Category Archives: Review

Collins English Dictionary

For once I find myself speechless on this blog. And considering it’s while we’re on the subject of a dictionary, this ought not to happen. Let me just say that the Resident IT Consultant has some – mostly – wise things to say about the dictionary I have permitted him to play with for a few days. Over to the man who can think to look up words like chi-squared:

“Who needs a dictionary in these days of instant access to infinite amounts of information? HarperCollins obviously believe somebody does, because it has just published a 12th edition of its Collins English Dictionary – CED – which now becomes the largest single-volume English dictionary in print with 722,000 ‘words, meanings and phrases’, including 50,000 new ones, spread over 2,300 pages.

Collins English Dictionary 12th edition

Despite its size CED is surprisingly easy to use. It’s slightly smaller than previous editions and weighs less (2.6kg). It’s attractively bound in black cloth, with no dust jacket to get torn. There’s a ‘virtual thumb index’ printed down the outermost edge of pages which makes it easy to navigate to the right section. And the typeface has been specially customised for the dictionary making the pages remarkably easy to read given the tremendous amount of information that has been crowded onto them.

But back to my question. What’s the point of a dictionary today? If you need to find the meaning of a word, why not simply look it up on the Internet, in one of the many crowd-sourced dictionaries such as Wiktionary, or in a commercially provided Internet dictionary (Collins, Oxford and Chambers all do one)? Alternatively you can simply Google the word and discover for yourself how it is used.

One answer is authority. If you need a quick and reliable answer to a question a dictionary may be best. For example, if I’m reading C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures and I quickly want to know what the second law of thermodynamics is, I can find an impressively clear and succinct definition in CED (so long as I know to look under ‘law’), written in only 32 words and understandable to a layman. I could get this information from the Internet, but it would take more effort, even if I went straight to Wikipedia.

I sometimes do a bit of proofreading and often find myself referring to a dictionary to check my understanding of correct UK English. Should it be ‘Internet’ or ‘internet’? ‘Inquire’ or ‘enquire’? ‘Sulphur’ or ‘sulfur’? If I were willing to place my trust totally in one dictionary, or to declare that this was what I was going to do, then CED would enable me to answer these questions quickly. Sometimes though, the answer is more complicated and I still need to research the reasons behind the differences on the Internet. And of course I could still look up the CED entries for these words on the online site, which is free (and seems to have the same content as this printed dictionary plus some extras such as more usage examples and usage trends).

I was impressed by CED’s coverage of scientific terms which clearly reflects its extensive list of specialist consultants. The entries for Bayesian, eigenvector, continuous, Taylor Series, Coriolis Force and chi-squared test were all models of clarity and succinctness. Scottish terms are reasonably covered. I can find bridie, bannock, clootie dumpling, neeps, tattie and tablet. Auld Reekie is there, but not the Granite City; the Mearns, but not the East Neuk. Wee Frees, but not the Highland Line.

I went hunting for words that I felt should be in the dictionary but weren’t, and the strongest contender I could find was descope; to change the scope of a project in response to an expected failure to meet budgetary or timescale constraints. Personally I’ve used this word since the late 1990s and you can find instances of its use from the BBC, the Guardian and Hansard from around 2000.

But I think the real strength of the physical dictionary over its electronic equivalents lies in the experience of using it to browse. There is something about the feel of the book and the ability to scan two pages of content at one glance that cannot be matched with a screen. For example, on looking up shellac (because I am currently painting something with shellac primer) I find, on the same pair of pages: 1) that while the word shemozzle comes from Yiddish, the origin of shenanigans is unknown (I had always assumed somehow that it was Irish); 2) an account of the differences between the role of a sheriff in the USA, England and Wales, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand and 3) a surprisingly concise and comprehensible definition of an electron shell.”

I just have to say this; I like the number 722 (with or without thousands). Not so sure about eigenvector… And it is a rather elegant looking volume.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

It was touch and go with the glacé cherries. But four hours before I learned that every house has a packet somewhere, we re-acquired a tub of cherries. Phew.

Terry Pratchett’s youthful short stories, as collected in Dragons at Crumbling Castle, just prove that he has always been what he is. Only he was younger once, but then that is an affliction we have all suffered from.

Terry Pratchett, Dragons at Crumbling Castle

I admit, I was worried that someone, somewhere was scraping the barrel, and that I’d not like this book so much. I’m sorry, I occasionally get very crazy notions. Won’t happen again.

There are Carpet People stories, and abominable snowmen and tortoises, boring knights and people who dance funny and a bus that jumps through time. And those dragons.

This is a lovely collection of stories. The illustrations by Mark Beech are quite crazy, in a Quentin Blake-ish sort of style, and I must warn you that on page 169 there is a picture of individuals wearing feather head-dresses. But then I suppose Terry isn’t running for diversity.

These stories are far too good for children. Oops, I mean for children not to share with older people. But you knew that.

Night Runner

Tim Bowler’s latest book, Night Runner, is absolutely normal, by which I mean it’s got none of the supernatural that he is so well known for. It was almost a relief. Sometimes I’d rather be scared by ordinary decent mean-ness than by the inexplicable.

And you certainly are in this book. Tim has come up with some really nasty characters in Night Runner.

Tim Bowler, Night Runner

Zinny knows his parents are involved – probably separately – in some funny business. He just doesn’t know quite what. His mum seems to be having an affair, and his dad is never at home, and when he is, he is violent. Not popular at school, Zinny has no one to turn to when things go even more wrong.

Not that he would, anyway. And I think that’s what this thriller is about; the fact that teenagers don’t necessarily share the bad stuff that happens to them with anyone, even if they have a sympathetic headteacher. Instead they attempt to sort things out on their own, and end up in a worse pickle than before.

This happens to Zinny. The wrong people tell him to do things, or else.

In the end you almost agree with poor Zinny; things are so bad that it won’t matter if the worst happens. Almost.

Very, very exciting, and without a ghost of a ghost.

The Piper

No sooner had I been scared by Rachel Ward in Water Born, than I started on Danny Weston’s first book, The Piper, also featuring horrible and inexplicable deaths and water. (Maybe there’s something in the water?)

Danny Weston, The Piper

So instead of a cosy, ‘ordinary’ WWII story, Danny gave me the creeps. Which is fine. The Piper is a really exciting book. Just not one where you feel it’s going to end well and all will be fine, because it’s a children’s book, and how horrible can it be? Really?

It’s about two siblings, Peter and Daisy, who are evacuated at the beginning of September 1939. They travel to Rye, and are eventually taken in by a farmer and his housekeeper (I kept seeing an uncouth Mrs Danvers) near Romney Marsh. Daisy is to be company for Mr Sheldon’s daughter Sally.

There is something odd about Sally. Daisy’s room is full of her dolls, and Peter has to sleep in the attic, far away from his little sister. And he had promised their mother to look after her.

The children can hear strange music at night, and it keeps getting louder. Daisy wants to go out and dance when she hears it…

Peter has a real struggle on his hands trying to keep Daisy safe. The people in the house as well as the hired hand all attempt to keep him away, while Daisy spends time with Sally. He accidentally finds out some historical facts about what’s happened on the farm over the last hundred years, and he becomes even more worried. But he’s just a child himself.

So, what do you think happens? Read The Piper, and you’ll find out.

Water Born

Water Born is the sequel to Rachel Ward’s The Drowning, and when I read it, at first I thought I’d gone mad. Were her characters really called Clarke and Sarita?

Rachel Ward, Water Born

No, they were not. You’ll find out why as you read on. Water Born is about their daughter Nic, who loves swimming. That also didn’t feel right for Carl and Neisha, considering what happened in The Drowning. But it, too, has an explanation.

Like the first book, this is pretty scary stuff. It’s obviously fantasy (it is, isn’t it?), so you can’t use logic to work out what is happening to Nic and all those teenage girls who are drowning. Or why things are strange whenever Nic swims.

As always with Rachel, this is so compelling you feel you must continue reading. Clarke is older and wiser now, but still as temperamental. At least when he gets scared. And if he‘s scared, what about the poor reader?

Set in 2030, society appears to be the same as it is today, so it’s really our current values we see in the reactions from the people around Nic when things turn bad. Her parents are OK, apart from their water hang-ups, and she has one very resourceful friend when the world turns on the family.

Read with caution if you aren’t very comfortable with water. Or even if you are. You never know.

Alfie in the Garden

The best thing – for me – about little bunny Alfie’s adventure in the garden was not the exotic animals he found. (I suspect that was mainly his imagination at work.)

Debi Gliori, Alfie in the Garden

As almost always with Debi Gliori’s books, it’s the mother-child relationship that is so beautiful. Her latest picture book, Alfie in the Garden, is no exception. Little Alfie comes out to help his mum in the garden. He has a watering can, and he knows how to use it.

He goes exploring, and he is a lion. He finds an elephant. He befriends and plays with a host of big but mostly smaller animals.

Until he is very tired and then he goes to find his mum, and she knows exactly what Alfie needs.

Opal Plumstead

Opal Plumstead is a true sister of many of Jacqueline Wilson’s other heroines. She’s artistic and likes to read, she’s intelligent – if a little immature – and she’s outspoken. And she has a problem, like all her ‘sisters.’

Opal’s Oxford educated father ends up in jail, and her time at school comes to an end, despite the fact that she is only 14. This is 1913, and 14-year-olds could be called upon to be the family’s breadwinner. Opal doesn’t have a very good relationship with her mother, or her flirty older sister Cassie, but still she goes out to do factory work.

Jacqueline Wilson, Opal Plumstead

If you leave out the bleak last 18 pages, this is a typical Jacqueline Wilson novel for slightly older readers. It is a tale filled with personal triumphs and failures, and it also gives the reader a history lesson in what life was like one hundred years ago, with the suffragette movement and the start of WWI. It’s not boring or old-fashioned, though. Opal talks like her modern counterparts, which makes the story easier to access. It’s almost as though we time-travelled to the pre-war period.

She has to battle not only with what the neighbours will say (and they do) or how her mother and sister perceive her, but she loses her one and only friend, and she finds it hard to get on with her new workmates at the factory. But Opal has her artistic talents and she is full of ideas. Not always realistic, but still.

Cassie falls in love with a married, wealthy man, and Opal is very concerned. Then she herself meets an older boy, who is rich, and thereby out of her league.

And there’s the war.