The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross. Latest entry in the Laundry series of supernatural/spy crossover novels. Decent book: fast paced, occasionally funny, well up to the standards of the series if you're following it.
I am getting a bit bored with the stop the ceremony that will bring back the Lovecraftian elder gods) plotline though: seems to feature in far too many books now.
I think in general it's a bit of an overused cheap trick to raise tension by having giant apocalyptic consequences to the plot. Not sure it even works. First there's the one-death-is-a-tragedy-a-million-deaths-is-a-statistic thing. Then there's the certain knowledge for the reader that it's not going to happen. One thing that writers like K.J. Parker, Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin do well is kill off important characters, so that when a character is in jeopardy, you worry about them. Better to raise tension with a believable threat than a huge threat. Forget the apocalypse, just have one hostage.
What I'm Reading 2
Persian Fire, Tom Holland's account of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians. Holland tries to take more of a Persian perspective than is usual: has a lot of detail about how the Persian Empire worked, and points out that in some ways it was much more sophisticated than the Greek world.
The Persians emperors had a complex system of bureaucracy and satrapies to administer their empire. Unlike previous empires they made a point of showing conspicuous clemency and mercy to some opponents, though balancing it out with appropriate brutality to others. They were tolerant of other religions to their own Zoroastrianism.
However, while they allowed a certain amount of latitude to their subordinates, and even tolerated a degree of democracy in some subordinate cities, the Persians didn't really have much notion of freedom as an important value, and had a firmly hierarchical view of the world.
Holland stresses that to the much larger Persian empire, the Greek wars were merely a minor border conflict. Holland doesn't make these connections, but it reminded me of the Roman defeat by the Germans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest: a symbolically important defeat, which was something of a portent of a distant future where the peripheral barbarians would overwhelm the might empire, but not one with much actual impact at the time.
Holland writes well, it's an exciting account which is fun to read.
However, I'm a little bit dubious over some details. For instance it's a bit odd for instance that he spends a while mocking Lycurgus, the Law-Giver of Sparta as a fictional character; but seems to regard Solon, the Law-Giver of Athens, as a real person. Holland seems to prioritize telling a single good story over explaining why there might be doubts and multiple interpretations over some details. He inevitably relies heavily on Herodotus, but a lot of the 300 stuff seems a bit too dramatic to be wholly credible.
Overall though, both a good read and an informative account of what happened.
Went to Whisky Live as usual. Definitely seems to be shrinking: fewer stalls than last time, and a disconcerting amount of non-whisky. There were no less than three rum stalls, and a company that makes furniture out of whisky barrels.
A few things were interesting. I don't remember trying Balblair before, but their 89 and 75 were pretty good. Old Pulteney 17 was nice too: will look out for that in the supermarket. The Swedish whisky Mackmyra seems to be a bit tame now after their head-exploding early whiskies, but their cloudberry-wine-matured whisky had a decent spicy tang.
For a change I bought a bottle of 15yo aged El Dorado Rum, which had a rich taste and wasn't too pricey.
What I'm Watching
Saw Jack the Giant Slayer at the cinema in 3D. OK-ish action-comedy movie based on the fairy tale. Moderately entertaining, but not particularly imaginative or amusing.
There was one mildly interesting plot element, that after a lot of effort to stop the giants coming to Earth, the giants do come to earth. This seems to be a minor variant that's emerged from the apocalyptic consquences cliché. try to make it interesting by having the apocalypse actually happen. I think the last Batman sort of did that too.
What I'm Watching 2, 3
Girl B liked "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", so we rented the other two films in the rough trilogy. Neither of them shares the gimmick of an all-sung dialogue. Lola, the first one, is pretty decent, a black and white drama telling interlinked love stories. Not a musical at all.
The third one, Les Demoiselles De Rochefort, is an excruciatingly dull conventional musical with lots of big song and dance numbers. Lacks any of the drama and tension of the original, as people with no real problems mope around for a couple of hours before pairing off at the end.
Saw The Man Who Pays the Piper at the Orange Tree Theatre. Another revival of a 1931 play by a female playwright, about a woman who takes on the role of head of the household and finds herself becoming a petty tyrant.
A little while ago I saw The Stepmother there, a similar play, which was a great success. This one wasn't quite so good. It started out well, had some good touches, a strong idea, and some great energetic performances. However the second half peters out a little bit as the author doesn't seem sure where to go, and people have long, long speeches describing their opinions. The ending seems a bit alien to modern tastes too with the protagonist reassured she's 'normal' when her husband pretends to offer to become a househusband and she finds herself suitably horrified. It's hard for us to see why a two-earner family is such a big problem.
It's also unintentionally funny and mildly irritating that the big deal with the intensely busy, workaholic, high-powered businesspeople is how everyone stresses out when they come home irritable at 6PM every weekday.
Overall, a bit mixed. Maybe worth seeing for its good points and historical interest, but not unmissable.
Saw Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum. Good exhibition rounding up all the best artefacts from the site. Famous items include the cradle (one of very few wooden artefacts to survive from Roman times), the erotic sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, and several excellent murals.
It doesn't have the same eerie atmosphere as visiting the locations themselves, but it is a lot more convenient to see the highlights: you have to spend a long time going through various sites and museums to see the same things you see here. Bit of a swiz for anyone actually visiting these places at the moment, all the best stuff's here.
Overall, definitely worth seeing if you've never been to the sites. If you have, you've probably seen the highlights, but will know if you want to see them again.
Saw the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern. Was surprised by how much I liked it. The paintings I've seen before are the apparently literal blowups of existing comic art, such as Whaam! However while he stuck mostly to the comics style, he also did some original paintings, and versions of famous classical paintings. But there are also other things there: some decent art deco metal sculptures, some glossy surface effect Rowlux paintings, and some of his later "brushstroke" paintings.
It's definitely fun to wander round. The paintings have an impressive impact. There's also more skill involved than it might seem: much of the painting is done by hand though the dots are stencilled, and he carefully makes sure that the colours don't quite match up to the lines ("poor registration"). He also did make some changes to the compositions: moving items, speech bubbles and lines.
Lichtenstein does have a high irritant value for some people. It does seem a bit unfair that he capitalizes on compositions and art created by other people, and that he doesn't credit them, preferring to treat them as anonymous parts of a commercial machine. On the other hand, he did say "The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire." Also some interpret him as mocking high art in general and abstract impressionism in particular, rather than commercial and comic art.
Overall, worth seeing if you're not allergic to him.
Finally got around to seeing the London Aquarium. It doesn't have a great reputation, but was bigger and had a lot more content than I expected: there's certainly plenty of impressive stuff to see here.
However, the visiting experience isn't very pleasant. There's a lot of shuffling down cramped, overcrowded, poorly ventilated underground tunnels. Even during the notorious cold snap with the outside hovering a few degrees above zero, it was stiflingly hot, and reeked of BO and stale farts: in summer it must be a hellhole.
Only worth seeing if you're very keen on fish, or if you can go at a quiet time.
Finally got around to seeing the tiny local Twickenham Museum. A few interesting things, for instance a couple of stone age hand-axes and some pottery from the period; bronze age saxon spear point and axehead. It's free, so worth a wander round if you live locally, but I wouldn't bother making a huge trip there.
Socioeconomics. Contemporary American gun culture was more or less invented by the Black Panthers. So-called "deficit deniers" were right. Patent thickets reduce innovation. Rape myths not behind low conviction rate. "Projected...proportion of people employed in the public sector will be lower than at any time since the dawn of the welfare state in the 1940s." When Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men, via (Seems a bit dodgy, especially in cultures where older men married younger women). Economists and the theory of politics.
Benefits kerfuffle. Pensions and tax credits, not unemployed, pushing up benefits bill. The myth of the "welfare scrounger" Benefits in Britain: separating the facts from the fiction Family annihilations and Christopher Foster (strange how they don't mean anything wider when they're not done by someone on benefits). "0.0004 per cent of cases were getting the equivalent of £50,000 per year" The Myth of the Immigrant Benefit-Moocher. "Paying more in". Vilifying welfare. Previously: The myth of the welfare scrounger.
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