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