Off to Be the Wizard – Scott Meyer

So you may have guessed from the title, or from the amount of time it’s taken since I last blogged a book, but this is not  900-page literary work of fiction translated from the Japanese. It is, in fact, the first novel by webcomic author Scott Meyer, who does Basic Instructions.

There are varieties of webcomics. Some are mostly boobs, or crude jokes (OK, lots of them are). Some are arty and mysterious. Some re-use the same images every day. Some are “minimalist” in their artwork. Basic Instructions sits at the same image/minimalist end of that spectrum, in that a lot of the images are re-used, and, with all due respect, you wouldn’t mistake any of them for Rembrandts. The thing about doing comics this way is that it means if you want people to read, the words have to be pretty good. Basic Instructions schtick is a couple of parts geeky pop-culture references, a healthy dollop of socio-workplace observation and the occasional spoonful of comedy violence.

So you’ll probably have guessed that Off to Be the Wizard contains boobs, crude jokes and mysterious arty stuff. No, no, I’m just fooling. It contains some geeky pop-culture references, a healthy dollop of socio-workplace observation and a spoonful or two of comedy violence. Just in medieval England. Kind of. Look, it makes sense – kind of – when you read it. It borrows a bit (well, quite a lot) from The Matrix, but replaces all of the pseudo-metaphysical nonsense with a Tom Holt/Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams style sense of humour. I’m operating a machine-gun catapult in my glass house here, given this, but it could probably have done with a proper edit – some of the pacing felt a bit off, somehow (you can tell I’m not a proper editor from that), but overall it was a good fun read.

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

I’ve mentioned before that I was reading this. It is a long book.

I also mentioned that I was enjoying it. I did enjoy it, thoroughly. It tells the story of a woman and man, which immediately makes it a bit different from most Murakami. They go to a strange world, which they don’t fully understand, and do things for reasons that aren’t really clear, a lot of the time. They never meet, but are in love from when they were children. There’s a creepy religious cult with some very dubious practices, into which’s orbit both Tengo and Aomame get loosely drawn. There’s a book with some things in it that don’t make any sense and then exist in the world and start doing stuff.

It can be very difficult to express why you’d want to read over 900 pages of this.

I saw a quote somewhere – turns out it’s by Bill Evans: “jazz is a process”. Murakami writes jazz. The song is standard, perhaps (the plot of 1Q84 could describe the plot of most of his books). But the notes and the sounds are new every time, and it’s never entirely clear where it’s all going, or what it all means; you have to listen closely.

And Murakami is just masterful with words. The similes knocked me out. Most mortals would be happy to write just one sentence half as good as “The kind of clouds watercolor artists like lingered in the sky” but there are dozens of examples in this book, and the rest of the writing barely dips below that.

One thing I didn’t like (besides the size of the book – it’s not comfortable to hold; perhaps I would have been better with 3 separate volumes) was the keming around the apostrophes. How petty is this? But every can’t or won’t read to me as cant and wont and it just bugged me every time.

An idea: Tap-tap fantasy football

OK, so I still haven’t finished 1Q84. I am getting a bit closer – I’m on book 3 now. That’s not what this is about, though.

All of a sudden, I’m feeling really creative. I can’t say exactly why this should be, although I’m tentatively assigning it to working like a dervish last week then doing nothing much except drink and run at the weekend. Anyway, yesterday an idea came to me, which I think could possibly make billions, if only I had any idea how to implement it. I’ve recently (OK, one other thing at the weekend) taken up The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which you may know is a Farmville (or whatever) style grinding game starring that yellow lot. Then I was watching football (if the Wigan-Newcastle match yesterday counts as football) and it struck me that you could do the same thing with fantasy football: you start with a ridiculously small budget to pick your fantasy team, ending up with, let’s say, that McManaman kid and Peter Odemwingie or whatever. When there’s a football game on, they earn points in much the same way as your average fantasy football game… goals, assists, clean sheets and so forth. These feed back into XP and in-game money. When there aren’t games on, you can set your players tasks like fitness training, doing keepie-ups, I don’t know; banter, merking each other, whatever footballers do. And that earns XP and in-game money too. And you can use the in-game money to buy better players, better training facilities (subject to whatever level you get to) and so on.

Isn’t that something you can see 20 million people spending their time doing? Well, maybe not 20 million. Anyway, it might already exist, but never mind. I think it would be ACE. Someone build it and then send me the money (real money, please)…

In case you were wondering

I’m currently reading 1Q84, by Murakami. Which is another 1,000-page thing, so it’s taking me a while. I’m thoroughly enjoying it – much better than Kafka on the Shore. Reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Jacob de Zoet book (which might be a bit ironic, given how heavily Murakami-influenced Mitchell’s early work is).

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan

This is another book that I found because of a blog, although unlike the beer book it was about 3 or 4 years ago that I first found Snarkmarket. It doesn’t update much any more. Possibly because Robin has been writing a book. He wrote one before, although it was a bit shorter. It was called Annabel Scheme, and it had quantum stuff and a giant tower over San Francisco and was really good fun.

This is an expansion of a short story which I had previously read. The short story takes up about the first third of the book. I loved that story, about a lad who goes to work in a crazy bookstore and finds out that it’s visited by a collection of loosely wound folks who will burst into the shop at all hours of the night (it is a 24-hour bookstore) desperate for the next volume from the vertiginously-stacked shelves. In the short story version, the whole thing finishes when our hero solves the puzzle with some computer hackery.

The novel adds more characters – our hero gets a flatmate or two, a romantic interest, and some old friends, all of whom he enlists as allies on the deeper quest that is revealed after the solution of the same original puzzle.

It wears its influences on its sleeve (and I’m not talking about the brilliant glow-in-the-dark dustjacket) – there are references to Murakami and Neal Stephenson on the shelves in the store – and also to something that is so clearly Dungeons and Dragons, although it’s called something else. It has a young, slightly lost, male protagonist who ends up in a world not quite the same as the one we all think we know. It has a cast of characters who each have a specific strength to contribute to the successful completion of the quest. It’s not quite as offbeat as Murakami though. And not anything like as long as Stephenson.

What’s best about it is the deep love of reading as a collaborative activity that pours out of every page, and the excitement about the possibilities that internet technologies have opened up to explore that world. I’m pretty sure if you set out to write me a book just for me, this would be it.

Amber, Gold & Black – Martyn Cornell

The real reason I run: I love beer. I love drinking beer, and I love talking about beer. And I love reading about it too. I love talking and reading about beer while drinking beer.

This book is a history of beers in Britain. I learned so much. There is a lot you can’t find out by looking at a lovely brown pint of beer. For example: bitter is a relatively new style – it’s only about 150 years old (not any specific pint, you understand – the concept of bitter as a style of beer). Before that, people drank mild, which really just means a freshly brewed beer. Or they drank stale ale (although, technically ale is un-hopped*) which just means “stored” beer. Or porter. And stout meant “strong” – some Imperial Stouts (sent to Russia) were 11% ABV!

Then there are the names – the old breweries, the old pubs (there’s an illustration of a pub called The Whistling Oyster – I’d drink there), the new beers (Summer Lightning named after one of Wodehouse’s Blandings novels; JHB – Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, named after Charles I’s wife’s court dwarf).

There are surprises – wheat beer used to be brewed extensively in Devon and Cornwall, before being virtually outlawed; lager was brewed on and off in the late 19th century in Scotland and England, although it never caught on (one journalist hit the nail on the head by saying that “except for about three weeks in the year, that beer seems ill-adapted to our climate”).

It’s all told in the style of a well-read friend talking knowledgeably down the pub (except the chapter on herb and flavoured ales, which is list-y) which is as it should be.

For the record, author’s blog is here, and is also well worth reading:


*See chapter 12 for other things used to flavour and/or preserve ales through history. There’s also a quote, from 1651, describing beer as “a Dutch boorish liquor… a saucy intruder into this land”