Friday, 20 January 2017

2016: Year of The Deplorables?

I am an inherently political person. This doesn't make me great company - much as I love conversations about a million topics, there is a high chance politics will enter it sooner or later when I'm around. This blog post will be my attempt, in a ruminating, rambling kind of way, to digest the past year (plus or minus a bit).

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Planespotting in Madeira - tips (off-topic post)

It's not exactly a secret, but one of my geeky interests has always been flying and planes. I love travelling, but flying to the destination is usually one of the biggest highlights of any trip. I don't go planespotting often - only a handful of times in the past 15 years - but I decided to share a bit of my other geeky interest on my blog too, after a recent planespotting holiday in Madeira.

Why Madeira?

Madeira has a special place in the heart of European planespotters, not because of the number of planes or the variety of airlines or the proportion of widebodies flying there, all of which are a bit underwhelming. No, it's the airport itself, its location and construction, and, most importantly of all, the more-exciting-than-usual approach and variable winds that make the island a bit of a Mecca for aviation enthusiasts.

Key Attractions
  • The island is virtually all mountains and valleys. (The plateaus at the top are national parks and nature preservation areas and unsuitable for airport building). The airport is by the coast, with a runway running alongside the coastline.
  • The runway was extended twice. As there was no land to extend it on, the extensions were built on hundreds of 70m-high concrete pillars. Basically, about a third of the airport is built on platform / bridge. Several roads and entertainment facilities are below the runway among the pillars carrying it.
  • Planes landing at the airport either do an approach which involves a u-turn into a very short final approach, or they approach in a less dramatic line, but through an area that seems a lot more plagued by gusts and crosswinds. The U-turn approach involves flying towards the mountains, which can be a bit nerve-racking for passengers. 
  • Planes landing via the u-turn approach can be photographed with the terrain in the background, so you can see houses and gardens and mountainside just behind the plane...
  • As the airport is small and space very restrictive, planespotters can also get very close to the runway. Even better, as the land rises away from the airport, you can be close to the runway and above it, looking down on planes landing and taking off, at an angle usually only available to airport towers or helicopters...
  • Because of the way the coastline zigs and zags, you can also find locations directly aligned with the runway, and above, from which to take photos of planes approaching and landing. It's not the same as the famous checkerboard hill at the long-closed Hong Kong Kaitak airport, but it's a pretty rare opportunity nonetheless.
  • Oh, and Madeira is a stunning, stunning island. The most spectacular in the Atlantic. If you want sand beaches, you'll have to go to the Canaries or to Porto Santo, and if you want calm nature and few tourists, you should visit the Azores. However, if you love mountains, forests, nature, the sea and spectacular scenery, while also appreciating good weather that never gets too hot or too cold, and being tolerant of relatively high tourist numbers, then Madeira is perfect. If I were religious and believed in Eden, I'm pretty sure Madeira would be it. The island also hosts a variety of festivals - apparently, the New Year's fireworks are world class (and were recently in the Guinness Book of World Records for their scale), there are is a huge island-wide flower festival in spring, etc. etc. - basically, Madeira is a world class destination even if you aren't a planespotter.
Below the break, you will find lots of photos to illustrate the points, and a planespotting travel guide.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Planesrunner starts when Everett Singh, a London teenager from a Punjabi-immigrant family, waits for his father to join him at a museum. In front of his eyes, his father is abducted. Of course, Everett calls the police, but they are strangely unconvinced by his story, and even the evidence he collected (camera phone photos of the limousine carrying his dad away) seems altered when it is returned. The plot thickens when Everett receives a dropbox file about his father's research...

Planesrunner is a story of parallel universes, and Everett's dad, a quantum physicist working at London Imperial College, was heavily involved in researching these. Soon, Everett goes on a quest to rescue his dad, using just an iPad with an installation of the Infundibulum - the key to the multiverse - to help him on his journey.

The story is engaging from the start but it really hooks its claws into the reader when we meet Sen, a girl who lives and works on an airship in a parallel London. Everett is on a quest, but Sen introduces him to her swashbuckling world filled with its larger-than-life crew, and turns his quest into a joyful, relentless, occasionally piratical adventure. (I'm sure I wasn't the only reader who found the Everness a bit reminiscent of the Firefly...)

Highly recommended: a novel which is smart and superb fun.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Book Review: The Elusive Elixir by Gigi Pandian

The Elusive Elixir is the third novel in the 'Accidental Alchemist' series. This sort-of-urban fantasy set in Portland, Oregon, is a pleasant romp. Using alchemy as the driver of its supernatural aspects is a different approach - even if, ultimately, it is used quite similarly to magic.

Zoe Faust is the 'accidental' alchemist the series is named after. Having discovered the philosopher's stone, she does not age, and has lived for several hundred years as a young woman. (All alchemists can discover the secret to eternal life, except it is a different one for each and its method cannot be transferred to any other)

In the first book, a living gargoyle, Dorian Robert-Houdin, turned up at her (newly acquired) door and turned her life upside down. Since then, she's discovered that a sinister group of alchemists have been using 'backwards alchemy' and a 'death rotation' to take alchemical shortcuts, which is Evil. Dorian, however, owes his life to it, and as backwards alchemy has started to crumble around the world, so Dorian, too, is rapidly losing life force.

The Elusive Elixir is therefore a book about Zoe's continuing quest to save her friend. The first two books were primarily (murder) mystery novels. The Elusive Elixir, too, is bound to please fans of Jessica Fletcher / Murder, She Wrote, but the urgency of Dorian's deterioration is more in the foreground than before.

The Accidental Alchemist series is pleasantly entertaining fun. Murder, mystery, magic (well, alchemy) and an incorrigible living gargoyle and an equally incorrigible teenager provide plenty of diversion. Meanwhile, as Dorian is a chef by training and Zoe is a vegan, the series is unique in its focus on vegan food, which features heavily. The foody descriptions throughout are plentiful, and each volume includes a bunch of vegan recipes at the end.

The one thing that Gigi Pandian has not quite mastered yet (in my opinion) is the art of exposition. There's quite a lot of it in each novel, mostly delivered by Zoe reminiscing. If you have not read the first book in the series, rest assured, all its plot points are delivered in each subsequent volume by means of slightly clunky exposition To make matters worse, there is an awful lot of repetition. If I didn't know any better, I would think Gigi Pandian is a fairly elderly writer, as it does have a bit of a nattering habit of self-repetition. (She's not elderly, at least not according to the 'About the Author' text in the back). Perhaps the Accidental Alchemist series is aimed at an older reader demographic (like the Brenda & Effie Mysteries series) - for me, it was a bit annoying.

If you like light entertainment murder mysteries, (urban) fantasy and a dash of vegan cuisine, and if you can forgive a little clunky repetition, you'll enjoy this book (and its predecessors) very much.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Book Review: In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

Peter Beagle is one of the most highly revered authors of fantasy, especially among other authors.  The Last Unicorn is a hugely acclaimed and beloved classic (also an animated movie), but his other novels are not as well-known. He still writes, and In Calabria is his latest novel.

Incidentally, it is about a unicorn. Or rather, it is a novel about the impact a unicorn has when it appears one day in the back yard of a cranky old farmer in the Italian region of Calabria.

Our hero, Claudio Bianchi, is just the right sort of curmudgeon. He grizzles and growls, but without any malice. He's virtually a hermit, content to live at the outermost edge of society, but cares deeply about the animals he tends to. His only regular human contact is the postman, who teasingly asks Claudio about his poetry on a daily basis. Beagle knows how to create authentic reality by zooming in ever so briefly on the minutest, but most human detail, and this gives a richness to the flavour of his stories.

Two things change in Claudio's life: the unicorn appears, and, coincidentally. the postman's younger sister takes over responsibility for delivering the mail on Fridays.

In Calabria is a lovely novel. Even though it is set in the present, it has a strong sense of the Romantic (in the sense of the Romantic period of literature & art) and a yearning for magical beauty. It is also a novel about a curmudgeon slowly softening up, and a novel about defiance against evil. That said, it is not quite as wonderful as the recently published Summerlong: the story has fewer characters to play with, and, though unfathomable, the unicorn does not have the same charisma as Summerlong's Lioness...

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 20 November 2016

After Atlas by Emma Newman

After Atlas is set in the same universe as Planetfall, but it is neither sequel nor prequel. It can be read as a standalone novel, but I rather suspect that it is the start of a separate strand of story, which will eventually meet up with story strand from Planetfall - I think Emma Newman is planning some huge opus in this universe.


After Atlas is the story of Carlos Moreno, a hard-nosed far-future homicide detective with a complicated personal history, who is assigned a gruesome case that is intimately interwoven with that history. He's the left-behind son of a woman who was on the interstellar Atlas spaceship that left Earth 40 years ago. He was, briefly, member of a cult that turned its back on the internet and technology. And, after fleeing from the cult, he became a refugee and ultimately a slave.

Stories don't get much more noir than After Atlas. Not only is our (enslaved) gumshoe a cynical lone wolf, not only is the locked room mystery grim and brutal, but the world is cruel and unforgiving, and the grotesquely gory case is just a bloody symptom of a larger, deeper corruption in the world.

After Atlas is very different from Planetfall. Where Planetfall is dominated by its psychological angles (tackling mental illness in a character trying to colonise a planet), After Atlas is much more conventional. There is a tangential element of mental health stuff going on (Carlos uses meditative practice to ground himself when he gets into situations he struggles to cope with), but for the first half of the book, solving the crime is really the be-all and end-all of the story. The second half - well, let's say that the story simultaneously widens out and narrows down in very unexpected ways.

What it does have in common with Planetfall is that this is not a feel-good novel. It's an intelligent, well-written and tense one, but it puts you through the wringer. Ultimately, its view of humanity and society is much more bleak than that of even the grimmest film noir. Worth a read, but be prepared for a tough time.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, 14 October 2016

Rawblood by Catriona Ward

I don’t read many horror novels. After growing up very timid and easily scared, I find horror novels  disappointingly un-scary these days. However, the description and buzz around Rawblood drew my attention. The promise of a modern gothic novel, genuinely unsettling, with originality and flair – who’d say no to that?

Rawblood is the name of a mansion, the home of the Villarca family. There’s something sinister about the house and the family. Alfonso Villarca and his young daughter Iris live alone in the mansion, with just Shakes, an old groundsman / servant / stablemaster to look after them. Iris is constantly warned to stay away from other people, to not dare to develop strong feelings. And the local people are similarly keen to steer clear of the Villarcas. All except Tom Gilmore, a boy of Iris’ age, who befriends her, much to their fathers’ concerns.

The story soon spirals outwards in time and characters. We follow Iris as she grows up, chafing against her father’s rules, yet deciding on a future worth adhering to the rules for. We also follow a friend of her father's, years before Iris is born. Those two narratives run in parallel for a while, revealing different aspects of Alfonso Villarca, and different glimpses of the looming darkness around the man.

Rawblood is a well-written novel, showing different narrative styles in different segments. Diary entries filled with long sentences and slightly florid language are intermingled with scenes told in minimalist language and dialogue that rarely includes a complete sentence. A lot of it is written in present tense and first person, which might not sit well with some readers. It can be a little disorienting, but for the most part, I was sufficiently engrossed in the book to not pay too much attention to this.

It’s not just a stylistic exercise - Rawblood also allows itself a measured pace. There is real skill in the way tensions and horrors shift. I wouldn't say the horrors escalate over time, but they start out all-too-natural and change as the story progresses.

With its fin-de-siecle prose, gothic leanings, and its setting in a rural mansion in the moors, Rawblood is every bit the atmospheric chiller you may hope for. Comparisons with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are more than justified - Rawblood is a classy, complex novel.

That said, all the atmosphere and writerly craftsmanship and style didn't quite manage to distract from the fact that the novel felt a little disjointed. For half its length, there are only two time periods and viewpoint characters. Then, as their narratives reach their climaxes, the number of timelines and viewpoint characters grows rapidly and unexpectedly. In terms of the reading experience, there’s a real moment of disjointedness, and a bit of a lull in excitement. The second half of the novel does add to the plot - significantly so - but the transition felt a bit hackneyed to me. It felt like reading two separate novels, rather than one.

There’s enough visceral horror and sinister horror to entertain most readers, I imagine. Is it scary? If you have the capacity to be scared by books, then I would wager that yes, it is. I didn’t find it scary, but then, the last time I was scared by a book was half a lifetime ago...

Modern gothic horrors don't get much better than this: it's original, atmospheric, and diverse in its sources of horror. It's a very smart novel.

Rating: 3.5/5

(People who love the horror genre may find it rates higher - for me, 3.5 is about as high as I would expect a horror novel to reach)