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.

Monday, 1 January 2018

My 2018 calendar

In an attempt to start getting content back into my blog, I'm going to take an easy route and shove in monthly entries based on the calendar I prepared for 2018 for family and friends. It's scraping the barrel in terms of content, but should at least give me an opportunity to test my memory on the photographs as they roll up. And give me 12+ entries for 2018 to boot.

This first snap is the cover image, and technically a cheat from 2016. We walked the Seven Sisters at the very end of the year as part of C's coastal quest, so after 2017's calendar had been pulled together - so justifiable use. The photo was actually taken on Beachy Head Road as we began our journey home. The local weather had conspired to have a local mass of air over the land that created the front that these clouds were stuck at. Or so we were told by one of the many the parascenders taking advantage of the conditions. Combined with the clear, calm weather, and a well-timed journey back, we got a spectacular view of the sunset over the Seven Sisters, and this photograph.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Call For The Dead

Call For The Dead, John le Carré

Courtesy of Amazon's 99p Kindle offers, a bit of a dip into past classics this time. I've read le Carré before, but it's only ever been his more recent, post-Cold War work. This novel is instead from his early writing, and introduces his most famous character, George Smiley, to the world. Clearly framed as a spy novel, it's almost more of a crime novel, with a murder, followed up by gradual and diligent investigation, and capped off with the unmasking of the murderer and their motive. It's a great breezy little read with a simple but engaging central story, and a narrative that both provides a potted biography for Smiley, and a closing case report for those who've not quite followed its twists and turns. I'll be back for more.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Heroes Of The Frontier

Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers

A breath of fresh air following Gould's Book of Fish. A straightforward tale of the travails of Josie, a former dentist, and her two young children in the wilds of Alaska, told with impressive ease by Dave Eggers.

Escaping from a career-ending lawsuit, and a disinterested man-child of a husband, Josie packs up Paul and Ana, rents a rickety RV and takes to the road. Ostensibly there's a plan to visit her adopted-sister, Sam, but Josie's slippery grip on her imploding life quickly takes her family into a succession of scrapes and near-calamities as they cross the state amid a series of wildfires.

Despite a rather unsympathetic lead with a knack for consistently - and annoyingly - making the wrong choices, this was an enjoyably off-kilter road trip. Sometimes alarming, sometimes funny, and sometimes touching on the profound, I ultimately enjoyed it as a low-key, Zeitgeisty freefall through the calamity of modern life. Helped, needless to say, by Eggers' great writing.

Gould's Book of Fish

Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan

I almost never fail to finish a book. Even John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany, which took me several years of intermittent attempts to finally finish and be disappointed by, got wrapped up in the end. But this one, an incoherent jumble of a book straddling the found-fiction, unreliable narrator and historical fiction genres, has succeeded where lesser books have failed.

Ostensibly the novel is the retelling of a 19th century diary of a convict transported to Australia by a present-day furniture restorer / scam-artist. But it just rambles on and on through page after page of incoherent episodes that might have something to do with colonialism, but mostly just come across as trying to be clever by banging on about fish. About a third in, I just gave up. While in my 20s I was prepared to tolerate Owen Meany's ridiculous parable, life's too short now that I've reached my 40s.

Unfortunately, this was the last of my picks from @mrbsemporium. However, it was the only duff pick of six books, and, given that they knew I'm an oceanographer, it probably seemed a safe one. Sorry @mrbsemporium, not my bag this time, but I really enjoyed the rest of your choices for me.

The Two-Bear Mambo

The Two-Bear Mambo, Joe R. Lansdale

Another @mrbsemporium pick, and another good one. Back in crime territory but somewhere in the middle of a series that I've never heard of known as the Hap and Leonard novels. The protagonists are friends who sporadically play investigators in their corner of the Deep South. Hap is white, blue collar and a former 1960s idealist, while Leonard is black, gay and a Vietnam veteran, making for a classic "odd couple" pairing.

On this outing, the pair travel to East Texas to track down Florida Grange, a journalist and former girlfriend of Hap, who's gone missing while covering a seeming miscarriage of justice. However, deep in Klan territory, a black journalists sticking her nose into a death in custody doesn't go down well, let alone the arrival of Hap and Leonard in pursuit. Cue violence and mayhem as the boys only gradually discover who they can trust, and who knows Florida's fate.

Considering that I jumped in some way into a series, I didn't have any trouble with this at all. Quite a rollicking read, somewhat akin to Carl Hiaasen, but with more violence and more serious undercurrents. And very satisfyingly twisty, although well within the normal bounds for crime fiction.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017


Merivel, Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain's 1989 novel, Restoration, was an unexpectedly - to me! - enjoyable work of historical fiction set within King Charles II's extended court, but taking in the Plague, the Great Fire of London and the early flowering of modern science. It was particularly memorable for its central narrator, Robert Merivel, whose journey into - and then out of - the King’s favour it told. Medically-trained but lacking - at least initially - the drive to do good, Merivel was an enjoyable character to spend with, and his rise, then fall, and then rise again made for an engaging tale.

Flash forward more than 20 years, and Tremain’s sequel, the eponymous Merivel, picks up his story in the latter stretches of the King’s reign. While back within the King’s favour, and doted upon by his daughter, he is listless, and looking for some new goal in his life. Taking a trip to the court of King Louis in France, he encounters new challenges, but finds a new amour, as well as renewed purpose in studying animals and promoting their rights. But life is never plain-sailing for Merivel, and his adventures are soon disrupted by a jealous husband, the serious illness of his daughter, and, in the background, King Charles’ own faltering health.

While enjoyable to a point, the pleasures this time are solely from meeting up again with Merivel. The events of his world are largely much less historic in nature, and Tremain really struggles to make them feel as significant as, say, the Great Fire. The novel is also rather excessively haunted by the spectre of illness, age and death. The preceding volume also had its share of death and strife, but its story gave this context and meaning, whereas here, everything it just feels hopeless. Which was maybe what Tremain was trying to achieve, but it makes for a much less satisfying read.


Finally, I can’t let Tremain’s closing coda to the novel pass without comment. Even for a novel already on a bit of a downer, its closing pages really are a kick in the teeth, and something of a betrayal of everything that’s gone before. This postscript serves no narrative purpose beyond, I interpret, Tremain burning her bridges.

Thursday, 14 December 2017


Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

With the preceding novel, Authority, closing in calamity, the final volume of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Acceptance, has the task of picking up the pieces and arranging them into a completed whole. Which, it half-does, and it half-doesn’t. It takes places partly in the aftermath of Authority, following Control and the steadily changing Biologist into Area X. But also partly in the form of filling in the backstories of Control’s predecessor, the Director, and her childhood acquaintance, the Lighthouse Keeper, both of whom have been significant characters, or presences, in the preceding volumes. Again, the novel does atmosphere well, and again it’s a fairly propulsive read. But, as I feared previously, it’s also more than a little bit flaky on clearly wrapping things up. By the end, it remains indistinct as to whether Area X is a protected part of Earth, not part of Earth at all, under the watchful gaze of Space Aliens, a consciousness-is-everywhere superorganism, or what. That none of these disparate explanations can be ruled firmly in or out indicates how deftly Vandermeer steers the novel towards revelation but never gets there. So enjoyable, but not entirely satisfying. Sometimes keeping the mystery in place works, especially in single volume books, but where a mystery has been teased extensively, and over several volumes, as here, this can be more than a little frustrating. But, despite this, I’d still recommend the trilogy – although I’m as yet unconvinced that it will make a successful leap to the screen, a journey that it now appears to be making.

Thursday, 2 November 2017


Roseanna, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A crime genre classic this time with Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 1965 introduction to their Swedish detective, Martin Beck. Remarkably fresh despite its age, with all of the conventions that we now take for granted already firmly in place (copious procedural detail, dogged but depressed detective, etc.). Though it still surprises with a realistically paced resolution to the crime, as well as a rather legally-dodgy denoument.

Thursday, 12 October 2017


Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

After an opening volume spent entirely within the otherworldly Area X, Jeff Vandermeer's successor novel, Authority, steps back to the Southern Reach facility at its border.

There, a new director - referred to by his new staff as Control - picks over the pieces of the mission described in Annihilation. Its leader, the Psychologist, was the previous director, who seemed to know more about Area X than reports record. And its only survivor, the Biologist, is standoffish, and doesn't quite appear to be what she seems. Control's investigation gradually uncovers the truth on both, a creeping derangement driven by Area X, as well as secrets from his own history and that of his family. All of which takes place as Area X seems poised.

While less of the horror of Area X seeps into this volume, it has some unnerving moments as its protagonist unravels some of Area X's mysteries. And while some unravelling takes place, the author does a grand job whetting interest while keeping Area X shrouded. A great read, though it does set a high bar for its concluding volume. Of which, more anon.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Stories Of Your Life And Others

Stories Of Your Life And Others, Ted Chiang

Though I had minor reservations about the film #Arrival, there was good enough about it to make me track down this volume of short stories by its author, Ted Chiang. As well as the source of Arrival - which is pleasingly similar and different to its adaptation - the tales take in the construction of the Tower of Babylon to reach Heaven, a steampunk tale grounded in performationist biology, and a faux-documentary on a technology that masks the ability to perceive human beauty so that users don't judge people by their appearance. Quite a spread, and all rather unique and enjoyable - I'll definitely be digging deeper into Chiang's back-catalogue.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


Marcher, Chris Beckett

An early title from Chris Beckett. It posts an alternative present in which immigration officers actually police the transit of people from alternative universes. Fuelled by an inexplicable drug called "slip", people pass through the novel's present day to either seek a better life, escape their crimes or to promulgate violent religions from their own universes. Starts well, has lots of interesting ideas, but its narrative doesn't really work on the end, and it kind-of fizzles out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's an expanded version of a short story that did work, but I just don't think Beckett knew where he was going with it when he started. Still, not a terrible read at all.

Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley, Greg Egan

More novella than novel, this is the first Greg Egan I've read in a while. His Orthogonal series was just too tedious to stick with. However, this is him back on form with a kind of "whodunnit" set in his memory uploading future. Except that the detective is the uploaded personality, and he's trying to find out what, and why, his recently-deceased original left out of his memories. Very enjoyable, if over all too quickly.

#book #sciencefiction #gregegan #kindle

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Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler

It's been a very long time since my last Anne Tyler. This one is part of a series of books by contemporary authors that retell Shakespeare plays - specifically The Taming Of The Shrew here. I rather liked this, though it does that trick whereby at some critical point it flashforwards to its conclusion, thus kind-of avoiding some narrative thorniness / gymnastics. I'm not au fait with the original, so this might be the same there, but it detracts a little from what's an otherwise amusing, if slightly implausible, yarn.