rome – Jérôme Ferrari

This month’s serious fiction for serious people, The Sermon on the Fall of Rome is the story of man, or a bar, or a family. Drawing parallels to Saint Augustine’s sermon, it looks at Marcel’s life from the perspective of the end, where old memories run together, and living grandchildren have a much closer impact than long-deceased parents.

A look at mortality, of empires and businesses as well as the obvious mortality of Marcel himself and the slow disintegration of memories of people as everyone who knew them gradually passes on.

I managed not to hold the back cover comparison of this to One Hundred Years of Solitude against it, and definitely liked The Sermon much better than the dull One Hundred Years. The translation reads well, with references that I recognise, which is an art I can respect, although I’m now tempted to read it in the original French.

Pop Goes the Weasel – Albert Jack

A month or so back, I was reading a thread on Ravelry, where I discovered that a weasel as referred to in the rhyme, and in thread work, is not a small mammal, but a tool for the winding of spun thread. The mental image of each syllable being a turn of the weasel, until it “pops”, whilst managing children and watching a busy household was compelling. I was therefore delighted to find a book titled Pop Goes the Weasel providing theories, or longer stories, explaining the meanings of nursery rhymes.

By DTParker1000 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
There are fascinating narratives provided for each of the rhymes in this book, linking into (mostly English) history, and discussing how in a preliterate world, where the authorities handed out harsh punishments to those who were subordinate, passing on news through nonsense rhymes was used for communication. I’m not sure to what extent this was true – how many people would have really known that the “Three blind mice” were the Oxford Martyrs, burned at the stake by Mary I??

Although I did read it with a small bucket of salt to hand, it was an interesting look at less savory parts of English history, as well as details of everyday life that are not clear from the rhymes alone.

What If? – Randall Munroe

I’ve followed xkcd for years, and love Randall’s other projects. In What If? he tackles hypothetical questions with Science!

The majority of the questions are handled in much greater detail than usual, looking at cutting edge research and extrapolating it well-beyond existing usage, to an extent that only the IgNobel prizewinners can hope to match. And even when evidence doesn’t exist, he just acknowledges the current data limits…

If anyone puts a steak in a hypersonic wind tunnel to get better data on this, please, send me the video.

This is a book of a whole heap of ideas that made me think about what I really know about how the world behaves. When do our internal classical mechanical understandings of the way the physics behaves break down, and what replaces them? It bridges that gap elegantly, in small steps from “this is what happens in classic mechanics” to “the whole world is broken”.

I laughed may times at outrageous claims, or at questions that Randall identified as making no sense at all. And I think I learnt a few things.

So You Want to Be a Wizard – Diane Duane

Nita is a stereotypical YA heroine. Chased by bullies, she seeks sanctuary in the library (because what else would appeal to bookworms). But there she finds a book to change her life, amongst the career advice she finds “So You Want to Be a Wizard“.

Of course, it is simply that book that enables her to change her life. To move into a previously unseen world where magic is real and there is a steady battle against evil entropy and death. It is a pleasingly modern urban fantasy world, where the settings are merely a step sideways from the world we know.

Its a well-paced book, ramping the tension up effectively to a satisfying end. Despite this, it leaves things sufficiently open to allow the series to continue. My only quibble is that I don’t like characters instantly becoming super-powered. Some development time and time for mistakes and weakness is good, especially for a book which is part of a longer series.

I’ll pick up the next and see how it goes…

Among Others – Jo Walton

This is the first of Walton’s work that I’ve read – picked from the library as I didn’t want to commit to a new series, and just wanted a stand-along fantasy novel. It is in a style that at first it would be possible to miss it being fantasy, if it wasn’t for the unicorn sticker on the spine.Among Others

I found Mori to be a compelling heroine, working out her own morals for magic and coping with the after-effects of a traumatic event. She has to deal with dramatic family changes, and a new boarding school. She manages all this through science fiction books. I did find some of the reading information a little tedious, I don’t want to deal with this much name-dropping.

Then we get onto the fairies. And the magic. She has had it all her life, and still does the “kid” things to make magic happen and change her life. But in the background is the shadow of what her mother did. Entirely shadow for much of the novel, with hints of horror, but thankfully the veils are lifted on this, and we understand what has shaped Mori.