Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

I first read The Planiverse by AK Dewdney decades ago. In fact, I remember taking it out from Woodley Library, when the library was in its old home on Church Road. It moved to a posh new home near the shopping centre when I was at university, I think around 1985. That makes sense, as the book was published 100 years after its original inspiration.

Flatland by Edwin AbbotFlatland by Edwin Abbott was published in 1884, and tells the story of A Square. Square lives in Flatland, a two-dimensional universe, and is blind to the social repression and discrimination of his land until he discovers Lineland, Spaceland and Pointland.

I’ve been meaning to read Flatland for ages, and I’m so glad I finally got round to it this year – it’s social satire at its best.

The inhabitants of Flatland are polygons – regularity is all-important and the number of sides determines class and occupation.

Flatland sample

In 2D, how can you tell the difference between a Pentagon and a Triangle? Think about it!

Women are lines, and therefore the lowest of the low (although they’re dangerous, as they are pointed end-on, and can therefore stab men accidentally, or on purpose…).

Triangles are craftsmen or soldiers, Squares and Pentagons are professionals, and Hexagons and above are nobles. Irregular shapes of any sort are considered deformed, and are either ‘cured’ by being bent back into shape or euthanised.

Square learns about the third dimension when he meets Sphere, and his eyes are opened to the possibility of yet higher dimensions. Sphere himself cannot comprehend this, and returns Square back to Flatland in disgrace. Poor old Square tries to explain to his countrymen about Spaceland, and is slammed in prison for his troubles.

The Planiverse by AK DewdneyThe Planiverse takes a joyfully geeky angle on the scenario, examining the implications of life in two dimensions in exhaustive detail. The premise of the book is that Dewdney and his students create a computer simulation of a two-dimensional world, and to their surprise they discover that the world is populated by a complex society of vaguely humanoid people. Yendred, a young male, can somehow communicate with the research team through the computer, and he is more than happy to take them with him as he journeys east in search of wisdom.

Planiverse: Cross-section of 2D people

Diagram of Yendred's innards

The people on Arda (Yendred’s world) have two arms on either side – think about it, it makes sense – and a whole biology of their own, which is explained in some detail in the book. In fact, the insides of everything are fully displayed to Dewdney’s team as they view the two-dimensional screen from a three-dimensional perspective. This makes me slightly queasy, because I realised a theoretical four-dimensional being would be able to see all my insides at an equal level of detail.

Planiverse: Yendred's house

One of the most fascinating diagrams - Yendred's house - underground, of course

It’s not only Planiverse biology that’s described in detail. Dewdney also covers most of the ‘ologies’ you could possibly think of – geology, technology, psychology (Yendred’s reaction to the whole situation is fascinating), philosophy, zoology… not to mention astronomy, geography… For me the most interesting aspects of the book involved thinking about how things we might take for granted would have to be implemented within two dimensions. For example, they do have electricity, but only in batteries. Again, you have to think about it…

I love these books. Both are still in print, and should be read one after the other. Go get them from your local independent bookseller or library, and blow your mind.


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Letter Fountain

Letter Fountain, by Joep Pohlen

Today’s post is dedicated to geekery of a completely different nature. Some time last year a friend posted a picture of this book on Facebook… and it was love at first sight. A beautifully produced comprehensive reference manual for typography – what’s not to like? It took me about 30 seconds to wrestle my conscience into submission (the book is expensive but worth every penny) and get it ordered. When it turned up I gazed adoringly at it for several minutes, then read the whole of the first section in one sitting. After that the book lived under my pillow for many months so I could read random pages before going to sleep.

Originally published in Dutch (in several editions), Taschen published an English language edition this year. Its design is exactly what a book should be – clear and restful – and the attention to detail makes it a joy to behold and to hold. The contents are a geek’s delight, divided into three sections which tell you all you need to know about how type works, display specimen types in exhaustive detail, and tell the history of typography.

Here are some pictures for you to drool over.

Letter Fountain: Section 1 - The Type

Section 1 - The Type

Section 1 gives a comprehensive explanation of typography. Topics covered include the history of type, type families, measurement systems, the anatomy of type, digital type, and selection of typefaces.

Letter Fountain: Section 1 - The Type

Another spread from Section 1.

Letter Fountain: Section 1 - The Type

More from Section 1 - timeline showing the evolution of European typography

Letter Fountain: Section 2 - The Typefaces

Section 2 - The Typefaces

The second section presents 39 specimen typefaces (13 serif, 9 sans-serif and 22 script, monospaced and dingbats). Each is shown in different sizes and styles, and for each typeface six alternatives are also given.

Letter Fountain: Section 2 - The Typefaces

Another spread from Section 2 - showing alternative typefaces for Bembo

Letter Fountain: Section 3 - Appendix

Spread from Section 3 showing a timeline of type founders

Section 3 contains several appendices: an index to the book itself, an index of typefaces, an index of type designers, an index of type founders, a glossary and a bibliography. Curiously, this section is printed on greyish-beige coloured paper… not quite sure why.





Letter Fountain

Is this not a thing of beauty?

The end-papers are gorgeous, the book comes with a free card ruler with all the systems of type measurement, there are three differently-coloured ribbons to mark your places… this is without a doubt one of the loveliest books ever.







I want to make books like this.

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As promised, today I’m starting a series of posts describing my favourites of the many books I read last year. These won’t be in any particular order, as it’s been difficult enough to reduce the books to less than 20.

The Void Trilogy

The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void and The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton

I’ll start with the audiobooks (apologies for the photo – my phone doesn’t do screen dumps). Peter F Hamilton’s Void trilogy (The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void and The Evolutionary Void) is grand space opera at its very very best. Hamilton is one of the finest SF authors around at the moment, he’s capable of building entire universes in his head and putting them down on paper in a completely believable way. The Void books are set in the universe of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, but 1500 years after the events of those books, around 3580 AD. You don’t need to have read the previous books (I have, but I can’t remember them in any detail).

What you do need to do is keep your wits about you. The basic premise is reasonably straightforward. There is a black hole at the centre of the Commonwealth’s galaxy – the Void – that has some strange properties, most concerning of which is it has ‘devourment phases’ where it expands and gobbles up any star systems in the vicinity. This is Not A Good Thing, and Must Be Stopped.

However, there are many strands to the story, including:

  • a religious sect who plan to send a pilgrimage of 25 million people into the Void, and don’t care if this triggers another devourment phase
  • a rite-of-passage story about a young boy who lives in a place where telepathy and telekinesis are commonplace
  • a mega-tycoon and his daughter who emerge from a post-physical state to re-clothe themselves in ‘meat’ bodies, in an attempt to prevent a new devourment phase
  • a waitress who has just divorced her husband and is discovering the delights of being single in a world where one person can inhabit multiple bodies
  • a man who has been programmed to carry out a task by all means necessary, but he doesn’t know what that task is

…and there are at least four more threads I can think of. They all come together eventually, one after the other, to a perfectly satisfying conclusion. Part of the reason I love these books is that I could work out some of the connections, but others came as a complete surprise. I have absolutely no idea how Hamilton’s mind works – how on earth does he manage to populate the whole universe with believable technologies and characters and political systems and… well… loads of stuff that surely can’t come out of the imagination of one man? Not only that, it all fits together perfectly. I am envious.

The scope of this trilogy is not just BIG, it’s incomprehensibly ENORMOUS. I listened to it in the car and while cooking, at the same time as reading two other enormous books. This could have resulted in a mental implosion as I tried to keep two bundles of storylines straight in my head at once. However, Hamilton’s storytelling is so masterful that I had absolutely no trouble keeping up with what was going on in the Void universe. I think it’s a good job I was listening to rather than reading the books, otherwise I’d have been holed up in my bedroom for a week or so unable to tear myself away. As it was, I did a lot more cooking than I strictly needed to.

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Happy New Year!

Yes, it’s 2012. So happy new year to all my [three or four] readers… now that’s enough of that.

I thought I’d regale you over the next few days with the best books I read in 2011*. It was supposed to be the 10 best, but I couldn’t keep it down to 10. And that was excluding Five Leaves books, of which I’ve read many, and I couldn’t possibly pick out my favourites… although having said that…


This Bed Thy Centre…I will mention an amazing book that’s due out later this month – This Bed Thy Centre by Pamela Hansford Johnson. First published in 1935 and out of print for years, it’s a biting social commentary, an acutely observed depiction of normal people dealing with a rapidly-changing world, and above all, a rip-roaring yarn. When it comes out, buy it and read it!




My Best 10 BooksSo. Here is my top 16 (which includes two trilogies and one book I’ve read before, so it’s really a top 11). I read one on a Kindle and listened to one on my phone, otherwise I consumed all of them as traditional ink-and-paper books. There are no prizes for working out which books are included by closely examining the photo, although I’ll be impressed if you can. You’ll have to wait and see.


* An earlier version of this set of posts appeared as a single post on the Five Leaves blog, so you could save time and read the summary there. I wouldn’t recommend it though**, because I’ve added more words and pictures to these posts, so they’re much more exciting.


** I would, of course*** recommend reading the Five Leaves blog as a general rule.


*** The boss would be upset if I didn’t.

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A Princess Came to Our Town

A Princess Came To Our TownGuess what I read the other day…?

A Princess Came To Our Town by Rose Fyleman (yes, that Rose Fyleman, she of ‘The Rose Fyleman Fairy Book’). A kind person who didn’t realise Ross the Boss was being sarcastic when he talked about my love for all things fairy recommended the book to me. In my perverse way, I decided to investigate.

Dedication to Diana Margaret GarnierAmazon Marketplace duly delivered this small volume to me – a first edition, published in 1927 by Methuen. This one was given to Diana Margaret Garnier for Christmas in 1929. Wow… I want to know who she was, how old she was, whether she enjoyed the book (she certainly read it – or at least she coloured one of the pictures in). And who LKG was – a parent, an aunt or uncle, a grandparent? Or maybe a fairy godmother?

It isn’t a long and meaty read – I read it in the bath. But it is actually quite enjoyable. I love the chatty voice Fyleman uses, typical of Victorian children’s writers. It makes me feel as if someone’s reading the book aloud to me, and I can imagine some of the passages starting interesting conversations between a child and a reader.

Of course, I knew from the very first minute I saw her that Finestra wasn’t an ordinary person.

She didn’t look like an ordinary person, for one thing. It wasn’t just that she was so very beautiful – though she was, of course.

But you know what people look like in very, very nice pictures. Not quite like real people and yet with two eyes and a nose and a mouth and everything quite correct and ordinary in a way, only with a different look about them, all the same.

Well, she looked like that. If you think of the very nicest picture you know – your favourite picture, that will be sure to be like her.

‘But everyone’s favourite picture is different,’ you’ll say. I know. And yet they are all alike, really. Besides, after all, she was a fairy princess, you know, and that does alter things.

Out of a Fairy-tale Into Real Life

Out of a fairy-tale into Real Life

Finestra, a princess in a fairy tale, is bored. She knows she’s going to marry the handsome prince, but he’s always off having adventures. So she decides she wants to see what Real Life is like, and (with the help of her fairy godmother) persuades her parents to let her go. She meets the narrator in Market Square – this is Nottingham, although the name of the town is never stated – and stays with her until she has used all the magic objects she has brought with her. Finestra finds it hard to understand Real Life. She wants the postman to come and whistle to her while she eats her breakfast – ‘someone else’ will deliver the letters. She gives all the children at the swimming pool the ability to fly – and doesn’t understand why their mothers are upset. She decides to give out free ice-cream – and gets into trouble for blocking the road with the ensuing mob of happy children.

'Would your Majesty like to walk a little?'

'Would your Majesty like to walk a little?' I heard Finestra say.

Despite this, she has a lot of fun, and gives the narrator many memorable experiences. She decides to use one of her magic objects to bring the statue of Queen Victoria to life one night, and they take a stroll round town (helped by a mysterious policeman – yes, he is relevant).

Finestra was very glad she had put on her long blue velvet dress. The Queen told her that though she was so high up and couldn’t see the people on the ground at all well, she had had what she called “dreadful glimpses”.

‘Wasn’t it a good thing,’ Finestra said to me afterwards, ‘that there was no one about? I’m sure she’d have died of horror if she’d seen a grown-up girl with her frock to her knees.’

I was going to include a longer extract here, but I think I’ll leave it up to you to track the book down and read it for yourself. I’m not a great fan of Fyleman’s poetry, but I’m slowly falling in love with her fiction! (watch this space for my announcement that I’ve persuaded Ross the Boss to produce a new edition of ‘A Fairy Comes to Our Town’…!)

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What has the Old Bat been up to since her last blog?

Writing in the third person, apparently…

Enough of that. I’ve been stupidly busy, keeping up with uni work and Five Leaves work and Nottingham Poetry Series workshop work, and, you know, other stuff. But it’s all good. I’m doing stuff I like to do.*

Mouthy Poets

Mouthy Poets flyerYesterday evening I went to the first Mouthy Poets workshop, run by the inimitable Deborah ‘Debris’ Stevenson. As it’s intended for young people aged between 15 and 25, I was really only there to help out, but somehow I accidentally ended up taking part. I’m very very very very glad I did!

I’ve seen the amount of work Deborah put into preparing for this workshop. A HUGE amount of work. The only reason I emphasise this is: if you’d been there you wouldn’t have believed it. Her delivery of the material was so natural and genuine, there wasn’t a feeling of we need to get on with it now and keep to the plan because she’d prepared for all eventualities. She did talk through her workshop plan with me on Thursday, but to be honest I really don’t know if she stuck to it or not, I was too busy enjoying myself!

Deborah, preparing for the workshop

Deborah, preparing for the workshop. Note Relentless, Monster Munch and Jelly Babies...

So, why was it so f***ing amazing?

The mix of participants. Black and white. School, college and university students. Artists, singers, rappers, writers. Very diverse social backgrounds. But somehow everyone learned from everyone else. For example, we had to put together a short performance in small groups, and I learned from Jordan, Mitchell and Emily that it’s not beyond me to read my words with something vaguely resembling a hip-hop rhythm, and it can actually sound ok.

Watching inspiration fill the room. Everyone was there because they wanted to be, for various reasons. At the start of the workshop most people were nervous, unsure what was going to happen and what they were going to get out of it. By the end every single person shot their hand into the air when Deborah asked who’ll be coming back next week. There was a real feeling of we can do amazing things together, and I have no doubt that they will.

Deborah 'Debris' StevensonWords. This kind of follows on from the mix of participants, but the sheer variety and richness of words that came out of the session was incredible. The second writing exercise (which we developed our performances from) was to write about what would make us feel happy, what success in life means to us. Even leaving aside the inventive performances, the actual words themselves left a smile on my face and tears in my eyes.

I guess, for me, it opened up new possibilities. Which at my advanced age is something quite precious. I’m sure every single person in that room felt the same.

Page versus stage

This has crystallised my thoughts on the whole ‘page vs stage’ debate. I can’t be bothered with it. Yes, some poems work better when performed or read aloud. And some poems work better when you read and re-read them in black and white print. But… some poems rhyme and some don’t. Some poems follow a strict form, others wander about all over the place. Some poems talk about nature, others about the human condition. As long as the words respect the ideas and communicate them as effectively as possible, who cares?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Table Talk, July 12, 1827
I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.

Get involved…

If, by some chance, you’re a poet, lyricist, writer or storyteller aged between 15 and 25 living in Nottingham, and you’re not already involved in this project, WHY ON EARTH NOT? It’s going to be something quite amazing. Get your arse down to the Playhouse next Friday at 5pm and be prepared to work hard and have the best time you’ve ever had.

If you don’t fit into the above category, either pretend you do and get along there anyway, or watch out for the Mouthy Poets, because they might well take over the world. And what a world that would be!

The Rose Fyleman Fairy Book* possibly with the exception of trawling the internet to find possible stockists for the forthcoming new edition of The Rose Fyleman Fairy Book, which has been deeply depressing. You wouldn’t believe how many nutters there are out there in internet land. The book itself is a lovely piece of nostalgic gorgeousness – “There are fairies at the bottom of my garden” is the first line of the first poem – yes, that’s where it came from – so if you happen to know anyone into this sort of nonsense this would be a great Christmas present for them.

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hownottowriteI have to say, I thought I was the expert on this subject. I thought I’d made all the mistakes there are to make. But no, there are more! And Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman have kindly collected examples of 200 of them in this handy book.

The pun to end all puns

The sixth mistake is to ignore a principle that anyone who’s done a creative writing course is aware of – Chekhov’s Gun. An extract from the Wikipedia entry defines this as follows:

The name Chekhov’s gun comes from Anton Chekhov himself, who stated that any object introduced in a story must be used later on, else it ought not to feature in the first place. “One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

The example text in How Not To Write A Novel that demonstrate this starts:

Irina entered the nursery to ensure a fire would be roaring when her two beloved sisters arrived. Before bending to stir the coals, she plucked from her mouth the moist pink wad of gum she had been chewing since coming to Petersburg from the family’s country estate. The mantelpiece was bare, and Irina planted the large, wet bolus of gum firmly upon it.

and the Chekhov’s Gun principle is restated as:

if there is gum on the mantelpiece in the first chapter, it must go on something by the last chapter.

I felt I had to share that with you. For the first five mistakes I followed the authors with a ‘ho hum, I suppose I don’t really mind reading this.’ Then I reached this gem (or gum?) and laughed so much I had to grab for the Tena Lady. From then on I was hooked, and I wasn’t disappointed. In addition to several invaluable tips to help make my novel completely unpublishable, I laughed. A lot.

How it works

There are seven sections:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Style – the basics
  4. Style – perspective and voice
  5. The world of the bad novel
  6. Special effects and novelty acts
  7. How not to sell a novel

All but the last two are further divided into chapters. Each section and chapter starts with a summary of the contents, so if you feel reasonably confident you’re already making enough mistakes in that category you can quickly check you haven’t missed any. Then for each mistake, an example of how to make it is given, and an explanation of why it’s a mistake, in case you’re curious. Of course, you don’t need to read the explanation, but I find my mistakes have so much more depth if I know why I’m making them.

For instance:

Where specifics are lacking, the reader will unconsciously fill in any missing details with the minutiae of his own world. If you say that Galdor of Nebulon sat down to breakfast, and do not describe any of the elements of that breakfast, the reader who eats Froot Loops every morning will on some level understand Galdor to be doing the same.

I thought I was an expert on this particular mistake (allowing the reader to impose their own lives on the picture of a strange and wonderful world I’m painstakingly trying to fail to create), but this explains it so specifically and brilliantly I now feel able to trigger terminal confusion in my reader’s mind. For example, I can make him wonder why my heroine is cutting his toenails for him, or why the vampire rabbit is nibbling on his right ear. Hoorah!

Would I recommend this book?

A big bold yes. It may be frivolous at times, and there is unnecessary swearing in a few places, but it gives an excellent summary of common and not-so-common mistakes that novelists are prone to (even published novelists). So whether you want to avoid those mistakes or learn how to make them even better, spending a couple of hours reading this book is not a waste of your time.

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