Wednesday, 5 June 2019

A cosy read

Clock Dance, Anne Tyler

I'm not sure that this worked out quite like the author intended.

Beginning as a series of short, decade-spaced interludes in the life of Willa Drake, it hits the temporal brakes to focus on a short interlude in her early retirement. There (or "Then" I suppose), she becomes accidentally embroiled in the domestic life of Denise, her son's ex-girlfriend, when the latter is shot and injured. Flying halfway across the country to assist this near-stranger, Willa is slowly entrained into the lives of Denise, her daughter, Cheryl, and an extended community of quirky (naturally) neighbours.

This is an easy, rather enjoyable read, though it's very difficult to see what Tyler was aiming for. The opening interludes don't establish much other than the general feeling that Willa's life is mostly scripted by those around her. So her self-discovery when helping Denise seems to be what Tyler's after, but it's rather clichéd if so. She's usually got a bit more depth going on.

But, as I say, a warm and cosy read all the same, full of the sorts of recognisable oddball characters that you just know you'll come to love by the end.

(Finally, I should add that I'm also rather unclear on quite what the title of the novel is referring to. Sure, there's some passing of time, but it involves calendars, and not clocks.)

Monday, 3 June 2019

Galactic Central Point

Galactic Center Companion, Gregory Benford

It was many years ago, and over many years, that I read the six Galactic Centre novels that form the subject for this compact “study guide”. But despite the passage of time, Benford's galaxy-spanning tale of humanity's struggles against implacably superior “mechanicals”, largely set in the vicinity of the “Eater” at the Milky Way's centre, still sticks in my mind. 

In part background from Benford on his thinking behind his series, in part reviews of the full series by critics, and in part actual scientific work by Benford on the Galactic Centre. But the main reason to recommend is the new (to me, anyway) short stories set within it. Especially “A Hunger For The Infinite”, which revisits my favourite of Benford's creations, the Mantis, a mechanical intelligence that both persecutes the humans it meets while drawing artistic inspiration from them. 

I really rather enjoy Benford's penchant for imagining how non-humans might see the world, and it's nice to be reminded of how far his Galactic Centre series takes this. Particularly in the very strange ecosystems and intelligences around the Centre's dominating black hole. Benford takes the opportunity presented by the new stories here to flesh his ideas on these out a little further than the mech-focused novels could. 

Overall, this companion probably isn't much good for newcomers to his works, but for those familiar with them, it serves as a nice reminder of its pleasures, while offering up a few new nibbles to refresh the taste buds.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Green Antarctica

Austral, Paul McAuley

Against the backdrop of a thawed Antarctica, prison guard Austral, herself a former offender and a genetically-modified “huskie”, gazumps her criminal accomplices and kidnaps the niece of a visiting dignitary. Partly to protect her, and partly to negotiate passage off Antarctica with the girl’s uncle, with whom Austral shares a family connection. The novel then follows the pair’s adventures as they cross the Antarctic Peninsula avoiding recapture while meeting up with the assorted people who now make the post-glacial habitat their home.

I really thought that I’d enjoy this novel more. It’s set in the less-explored space of accommodated climate change, it has a rather unexpected take on geoengineering, and presents an arguably positive approach, that of the “Ecopoets”, to adaptation to a warmed world. Of which, it’s a nice idea to present geoengineering as something that just didn’t work fast enough rather than being “Morally Unconscionable”, and I really liked that the novel’s “environmentalists” have worked with the grain of climate change to green Antarctica, and to do so through genetic engineering. And in marrying all this with a narrative fed by a modified human, as well as a wider backdrop of the corporate betrayal of both huskies and Antarctica, I thought it would be more successful than it is. Instead, it’s too much of an episodic “road trip”, where the sequential hook-ups seem a lazy way to explore the world. And where one never quite buys the conceit that the protagonist would be able to escape detection so well.

So, while it’s very nicely ambitious (so far, so McAuley), but just not as narratively satisfying as I’m used to with him.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Android vs. Windows Phone

Now that I’ve had my (Chinese government-sponsored) Huawei P20 Pro phone for a few months, I’ve used it enough to judge it - well, its operating system - against that of my previous Windows Phones.

  • Aesthetically, there's simply no competition; Android remains an ugly rip-off of Apple's iOS with a minimal attempt to do any more than just show apps; and, like iOS, it doesn't allow anything other than egalitarian, all-apps-are-equal mediocrity in which every app is allocated the same screen space, and the only way to delineate their importance is organising them onto different home page screens
  • Windows Phone, by contrast, allowed app tiles to be a range of sizes, including with enough screen real estate to permit them communicate more completely with the user, it let the user tessellate them neatly into groups (e-mail, social media, phone functions), and allowed the user to keep all of their regularly-used apps on a single, elegant scrolling screen 
  • Functionally, there's really nothing like the live tiles of Windows, you just get a coloured dot that indicates that there's something up with a particular app; as well as being less noticeable, the meaning of the dot colour is opaque much of the time; and sometimes a dot appears that just won’t go away; the notification pull-down does serve some of this functionality, but it’s just not as convenient as having a tile tell you directly what’s going on 
  • While app overload is an issue with Android and iOS, there is, on my phone anyway, an attempt to stow away less-used apps via “Drawers”, but they're completely inelegant compared to Windows’ solution of having a full list of all apps (organised alphabetically, and with a neat way of skipping quickly) accessible to the right of the start menu; similarly to Windows, Android allows apps to alternatively be put in groups that occupy a single app spot on the home screen 
  • Windows’ customisable start menu itself is something I really do miss; I'd got a nice set of differently sized tiles, arranged in a convenient order, and with a nice rhino-based wallpaper; Android - away from Windows launchers, which I've yet to try - looks positively amateurish by contrast; it's an interface designed by a committee, and so has achieved the lowest common denominator in appearance - actually, as it just ripped off iOS to get here, it's even lower than that 
  • Doubtless in part because no one was writing apps other than Microsoft itself, the consistency and linking up between apps is much greater in Windows Phone than in Android; in particular, the contacts app is particularly good in Windows Phone, serving as a solid hub for managing communications across and between different apps or media; the corresponding Android app is relatively featureless, managed to mangle more than a few contacts when they were copied over, and still seems to forget contacts sporadically (it doesn’t know who C is, for instance); more generally, apps just feel isolated from one another 
  • (As an aside, having used iOS quite a bit through an iPad, and more recently via C's new iPhone, it feels to me that Google just hasn't made as much of an effort as Apple have and (by necessity) Microsoft did in creating a joined up / seamless user interface experience; although I'm not a huge fan of iOS - and for some of the same reasons I'm irked by Android - it runs a much tighter ship than Android on this score)
  • All that said, a healthy app ecosystem is a huge plus for Android; it's quite a change to finally know that there really is an app for that; Windows Phone’s coverage was always flaky, increasingly so with time, and even Microsoft bailed on some of its own apps (e.g. song recognition) while the platform was a going (if limping) concern 
  • And all *that* said, my app experience to date is very far from frictionless; third party apps are routinely full of ads, lacking in expected functionality, expensive to upgrade, and of such uncertain quality that one is inhibited from paying to find out; the upshot of which is that I find myself sticking with apps from known providers; so, much as I'd always suspected, the so-called “app gap” that pundits would always dismiss Windows Phone for is, to a large degree, a tempting mirage and no more 
  • But it is the case that it's nice to finally have apps for activities that I've hitherto missed out on, and even nicer to have familiar apps that are still being given the love and support they need; Google Maps, for instance, long used on my desktop, is a joy to use on my phone, while HERE Maps on Windows Phone was becoming quite dusty (e.g. it didn’t even have a way of selecting mode of transport - it was by road or nothing) 
  • And I have really benefited from a few paid apps to move me across from Windows Phone, and get my music properly sorted (iSyncr); they’ve done a grand job in getting me seamlessly working in Android; although it’s still annoying that my Windows Phone WhatsApp account has to stay there 
  • Notwithstanding all of the above improvements that my new phone has brought, I'd still prefer to be enthralled by Windows Phone's stylish and functional slickness; it's difficult not to see Android's persistence as another example of market share trumping product quality; even today, VHS can still beat Betamax 
I should add that, while Android is something of a Curate’s Egg, and largely a come-down from Windows Phone for me, the hardware of my new phone is really quite good. As expected, it has an excellent camera, but then I did buy it for just that. But it also handles Android slickly, and has an excellent battery life. Assuming I don’t hammer it, I can comfortably go 2 days without charging it.

It would have done a great job with Windows Phone as its OS ...

Friday, 26 April 2019

Canine Noir

Irontown Blues, John Varley

A long time in the making, this is the latest in Varley’s rather loose series of novels and short stories set in the “Eight Worlds”, easily one of my favourite science fiction worlds. Set (almost) entirely on the Moon, or “Luna” as its residents invariably call it, the tale begins as full-on noir with a private detective, Bach, interviewing a seeming femme fatale, under the sleepy gaze of his faithful hound, Sherlock. Most of the rest of the novel serves to reverse the reader’s expectations from this kick-off, with the noir slowly evaporating as the true nature of the “crime” is slowly – very slowly – revealed, and with Sherlock, actually a genetically-enhanced dog, becoming a key narrative voice (aided by an interjecting translator). This latter turn works better than one might expect, and getting into it takes up the time that one might otherwise expect a noir tale to require. Here, the tale is really rather slight in the end, and it leans rather heavily on the heavy-lifting done by earlier novels, although with a contemplation of post-traumatic stress. It’s also disappointingly light on the Invaders, Varley’s mysterious gas giant aliens who’ve effectively evicted humanity from Earth. So a much thinner read than his earlier “Eight Worlds” works, but not without charm, including, most obviously, a real love for dogs.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Irish Confessional

Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney

Regularly teetering on the brink of being too self-knowing and arch, this novel of relationships by first-time author Rooney finally remains on the right side of credibility. It does go to the edge, mind, in its tale of friends, Frances and Bobbi, and their complex relationship with wife and husband, Melissa and Nick. While touching on politics, and life in present-day Ireland, it's more a talky examination of relationships. In outline, it would sound a like a bit of a soap-opera, but it's written much better, although at times it does come over as unconvincing as characters divulge more thoughts and feelings than seems (in my humble, if buttoned-up, opinion) plausible. But, after a fumbled first few pages, I found it rather compelling and quite enjoyed it. Even if it does, at times, seem to be written by a very confessional alien species.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

A Parable

The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

While my last Scalzi was a bit of a disappointment, the predecessor to this novel was a very enjoyable blast. A classic space opera, set in an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse, it was as much about it's colourful cast and their political machinations as it was about the disaster facing them all.

This time, disaster has arrived and the Interdependency is fragmenting, but Emprox Grayland II continues to be threatened as much by grasping political rivals. Underestimated as a naïve ingenue, she marshals her loyal friends to surprise her enemies, while striving to give her citizens the best chance of weathering the storm.

What it lacks in big surprises is more than made up for by Scalzi's inventive twists and turns that keep the reader guessing how (the extremely likeable) Grayland will beat the odds. It's also a joy as a thinly veiled parable for our climate changing times, especially the venality of those characters trying to turn a buck off the unfolding disaster. And it's all done with a brilliant lightness of touch, frequently an enjoyably profane one. Best of all, it's not done yet. Strongly recommended (... for space opera fans).

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

A Life in Shorts

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Easily one the best books that I've read in a while, this chronological series of snapshots - some with the eponymous Olive Kitteridge as their subject, some with her in the background - spins a wonderfully humane tapestry of modern life from seemingly quiet domestic lives. Olive herself is by turns droll, annoying, insightful, cruel and caring, with an always-on no-nonsense attitude throughout defining events of her life, that of her husband, Henry, and those of her friends or neighbours. By viewing characters from different perspectives, it underscores how we can easily underestimate or undervalue others around us by only seeing them in one light. It's not always an easy read, though, somewhat to my surprise, it's a little more gentle than the more unsparing miniseries dominated by Frances McDormand in the title role. That's a little more close to the bone in its unvarnished holding of a mirror to the world.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Crime-lit Rebrand

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds

A return to Reynolds' Revelation Space series, and an unexpected sequel to a previously standalone novel, The Prefect. That was an enjoyable and superior tangent to the main sequence of novels, but with this it seems that a rebranding as science fiction / crime crossover is in the offing. Not unwelcomely, and though it's not as novel as its predecessor, it's still pleasant to be back in the company of Dreyfus and his hyperpig deputy, Sparver. The tale itself, centred around depravity in elite circles and control of the democracy of its setting, Yellowstone and the Glitter Band, has some surely-intended Brexit echoes, and it fairly ticks along. But it's a little short-changed by its lazy use of the twins cliché, and its sidelining of key storylines from the earlier novel that also underscore the lower stakes this time around. But solid Reynolds.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Slavery 2.0

Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters

What if, instead of eliminating slavery, America came to an uncomfortable accommodation with it? One where northern state African Americans are free citizens but their Deep South brothers and sisters are held in Apartheid-like bondage as part of an otherwise modern capitalist economy. That's the premise of this rather impressive alternative history / detective novel mash-up.

Intriguingly, it’s told from the perspective of Victor, an African American forced to work as an undercover agent for the US Marshall service to track down escaped southern slaves. Intriguing both because of the conflict that this role understandably creates within him, and because of the resulting slow tease-out of the bureaucratic banality of the monstrous system he serves. In the absence of the Civil War, the Deep South has retained its slaves to become a commercial success, albeit one hemmed-in by the wider world’s ineffectual jitters about slavery.

Victor’s latest case has him seeking a slave called Jackdaw, and quickly brings him into contact with the "Underground Airlines", an organisation that helps escaped slaves disappear into the North. But the case proves much more complicated that usual, with Jackdaw first turning out to be more than a Southern slave on the run, and then winding up dead. But Victor sees an opportunity to leverage Jackdaw into freedom, and with the help from a young white mother, Martha, seeks to finish Jackdaw’s mission - not for the cause, but for himself. But his discoveries in the South change things much further than Victor ever imagined.

After a start which can be a little confusing as you work out what’s what in Victor’s world, this settles down nicely. That said, it misses a few tricks by being a little too thin about this alternative America, and its late introduction of a game-changing MacGuffin is both too out-of-the-blue and far too unexplored to take seriously. But it’s still entertaining and thoughtful, although it’s not in anything like the same league as fellow alternative history novels like Roth’s The Plot Against America or Chabon’s similarly detective-themed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Criminal World

Every Night I Dream Of Hell, Malcolm Mackay

It's difficult to entirely pin down what I like so much about Mackay's Glasgow-set crime series. It's certainly not down to its locale - it's written in such a way that, bar some familiar names, it's practically placeless. And it's not the characters who, while often engaging because of their line of "work", are rather straightforward and practical sorts. And while, yes, the narratives are propulsive, they're not enough on their own to explain why all of his books have proven such catnip to me. I can only think that it's all of the above, alchemically combining into crime yarns of quite unique and compelling flavour. And this one's no exception, seemingly effortlessly building on the crimes and criminals of its predecessors, without feeling the least bit tired or over-familiar. I'll definitely be chasing down its successor volumes.

Friday, 19 April 2019

China Moon

Red Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson

With auspicious timing given China's recent far side success, Robinson's new title visits (though more sporadically than one might expect) a near-future Moon dominated by the Red Chinese.

Starting slowly, it quickly becomes an extended chase as a Chinese "princess", daughter of a high-ranking bureaucrat and illegally pregnant on the Moon, hooks up with an imprisoned American contractor, and both are unwittingly drawn into more terrestrially-based power struggles. Elsewhere, they find unexpected help from a famed Chinese poet cum travel journalist, and a Chinese technician responsible for its Great Fire Wall but now raising a helpful general AI.

Broadly an enjoyable ride, with lots of clever and imaginative sights along the way. The Chinese lunar cities built in ancient lava tubes, and the burgeoning baby AI, in particular, are high points. But the ceaseless chase sometimes becomes a thin way to allow Robinson to show off new ideas rather than a compelling narrative in its own right.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Sister Act

Duet, Carol Shields

A return to a favourite writer, sadly no longer with us, with a pair of novellas centred around short interludes in the lives of two Canadian sisters.

One is a tale in the domestic life of an academic biographer, unsettled by her husband's unconventional literary exploration of Milton, her childrens' drift into secretive adolescence, and her own guilt at abortive plagiarism.

The second tale picks up with her sister, a poet just about getting by as a typesetter for a botanical journal. An invite to attend her mother's unexpected wedding sends her on a cross-country rail journey with her new dentist boyfriend, entrusting her son with her employer and his wife. There, she meets up with her sister, and awkwardly bonds with her future step-father, while a serious situation from home bubbles up.

Neither sound promising in outline, but Shields’ writing is just so well-observed, and both are so engagingly written that they're great reads. Her attention to detail in her characters’ inner lives is simply fantastic, one really comes away from both feeling that you really know these people you've spent a few short hours with.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

March's calendar slot

One of the things I'm most lucky with in my job is the opportunity to travel. The furthest points east, west and south that I've ever travelled to have been through trips to scientific meetings (Dubrovnik, Victoria and Ubatuba respectively). Often followed up with piggybacked holidays, to be fair.

Sometimes I even get to go to Scotland!

One of the major ongoing programmes I'm involved with is Changing Arctic Ocean, an interdisciplinary (aren't they all?) affair to study the ecosystems of the Arctic. In any case, two of its projects shared Oban for their kickoff meetings, so I duly travelled to the Motherland.

I have a bit of mixed history with Oban. Although it can be beautiful when the weather's nice, on one of my first holidays as a child, we stayed in a caravan there and endured a whole week of rain. Fortunately, this past May was balanced at the sunnier end, and I was able to enjoy a couple of nice days in between the town and the neighbouring village of Dunbeg where my meeting was taking place.

The photographs from March are all from my last morning in the area, when I walked the coastal path from Dunbeg (where I was staying) to Oban. While prominently labelled up as "3 miles", my phone's GPS exposed that particular untruth (see below). However, it was a really nice jaunt, taking in woodland, the shoreline, and great views over to Mull and Lismore. And, before the rain finally did settle in, I was even able to pop up through the town to take in McCaig's Tower, a fabulous hilltop folly with great views over the town.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Old Man's War

Old Man's War, John Scalzi

After the success of another Scalzi novel, The Collapsing Empire, this one sounded like a nicely offbeat and interesting read. A story about an old man who, unexpectedly alone in retirement, signs up for colonial military service to fight for humanity on the High Frontier. In execution, it overlaps rather a lot with Heinlein's classic, Starship Troopers, with a rather straightforward narrative focusing on the training and early missions of a group of "new" recruits, and wrapping up on a big mission. However, it fell down hard for me largely because of two consecutive chapters late in the book that undid all of the preceding solid work. One gave a "clever" explanation for the unpinning science (it's all driven by the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics) that obliviously undercuts any reason for getting invested in any characters or events - since these would (implicitly) play out differently in another universe. While the other dealt with the growing qualms that readers (this reader anyway) might have with the novel's colonialist militarist vision of future human life by telling them (via the main character) to get over it. So much for a modern retelling of Starship Troopers that undercuts its predecessor's fascist tendencies. My good will evaporated after reading these, and didn't return.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

A Christmas money purchase this time inspired, in part, by hearing Sedaris read out his now-famous (it has an article on Wikipedia ...) piece, The Santaland Diaries. It's not part of this particular collection, but it didn't need to be, there's plenty more comedy gold in here. A little less on the pathos that Santaland sometimes touches on, but plenty of the laughs. Sedaris has real skill in recounting short tales from his own life that must, at times, be quite mixed experiences into something we can be amused by, while deriving some insight and understanding from. He is, to be fair, often helped by his family, his sister, Amy, in particular. So an excellent read - the super-short Big Boy is almost worth it on its own (if it weren't already available online).

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Iron Tactician

The Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds

Despite a novel's price tag, actually a little novella. Without me realising it at first, it's part of an intermittent series I've read by Reynolds on-and-off, about a character named Merlin, navigating the stars on a mission of revenge in a ravaged future galaxy. Usually these tales appear in short story collections, but here it's a separate, super-thin (but full-priced) volume. Leaving aside the pricing policy, this was a pleasing, if brief, read, telling the tale of Merlin's discovery of a damaged hulk, its sole surviving crew member, and how he gets inveigled in, and helps resolve, a nearby solar system's multigenerational war. Easy and enjoyable, though definitely cheekily priced.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

2018's first read, and a new novelist's first book. It's a rather cuddly space opera romp, in which our protagonist-with-a-secret washes up with a diverse crew of roughneck pilots and engineers who make a living connecting star systems via hyperspace bypasses. They all start out gruff and unapproachable, but gradually the novel teases out the right-on details of their lives, revealing all of them to be leading complete, wholesome and quirky lives. There's intrigue, romance (both trans-species and organic-AI) and, by the end, the crew's construction as a surrogate family is complete. So, much more The Next Generation than The Original Series, with a healthy serving of Mass Effect and Firefly on the side. All of which makes for a nice, breezy read, but the world- and family-building does tend to sideline the plot a bit, to the point that, when the action finally arrives, it feels like it's wrapped up all too quickly. It certainly doesn't come as a surprise when a sequel is tee-ed up in the closing pages, but the journey is definitely enjoyable enough to justify such a return visit.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

February's calendar slot

Some photographs from another coastal jaunt on C's coastal quest - this time from its western limit. Durdle Door is one of those places that's very close to Southampton, and that I've heard a lot about down the years, but never managed to get to in 20 years. Until now.

As the photograph shows, it's a classic limestone arch, with an associated beach that's a magnet for visitors. Not quite so much when we visited first thing in the morning in April, but it was already getting quite busy when we passed by it (careful use of Photoshop's spot healing tool gave us the view more to ourselves).

To my mind, much more impressive is Worbarrow Bay, just to the east. We'd reached this at the very end of 2016's conquest of the Isle of Purbeck, and it was quite a sight. Getting itself justifiably used in 2017's calendar. The photo here (top right) doesn't do it quite as much justice, but it's still gorgeously coloured.

In terms of walking, this part of the coast is nicely undulating, so much more of a test than the eastern limit of C's quest (though that's got shingle to contend with). It's still not especially difficult, but it makes you feel like you're achieving something, and it gives nice views of the coast. Through most of the two days walking here, we got great views of the approaching Isle of Portland, one of our future targets.

While the walking's good here, the public transport isn't. On both days, we had to rely on local taxis to get back to our car after completing our day's walking. The excellent public transport in Brighton and surrounds really spoilt us.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

January's calendar slot

Some snaps from a segment of C's quest to walk the UK's coastline. This time between Bexhill-on-Sea (hence the De La Warr Pavillion) and Dymchurch. Due to shingle (mortal enemy of the amateur beach walker), slightly dodgy weather and crappy bus services (but not the worst we've had), we didn't quite manage the stretch around the Dungeness headland, past its eponymous nuclear power station. It's only a few miles, so we'll save that for our next jaunt to Kent, at which point we should finally be clearing the eastern edge of the south coast and turning to head northwards.

Highlights of our trip were definitely Bexhill-on-Sea - although that's a given - and also Hastings. The latter was surprisingly nice, to the point of catching us off guard a little, as we'd previously been appalled by its shoreline run of penny arcades and their slot machines. But, as it turned out, these were much less dominant than we'd feared, and the town additionally benefited from its new pier (bottom right in the collage).

In terms of walking, not the most challenging of coastal segments, with even the shingle relatively restrained (or avoidable). The missing section around Dungeness promises a more trying journey, however.