Are You A Fundamentalist or A Firmamentalist?

Hey people, have you heard about this new website called FIRMAMENTALIST? It’s full of all great stuff that I know you’ll like, because it’s written and curated by me and my friends.

I’ve been wanting to do this for some time–to stretch my wings in an area that’s less me-centric, and to invite more people into an open community, and discuss ideas rather than push product (which I will still merrily do on this website, of course)!

The title is taken from a G K Chesterton poem, which is explained in the first post, and throughout I’ll be pursuing a very chestertonian spirit, the idea of turning the world rightside up…


Click to visit!

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Books I Read In 2015

Via Advent, Shawn Small
Tales from Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison
A Plague of Demons, Kieth Laumer
The Elements of Elegance, Mark Forsyth
The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope
Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire, Justin Richards
Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger
Night Flight, Antoine De Saint-Exupery
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley
The Grand Babylon Hotel, Arnold Bennett
Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw
Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd
The Letter for the King, Tonke Dragt
No Plot? No Problem!, Chris Baty
The Prisoner, Thomas M Disch
A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Stern
Magnus, George Mackay Browning
Octopussy and The Living Daylights, Ian Flemming
Orlando, Virgiania Woolf
Land of the Seal-People, Duncan Williamson
Gryll Grange, Thomas Love Peacock
The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness
The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness
The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers
Eirlandia 1, Stephen Lawhead
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room, Lemony Snicket
Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness
Wildwood, Colin Meloy
Slaughter-House Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr

The thing that made this year different than the others is the reading challenge I set myself of reading a Penguin a Week. This exposed me to a lot of books that I ordinarily wouldn’t have read, except that they had orange coloured covers. A Plague of Demons by Kieth Laumer and Gryll Grange by Thomas Love Peacock were two of these, but the real surprise delight was The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett which was astoundingly fresh and interesting, especially considering the year it was written. I was also able to cross some classics off my list. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley was better than expected, but Orlando by Virginia Woolf and Zuleika Dobson by Mac Beerbohm did not live up to the hype for me. The second challenge completed was the NaNoWriMo challenge (writing a 50,000 word novel in one month), which my wife and I attempted, and completed, in May. No Plot? No Problem! was written by the man who started that and was a huge help during the dark 30-40k period.

I discovered Patrick Ness this year and will hold up A Monster Calls as one of the top ten books of the decade. A Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt was another fun discovery — it’s a book that has been popular in Europe for forty years, but had never been translated into English until just now. Thomas Disch’s The Prisoner was also very gripping for being a TV spin-off.

Although A Monster Calls was unbelievably good, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, while clever, did not end well. I felt it got lost in the subversion of its own themes and I ended up not liking any of the characters, who often made unrealistic decisions. The Riddle of the Sands was one that I’ve seen on so many Best Books list but it was almost unbearably tedious for two reasons: 1) The writer is almost obsessed with the word ‘galliot’. 2) Every movement of the boat was detailed, with maps, and 80% of those movements were inconsequential to the plot. The Worm Ouroboros by E R Eddison was another incomprehensible mess. One of the first fantasy epics, there were actually fewer and fewer fantasy elements as the book went on. His imagination only went so far: there were demons, goblins, and vampires — but they were from Demonland, Goblinland, and Vampireland. (It was never said where the genies were from, but three guesses.) The story started with an interesting framing device, but that was never picked up again.

We lost Terry Pratchett this year. I started rereading the Discworld books again. Which was a shame, since last year’s Raising Steam catapulted his world into a new realm. I’m so glad that Shepherd’s Crown, which starred my favourite Discworld character of all time, Tiffany Aching, was such a solid finish. There were a couple falters, and the book doesn’t give any sense of completion to the saga, by any means, but it was a delightful read.

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The Negative Star Wars Review

(This review contains just about every SPOILER imaginable for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens)

It’s been thirty years since we’ve visited the Star Wars Universe, and you could convince me that just about anything had happened in that galaxy far, far away in that amount of time — but not that nothing had happened.

The new Star Wars movie did a lot of things right, and there’s very little that was actually put on the screen that I found fault with. But as the movie went on, it was what was not shown, what was alluded to, that I found very unsatisfying.

This is what we find has occurred — or, not occurred. The Rebellion is now the Resistance — what it is that they resist, exactly, we don’t know. Progress, perhaps, because at the end of The Return of the Jedi not only have the Hitler and the Goebbles of the Imperial regime been killed, and the Death Star and Super Star Destroyer destroyed, but in the Special Edition, we see Stormtroopers being body-surfed off of high-rises, leading us to believe that the Imperial Government has completely collapsed, leaving it wide open for the new Alliance leadership to step into its place. But in thirty years, what do we find has been achieved?

Precious little, it turns out. There is no new government. The Han/Luke/Leia triumvirate hasn’t brought the peace to the galaxy which was inferred in ROTJ after all. Nor has the very strong cast of secondary characters: Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, Wedge Antilles, and Lando Calrissian — all of whom also have strong leadership experience. These all have completely dropped off the radar.

Conflict avoider

The greatest Jedi Master in the galaxy, or conflict avoider?

And the original Big Three? How have they spent three decades? Well, Leia has been touring around with forty or fifty other guys in a kind of cut budget Rebel Alliance, using refurbished X-Wing fighters. She doesn’t have any express aims besides finding her brother, Luke, who apparently tried to set up a Jedi Academy. That didn’t work out so well it seems, one of his pupils went to the Dark Side so he got bummed and went to live on an island. He left his lightsaber in a box in the back of a bar somewhere (when I was a kid I thought that his lightsaber was the coolest thing in the world, but Luke felt differently apparently). He rather coyly left a map for anyone trying to find him, which makes less sense the more you think about it.

Deadbeat dad

Hero of the New Republic, or deadbeat dad?

Leia and Han hooked up together long enough to have a son, but then they split up for some reason. Seeing them on screen together, you get the impression that they were both too cynical and facetious to make anything work. No wonder their son grew up to be so angry and alienated, he’s the only one with any sort of emotional depth in the entire galaxy. Han shares screen-time with both Leia and his son separately, but there are no words of love expressed, just low-level regret undercut by a lot of smirking, so he should have seen what was coming. He abandoned his wife and son to wheel and deal with Chewbacca and he thinks he’s going to make everything better with a grin and a handshake?

Essentially, every character we care about has regressed back to who they were before the original trilogy began. And this is what was disappointing to all of us Star Wars mega-fans, those of us who not only loved the movies, but also the books, comics, and video-games which expanded the stories past the events in The Battle of Endor.


Intergalactic politician, or underachiever?

In those stories, called the Expanded Universe, which started in 1991 with the almost simultaneous publications of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy’s Dark Empire comic series, the cast of Star Wars led fruitful and fulfilling lives. In the thirty years of continuity covered by the novels and comics, Han and Liea had conflicts, but stayed married. Leia is not only Chief of State in the New Republic, she also found time to train as a Jedi knight under her brother. Han and Leia had three children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin. Luke also marries and has a son, Ben. He sets up a new academy for Jedi, but instead of just one pupil, he starts with half a dozen, and from those he trains up masters, so after thirty years he is well on his way to filling the universe with Jedi again.

I’m not saying that any of that should have been kept, but there’s no reason to throw it out if there isn’t anything at least as interesting to take its place. Everything in the Expanded Universe is all non-canonical now — instead we are presented with a more boring, less inspiring Universe. The heroes that once inspired us thirty years ago have done nothing else inspiring or worthy of anything more than a footnote. No wonder The Force has been asleep all this time.

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PAW 26 – Barchester Towers (1180) by Anthony Trollope

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

Seeing as my first Penguin A Week post was Trollope’s The Warden, I thought it would be fitting to review its sequel, Barchester Towers, for my last review.

As delightful as The Warden was, I found Barchester Towers to be even more so, if only for the reason that it is a longer book, and therefore there is more to delight in. By the standards of most Victorian novels (at least the ones that are still popularly read), The Warden is a novella. Barchester Towers has more of the length and plot development that we would expect when looking at it in context of its contemporaries, such as works by Dickens or Thackery — or even Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, etc.

Perversely, I suspect that one of the reasons that Trollope often comes in last when spoken of alongside the authors I just mentioned, is because his work is so much more accessible to the general public, and therefore less appealing to academicians. He is much more relaxed and less abstracted than Dickens and Thackeray. He has a point of view, but he does not seem to care whether the reader shares that or not. He draws attention to himself in the narrative without ostentation, just as someone who is relating a story, informally, after a meal, and who breaks away to explain a point that might hinder understanding or enjoyment later on. Whatever the aims of Victorian Literature may have been, Trollope’s express interest is simply in having you, the reader, enjoy the story, and if it is not enjoyed, then Trollope is obviously happy for you to find amusement elsewhere, and will carry on with his tales with those who are still present for it. (One of my favourite asides occurs in Chapter 6, where Trollope himself, without even using a mouthpiece character, launches into an invective against the modern church sermon.

This is very refreshing for anyone who has read and enjoyed a lot of Victorian fiction. And as with The Warden, the cast of characters is rich and well-developed. Trollope comes close to creating villains in this work in the form of the pious Proudies and the oleaginous Mr Slope. There are also the Stanhopes adding a great deal of conflict into the quiet Barsetshire community with their total indifference towards the problems that they create. Trollope very wittily describes them thus:

The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it was not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or recovery with an equally indifferent composure.

The Grantlys and the Hardings in this book, as in the last, stand at the centre, fighting the good fight against modernism, progressivism, and reform. And so it makes the reading of it rather bittersweet, for the England they fought for is now long gone. But the feeling and intelligence of that age is luckily preserved for us in this and the rest of the Barset novels.

What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

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PAW 25 – The Flying Inn (1338) by G. K. Chesterton

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn is one of Chesterton’s non-detective fictions. Running in similar a vein to Manalive, the action is less plot-based than character. There is a distinct situation that is created at the start of the story, which is that in the near future, the UK votes for prohibition and so the entire country becomes dry. The two main characters of the book, Humphrey Pump and Captain Patrick Dalroy, decide to take to the road with a wheel of cheese and a cask of wine, becoming outlaws, intending to set up their ‘flying inn’ by the roadsides.

The plot, like much speculative fiction, was more outlandish at the time than it might seem now. Chesterton preceded the adoption of prohibition in the US by three years. And although the book has a serious point to make about life and humanity — chiefly that you cannot legislate morality, and that austerity is very far away from piety — the book is also very much a comedic romp. Unlike any of Chesterton’s other novels, it incorporates poetry into the narrative, many of which have become very popular like The Rolling English Road, which begins

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

The poems in this The Flying Inn were so popular they were collected into an entirely different book called Wine, Water, and Song. My personal favourite is The Song of Right and Wrong.

This book also contains one of my favourite chapters ever written, which I have already discussed at length in this blog.

What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

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